One-Minute Book Reviews

July 22, 2009

Mitch Albom Writes at a 3rd Grade Reading Level, Stephen King at an 8th — The Reading Levels of Your Favorite Authors

[This post first appeared in November 2006 and ranks among the 10 most popular posts of all time on the site. I am on a short semi-vacation.]

For One More Day: A Novel. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 197 pp., $21.95.

By Janice Harayda

It’s official: Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade reading level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

I know this because For One More Day struck me as so dumbed-down – even for Albom – that it fell below the level of the sixth-grade books I once edited for a test-prep company. So I typed a couple of paragraphs from the novel into my computer and ran the Word spelling and grammar checker, which gives you the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics at the bottom. Albom, it showed, writes at the level of Grade 2.8. This was startling enough that I wondered if the paragraphs I had used, from page 24, were atypical. So I typed in the full text of pages 24 and 25 and found that they were atypical. Albom actually writes at a third-grade level, Grade 3.4, according to Flesch-Kincaid.

I used pages 24 and 25 because the first pages of a book sometimes don’t represent the whole of it: Authors may be clearing their throats or writing in a different tone than they will use after they have found their rhythm. So it’s often fairest to look not just at the first chapter but also at something that comes later. A chapter typically has about 20 pages, so I used the first full section of Albom’s book that follows page 20, a total of 305 words.

All of this raised a question: Does a novel written at a third-grade level deserve the same sort of review as books by authors who write at higher levels? Especially if the book appears to be a naked attempt to combine the theme of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life with the kind of framing device Robert James Waller used in The Bridges of Madison County (which tries to lull you into believing that a novel tells a true story)? Maybe not. So here instead are the grade levels I got for a half dozen other authors when I checked the readability statistics for 305 words of their prose:

Nora Ephron I Feel Bad About My Neck Grade 12.0
Alex Kuczynski Beauty Junkies Grade 10.3, an exposé by a New York Times reporter
James Boswell The Life of Samuel Johnson Grade 8.6
Stephen King Liseys Story Grade 8.3
Danielle Steel Toxic Bachelors Grade 4.8
Emily Arnold McCully An Outlaw Thanksgiving, a picture book for 4-to-8 year olds by a Caldecott Medalist Grade 4.3
Mitch Albom For One More Day Grade 3.4

I also ran the statistics for the Lord’s Prayer, using the punctuation in a 20th century edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And it turns out that Jesus, too, “wrote” at a third-grade level, Grade 3.8, according to Microsoft Word (although he spoke the prayer). So there you have it. Mitch Albom, writing at the Grade 3.4 level, doesn’t quite come up to the level of Jesus at Grade 3.8. But who would know it from all the attention he is getting?

Best Line: A quote from Louis Armstrong: “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

Worst line: Many. Samples: “He chuckled.” “My mother chuckled.”

Editors: Leslie Wells and Will Schwalbe

Furthermore: This review has a reading level of Grade 9.5, excluding the supplemental information at the end, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics on Microsoft Word 2004.

Published: September 2006. Albom also wrote Tuesdays With Morrie (Anchor, 2005).

How to find the reading level of a book: Go to the Microsoft Word pull-down “Help” menu. Search for “readability statistics.” Select “display readability statistics.” This will walk you through the process of finding the grade level for any text you enter, including your own writing.

Grade levels and their corresponding ages in American schools: In the U.S, children typically begin grades at these ages: kindergarten, 5; first grade, 6; second grade, 7; third grade, 8, fourth grade, 9; fifth grade, 10; sixth grade, 11; seventh grade, 12; eighth grade, 13; ninth grade, 14; tenth grade, 15; 11th grade, 16; 12th grade, 17.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 8, 2008

College Students Say the Darndest Things – ‘Ignorance Is Blitz’ Collects Fractured Facts From Real Term Papers and Other Academic Work

“The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”
From Ignorance Is Blitz

Ignorance Is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students. Compiled by Anders Henriksson. Workman, 155 pp., $6.95, paperback. Originally published as Non Campus Mentis.

By Janice Harayda

Zoroastrianism was founded by Zorro. The South succeeded from the Union. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What a pity that SAT scores don’t measure common sense. If they did, those of us who have taught college students might have seen far fewer lines like these on tests and term papers. And now comes Ignorance Is Blitz to show us that cultural illiteracy on campus is at once far more extensive — and more entertaining — than some of us knew from the students who solemnly told us that a fictional character founded a major religion or that the South “succeeded” from the Union.

