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A List For Sue

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

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This began with this letter and response:

Sue asks an important question:

A Question for Readers, 


I am about to embark on an adventure at the local community college. While teaching ENG 101 is not new, I am probably looking at a class made up of adults, recent high school graduates, GED holders and a smattering of homeschooling students.

The last time I taught this class, we read Citizen of the Galaxy. I'd like to try something new, in part, for my own edification.

With a presidential election on the horizon, I want to remain flexible enough to take advantage of teachable moments. And, the campaigns have already provided a wealth of topics for reading and writing.

So, I guess I am looking for a book about America. Maybe a book which talks about the consequences of not protecting democratic values. The book has to be readable for a broad range of students. Since I will have younger students too, I'd like to avoid books which deal with hot topics like sex, suicide, molestation, etc. (I just jettisoned the proposed text for the class which contained all of that junk). A book which will make us think. I need a book with characters and events which lend themselves to essays. For example, when using Citizen of the Galaxy, I gave students a choice of writing an obituary or an introductory speech for a ceremony for Baslim.

Something hopeful. Something not too depressing (we can use the NY Times for that!)

Suggestions? Too big an order?



I would recommend Paul Johnson's A History of the American People.


A number of readers sent in suggestions.

Dr. Pournelle,

Sue might consider Heinlein's Starship Troopers, as a significant sub-theme in the book revolves around the responsibilities of a citizen. Heinlein's proposed solution (taxpayer vs. citizen) is an obvious subject for classroom discussion, however there are plenty of other topics that can be discussed from that book. It's a fun book to read, and the socio-political discussion is almost seamlessly woven throughout the entire book. Agree with Heinlein or not, there is plenty in there for serious discussion.


Sean "Yeti" Long, Maj USAF 89 FTS Section II Commander


Subject: You said...A Question for Readers

You said...A Question for Readers

I don't know whether it would be suitable, but Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" would be something to consider. 

Heinlein titles which come to mind include "Starship Troopers", "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", and "Tunnel in the Sky" -- all of which explore some facets of government and democracy.

"Oath of Fealty" might be something to consider as well.

Charles Brumbelow


I went over to my library and pulled out a few recent books

Island in the Sea of Time by S. M Stirling 1632 by Eric Flint The Prince by J. Pournelle & S. M. Stirling

There may be a bit of sex in some of them. But little beyond the pale for mid-teen readers.

I also looked at forthcoming books and feel comfortable recommending the following because I've undoubtedly read all the component parts over the years

Exile and Glory by J. Pournelle The Van Rijn Method by Poul Anderson

I think that all of them have opportunity for essays and many of them speak to maintaining a representative form of government, trends that present a threat to it, etc.

Regards, Peter Wityk


Considering the audience she's trying to serve, I would think that fiction is the way to go, and she wasn't wrong with Citizen of the Galaxy.

So in that light, I have a few suggestions. 1632 by Eric Flint speaks very directly to the question she asks, that talks about the dangers of not protecting democratic values. And it is _very_ readable, OVERTLY patriotic, and chock FULL of essay topics.

Another in the same context would be Birth of Fire by someone with the initials JEP, but it's sadly out of print.

I would recommend Higher Education but it has the same problem (out of print.)

So, sticking with something IN print, Consider John Scalzi's "Old Man's War." It is readable, exciting, and speaks DIRECTLY to the core values you are interested in. No shortage of essay topics either.

Rick Boatright


Doctor P,

Sue asked:

"...I am looking for a book about America. Maybe a book which talks about the consequences of not protecting democratic values. The book has to be readable for a broad range of students. Since I will have younger students too, I'd like to avoid books which deal with hot topics like sex, suicide, molestation, etc. (I just jettisoned the proposed text for the class which contained all of that junk). A book which will make us think. I need a book with characters and events which lend themselves to essays."

