Monthly Archives: May 2013

What it means to be free

Memorial Day musings

Recently I watched PBS documentary Death and the Civil War, based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s book The Republic of Suffering. I learned at last why there are so many confederate cemeteries throughout the South. National cemeteries did not honor confederate dead, so survivors, particularly women, formed organizations to bury and honor their dead. After World War I, localized memorials became an inclusive, national holiday, Memorial Day. Somehow, despite lingering divisions caused by civil strife, our nation can come together to honor all war dead.

Last month our book club read the novel Freeman, by Leonard Pitts. It seems to me that in this novel Pitts explores the ways in which a culture can build community, even in the face of brutality, hatred, and death. This well researched book is not all about war, but rather its aftermath. Pitts focuses on the effect of sudden emancipation on individuals and communities. He presents us with the many different ways that former slaves, former slave owners, and northern abolitionists understood – and misunderstood – the concept of freedom.

The cost of freedom

Sam Freeman is looking for his wife, Tilda, after 15 years of separation. Sam escapes slavery and survives service in the Union army. As soon as the war is over, he sets out to find Tilda, whom he had left behind, walking thousands of miles through a dangerous Southern landscape. The odds are against him. Tilda has been sold to a brutal owner who cannot comprehend the loss of his property to emancipation. After having been terrorized for many years, Tilda is unable to leave her former master, and she reluctantly follows him west to become the slave of a militia intent on rekindling the war.

Another character in the book, Prudence Cafferty Kent, is a headstrong abolitionist who celebrates union victory by travelling from Boston to Mississippi to establish a school for former slaves, with disastrous results. She is left with a profound sense of guilt that gives her purpose, just as Sam’s guilt at abandoning Tilda to escape slavery gives him the will to continue the search for Tilda despite tremendous odds against finding her.

For both white and black members of Southern communities, freedom was a difficult concept to grasp. In an NPR interview Pitts comments: “Freedom was not just this automatic thing that came because somebody came and read a notice that said you all are free now.” Former slaves often had little idea of where to go when they were set free. White Southerners viewed slaves as property, and they did not part with their investment lightly. White and black Northerners grossly underestimated these slave owners’ desperation to preserve their former way of life.

Freedom to behave imprudently

In our discussion, most readers felt that Sam and Prudence both jumped the gun by setting south so soon after the war ended. Prudence in particular seemed naive and rash, and her actions during the course of the book caused great harm and even death in the African American community she tried to help. There is a lot of discussion of guilt in this book. Both Prudence and Sam take on mantles of shame for their rash actions, and both have to learn that they do not bear the burden of guilt for slavery, or for the death and destruction caused by whites who could not bear to see their way of life change.

This very powerful novel portrays a reality about the aftermath of Civil War that I hadn’t really considered carefully until now. For many years, so many people roamed the American landscape seeking to reunite with their families. I had to ask myself what I would endure to be reunited with my family – would I have had the fortitude to face the danger that Sam and others faced as they sought to mend ties long broken?

Freedom in a war-torn world

Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize winning Miami Herald columnist, but I think he is a novelist at heart. I’m impressed with his exploration of the themes of guilt, responsibility, and endurance, and with his development of characters that readers really care about – even if those characters, like us, are sometimes reckless and unwise.

We have read several novels set during the Civil War, including the provocative The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a book that explores the idea of slaves owning slaves, and Widow of the South, Robert Hicks’ narrative of the true story of a confederate widow in Franklin, Tennessee. Freeman offers up yet another perspective on the meaning of freedom in a war-torn world.

Gender-neutral Technical Writing | TechWhirl

At the recent STC Summit in Atlanta, I noticed that keynote speaker David Pogue used she as a singular pronoun rather than he, he or she, they, or some gender-neutral combination of he and she. I thought his usage interesting and not offensive. However, as an editor I have recently had to rewrite awkward attempts at gender-neutral writing, and I thought gender-neutral language in technical communication would be a good blog topic. Right off the bat I found an excellent discussion of this topic and it says everything I can think of to say on this subject, plus some. This article, “Gender-neutral Technical Writing,” was written for TechWhirl by Jen Hollis Weber.

Gender-neutral Technical Writing | TechWhirl.