After decades of teaching at a state college in West Virginia, Anders Henriksson has collected hundreds of his students’ gaffes and supplemented them with others from professors at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Henriksson doesn’t name most of the schools, and that’s a mercy when the blunders include lines like:

“The P.L.O. is the airline of Israel.”

George Eliot was written by Silas Marner.”

“Greek semen ruled the Agean [sic.].”

“The Berlin Mall was removed.”

“Without the discovery of the flying buttock it would have been an impossible job to build the Gothic cathedral.”

“John Huss refused to decant his ideas about the church and was therefore burned as a steak.”

“The Civil Rights movement in the USA turned around the corner with Martin Luther Junior’s famous ‘If I Had a Hammer’ speech.”

In a postscript Henriksson blames some of the tragicomic errors on an overreliance on spell-checkers and on anxieties about test-taking. The causes of the problem go deeper than he allows and include a devaluation of history in schools and grade inflation that allows some students to do well even if they write, as one student in the book did, that “St. Teresa of Avila was a carmelized nun.”

But the skimpy analysis in no way detracts from the hilarity found on nearly every page of Ignorance Is Blitz. Well ahead of the holiday season, this small-format humor book has emerged as of the year’s best literary stocking stuffers. In the meantime some of its mangled lines could add levity to a tense election season. You’re worried about problems with those butterfly ballots? America’s students are here to remind you that it could be worse. There was a time when, as one of them put it, “Voting was done by ballad.”

Best line: “The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”

Worst line: “Machiavelli, who was often unemployed, wrote The Prince to get a job with Richard Nixon.” One of the few lines that make you wonder if a student was pulling the teacher’s leg.

Recommendation? A great gift for teachers, history lovers and, of course, some of those “actual college students” in the subtitle. Many high school students would also enjoy this book.

Editor: Ruth Sullivan

Published: January 2008 www.workman.com/products/9780761149491/. First published in 2001 under the title Non Campus Mentis. Portions of the material in the book appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 25, 2007

Airport Grammar Delays Affect Thousands of Travelers As Logan Sends Message to Visitors to the U.S.: Welcome to America, Land of the Free and the Home of the Sub-Literate

 

The grammatically challenged Boston airport needs help from Patricia O’Conner’s bestseller

By Janice Harayda

Airports had record delays this year, and their grammar isn’t doing well, either.

I wrote an extra post over the weekend about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, so I was going to take the day off today. But I realized that I was looking at a literary emergency when I got to the baggage claim section at Logan International Airport yesterday and saw these lines on large, permanent signs above a carousel:

“Many bags look alike, compare your claim stubs with the tag on your bag.”

“Oversize items and pets may be claimed at the Baggage claim.”

The first line is a run-on sentence — specifically, a comma splice or comma fault, which joins two independent clauses with a comma. And the structure isn’t parallel, because if you had “stubs,” you’d have “bags.”

The second line is scarcely better. Does the line mean that you can claim oversize items and oversize pets at the “Baggage claim”? If so, where do you claim the regular-sized pets? Wouldn’t it have been clearer to say, “Pets and oversized items …”? Why is the “B” in “baggage claim” capitalized? When did “Baggage” become a proper noun? And, yes, that “oversize” in the second line should be “oversized,” too.

My first instinct was to blame Continental Airlines for these examples of turbulence hitting the English language. But the baggage carousel Newark Airport got it right: “Many bags look alike. Please match the claim number on your ticket to the tag on your bag.” That “please” was nice, too.

So problem lies not with Continental but with the Massachusetts Port Authority www.massport.com, which runs Logan, and, I guess, its executive director, Thomas J. Kinton, Jr., who hasn’t sent a posse to clean up the mess. A book that could help is Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (Riverhead, $14, paperback) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/30/. A former editor of the New York Times Book Review, O’Conner www.grammarphobia.com also wrote the new Woe Is I Jr. (Putnam, $16.99, ages 9–12), illustrated by Tom Stiglich. It offers “jargon-free explanations and entertaining examples (Shrek, Count Olaf, Garfield, and Harry Potter all put in appearances,” School Library Journal said.

I haven’t read Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham, $11, paperback), but that might do the trick, too. Truss www.lynnetruss.com has also written a children’s book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Matter! (Putnam, $15.99, ages 4–8).

Why not leave a comment if you see airport or other signs that show millions of people – many of them arriving the country for the first time — that America is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Sub-Literate?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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