A few years ago I read "Drums Along The Mohawk" by Walter D. Edmonds <>. Published in 1936, it was a best seller for two years (for a while second on the New York Times list only to "Gone With The Wind"). It has everything Sue seeks:

American history, what happens when democratic values are not followed, when conflicting loyalties collide and hard decisions must be made. All that. and it's a rip-roaring adventure, historically accurate and loaded with characters you care about. It's also a book almost none of her students will have read, or even heard about, so everyone starts on an even playing field as far as the story.

Oh, it also lacks all those distracting elements Sue wished to avoid, without being anything less than adult in its' representation of reality.

Very readable, like most popular fiction written by someone who knew the real world (favorably compares to Heinlein in ease of style and vividness of character).

As a bonus, you can show the John Ford film of 1939 based on the novel, and compare it to the book for an interesting discussion.

Yep: Redcoats, Indians, John Ford and Henry Fonda. You even get Claudette Colvert thrown in as a bonus. Not to mention Ward Bond!

Hope this helps,. Good luck Sue!


It was a good movie, and I went out and found the book after I saw the movie first run in my neighborhood theater.  Good Suggestions.  JEP


An alternative title from RH - particularly appropriate in an election year:

Double Star

Best Regards

Paul Hayward, NZ


Jerry, your correspondent Sue said that she would like a book about the consequences of "not protecting democratic values". I'm afraid that I don't really know what those are. I've always been a fan of republican (small r) values, i.e. limitations on democracy to protect the minority against the ravages of the majority.

Perhaps Sue should have her students read Plato's The Republic. That should provide decent fodder for discussion. She might want to determine whether her students have read it or not, as I recall that we read it in high school.

Alternatively, as Sue appears to have taught Heinlein in the past, might she consider Double Star. Certainly that out to spark some interesting discussion.

Best regards as ever,

Mark E. Horning, Physicist, L-3 Communications


Dr. Pournelle,

Same author, but more focused on citizenship - Starship Troopers. Although the movie wasn't much, except for the unisex shower scenes ;)

Best regards,

Dan Steele


I think Heinlein's _Starship Troopers_ would be a good choice.

As I'm sure you know, within an entertaining story Heinlein constructs a social and political system that elicited a printed book of essays from folks who felt strongly that they had to point out why the system wouldn't work. I don't think Heinlein was actually proposing the system be tried, but I do think there was a lot of truth to the good things his principal characters said about it. Since the story is entertaining, the book is fun to read, and the political system Heinlein describes clearly lends itself to all sorts of commentary.

The military training described in the book fit in well with my own, as I recall, and contains at least one incident and one practice worth some thought: the incident was the principal character's foul-up, and the subsequent lashes he received. Heinlein presented a good case for lashing, I thought, and we ought not to dismiss it out of hand. Mostly, of course, the central idea of the social and political system is that to be a citizen, one has to serve, and one does not get to select the service. The service does not have to be completed; one may drop out at any time (except in the armed forces in battle) , but one can become a voting citizen only by completing the service.

_Starship Troopers_ is not about America, exactly, but it seemed to me to be a close facsimile.

Mike Biggs


May I suggest James P. Hogan's "The Proteus Operation" and "Voyage from Yesteryear"? The first has more to say about the consequences of democracy gone wrong, (War) but both are fun to read and should give the reader something to think about. Good health to you and yours, Tim Harness.



SUE Comments

Thanks and a Response, 


So tonight I will curl up with Starship Troopers. I looked at Drums Along the Mohawk, but at 500 plus pages, its not possible to read that book and teach the mechanics of putting a paper together in one semester. Unfortunately, I am not expecting students to be well prepared for the task of writing a paper.

This book exploration has been quite an adventure, as I have asked all sorts of people I know about books which they love, or about books which changed their thinking.

The challenge has been daunting because of what I am trying to avoid. Many of my students will be inner-city kids. I am expecting a wide-ranging reading ability. The focus of the course is on writing, so while I want my students to think, I dont want to immediately polarize them with my book choice.

Consequently, I avoided Bible stories, in case I have a Muslim student. I nixed another book because it used the term Negro. Another book was turned down because students needed to bring an overwhelming amount of background to the text, background I knew they wouldnt have. I dont want anything too weighty because of time constraints and abilities.

