Learning to Read in the Pacific Northwest


My prologue to the readings from my book How Lincoln Learned to Read in the Pacific Northwest is a weekend stay up on the Olympic Peninsula. A walk down the beach facing the Juan de Fuca Strait reveals sea otter, bald eagles, loons, seals, grebes. Drawn by this wilderness, the folks I meet are in the middle of a re-education. They’re convinced the car-driven, oil-dependent, energy-wasteful culture is suicidal, and they’re trying to figure out another way to go. Public transportation, composting, grow your own food, used clothes, intense awareness of energy use, and a local focus that leaves the rest of the continent – from the news to the pop culture – blurry. Call it a re-Americanization: the thirty-something guys in their beards and flannel shirts, women in gore-tex and hiking boots, are like immigrants to a new, green land. They’re in the middle of inventing the language, the values, the customs.

So it makes some sense, later in the week, when the discussion of the good-sized crowd at Powell’s Books heads in the direction of alternative ways of learning. There’s the woman in the first year of home-schooling her 15 year old son; she talks about how he’s not only more curious but physically healthier. (Are pale, acned adolescents a product of fluorescent lights and history class?)

A soft-spoken, gray-haired guy wonders why, after all these years, our schools still can’t manage to teach the basics. A middle-aged woman behind him answers that the circumstances keep changing: both the present world and the imagined, future world kids are being prepared for. So, the basics keep changing, too. How we read and what we read shifts – or the emphasis shifts. We aren’t teaching for the farm anymore. (I wonder if 21st century green living will mean going back to educational basics, too?)

A woman up front makes a point about what she calls reverse discrimination. She has four kids, the youngest is mixed race, and that one is offered a richer variety of programs in high school. Because she’s part Hispanic the woman says.

A high school student a couple rows back answers her. Her honors program is mixed race. As are lots of the school’s programs. And, the teenager adds, what’s wrong about home-schooling is you lose that diversity.

The discussion zips back and forth, me adding some anecdotes from How Lincoln Learned to Read. One guys talks about his “a-ha!” moment in middle school when he stays up all night to finish a paper and realizes he likes learning. A librarian wonders what libraries have to do with early American learning, and we talk about Ben Franklin borrowing books, Abigail Adams holed up in her grandparents’ library.

Afterwards, the talk is more personal. One former elementary school teacher is now helping doctors with their handwriting. She sighs; penmanship has been a lifelong struggle. Another has self-published a book on the scripture. A guy wants to talk about the role of Free Masons. It’s a lovely, slightly loony conversation.

At the end, a man in his early 60’s with thick glasses and a gentle voice describes how college wasn’t very good for him: he never learned the skills he needed. It was too “de-individualized.” “Only now,” he says and looks to the ceiling, “– what is it? May? –so five months ago, I realized what it is I need to know to do the things I want to do.” He pauses. “I believe in life-long learning,” he says and hopes his son turns out the next night when I’m reading at the University of Washington bookstore.

DANIEL WOLFF lives in Nyack, N.Y. His other books include “4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land.” He is a co-producer of the forthcoming Jonathan Demme documentary about New Orleans, “Right to Return.” He can be reached at: ziwolff@optonline.net



Daniel Wolff’s “The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back” is out in paperback this month.

October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria