Blog: Jeff Kass

Faltering English grades don't bode well for a state trying to foster a permanent class of young professionals. Author and teacher extraordinaire Jeff Kass delivers up Knuckleheads for the young men who'd rather work a backhoe than read a book. Jeff, writing program director for the Neutral Zone, also explains how the Ann Arbor Book Festival was revived by partnering with other non-profits.

Post 1: A Perfectly Knuckleheaded Rationale

On March 31, 2011, my first book of fiction made its debut.

It was published by Dzanc Books, a small non-profit press based in Michigan, and it's a collection of ten short stories called Knuckleheads.

I'm proud of it.

Writing it and editing it took about four years.

I also know I will make almost no money off it. In fact, if one were really to do the math and factor in the hours I spent writing; the hours I spent editing; the hours I spent querying and submitting; the time I've more recently spent doing readings, organizing a series of mini book tours, and creating some kind of marketing plan; and then add in the money I've spent traveling in order to do the readings; the money I've spent creating posters, fliers and handbills; the money I've spent buying copies of my own book from the publisher and from various bookstores so I could try and re-sell the books out of my backpack; the money I'm contemplating spending in order to develop a web site – well, ultimately I'll probably end up losing several thousand dollars.  

So, why do it?

I mean, seriously, what's the point?

The thrill of seeing my name in print? Of walking into a bookstore and seeing my own actual book on the shelf, right there with its pretty red cover and my professionally taken mug shot (another cost I need to factor in) smiling from the inside flap jacket?

Honestly, I couldn't care less about those moments. I don't think I was actually ever thrilled by that mythological instant of cutting through the shipping tape and opening up the box the first time to see the product of my words, of my imagination, staring back at me, and, even if there was some small sense of something that maybe felt like satisfaction, that smidgen of positive feeling has long since been eclipsed by a kind of stomach-churning shame resulting from having to prostrate myself and beg people, stores and schools to buy my book.

Listen, I've been prostrating myself for years. I'm pretty good at it. I've garnered support from all kinds of people and institutions to support the programs I've envisioned. But that prostrating has always been about creating opportunities for young people to read and write and publish and have their words be heard by the public. Knuckleheads is different. It's about my words. My stories. It's about promoting myself. Yuch.

Except, it's not about that.

I've always loved to read. Always. Seuss and Sendak when I could barely understand the letters and after that The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, Tolkien, Conan Doyle, Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, Irving, Atwood, Morrison, Richard Russo, Junót Diaz, Zadie Smith, Dennis LeHane and the list goes on – reading has not only given me my sense of sense of self, but also my sense of others.

When I'm holding a book, I'm holding human history.

Grandiose statement, I know, but I believe it. Reading is the best way I know how to build empathy, to immerse oneself in someone else's story and to feel for that person. Deeply. Not saying that can't happen watching a movie, or a play, or even listening to a song, but reading is a sustained experience. A commitment of several hours, days, sometimes weeks where a reader forges a one-to-one relationship with an author's voice. It's a solitary activity and a communal activity at the same time, one that builds both a sense of independence and a sense of broader social responsibility.

All the interesting people I know – people I enjoy having conversations with – read a lot. Every one of them.

Think about it, no other species has the ability to organize its thoughts and to bind them and deliver them to other members of the species encased as a lasting artifact. We do. At heart, that's what books are, the delivery of the thoughts in one person's brain to another person's brain, the opportunity for two brains to bridge the chasm between them and think and grow together.

So, why did I write Knuckleheads?

Because I have way too many male students (both in my high school classes at Pioneer and my college classes at Eastern) that have no real answer when I ask them what they've been reading lately. Many claim not to read anything at all. Ever.

That's not an acceptable answer to me. We can't just write off large portions of our male population with the hope that if we point them toward their X-Boxes, they'll still somehow develop sufficient levels of empathy. We can't just tailor the output of the publishing industry toward the largely female book-buying public and give up on males who maybe just haven't yet found the right books that will captivate them.

I don't know if my book will be that book, that reading hook, for a lot of habitually non-reading males, but I sure hope it will be. More than anything I wrote Knuckleheads for that high school kid in a hooded sweatshirt who seems to want nothing more than to his lay his head down on his desk and sleep through class, for that college kid who dreams mostly of the next keg party, for that guy a few years out of school in construction boots driving the newspaper delivery truck or the backhoe, or climbing a ladder to paint houses or fix phone lines or prune tree limbs.

I want my imagination to communicate with their imaginations. I want those guys to twine my stories with their own. Somewhere out there, right now, there's a slightly knuckleheaded dude reading my book, laughing, thinking, wondering how we can all redeem our better selves. I wrote Knuckleheads for him. Keep reading, my man, keep reading.