Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sunday Reading

Borne Back Ceaselessly into the Past: One of my favorite books still has meaning and is being discovered by yet another generation.

Jinzhao Wang, 14, who immigrated two years ago from China, has never seen anything like the huge mansions that loomed over Long Island Sound in glamorous 1920s New York. But F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby,” with its themes of possibility and aspiration, speaks to her.

Meredith Elliott of Boston Latin and other teachers say students can see themselves in “Gatsby.”

She is inspired by the green light at the end of the dock, which for Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire from North Dakota, symbolizes the upper-class woman he longs for. “Green color always represents hope,” Jinzhao said.

“My green light?” said Jinzhao, who has been studying “Gatsby” in her sophomore English class at the Boston Latin School. “My green light is Harvard.”

Some educators say the best way to engage racially and ethnically diverse students in reading is with books that mirror their lives and culture. But others say that while a variety of literary voices is important, “Gatsby” — still required reading at half the high schools in the country — resonates powerfully among urban adolescents, many of them first- and second-generation immigrants, who are striving to ascend in 21st-century America.

“They all understand what it is to strive for something,” said Susan Moran, who is the director of the English program at Boston Latin and who has been teaching “Gatsby” for 32 years, starting at South Boston High School, “to want to be someone you’re not, to want to achieve something that’s just beyond reach, whether it’s professional success or wealth or idealized love — or a 4.0 or admission to Harvard.”

Charisma: Some have it, some don’t. Does Barack Obama?

Charisma, as defined by the early sociologist Max Weber, was one of three “ideal types” of authority — the others were legal, as in a bureaucracy, and traditional, as in a tribe — and rested upon a kind of magical power and hero worship. That definition was, of course, unsuitable for modern times, as one of Weber’s many interpreters, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote in “The Politics of Hope.” Its use became metaphorical, as Mr. Schlesinger wrote, “a chic synonym for heroic, or for demagogic, or even just for ‘popular.’ ”

But it was also a coolness that Norman Mailer captured in Kennedy — for whom Mr. Schlesinger became a kind of official hero-worshiper — writing about the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Mr. Mailer described how Kennedy’s convertible, then his suntan and his teeth, emerged before a camera-filled crowd in Pershing Square, “the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street.”

There was, Mr. Mailer wrote: “an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an animal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing.”

By any definition, the charismatic leader emerges at a time of crisis or national yearning, and perhaps a vacuum in that nation’s institutions. Mr. Schlesinger wrote in 1960 of a “new mood in politics,” with people feeling “that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant.” There was, he wrote, “a mounting dissatisfaction with the official priorities, a deepening concern with our character and objectives as a nation.”

That might well describe the climate Obama supporters feel now.

By comparison, Frank Rich notes that John McCain and the lily-white GOP are charisma-free.

It’s Spring: The Tigers open spring training.

LAKELAND, Fla. — It was dark when Tyson Steele arrived at Joker Marchant Stadium on Friday morning. Steele unlocked the clubhouse doors, turned on the lights and started the coffee.

The clocks read 5:40.

“When you walk in and it’s empty, it’s kind of a weird feeling,” said Steele, a clubhouse assistant for the Tigers since 1995. “Then all of a sudden, everyone’s in here and you can hardly move.”

By the time Steele spoke, around 9 a.m., the locker room was alive with ambition. The Tigers’ pitchers and catchers were busy preparing for the first official workout in a season many fans — along with some pundits — believe will culminate with championship glory.

Justin Verlander, the likely Opening Day starter, sat at his locker and joked with new teammate Dontrelle Willis.

Pudge Rodriguez, the Hall of Fame-bound catcher who may be entering his final season in Detroit, sported a new buzz cut and talked about a training regimen that, in the opinion of manager Jim Leyland, added bulk to his arms.

Brandon Inge, bumped from his job as the everyday third baseman by the arrival of Miguel Cabrera, strapped on shin guards — a sign of his new role as a super-utility player. Inge, who has not caught in a regular-season game since 2004, crouched at his locker to test the gear. He tipped forward, if only slightly, and put a hand down to balance himself.

“It’s been awhile,” he acknowledged.

Inge might have been the most closely watched Tiger on Friday because of his popularity and his request to be traded. More than 100 fans had gathered by the time he took the field. One yelled, “We love you!” Another shouted, “Stay in Detroit!” Inge later caught two bullpen sessions and intentionally allowed several pitches to smack him square in the mask — a playful gesture of his rust at the position.

Inge is among the Tigers whose playing time could be adversely affected by the bold moves that delivered Cabrera, Willis, shortstop Edgar Renteria and outfielder Jacque Jones. The Tigers’ daring winter lifted the hopes of an already enthralled fan base and helped sell thousands of season tickets.

On Friday, though, theory gave way to practice, and work began amid soaring expectations. Leyland met with the pitchers, then the catchers, to tell what he will ask of them this season.

“We didn’t mention the word ‘winning,’ because I never talk about that,” Leyland said. “I told them the preparation starts today. I believe in that. I’ll be a stickler on that. No shortcuts.”

“October’s a long way away,” right-hander Zach Miner said. “You can’t fast-forward. You have to do all this stuff to get ready.”

Bonus: What will happen to Brandon Inge?

Doonesbury: snow cover.

Opus: give him air.

I’m going to the Gold Coast British Car Club annual show in Boca Raton today. To get there, just follow the trail of oil. I’ll probably come home with this compelling urge to drive on the left.