Fun with Feynman

My dad and I recently led a book-club discussion of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character. The book contains the edited reminiscences of physicist Richard Feynman. Both my dad and I read and enjoyed this book in the 1980s when it was released, and we thought it would be a fun book for our club to review.

In the book Feynman discusses his early life as a “curious character,” including some of the funny and sometimes lucrative experiments that he conducted as a boy in his homemade laboratory. He attended MIT and Princeton, worked in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, then taught at Cornell and Caltech. Along the way he picked up a Nobel Prize for his work in physics, learned Brazilian drumming, became an artist, and famously demonstrated the Challenger O-Ring failure as a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the shuttle disaster.

Feynman died in 1988, three years after Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman was published. In this and other popular works, including audio and video talks, Feynman conveys the sheer pleasure he took in studying the physical world.

The importance of popular science

I taught a Sunday school class on what seems to be a conflict between science and religion in our culture, and to prepare I read Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. In it the authors comment that though some scientists believe the public is disinterested in science, we are actually positive about it; we’re just removed from it most of the time. And we shouldn’t be. Impending discoveries from creation of new microbes in the laboratory to the artificial retardation of human aging will have profound legal, political, and social consequences to our society and the individuals in it. Scientists know what’s coming and they discuss the issues regularly among themselves, but they aren’t always talking to the rest of us. The authors suggest that positive, engaging scientific communication is essential to renewing the general public’s understanding of scientific issues.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum mention Carl Sagan as an example of someone able to communicate science effectively to the public. I think that Richard Feynman was another example. His books and lectures effectively show how life can be enriched by just thinking about the physical world. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman gives you the sense of the enthusiasm with which Feynman approached life and his work as a physicist, and it helps the reader see how someone like Feynman approaches scientific questions and discovers solutions that shape our world.

Solving life’s puzzles

The editor inserts a lot of exclamation points into the Feynman transcripts, and I suspect that is because Feynman’s life was a series of exclamation points. Feynman characterizes his musings about science in one word: Fun! He comments that from an early age he had what he calls “puzzle drive. It’s what accounts for my wanting to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics, for trying to open safes.”

For some reason everyone in our reading group enjoyed Feynman’s story of observing ant behavior during his time in graduate school at Princeton. He wanted to know how ants found things (like sugar) and if they had a sense of geometry. He knew the answers had already been discovered, but he wanted to find them for himself. He performed a series of experiments with string and sugar. Among other things, these simple experiments determined that ants are not directed by an innate sense of geometry, but that they leave a trail and follow it back to wherever they came from. Interestingly, Feynman performed similar experiments on Brazilian leaf-cutting ants when he visited there much later in life and on ants around his bathtub when he worked at Caltech, proving that his sense of curiosity, about ants at least, was life long. This story also shows the reader how to go about observing things that happen in the physical world and how to draw logical conclusions from what you observe.

Feynman’s “puzzle drive” led him to learn about everything from how to solve complex physics problems to how to effectively pick up women in bars. In Los Alamos he developed communication codes to evade censors and he made bets with buddies about what information would and would not make it through the censors. He experimented with ways to evade security systems and pick the locks on cabinets holding top-secret documents. With lock picking his purpose was instructive, but he retells the story with glee. Even when he was serious, Feynman took great pleasure in solving a mystery. This book describes, from start to finish, a man who took joy in solving puzzles of the physical world and appreciating the puzzles of the social world. He was a teacher, a dancer, an artist, a drummer, a husband, a father, and a friend.

Note: You can hear Feynman talking and learn more about this “curious character” at a creative and enjoyable website, Feynman Online, at www.feynman.com.

Quick tips on verbs

Dear Style Master: I’m troubled by verbs. In addition to changing passive verbs into active verbs, my editor changes future tense to present tense in all my instructive content! She also says I tend to nominalize. What the heck is she talking about and how can I stop these irritating edits? 

–Futuristic UX Expert

Dear U: Help your editor (and your user) out by sticking with present tense most of the time. Many of us tend to use future tense as a kind of prediction of the consequences of an action: “When you press Return, the Review window will open.” The truth is that when the user presses Return, the Review window opens.

Avoid nominalizations that result when you take a perfectly good verb and make it into a weak, abstract noun. Like passive voice, nominalizations can result in some awkward constructions. For example, rather than simply suggesting that a user calibrate an instrument, you might nominalize to suggest that the user perform a calibration—and your editor will take you to task!

