Head of School Blog: Summer Reading

Head of School Blog: Summer Reading

With the start of a new school year at NPS—and our 50th at that!—I am pleased to introduce a Head of School blog. My goal is to write monthly and to share what is on my mind about topics that might include: activities at NPS, thoughts about education and independent schools, literature, and parenting, among other topics.


To begin, I will start with a glimpse of the Lester Library—books I read over the summer, some of which were recommended by members of the NPS community. While not directly aligned with my daily life at NPS, they reflect some of the books I like to pick up when I have time for more leisurely reading, as is the case over the summer.


I invite thoughts, comments, and questions about these books and my reflections, and I also welcome reading suggestions. Here are thoughts on three of those books (sticking with the Power of Three approach):


Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover


I have a Kindle that loads books that my mother-in-law—who lives 1,000 miles away--puts on her Kindle. She reads a lot, so when I turn on my Kindle, I never know what is going to be there, but I often find books of interest. And that is how I found Educated, a 2018 memoir that has been on best-seller lists since its publication in February. I found the book fascinating.


Tara Westover grew up in Idaho with six siblings in a working-class family. Her parents—whom the author calls "survivalists"—kept their children isolated from mainstream society, away from schools, doctors, and conventional medical care. The book is about Westover's life within that bubble, and how, in order to survive, she felt had to break out of it. I won't give too much away, but I will say that it is a remarkable coming-of-age story about a determined autodidact who tries to succeed in the face of great odds.


Educated reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, recommended to me by an NPS parent and a book I enjoyed. There are similarities, as well as plenty of differences, including gender of the author, family structure, and geography - Hillbilly Elegy takes place in Appalachia (Kentucky and Ohio) whereas Educated occurs out West. Nevertheless, both are important reads, and Educated for me was a page turner, a book that speaks to the power of education.


The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd


A colleague read this book and then gave it to me. I had heard of it, the author, and another book she had written, The Secret Life of Bees. In handing me the book, my colleague opened it up and pointed to the very end of the "Author's Note" on the final page.


In closing the book, Kidd wrote, "In writing The Invention of Wings, I was inspired by the words of Professor Julius Lester, which I kept propped on my desk: 'History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own.'"


Julius Lester was my father, so that closing understandably jumped out at me and piqued my curiosity. My father died in January, so I may never know how it was that he came to inspire Sue Monk Kidd. Was she in a class of his? Did they know each other? Where is that passage from? (I may track Sue Monk Kidd down at some point via email and ask her.)


What a gift this book was—the actual offering from a colleague, as well as the gift of being further connected with my father. Moreover, those special elements aside, The Invention of Wings was an amazing novel, one of the best I have read.


Set in the antebellum South, the story, told from the perspective of multiple narrators, covers a period from about 1803-1837 and details various dynamics and relationships on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. It is novel about gender roles, education, class, slavery, the abolitionist movement, and America, and I found it to be both incredibly engrossing and exceptionally well-written. This work of historical fiction was the result of meticulous research by Kidd and I learned a great deal.


Into the Furnace: How a 135 Mile Run Across Death Valley Set My Soul on Fire, Cory Reese


I bought this book for my 18-year-old daughter, and after she read it, I picked it up. We are both runners (she is much faster than I am!) and enjoy reading books about the sport.


This work of non-fiction is about the author's recent experience running the Badwater 135 Mile road race, held every July over the course of three days in California's "Death Valley," where temperatures reach 130 degrees. The race travels from the appropriately named town of Furnace Creek to Lone Pine (also appropriately named, as those who finish may feel quite lonesome at the end!).


I like running ultramarathons, any race over the traditional 26.2 mile marathon distance. While I have finished one 100-miler, I currently have no desire to run Badwater. I prefer trails, and Badwater is run on an asphalt road with no shade. It is so hot that runners have to run on the white lines on the road or else the soles of their shoes will melt! I like challenges, but I am not up to this challenge just yet, and I don't know that it would be wise for me to ever attempt to tackle Badwater.


Still, this was an inspirational story written by a self-described "average" runner who had a longtime dream to run Badwater, which is the granddad and grandma of all ultramarathons. Only 200 runners are accepted into the race, and applicants must submit lengthy essays explaining why they want to run it. For Reese, also a husband and father of two, getting accepted into Badwater was its own victory. But the stories about his training and the race itself are what reveal his determination and soul-searching, and where the triumph of the human spirit is most evident.


If these first three sentences sound interesting, then the book may be for you: "This is a book about taking chances. It's a book about suffering. It's a book about bravery and hope and courage."


* * *


Finally, below are some other books I read this summer that I decided not to expand upon, lest this blog continue for pages. I love talking about literature, so I welcome the chance to tell you more about them. Again, I invite thoughts and questions from NPS parents—as well as your own recommended reading.


Some other titles on the summer 2018 reading list:

Little Fires Everywhere (novel), Celeste Ng
A Different Class (novel), Joanne Harris
The Self-Driven Child (non-fiction), Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson
The History of Wolves (novel), Emily Fridlund
An American Marriage (novel), Tayari Jones
The Power of a Positive Team (non-fiction), Jon Gordon
Hatch, Match, and Dispatch: The Life and Times of the Almost Reverend William Billow (memoir), Rev. William Billow


On My Bookshelf and Hoping To Read:

The Reason for God: Belief in the Age of Skepticism (non-fiction), Timothy Keller
The Man I Never Met (memoir), Adam Schefter
What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen (non-fiction), Kate Fagan
Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again (non-fiction), Rachel Held Evans
The Path To Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling In Life (non-fiction), William Damon
• Whatever is loaded on my Kindle!

Contact Malcolm Lester
Email: malcolm.lester@nps-dc.org
Twitter:
@NPSHeadofSchool

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