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Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

The Sharpened Pencil: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

October 4, 2016 | by

Photo: Jerry Bauer

Speaking to The Paris Review in 2011, Nicholson Baker remembered one of the small joys of his childhood. “The pencil sharpener was probably the best thing about school,” he said. “A little chrome invention under your control. It had a ­thundering sound, a throat-clearing sound, that I especially liked.”

As it happens, pencil sharpeners appear early and often in his new book, Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids. But they’re all electric now, and they’ve lost their thunder. “There was a lot of earnest grinding away at the fancy electric pencil sharpener,” he writes on page thirty. Twelve pages later, “Someone else was grinding loudly away on the mechanical pencil sharpener.” On page 111 he mentions again “the remedial grind of the pencil sharpener.”

There’s a sound reason for this anti-sharpener rhetoric: in 2014 Baker became a substitute teacher at several Maine public schools, where the sharpeners’ grinding is just one agent in a multifront sensory assault, and further proof that technology doesn’t equal improvement. Substitute—Baker’s thoughtful, well-observed chronicle of his twenty-eight days in the classroom—catalogs the bells, the morning announcements, the iPad games, the lively chatter, and all the miscellaneous noise that characterize a day at school. Rather than a broadside against the education system, Substitute’s seven-hundred-plus pages offer a close, empathetic account of Baker’s time as a teacher, trading editorial asides for the richness—and, not infrequently, madness—of our efforts to impart knowledge. For every meaningless worksheet or recess infraction, there’s a warm, witty exchange with a student, or a moment, however brief, of genuine engagement. 

Substitute is Baker’s sixteenth book; though he’s written nonfiction before, it marks his first outing as a participatory journalist, and he called it the most immersive book of his career. I reached him in his hotel room in Atlanta to ask him a few questions about it.


This is basically an act of participatory journalism, but it’s not like any other account I’ve read. Did you have any touchstones in mind?



Well, there’s George Plimpton. If you want to write about football, get yourself on a football team. If you want to write about boxing, you’re going to have to get punched in the head a few times. That’s what I did with Substitute. When I was in high school I read Up the Down Staircase and really loved it—all those wonderful memos—and in fact there was an actual down staircase and an up staircase in the middle school where I was a substitute. Two nonfiction books, Death at an Early Age and The Way it Spozed to Be also made a huge impression back then, even though I’d gone to an alternative public high school that was nothing like what was described in those books. Once I began writing Substitute in earnest, I tossed educational theorizing aside for the most part and went back to the method I’d used in Human Smoke, a book about World War II, where I did a lot of quoting from daily sources—newspaper articles and diaries and speeches on the radio. Substitute is a sort of collage of voices. In Human Smoke, I took my own voice out completely, but in Substitute I couldn’t—I had to be true to my own teacherly fumblings. Read More »

Six More Public Cases

September 27, 2016 | by


In March 2016, our correspondent Anthony Madrid began composing a set of quasi-kōans (on the theme “What is poetry for?”) for the Chicago arts and commentary magazine The Point. What follows is the second of two sets written for the Daily. (The first one ran in July.) Madrid’s unwieldy and indeed unusable title for the first set was “Both speech and silence are involved in transcendent detachment and subtle wisdom. How can we pass through without error?” His unusable title for the present set is “I always remember Jiangnan in May; where the partridges call, the hundred flowers are fragrant.” (Taken together, the two titles constitute Case 24 in the Song Dynasty kōan collection Wumenguan.)

Public Case 6: Ancient Chinese

Our teacher said: “Has anyone ever noticed that many of the most attractive ancient Chinese poets have the same ideas about poetry as modern American high school students? Anyhow, the themes are the same. What am I doing today. How am I feeling. What’s my philosophy. What can I see from where I’m sitting. What just happened. I am kind of a loser. What are my favorite quotes.”

One of the students said: “James Schuyler.”

Comment. It is hard for twenty-first-century USA poets to really understand old Chinese poetry: no surprise there. The surprise is that we find our own childhoods as difficult to “relate to” as the literary world of premodern China. We rub our eyes in disbelief when we have anything in common with either.

Tao Qian, James Schuyler, our own sixteen-year-old selves—of course they write about what they can see from where they’re sitting. What else can be seen? 

The truth is almost everyone has almost everything in common. The main exception is the people who are “too smart for that.” They make a point of not having anything in common with anybody. Read More »

Strophic Prose

September 13, 2016 | by

Carl August Ehrensvärd, Birth of the Poet, 1795.

Before we begin, I need you to search your heart and evaluate soberly whether you have ever had the experience of sincerely enjoying metrical effects in poetry. If you find in your bosom any doubts regarding this matter, I'm going to ask you to please rise from your seat and locate your nearest exit, keeping in mind that it may be behind you, or opening right now at your feet. You may ignore the smoke. Best wishes. Thank you so much.

Now. The rest of you. We have a great deal to discuss, but I must be brief. I am going to advance a radical proposition. Read More »

Classified Ad

August 11, 2016 | by


Kate Ellen Braverman’s poem “Classified Ad” appeared in our Winter 1975 issue.Read More »

Back to School with Nathaniel Mackey and Cathy Park Hong

July 13, 2016 | by

Over the years, The Paris Review has joined with 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center to present an occasional series of live Writers at Work interviews. This April, poet Nathaniel Mackey sat for an onstage conversation with Cathy Park Hong. Read More »

Ever Affectionately Yours

March 28, 2016 | by

Two letters from Iris Murdoch.

Letter to Raymond Queneau, October 29, 1949, Text below. Click to enlarge.

To Raymond Queneau. Read More »