“Mistakes were made”: Passing on passive voice

Your high-school English teacher forbade the passive voice verb construction in favor of spare, lively active voice. But your university science professor insisted on objective, impersonal passive voice. Now you’re writing about science. When should you use passive voice?

Most editors recommend against passive voice unless you want to emphasize results, describe a natural or mechanical process, or create a transition.

What is voice?

In active voice, the subject performs the action. For example: “The software generates a ranked list of possible peptides and proteins for each spot.”  The subject, software, performs the action.

In passive voice, the subject receives the action. The grammatical construction for passive voice involves a form of the verb “to be” together with the past participle of a verb. For example: “A list of possible peptides and proteins for each spot is generated by the software.” The subject, list, receives the action, is generated. The actor in the sentence is the object of the preposition by.

Why is passive voice a problem?

Passive voice in scientific and technical writing is often considered dignified; lively writing seems, well, undignified. In a 1996 letter to the editor of Nature, chemistry professor Leon Avery says that “liveliness of style is the worst sin” in the scientific writing. Try telling a joke in a scientific paper, he suggests, and see what happens.

But lively writing is not your goal as a communicator; clear and concise writing is. And that’s the best reason for choosing active voice. Passive voice often results in unclear modifiers, unnecessary words, and ambiguity as to the agent of the action. The writer may view passive voice as dignified, but the reader often perceives it as a source of confusion.

When should you use active voice?

Use active voice when you need to be direct, clear, and concise. Use active voice for instructions, for example. In fact, use active voice most of the time.

Look again at our example from a biotech software guide: “The software generates a ranked list of possible peptides and proteins for each spot.” In this example, it’s important to know who or what generates the list, the user or the software. If you want to emphasize the actor in a sentence, use active voice.

When should you use passive voice?

Some writers use passive voice to describe a natural or mechanical process if the actor is irrelevant or unknown. (I’m including software processes in the definition of a mechanical process.) Use passive voice to emphasize the recipient of the action. And, use it for emphasis or to show transition from one topic to another.

Take, for example, the following figure caption: “Real-time PCR data with insufficient input gDNA. gDNA was added at concentrations ranging from 0.01 to 20 ng per reaction. At 40 cycles, many of the PCR reactions have not reached the plateau stage of PCR.” In this caption, who did the adding is not significant; gDNA is. Repeating gDNA at the beginning of the sentence after the caption phrase provides a transition to the explanation of why the input of gDNA was insufficient.

Passive voice can effectively emphasize results. When you deliberately choose passive voice, be sure to maintain parallelism; don’t start a sentence in active voice and then shift to passive. Avoid passive constructions that result in awkward or misplaced modifiers.

One final word of caution: Don’t recast an effective passive construction just because your English teacher (or your editor) told you to. This quote from Thomas Edison breaks all the rules, but it works:

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Seeing Walter at every turn

I read A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy, aloud to my mother. During most of the reading – which I don’t do with much intensity or drama, meaning I tend to drone – my mom seemed to sleep. But she woke periodically to join me in speculating about What Would Happen Next. Binchy tells the story of the first week of operation of Stone House, an inn in the remote town of Stoneybridge on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Each chapter summarizes the life of one character present during the week, beginning with the innkeeper, Mrs. Chicky Starr.

Chicky’s is a modern-day “seduced-and-abandoned” story. She’s a local girl swept off her feet by a charming American visitor, Walter Starr. Walter takes her to New York and subsequently abandons her. But unlike the heroines of melodrama, Chicky rescues herself by working in a boarding house, eventually earning the money to come home and invest in an old house and transform it into an inn. She invents the myth of Walter, leading her family and friends to believe that she had a wonderful married life with him until his untimely, and completely fabricated, death.

I guess my mom and I have seen too many Lifetime movies. As we progressed through the story, we expected a dramatic reunification with Walter. We were certain that he would show up at the inn and spill the beans about Chicky’s duplicity. But Binchy is much more realistic than that. She shows us that secrets, even big ones, don’t have to stand in the way of success. And she reminds us that people leave our lives, whether we like it or not, never to return.

