by Chris Tobias
Howdy. Chris here. This post is going to be a little off the beaten path from what we usually do here at Take Back the Sky, but as an educator, I wanted to share something that affected me very deeply, both personally and professionally. I hope you don’t mind.
It has been a little over a year since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut that claimed the lives of 26 of the school’s students and teachers. Like many people, I was deeply affected by the event, more so than by any other like it before or since. I think this was not only because of the young age of many of the victims, but also because teachers gave their lives in an effort to protect their students.
It’s unfortunate that so much controversy arose in the wake of the Newtown shooting. All the debate about gun control vs. Americans’ right to keep and bear arms and the media’s coverage of incidents like this (and those who perpetrate them) vs. Americans’ right to free speech can sometimes cause us to lose sight of the real human tragedy. Like most Americans, I have very strong feelings about those issues, but it is not my intention to discuss them here. Instead, I want to talk about a project I undertook to pay tribute to those students and teachers who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary, a project I dubbed “The 26 for 26 Project.”
For two decades now I have been a teacher at both the middle school and high school levels, and I was instantly able to relate to what those teachers at Sandy Hook did. Very much like Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds, who shows an intense loyalty and protectiveness toward his crew (even if, as is the case with Simon Tam, he doesn’t like them all that much), as a teacher I feel a deep sense of duty and responsibility for each and every one of “my kids” (yes, even the ones that tend to damage my calm) that transcends the obligations outlined in my job description. Now, never in my career have I met a teacher who would echo Simon’s advice to River in Serenity and say, “It’s okay to leave them to die,” and I’m sure that in his or her heart every teacher would want to help and protect his or her students in a crisis. I recognize that those teachers in Newtown did what they did in part because that’s the kind of folk teachers are, and it’s a sad fact that in today’s world, part of being a teacher means that on any given day one might end up being faced with the kind of life-or-death scenario that they were forced to confront. But what they did— ultimately sacrificing themselves in an attempt to serve as human shields to protect their young students from incoming gunfire—that is just extraordinary on every imaginable level. I can only hope that if something like that ever happens to me, that I can respond even half as selflessly and valiantly as they did. They really are “big damn heroes.”
And of course, as a parent, especially as the parent of an only child, I feel a deep sadness not only for those little children who perished, but also for their parents, who I am sure will never truly recover from such a terrible loss.
So, shortly after the incident in Newtown, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 26 books of at least 100 pages in length in 2013, one for every victim in the Sandy Hook shooting. Once I had done this, I would make a donation to Kids Need to Read in their memory. Initially I was going to donate $26.00, but that number seemed a bit smallish, so in the end I opted to donate a penny for every page I read.
Now you are probably wondering what this has to do with Take Back the Sky and its mission statement. Well, I admit that none of this has anything at all to do with convincing Elon Musk and SpaceX to name the next manned US spacecraft Serenity. But when I started the project I wanted to document my progress publicly, and since I didn’t have any social media of my own at the time, I opted to do so through Take Back the Sky’s Twitter feed. It’s also relevant because Kids Need to Read, the charity to whom I would donate in honor of the Newtown 26, was co-founded by none other than Serenity’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds himself, Nathan Fillion.
And of course, there was no way I was going to read 26 books in a year without choosing some that have to do with outer space and the space industry!
The following is a brief recap of the books I read as part of my “26 for 26 Project.”
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker (372 pages)- This book, which was recommended to me by my sensei, teaches the reader to spot subtle signs of danger by tuning in to one’s intuition, which is often ignored or rationalized away in our civilized society. This is a book everyone should read, especially women, who statistically are more likely to be the victims of violent crimes.
- Cat o’ Nine Tales by Jeffrey Archer (272 pages)- This collection of short stories, most of which was compiled while the author was in prison, is clever, witty and entertaining. An excellent light read after the very serious start to my project.
- The Pigman by Paul Zindel (192 pages)- This book was given to me by my eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Barry Solarczyk. I’m kind of embarrassed to say it was 28 years before I got around to reading it. I’m glad I finally did though, because it is some powerful young-adult fiction on par with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
- The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King (384 pages)- I chose this book because I wanted to make sure that I included at least one book by Stephen King in this project, and the length of the story seemed manageable. I was surprised to find myself reading a fantasy story in the truest sense. I’m not sure I’d count it among King’s best works, but like all of his stories, it was an enjoyable read.
- What Catholics Believe by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Kris D. Stubna (111 pages)- It was at this point in the project that the world was awaiting the election of a new pope, and I wanted to take the opportunity to connect with my faith a bit. This book, which is written in a question-and-answer format, was a bit of a disappointment though. I was hoping it would delve more deeply into the history and traditions of Roman Catholicism, but instead it mostly just rehashed doctrine I already knew.
- Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (352 pages)- This book had been given to me by a co-worker a few Christmases ago, and I thought this project was a good excuse for me to get around to finally reading it. I found the protagonist fascinating and the story entertaining, and I enjoyed reading the background information the book gives about the Tunnel Rats in the Vietnam War. If you like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum novels, you’d probably enjoy this one.
- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (436 pages)- It’s really a shame it took me this long to get around to reading this book. Verne is in many ways the father of modern Steampunk, and this story and its characters have influenced many writers and stories since. As is often the case with books like this, I found out how little I really knew about the actual story, but found it so much better than its hype.
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (213 pages)- One of the things I intended to do with this project was read some of the books I was supposed to have read in high school. This was the first of those. Truthfully, it’s not really my kind of story, but Dickens’ skill as a writer is undeniable, and for that reason I can’t say I didn’t like it.
- The Great Wall of China by Franz Kafka (184 pages)- Kafka is one of my favorite German writers because his stories are eerie and his manipulation of the German language is masterful. His prose loses something when it’s translated into English though. This one was not The Castle or The Metamorphosis, but I’m still glad I chose it if only so he could make an appearance on my list.
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck (118 pages)- Another of the books I was supposed to read in high school, this one proves a book doesn’t have to make a good doorstop to make for a good story. I found this story tedious as a teenager and never finished it, but at 42 I can honestly say I don’t know what my teenage self was thinking. It’s a moving tale of hope, greed and the unfortunate divide between social classes.
- X-Men by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith (239 pages)- This is the novelization of Singer’s first X-Men movie. I’d had it since the film’s release and hadn’t gotten around to reading it. It was pretty faithful to the film’s storyline, but didn’t really add all that much backstory or expand upon the plot.
- The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin (416 pages)- This one was a game changer for me, and I hope to write about it more extensively in a later post. Anyone who claims to care about space exploration needs to read this book. I will warn you, though, that you’ll come away from it not only convinced that we can go to Mars with the technology we have, and soon, but also pretty angry with our nation for not having done so yet. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand and appreciate this book., which is to Zubrin’s credit.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (192 pages)- I had had this one on my radar for some time, as I was fortunate enough to hear the author read an excerpt from it in person at the Carnegie Library before it was even published. Gaiman is my favorite author, and I had wanted to make sure at least one of his books ended up on this list. This story is typical Gaiman, and if you’ve never read his prose novels, you need to do yourself a favor and start. My only complaint is that the book was so short. I read it on the flight to and from Houston, and was disappointed that I finished it so quickly because I enjoyed the time I spent with the characters so much. And in typical Gaiman fashion, the ending left me choked up. If there were ever a baseball team made up of the best authors in the English language, Neil Gaiman would have to be the closer because nobody writes better endings than he does (and, like Mariano Rivera, he could make his entrance to “Enter Sandman”).
- Fray by Joss Whedon (216 pages)- Okay, so this one’s actually a graphic novel, but I figured it was still appropriate because without this writer, there would be no Take Back the Sky. I had known about this story for quite a while, but didn’t really realize what I was getting into. I certainly wasn’t aware that it was a futuristic spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I wasn’t really prepared for it to be about a slayer at all. After reading it, though, I think Melaka Fray is now my favorite slayer, and I hope that Joss Whedon will bring her to life on the screen someday when he’s done playing in Marvel’s toy box.
- King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (304 pages)- This book was a gift from my brother, who thought I would like it since I am a fan of stories like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He was right. It’s action and adventure on every page with characters that are fun to follow into exotic locales that are brilliantly described.
- A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (172 pages)- I had been talking about this book in our Take Back the Sky panels at comic conventions, and I cited it as an example of how life informs art, which in turn informs life again. Burroughs was inspired to write it by the theories of Giovanni Schiaparelli, and this work would in turn inspire many later science-fiction writers who would kindle the imaginations of future scientists who would work on the Mariner and Viking missions to Mars. What I found when I read it was a thrilling tale of adventure with vivid descriptions of exotic alien landscapes. Even today, with all we know about what Mars is and is not, this story still holds up.
- Human Space Flight Mission Patch Handbook (various authors, 173 pages)- I purchased this book while at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas because I have always been fascinated with crests, logos and patches of all kinds. It contains the mission patch for every NASA flight from the Mercury program through the end of the Space Shuttle program. It was actually quite educational because it provided background on each mission, its crew and its objectives, and it was also really interesting to read the meaning behind the images on the various mission patches. And trust me when I say that nothing that appears on a NASA mission patch, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is without meaning.
