I never meant to become a teacher. In fact, it was my intention to be somewhere in the IT world ever since I was a sophomore in high school. But there have been three outcomes in my life–guidance by a sort of invisible hand–that shoved me down a career path that I could never have anticipated. The first was my freshman year of college. My declared major was Computer Science, I was hired to work on campus as an IT department receptionist and help desk attendant, and I was taking my first Comp Sci class – Java. Meanwhile, I was also taking expository writing, a required class for all freshmen and not liking it a bit. But that didn’t stop me from succeeding at it. In fact, as my grade in my Java class plummeted, my grade in writing had skyrocketed. By the end of the semester, assessing where the chips had fallen, I had re-declared myself an English major and ceased further pursuits in Comp Sci (though I kept my job and was even promoted within the IT department). The second outcome came during my last semester as a senior, applying for the Peace Corps. I had wanted to go to Sub Saharan Africa, specifically Namibia, where I had studied abroad as an IT volunteer. Peace Corps thought otherwise and offered me a position in the Philippines in Southeast Asia…to teach English. By the time I was on my way home from that, I was sitting on a plane waiting for takeoff in Tokyo, lost in a daydream of an IT job, an apartment and a girlfriend. Over the course of the flight, however, I started talking to the guy from L.A. next to me, who was on his way home from teaching English in South Korea. Well, that put a bug in my ear, which finally got the better of me about two weeks after I arrived at home. And that’s how I wound up teaching these last six years, two in the Philippines and four in Korea–and Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov should have been the first book I read before I ever even got on that plane back in 2008, and maybe again for a refresher in 2010.
I challenge you to think of a day sometime in the last five years or so that Google did not affect some aspect of your life. Maybe you did a Google Search for Black Friday deals or double checked the best way to brine a turkey before roasting. But let’s exempt any Google searches from my challenge. Google is, after all, a search company, right? That certainly was the case at the company’s inception in 1998, but I’m willing to bet that Google has made a major impact on your life within the last 24 hours and in a way that we take wholly for granted now in 2014. I’ve checked my secure and safely stored Gmail, was reminded of an event on my calendar (and am confident that I will continue to receive them), used Maps to find directions to a local business and am even typing this into Google Docs, a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Google was a David, the underdog of the internet that has slowly lumbered into the role of Goliath. It is an oft misunderstood target of fear and favor, both a champion of the common man and a black box that leaves us feeling a little creeped out. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy is a rare glimpse into the beginning, culture and process of one of the most powerful, influential and provocative companies the world has ever know. Google has been a target of public mistrust, has enabled me and a friend of mine to start a business, and has empowered me to explore my new hometown of Memphis. It’s easy to imagine a world with a Google more or less sinister or benign; but it’s impossible to imagine the world without Google at all.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau recounts two years, two months and two days that the author spent in the woods near the pond after which the book was named. Starting on July 4th, 1845, Thoreau set out to the woods, leaving behind a newspaper job, a house and a community in search of some truth, an insight into himself and the nature of the person inspired by self-imposed exile. He, of course, didn’t cut off human contact. No, far from it. He welcomed guests to his hand-made shelter, made trips to town to sell produce and make social calls and befriended others living out in the countryside, like a charismatic French-Canadian woodsman who goes unnamed. Walden was a high water mark for the American Memoir, but only insomuch as it was one of the first. In truth, Thoreau is a pedantic, judgmental and narcissistic author, the kind of person who would later become the modern hipster. Needless to say I did not care for the book, though I read it anyway. Or did I? Walden was one of the first audiobooks I’ve…engaged with…in a long time, and as I sat to write this review, it occurred to me, can I truely say that I’ve read the book?
If the opening lines of The Martian by Andy Weir don’t don’t arrest your attention, I’m afraid it maybe time to stick you on the next ice flow and send you out to sea. “I’m pretty much f@cked. That’s my considered opinion. F@cked.” You wake up alone, injured and stranded on Mars. Your team has left you in an emergency evacuation and the next Ares team won’t be on Mars for another four years. “For the record, I didn’t die on Sol 6 . Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a national day of mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, ‘Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.’” Weir launches the narrative and his readers into a unique, smart, often hilarious survival story of a NASA astronaut marooned by his team on Mars. The pace of The Martian is fast — as fast as the wit of Mark Watney, the main character. But as humorous, smart and provoking as this novel is, it was easy to relate to in a pretty unexpected way. The novel is straightforward and harkens to the archetypal survival-against-all-odds plot, though it does it in a fresh, post-modern and educational fashion. While learning why NASA uses Sols on Mars but days on Earth and contemplating my eventual repatriation to the US after four years in Korea, I was completely occupied in the story and reflective of my own life experience. I can’t say that I’ve read too many books that can do both.
Lone Survivor, by Marcus Luttrell, is a fast-paced, personal narrative of a Navy Seal stationed in Afghanistan and a mission gone completely FUBAR. While not the best-writing I’ve ever read, Luttrell, with the assistance of Patrick Robinson, speaks with a clear, passionate and strong voice that is easy to read for hours-on-end. While many will be familiar with the movie of the same title, starring Mark Wahlberg, the book, by virtue of Luttrell’s narrative, is reminiscent of a captivating bar story. I can’t speak for the movie but the book was fascinating: the story itself was incredible but it was the insights into the war in the Middle East, life as a Navy Seal and the perspective of a man in service to his country that kept me reading.
I don’t read a lot of fantasy, or science fiction for that matter. In fact, the only fantasy books I have ever read of my own free will were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. If I hadn’t grown up without my mom reading them to me three times through, I may not have ever read the books on my own. I most recently read the LotR series about two years ago for no other reason than I missed my mom and was feeling really homesick. She always did the voices when she read to me, and as I read, I could hear her voice as though I was eight years old just yesterday. I’ve almost always been satisfied with non-fiction, but like so many others I was first introduced to the storyline of Game of Thrones by the HBO series of the same name. A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as the Game of Thrones series by George R. R. Martin, has been a fun though sometimes challenging read, while proving the exception to the rule that “the books were better”.
Before I begin I feel as though I should explain myself, reviewing a second Gladwell book right after the first. I read Blink last October and my review of that book can be found here . As a matter of fact, it’s been quite a while since my last post and I have been rather busy reading and contemplating what my next post should be about. I have read the Ender Quintet by Orson Scott Card, Clash of Kings, second in the Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin, a biography of Jony Ive, the lead industrial designer for Apple and, for throwback’s sake, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Between all these books and the thousands upon thousands of pages they occupy, I’ve decided to review Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell for a very simple reason: it had a far greater impact on how I see myself as an American, a Westerner, a visitor living in South Korea. While the books that I have read were exceedingly captivating, entertaining or informative, none of them had a greater affect on how I perceive my life in context of who I am and where I live than Outliers. And after all, I could gush about how much I liked Speaker for the Dead (second in the Ender series) and it’s exploration of Old World colonial mentality and religion in a futuristic context or I could take this opportunity for genuine self-reflection and it is the latter of which I wish to share with all of the strangers of the internet.