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In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a frightening and prophetic book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death," in which he analyzed the state of public discourse in our country. In fact, he subtitled his book, "Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business."

This book should be required reading for all students before graduating high school.

In his Foreword to the book, Postman explains the difference between Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984," and then he writes, "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one..." and "This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right."

From there Neil Postman goes on to argue persuasively that we are becoming a society which would rather be entertained than informed, and that more and more the media will pander to our desire for entertainment, until we reach the point that all conversation is "sound bite conversation."

To me, the most extraordinary thing about this book is that Postman wrote it when the internet was in its infancy, and the concept of "social media" hadn't even entered anyone's minds. And yet, everything Postman wrote about in 1985 describes perfectly where we are as a society in 2016. Nobody wants to think deep thoughts or read in-depth analysis of anything. The basic premise of our society is: "If it can't be expressed as a facebook meme," it's not worth considering.

Postman, on the other hand, would probably have argued, "If it can be expressed as a facebook meme, it has been robbed of any surrounding context and is therefore good purely for entertainment."  And even though Postman could not have predicted social media, he predicted the effect it is having on our society: it has become the cornerstone of our hunger for entertainment over understanding.

And it's not just reading, it's also listening. Postman writes about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in which presidential candidates debated policy for 3 hours straight, took a one hour break for supper, and then continued 3 more hours. And the hall was packed with spectators. Imagine that! People thought it was worth their time to sit and listen to people argue policy for six hours in one day! Today, debates have become circuses in which we're more interested in watching a train-wreck than listening to anything substantive.

It reminds me of a quote which is often (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Mark Twain: "The person who does not read has no advantage over the person who cannot read." We have become a society that can't be bothered to learn, study, read, and understand. And so we are no better than a society that can't do any of those things. 

BAM! offers both paperback and e-versions of Postman's book here: Purchase this book!

"How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World" was written by Faith McNulty, and illustrated by Marc Simont in 1979. This book is the perfect mix of silliness and scientific instruction for children. This book is recommended for ages 4  to 8, and our 3.5 year old loves it.

I remember, as a child, wondering if it was possible to dig a hole "to China" (never mind that I'm not geographically opposite China - that was always "the other side of the world" to us). I think every child wonders this at some point. This book explores the challenges we would face in digging such a hole, and describes the things we would discover along the way.

Along the way, our son learned about different kinds of rocks, and about volcanoes and geysers. The latter two fascinated him, and gave rise to all sorts of questions.

As you progress in your journey, you have to go from digging with a shovel to digging with a jackhammer, to wearing an asbestos suit (this book was written before asbestos-based fire-proximity suits were phased out in favor of other materials), to riding in a submarine with a super-cooling system, a fireproof skin, and a drilling mechanism. 

The book does a great job of introducing young children to the size and structure of our planet, and provides launching points for discussion of further topics. 

Under $10 at BAM!

If you want to gain a better understanding of the migration of blacks from the south to the north and west during the twentieth century, while reading personal stories of those involved in the migration, I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.

The book can look a bit daunting for people who, when they see the words "non-fiction" expect something dry, pretentiously academic, and tedious. But this book is anything but dry; its narrative will keep your attention from start to finish. Considering the book is 538 pages long (not including acknowledgements, notes, and indices), you'll want to set aside a good block of time for it.

The book follows the lives of three migrants (and their families) from the south: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Each of these people left the south for different reasons, during different decades, and for different areas of the country (Chicago, New York, and California).

Even though the stories of these three people are separated by many years, their stories are told concurrently. Thus, we read about each of the migrants' living situations in the south, then about their reasons for leaving, then their actual exodus, etc. At first glance, I thought I would have a hard time keeping the stories and people straight, because of the way the book jumps from one story to another (and because Ida Mae's husband was named George, giving us two main characters named George!), but actually there was very little confusion; the events of each subject's life were so distinctly different from the others that I had no trouble keeping track of the people involved.

In the spaces between the stories of these three migrants, Wilkerson occasionally elaborates on general conditions in the north, the south, and the west; the advancement of the Civil Rights movement, and other related subjects. She also inserts related stories from other people she interviewed, as they help support the information she provides about the broader social and political picture.

For the most part, Wilkerson is not heavy-handed in her analysis of the events; she lets the characters' stories speak for themselves. The writing style is engaging, and the events are interesting, making this a quick read (for a 500+ page history).

I have read some complaints from other reviewers that by the time she gets through the first part of the book, she begins repeating herself, and the book should have been better edited. It is true that she does occasionally repeat herself, and the sudden repetition of something you've already read can be a bit disconcerting. However, it's good to remember that when she does this, it's typically because she's referring to a "minor character" that she previously mentioned a hundred pages earlier, and she wants to make sure that we remember this person she's talking about. Perhaps there are better ways to refresh our memories than to spend a paragraph recapping what she's told us before about this person, but I considered it to be a minor flaw in the writing.

I'd like to share one of my favorite paragraphs from the book - a paragraph about Ida Mae Brandon Gladney:

"Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense of the quiet obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn't end up on welfare, stayed married because that's what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed to not get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men."

This paragraph resonated strongly with me, because it reminds me that still today, we struggle with the same sorts of broad-sweeping generalizations; we see the very worst of a group of people, and then associate that "worst" with every member of the group, without stopping to look clearly and carefully: people who are not Christian like to look at groups like Westboro Baptist and lump all Christians with them; people who are not Muslim like to look at the worst terrorists and assume all Muslims are just like that; irresponsible, right-leaning "news" sites like to look at the worst atrocities perpetrated in the name of "black lives matter" and arbitrarily and illogically call the entire movement a "terrorist organization" or a "hate group."

It seems that nothing has changed.

And now I'll step down from my soap box and say: I highly recommend reading this book, and if you have teen children who are voracious readers, and are prepared for a handful of stories of graphic violence, this book is a great educational tool.  You will learn how the "Great Migration" affected the south, the north, and how it affected the lives of individual people and families along the way.

Get this book at BAM!

Board games are lots of fun, but what aboutboardless games? That's what Hive is. In Hive, the pieces are unconstrained by a physical playing board. 

Also, all the playing pieces are hexagonal in shape, which means this game is very different from most strategy board games; unlike games which are played on a square grid, Hive Game is based on a hexagonal grid. That produces a whole different way of developing strategies. 

The goal of the game is to capture your opponent's queen, and each insect piece has its own rules of movement, making the game similar to chess, but without the 8 by 8 boundary!

Laura and I were introduced to this game by our friends Nate and Charlene, and quickly decided we needed our own set of Quiddler cards! This is a very fun word game, which is a little bit like Scrabble, in that you're trying to create high scoring words.

How is it different from Scrabble? Well, the obvious answer is that it's a card game instead of a board game. But there are other differences too. Quiddler moves more quickly than Scrabble; the games don't take nearly as long to complete. In Quiddler 'Qu' is not the only letter combination on a tile; there are also combo cards like 'CH' and 'BL', and other commonly used compounds.

As well as getting points for high scoring words, in each round there will be bonus points given for the player with the longest word (even if it isn't the highest scoring), and the most words. So even if someone doesn't have a vocabulary of large, high scoring words, they still can stay in the game by putting out a lot of short words and getting the "most" bonus each round. This means it's fun for a whole family, and the children won't feel like they're totally left out. 

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