Instead of Walter, we encountered the ordinary but interesting people present at the inn during opening week. Some characters’ lives overlap, in both consequential and inconsequential ways, but each character is developed in a separate chapter, where we learn the character’s personal history, how the character comes to the inn, and what happens in the character’s life during that week in winter. Almost all the characters, even staff members Rigger and Orla, begin their trip to the inn reluctantly. They all have problems and secrets that prevent them from living life to its fullest. The week at the inn helps put some of those problems to rest; it changes some, but not all, lives. Binchy is careful to be true to life in that some people are unhappy when they arrive and they are still unhappy when they leave the seaside retreat.

My favorite story is of Winnie the potential bride and her future mother-in-law Lillian. The source of their rivalry, Teddy, pushes them together by bowing out of the vacation with Winnie and sending his mother in his place. Lillian insists on referring to Winnie as her “old friend” and talks as if Winnie is a matron of her own age. The ways the two women seek to get out of spending a week together at the remote seaside inn, their attitudes as they go into battle over Teddy, and the way in which they come to a truce are funny and endearing.

When we read this story, I asked my mother repeatedly which were her favorite characters. They continued to be the cat named Gloria and Walter, probably because I speculated about him often, expecting to see him at every turn in the story.

To be honest, my mom didn’t perk up until, in a story about Freda the librarian, Freda fields a request for a Zane Grey novel. My mom asked me if I remembered Jane Withersteen (the main character in Riders of the Purple Sage), and she pointed out to me that on a top shelf in the basement I could find her childhood collection of Zane Grey westerns. She also mentioned the fact that Owen Wister’s The Virginian sits on that very same shelf. She had a fall the day after we finished A Week in Winter and I will visit a nursing facility to read the next books with her. Let’s hope she has a roommate who likes westerns.

Unsettling your readers

Dear Style Master: What is an “unsettler”?

– Ruffled writer

Let’s face it, Ruffled: Even though they support very exciting technologies, technical manuals are rarely as absorbing as a good mystery or even the morning newspaper. It’s pretty easy to overlook a critical step in a protocol or a crucial requirement in a software installation guide. As the word implies, unsettlers prod readers into paying attention when they should. You might begin a paragraph with “IMPORTANT!” to call attention to a cautionary note. Other unsettlers are questions posed to the reader, hyperlinks to critical information, checklists, tables, and graphics. Used infrequently, unsettles catch the reader’s attention. (Used with frequency, unsettles lose some of their power.)

Back to basics

Back to basics:
Fundamental communication skills for writers and editors

A recent LinkedIn forum asked this question: “Apart from writing skills and styles, what are the other important skills today’s technical writer needs?” Answers included the need to continuously update knowledge of new tools for document authoring, design and layout, and content reuse. The Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the US Department of Labor adds that technical communicators should be good at imagining how a nontechnical consumer would think about technical procedures or products.

Certainly, technical communicators must be familiar with various new technologies that help us improve efficiency and effectiveness. And we need fundamental sense of curiosity about how things work. But as technical communicators master new tools and technologies, one thing remains the same: Sound writing and editing skills are essential to good technical communication.

Essential elements of style

Science editor Flo Witte says in her introduction to Basic Grammar and Usage for Biomedical Communicators: “We need to know the anatomy (the structure) of our language; we need to be able to select the appropriate tools (words and syntax) to create the desired effect on our readers; and we need the technical ability to perform our procedures: to put words together into coherent sentences, logical paragraphs, and cohesive documents.” For Witte, language itself is the essential tool of our trade.

There are many guides to good writing, from The Chicago Manual of Style to the Scientific Style and Format (the Council of Science Editors style manual), but arguably everything you need to know is provided in the succinct and timeless guide The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Most people recognize White as the author of the children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. But professional writers study the little stylebook that White first encountered as Strunk’s student in 1919 and later updated for publication in 1959.

According to White, The Elements of Style “concentrates on fundamentals: the rules of usage and principles of composition that are most commonly violated.” Though the content is prescriptive, the authors maintain a sense of humor and a knowledge that some rules can–and should–be broken. A discussion of the elementary rules of usage focuses on punctuation and sentence structure. Other must-read sections are a discussion of using commas with parenthetical expressions, including nonrestrictive clauses; a brief lesson in subject-verb agreement; and a discussion of misplaced participial phrases. The authors also discuss the elementary principles of composition, from document design to the use of concrete language.

