Simultaneous Reading and New Realms of Knowledge

I am currently reading two books simultaneously, as I have through much of this summer. One of my current reads is Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, which sits on a shelf in my bookstore. I read it only at work, and only when there is nothing else to do. The other book I'm reading is The Discovery of France, written by Graham Robb and given to me as a present some time ago. I read it at home, and at other assorted times when I have a spare moment. Both of these books have given me some amazing new perspectives - insights into worlds that are nearly entirely new to me - and I love reading them at the same time.

Ordinary Wolves is a novel of a white boy, Cutuk, born in Alaska's far north. Raised by a loner father intent on living as traditionally as possible, Cutuk experiences hardship and feelings of separateness both as he lives among the Iñupiat in the nearest village and when he goes to Anchorage, which gives him the biggest culture shocks of all. So far, I've only made it into the first chapters of the Anchorage section, but the book is engrossing and very well written. Even more importantly, Ordinary Wolves envelopes the reader with its setting like no other Alaska novel: I know little to nothing about the Iñupiat or the North Slope - I've only been as far north as Fairbanks - but the masterful use of Iñupiaq words, humor, vivid descriptions and a stellar plot can draw you deep into a whole new world.

The Discovery of France is quite a bit of a different book: First off, I think many would agree with me that the title is extremely lame, and that may have contributed to me not starting to read it sooner. Nonfiction, it has the same sort of academic writing and source utilization to be found in many books about history. Nevertheless, first impressions should not stop anyone from delving further into this book: Graham Robb taught me more about French history in the first 100 pages of his writing than I learned in an entire semester on the subject at Georgetown, taught by a professor from France. He also does something that far too few historians do, though they really should know better: He examines the real people of a country's past - the poor, the illiterate, farmers, commoners and the average family - not the powerful, famous, over-credited figures who far too often dominate our thinking. One example of an amazing fact I learned was that, into the 19th century, communities in western France continued to have castes - yes, castes - of people known as cagots, relegated to working in specific professions surrounded by restrictive laws and persecution. That is hardly an aspect of French history one will usually hear.

Robb also deconstructs how we think of France as a "country" anyway. The realities he lays bare are that for many "French" people, well into the modern era, little to no connection existed between them and their supposed nation. France was divided into literally countless small areas and villages, speaking different languages, following different cultural practices, even using their own unique forms of governance because the arm of Paris simply couldn't reach far enough. Often we think of France as a colonial power in Africa and elsewhere, but forgotten is the incredible history of French imperialism within its European borders, molding millions of disparate and particular peoples into a single national citizenry. The Discovery of France has given me a perspective on French history for which I am immeasurably grateful. It not only reveals a reader's ignorance, but it challenges the subtle assumptions and biases we show in what is said of Euro-American "civilization's" history versus the academic treatment of other parts of the world. Part of my mission in getting into teaching would be to deconstruct such subtle yet unjustifiable cultural chauvinism, and I know I would relish doing so.

Reading is a lovely pastime, but the key is finding great writing to fuel it. Right now I feel I have the perfect match of complimentary books, very different from each other but both extremely satisfying in how they have opened my mind to new thinking. I hope to finish with both books soon, but on the other hand, taking my time to enjoy them even more wouldn't be so bad either.

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