ONE OF LIFE’S GREATEST GIFTS–LOVING TO READ


The other day, while substitute teaching in Math, I had a student in my class whom I had tutored last year in chemistry.  She is a smart, young woman, took AP Stats as a junior and did well in all subjects.  When I tutored her, she was prepared, her thinking was good, and she needed only a little more confidence in trusting her judgment, which was excellent.

She showed me a book, printed in 1902, that she had bought for $6 at a book show.  She was so excited to have the book; I cannot imagine more than a handful of students in the school would have thought an old book was worth buying.  I would have several such books myself, if it were not for the fact that we have limited space in the house and are planning to move.

She then asked me for my favorite book.  That’s a difficult question.  I have been reading since I was 2; my mother, before she died, wrote the story of how I learned words, asked questions, and bothered my father often while he was reading the newspaper, pointing out the words I knew and learning new ones from him.  My mother was an avid reader; I don’t ever remember seeing my mother without a book nearby.

I will never be a technical mountain climber, but there are very few books about mountaineering that I haven’t read.  I almost feel I know the way up Mt. Everest from both sides, because I have read so many books about it.

I learned quickly that books were an escape.  One can go anywhere in the world with a good book, and I have.  One can go to other worlds, to other times, forward and back, and thoroughly enjoy the escape.  One learns vocabulary from books.  For years, I never used a dictionary, learning words by context.  When I scored in the mid 500s on my Verbal PSAT, I started looking up every word I didn’t know.  I improved my score 100 points the following year.  Even when I read books in German, I look up words.  Some say one shouldn’t do that, but learning words by context is a recipe that doesn’t work for me and can become very embarrassing (gift=poison in German).

I love wilderness books, and I have read everything Sig Olson wrote.  I read his book, The Lonely Land, 5 times, a canoe trip in Saskatchewan that he and five others took in the mid ‘50s.  I hope to finally see Saskatchewan this summer and canoe part of the route that they took.  Sam Cook of the Duluth Herald-Tribune is a modern day Sig.

I also have read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at least five times, too, and have been astounded at how easy Hitler could have been stopped so many times but wasn’t.  There are lessons today for us to learn, if we will only learn them.  Storms of my Grandchildren, by NASA’s James Hansen, chronicles his attempts to push Americans towards dealing with climate change.  Recently, I read that the Arizona legislature wants teachers to teach the “other side” of both climate change and evolution.  I actually did just that last week, when I talked about confidence intervals, for “the other side” has not shown me their confidence in their contention that there is no man-made climate change.  A statistical colleague of mine, a good friend, once discussed at Georgetown how long Social Security would last in the US.  One of his students worked for a senator and said he had the answer in a “position paper.”  My friend asked whether there was a confidence interval for the data.  When the answer was “no,” my friend declined to look at the paper.

We live in a world full of uncertainty.  Therefore, we must understand and use probabilistic thinking.   It’s all well and good to say what ought not to happen, but to deny reality is magical thinking:  believing if you hope hard enough, good things will happen.  This does not work, any more than what Steve Jobs, a brilliant man, believed about iPhone antennas.  Years ago, Richard Feynmann, even more brilliant, said:  “For a successful technology to work, reality has to take place over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

I live between two worlds in at least three different ways:  cities and wilderness, calculators and fast mental estimation, and electronic and covered books. When I bought my Kindle, I increased my reading dramatically.  I was amazed by how I could listen to an author being interviewed by Moira Gunn, then going to an electronic reader and within a matter of seconds, having the words–the book– in my possession.  But other books, specifically German, are much better when I can look at the pages, go back and forth more quickly, and not worry about a battery.  I use both online and paper dictionaries; both have advantages.  I am not particularly skilled with TI calculators.  I grew up in the slide rule era; I also can do calculations in my head.  I can sketch graphs fairly quickly, and I can do a lot of probability calculations quickly.  Calculators, however, add another dimension to my life, and I use them, not expertly, but for those things where it truly is faster and easier, like determining confidence intervals in a large set of data.

I will look up simple facts on the Internet; more complex explanations I will either print or buy the book.  Thirty years ago, we had only books; thirty years from now, it isn’t clear we will have.  It is quite clear we will have a word’s appearing somewhere, and if we choose properly, we will discover new facts, new worlds, new ideas, and maybe change the order and content of those words, or those equations, and make our world something that is has never been before.

Books offer the power to do that.

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