Today, while discussing this challenge with a well-educated woman, born in the South, I was told that trying to sanitize literature bored children. When I explained that I wanted to use literature to unify my students to a certain degree, not pit them against one another, she announced how glad she was her children had attended Ivy League schools where nothing was off-limits. (Now we could challenge that contention, no?!)

She also opined that too many people were going off to junior college when they would be better served by trade and vocational schools (I guess to serve the literati?). Now on a certain level, I understand that sentiment. On the other hand, I see this class as the ultimate teachable moment. I have a chance to do something different to expose students to ideas and topics they might not otherwise experience. And, would the world be such a bad place if a potential plumber loved to read about birds, for example?

And in fact, before reviewing the ideas your readers provided, I had pretty much decided that maybe I would spend a good portion of the semester looking at essays and op-eds about birds. So much has been written lately about habitat destruction, bird intelligence, and bio-bigotry. The rapid decline of our bird populations, for me, speaks directly to the health of our environment. And, I have my own birds to bring to class; and, a friend who rehabs birds has a starling who exhibits the consequences of eating grass treated with pesticides. Can you imagine introducing students to birds they can touch?

I may still work with the bird topic. Maybe taking a class of students away from the daily noise of television, war, politics, crime, etc. will be a respite for them as people and writers.

By the way, why is it that educators think students need to constantly struggle with angst?



Part TWO: More answers

Subject: A List For Sue

Doctor Pournelle,

Sue might find the series "Bio of a Space Tyrant" by Piers Anthony interesting. Mr. Anthony wrote the series in the 1980s as a social and political commentary. I reread the series about two years ago and it was surprising (and sad) how well it reflects the current situation in the world.

Thomas W. Scheck


Sue's Reading List, her answer, and Birds...


Yup, any of the books-suggested would provide lots to think about. I have enjoyed them all. I would add the entire "Sparta" set of books, but the time needed is too great.

However, Sue mentioned the dearth of Birds!

We, in Alberta, and across the High Plains of North America, are delighting in the return of the Peregrine Falcon, along with the Golden and Bald Eagles, and the smaller raptors.

I remember the sad changes, that started about 60 years ago, when the Hawk soaring overhead was more and more rare, and it was no longer necessary to keep Guineia Hens, to provide both protection and a loud alarm, if a Hawk came chicken-hunting!

The last 6, or 8 years, here in Lethbridge, Alberta, have been enlivened by the chance to go to the top of the 300-foot high valley-tops, of the Oldman River, to watch the Hawks soar, and the Pelicans gather on the gravel bars, below the low weir that the City of Lethbridge uses to pond the water for its Domestic Water Treatment Plant.

In the Bird Bath, of our 10-story apartment building, we see Crows, Magpies, Doves, Robins, Wrens, Sparrows, and sometimes Blue Jays. A large Woodpecker makes the streets resound when he goes after the many trees that line our City's streets. Those that put up Hummingbird feeders delight in their visits. Henderson Lake, about 20 blocks East, has a resident flock of Canada Geese that have stopped migrating. They are joined, every summer, by Mallards, and a few other Ducks. Lethbridge is in a large area of Irrigated farming, so the many Lakes and canals, and trees that grow where there is water, have kept the numbers and variety of birds quite high.

Gee, I near forgot the hard work done by those who build Bluebird Nesting Boxes, and attatch them to fenceposts, along the grid roads of south Alberta. The Electric Power folk have had to learn how to build nesting platforms, for not only Hawks, but also extra ones, for the Canada Goose, who will cheerfully grab the nest that the hawk left, last year. Seems the Canada Goose comes back first, and can keep the Hawk away, until after the Goslings have hatched, and tumbled down to ground, on mama Goose's command!


Neil Frandsen

who has used-up all the bird-names he uses, on Birds he knows! altho, 9 years ago, I saw a Baltimore Oriole, and I thought it was a painted model, because the colours were so bright!

I has much the same experience when the male oriole came to the humming bird feeder the first time. [JEP]