Essential editing skills

The Elements of Style emphasizes the need to review and rewrite: “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery” by a pesky editor. Like writers, editors must possess a superior knowledge of grammar and mechanics, and they must be able to employ delicate surgical tactics to ensure clarity and coherence.

An STC survey of managers’ expectations of editors reveals some additional skills that editors must develop. Employers value, for example, experience with standard style guides and an ability to develop and apply in-house style guides. Good interpersonal and team-building skills are also essential. One manager commented, “Gone are the days when the editor sits alone in a corner, rarely to be approached except in times of grammar crises.” Knowledge of translation issues and an interest in technology round out the list of sought-after editing skills. In a timeless article “Skills Are Still Not Enough,” Lola Zook outlines some of the basic attitudes and work patterns required of a good editor. The editor must:

  • Submerge himself in material written by someone else, improving the text “without leaving a recognizable personal imprint on the material.”
  • Limit editing techniques to those that fit the purpose of the document at hand.
  • Manage time wisely, guarding against “the easy goal of perfection” and performing the level of edit that fits time constraints.
  • Recognize that things are not as simple as they seem. For example, redundancy and repetition can provide emphasis and clarity; passive voice may be needed to emphasize what was done and not who did it; and short and concise are not always best.

Note: In this same essay Zook also points out lessons she never did learn, including how to solve “he or she” usages to her satisfaction.

Reading for a living

I’m an editor. I always enjoyed reading, but it never occurred to me that I’d be able to make a living doing it. I chose English as a major because I was inspired by what I read, and after graduate school I taught composition, literature, and music at a community college. It was a hard job that involved researching topics for lectures, making presentations, leading discussions, mentoring students, and spending just about every weekend reading hundreds of English 101 essays. What prepared me to be a good teacher was a good public education, and being a good teacher prepared me to be a good technical writer and editor. Here are a few things I learned over the course of a career:

Pay attention in the sixth grade and you’ll be set for life.

Everything I learned about grammar I learned from my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Hutchison. Mrs. Hutchison methodically introduced us to the parts of speech. I will never forget her discussion of adjectives and adverbs. She started with the sentence “The man walked down the street.” Then she added modifiers: “The lonely old man walked slowly down the street.” The example showed me how a very few words can completely change the mood and the meaning of a sentence. Mrs. Hutchison also taught us how to diagram sentences, an activity I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m still fascinated with ways to structure sentences, paragraphs, and essays.

A good learner can be a good teacher (most of the time).

I made good use of those grade-school grammar lessons throughout college and graduate school. As a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee I was required to mark papers using Hodges’ Harbrace College Handbook. I would see a problem in a sentence or paragraph and mark it in pencil with the chapter number and section; then students would consult that section in the handbook and make the appropriate correction in red ink. (The idea was that we did not want to embarrass students by bleeding on their papers, but I’m not quite clear on why we wanted the students to bleed on their own papers.) This practice taught students how to spot and correct their own problems, and it taught me how to analyze the structure of a sentence. I learned how to look at a sentence, suggest a revision to improve coherence and correctness, and explain to someone else why the suggested change might just be an improvement.

I was often called upon to teach topics I wasn’t familiar with. There was no internet available during my teaching years, so I learned how to read text books, use the library, and interview subject matter experts on topics from American music to technical communication. One failure: Speech. Everyone in the North Carolina state system had to take a speech class, and on occasion I had to teach it. I had never taken a speech class and I couldn’t rely solely on a book to learn the subject. In the end my students and I learned together how to give a speech.

A good teacher can write good instructions.

When I moved to New Mexico I auditioned for and got my first job as a technical writer. The audition involved looking at the printout of a dialog used when an office worker entered payments into a computer system, then documenting it. I viewed this as a teaching assignment, and my document must have accomplished its goal, because I was hired as the software development company’s first technical writer. My job was to document a series of software products, all of which were under development all the time. I joined the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and took a three-day class on how to write a manual, and those two actions saved my life. That was in 1985, and from then until now I have been a professional technical communicator.

Editing is the next best thing to a good education.

