This is what I’ve been reading/rereading this week. They are ranked in order of preference. I haven’t shut-up about Creativity, Inc. since I started reading it which is a sure sign that it’s pretty good (by my standards, at least).
1) Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Does anyone actually dislike Pixar films? Nope. I thought not. I routinely cry during those movies (the beginning of Up and at the end of Toy Story 3 and Monsters, Inc., and even in Ratatouille “little paws”), so when this book came out, I downloaded it to good ol’ audible.com right away. I have not been disappointed. I want to work at Pixar now (not going to happen), be the world’s best boss and create a professional environment that is respectful, joyful, and honest (not going to happen), or give this book to my bosses (I have so many though, and also not going to happen). Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar, narrates the story of their founding, early mistakes they made, their relationship with Steve Jobs (that guy sounds like a real pain in the butt), and lessons they’ve learned that have allowed them to create the atmosphere in which art and technology marry so beautifully. In the last chapter I was listening to, he dissects their failures as a company. The approach at Pixar is that failure is necessary. Not in the sense that “everyone fails, and the key is to get up and move past it” but more of a “failure plays a pivotal role in the learning process.” As a teacher, this just clicked. I can help a kid so much more if they try something and fail. I can look at their work and see what went wrong. But if they don’t do anything? If they’re too afraid to fail…chances are they won’t learn. I think next year I’ll adopt the “fail early and fail fast” as my motto for 6th graders.
2) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South is the story of a young heroine’s removal (with her mother and father and loyal servant, Dixon) to Milton (thinly disguised Manchester, England). Of course there’s a Elizabeth/Darcy-esque romance at the center of the book, but it’s more than that. Gaskell also raises interesting ideas about education (importance of liberal education even in a world driven by technology), and she avoids vilifying the factory owners and over-sentimentalizing the lives of the factory workers. But really, what is wrong with feeling a little sentiment? The lives of factory workers in Manchester were horrible, so it seems all right if we allow ourselves to feel sad and outraged at their fates. I always feel this way when I read Dickens too. Sure he gets a little heavy-handed (as does Gaskell), but my gosh aren’t we a hard-hearted lot most of time? I digress again. What I’m trying to say is that this novel is much bigger than a romance, but if you like a good romance that is there too. I feel like I should also add the disclaimer that I wouldn’t know anything about Elizabeth Gaskell if it wasn’t for the excellent BBC miniseries based on her books. I have no shame in admitting that I frequently will see a movie or a series before I read the book. If the book is better (and it almost always is, then there are just good things in store for me).
3) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is the final book we read in 6th grade, and we’re only a few pages from the end. I hated HATED this book when my father tried to read it aloud to us as a child. What was a hobbit? Yeah…that Bilbo sounded weird. There were no girls in pretty dresses? Yeah…I’m out. But I’ve rediscovered it as an adult. It’s not a very complicated book, and sometimes it feels like Tolkien could do something a bit more complex with his characters, but there are some truly lovely moments to be drawn out. I had a student point out that when Thorin is in the cave, holed up with his gold, he has become the “new” Smaug. The dragon is merely replaced by another angry hoarder of treasure. And knowing a bit about Tolkien’s experience in WWI makes Bilbo’s observation about defeat not being glorious at all and even how victory felt a “gloomy affair” ring true. All in all, not a bad way to end the year, and I’ve gotten three boys started on the LotR (carefully coaching them that when boredom strikes, they should skip chapters rather than stop. I can’t say that I’ve ever actually read the Tom Bombadil chapter in The Fellowship without wanting to poke my eyes out and then skipping to more action. Same goes for the Ents).