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (127 pages)- For years I had listened to people tell me how boring this book is. I suppose it’s my own fault that it took me so long to get around to reading it myself and forming my own opinion. You can count the number of characters on one hand, and most of it is just a narration in the protagonist’s head. That doesn’t stop this tale of a man and his battle to land a monster fish from being an outstanding story of human willpower and endurance as told by a master writer.
- Great Battles of World War I: in the Air by Frank C. Platt (206 pages)- I had started this book once before when I was younger, but didn’t make it all the way through. I guess I needed to become a more mature reader before I could appreciate the latter part of the book, which is mostly comprised of actual memoirs of American aviators and officers who served in the war. The accounts of the dogfights are fascinating, but it is definitely written with an Anglo-American bias, especially when it comes to commentary about Germany’s “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, whose reputation as the war’s ace of aces the authors go out of their way to downplay.
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (516 pages)- This was the hidden gem of my project. I had originally chosen it in the hopes of reading something creepy for Halloween. What I got instead was a sophisticated Victorian gothic romance with magic and intrigue. It was the longest book I read during the project, but it never felt like it. I found myself enthralled by these likeable characters and their story, and the similarity between the Rêveurs of this story and real-life Browncoats is impossible to miss. I was actually sad to reach the end of this one.
- The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (300 pages)- I finally found my creepy Halloween story in the form of this book, which caused quite a stir when it was first published. I remember hearing my mother talk of this story when I was a little kid, and her account of it terrified me. Now that I’ve finally read it as an adult, I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. Perhaps it’s due to the controversy that’s arisen as to the tale’s authenticity. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a kid anymore and was never able to set aside my skepticism. Whatever the reason, I feel like it just didn’t live up to the hype.
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (368 pages)- As a science-fiction fan and self-professed geek, it’s a wonder I hadn’t read this one before, I know. I chose to read it now because I wanted to see the movie, and I hate seeing movies without reading the book first. This sci-fi classic totally deserves its reputation, and I think it’s a shame that so much controversy surrounded the premiere of the film because so many people nowadays are incapable of separating the author and his beliefs from his work. In my opinion, that’s their loss.
- The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King (264 pages)- If you have to have a repeat author on your list, it might as well be Stephen King, right? I was still basking in the glow of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first winning season and first playoff appearance in over two decades when I read this one. I just wasn’t ready to let the baseball season go, and the Red Sox had just won the World Series, so I took this one out and dusted it off. You probably don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this suspenseful tale, but I reckon it helps. If you’re not, though, just keep in mind that there is no such thing as a bad Stephen King story.
- The Shack by William P. Young (252 pages)- Malcolm Reynolds would surely accuse me of being a religious fuzzy-wuzzy, and to some extent he’d be right. I love theology and enjoy reading and talking about it. I’m not sure what I expected from this book, and I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it. It did some interesting things to break religious stereotypes, but in the end it just felt too much like a typical offering for Oprah’s book club. I’m not sorry I read it, but I don’t think it ever reaches its full potential.
- The Battle of the Bulge (Dark December) by Robert E. Merriam (182 pages)- There have been many volumes written about this pivotal battle in World War II, but this one is particularly good because it was written by a man who had experienced it firsthand and was charged by the US Army with the task of documenting it. His manuscript was created from field reports and interviews with officers on both sides of the lines that were conducted shortly after the end of the war.
- How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (214 pages)- I chose this as my final book in the project because I found it appropriate given Take Back the Sky’s mission to get a manned Dragon named Serenity. I was surprised to find how little this book has in common with the animated film that is supposed to be based upon it. Yes, it’s a book that was primarily written for children, but it’s also very clever, entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny. I think it was a great way to cap off the project.
So, there you have it—26 books in 12 months. For me, it was a rare New Year’s resolution fulfilled, but one that I had to make happen. I read 6,775 pages in all, so in the end I donated $67.75 to Kids Need to Read in memory of the Newtown 26 and in honor of our Captain and Kids Need to Read’s co-founder, Nathan Fillion. (By the way, if you would like to read any of these books yourself, I’m sure you can find them at amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.)
And now, in just a few short days the calendar will go from one page back to twelve, and it will be time for new resolutions. I’m not sure what the new year will bring, but I do know that among other things, I resolve to make more written contributions to this blog and work harder to achieve our goal of convincing Elon Musk to name SpaceX’s first manned Dragon capsule Serenity.
May your New Year be peaceful, prosperous and very shiny!