My mother has a faded Peanuts cartoon on her refrigerator of Lucy announcing that “the next best thing to a good education is a pushy mother.” In my book, the career of editing is as instructive as formal learning.

I worked for a biotech company for 15 years. During the first few years I documented software as a writer, but I transitioned into an editing position, where I was paid to read complex documents and comment on their clarity. It was a great privilege to work so closely with such knowledgeable writers, many of whom had advanced degrees in biology.

As a technical communicator I have learned many things about many different subjects. I also learned a lot about producing useful, engaging documents. I learned why consistency is not foolish, how to determine the point at which a document is good enough to release even though it’s not perfect, how to incorporate technical background material so that it doesn’t overwhelm the reader, when to number a list and when to use a bullet, and so much more. In this blog I’ll pass on a few lessons that I learned about how to present a product, process, or idea clearly, simply, and completely.

Reading with my father

Like many members of the Greatest Generation, my dad started a career and family in the 1950’s. But he was not a Mad Man. He didn’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. He didn’t work overtime at his job as a time-study man at the local aircraft manufacturing plant. He didn’t go to business dinners or cocktail parties. He did, however, putter. And read. He still spends time in the public library, reading history books, biographies, books on economics, mysteries – anything that strikes his fancy. Here’s what my dad taught me about reading:

Always read the instructions.

Puttering for my dad involved learning how to do something he had never done before. I learned from him that you should always read the instructions. If you do, you can learn how to build your own stereo system, how to operate and repair your lawn mower, how to build a birdhouse, how to assemble a radio-controlled model airplane.

There are always mishaps, of course. Every summer my sisters and I went on the train with our mother to visit our grandmother in South Carolina for a week while my dad stayed home, went to work, and puttered. Sometimes we’d come back to a brand new item – like an iron – purchased when his attempts to fix the old one failed. We also came home to the faint smell of cigars in the back yard – but that’s another story.

Some of his projects involved making pieces of art. He was always interested in art: We went to the High Museum in Atlanta regularly, and our big trip to Washington D.C. was marred for him when the National Gallery was shut down by an inconvenient visit by the Queen of England. He has never been to France but at 91 he still thinks about going to Paris for a visit to the Louvre.

Once he decided to learn how to print using wood blocks. I’m not sure about my memory here but I think this is the same project that involved making silhouettes. I remember sitting very still sideways in front of a sheet. With a special light he adjusted the size of my silhouette and made a paper pattern. He then transferred the pattern to the woodblock, cutting the silhouette into the woodblock. Finally he inked and stamped the silhouette onto paper for the finished piece of art.

Another time he decided to experiment with bookbinding. It seems like this task involved glue and clamps, and it was messy. Now you can Google instructions for making silhouettes and binding your own books – I did and found some very interesting how-to instructions on these subjects. But back then, you had to rely on a book for your instructions, and I’m sure that’s what he did.

Nonfiction can be fun.

This is not a lesson that I learned easily. When I read for fun, I read fiction.

My dad enjoyed reading Robert Louis Stevenson adventures to us aloud and he does indulge in the occasional detective novel. But his focus seems to be on history, world events, psychology, and social and cultural topics of the day. When I was growing up, discussions of what my dad was reading could be lively, depending on what topic he had picked up, but the problem was that he was the only person in the family actually reading nonfiction. The rest of us were busy reading Jane Eyre and Rebecca.

I did pick up on my dad’s habit of researching topics of interest. In the 80’s, for example, I lived in Albuquerque, NM, and commuted daily to Santa Fe on a state van driven by a prison guard. I decided to read up on the infamous 1980 prison riot. That might have been a mistake, because what I read was horribly gruesome, but it did give me some insight on the need for prison reform.

For the most part, though, I did not read nonfiction much until I moved to be near my parents a few years ago. I started going with my dad to church, and we joined the church book club. This club is a no-nonsense, one-hour-a-month discussion of a book (not necessarily a religious one). The group reads history, biographies, fiction, and nonfiction, and I have read and enjoyed books that I never would have picked up on my own. Sometimes I’m not able to make it through a book and sometimes he can’t either, but we always read enough of each book to talk about it ahead of time.

Recently my dad and I were in charge of leading the discussion of Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, autobiographical vignettes by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. In this blog I’ll talk about this book and some others that my dad and I read with our book club.