How Do We Think About What We Read and See? A Librarian-ly Excursion

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I recently had an interesting experience that I think is worth talking and writing about.  I am an avid, if not obsessed, fan of Bob Dylan, so I jumped at the chance to see the new movie about him playing at the Cleveland Cinemateque last month.  The full title of the film is “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese,” and it can currently be streamed on Netflix.  Here is what happened – I watched the movie, and enjoyed it, particularly the concert footage, but also various interviews with people who had apparently interacted with Dylan during that phase in his career: for example, a funny, sort of smug filmmaker named Stefan Van Drop, who was supposed to have filmed much of the tour footage, and gave the audience much enjoyment and hilarity because of his eccentric commentary; the actress Sharon Stone, who tells a story about meeting Dylan when she was 19, and later joining him on tour; and a Congressman named Jack Tanner, who is supposed to have been friends with Jimmy Carter, who calls Dylan to add Tanner to a guest list for a concert during the tour.

When the movie was over, I felt really satisfied, happy and grateful.  What a great chance to see Dylan in action in the 70s!  I left the theater feeling that way, like I’m guessing many of the audience members, and that was that – it was a good documentary, and I didn’t think much more about it.  But a few days later, still admittedly basking in my enthusiasm about the movie, I came across a review by Richard Brody, one of the film critics for the New Yorker, on the New Yorker’s website.  Brody wrote, near the end of the article,

There is a cliché that has regained currency with the release of Scorsese’s film: Bob Dylan the trickster, the slippery and malleable figure whose first trick may have been the pseudonym under which he made his fame. In “Rolling Thunder Revue,” Scorsese seems eager not only to highlight this side of Dylan but to participate in his tricks. Interspersed among the film’s authentic interviews, for instance, are mockumentary scenes that concoct fictional details about the tour. Martin von Haselberg plays the role of Stefan Van Dorp, a fictional director who is presented as responsible for filming the archival footage. The real-life movie executive Jim Gianopulos plays Jim Gianopulos, the (fictional) businessperson behind the tour. Sharon Stone plays herself and talks about her (fictitious) acquaintance with Dylan in the course of the tour. Dylan himself takes part in these games, referring on several occasions to Van Dorp’s and Stone’s presence and actions during the tour. Scorsese even places these characters amid the archival footage, dubbing the voice of Van Dorp into documentary sequences, blurring the historical record to match the fictional conceit.

I paused in my tracks while and after reading this.  Wait, what?  Stefan Van Dorp (what a name), was completely made up?  And same with the Sharon Stone piece, and the Jim Gianopulos guy? (And, as I later read, ditto for the “Congressman Jack Tanner.”)  What did this…mean exactly?  Because, when I thought about my experience during the movie, people, including me, loved the Van Dorp character,  for example, who seemed to be a very central character during the Rolling Thunder Revue, and was sort of hilarious in an “oblivious” way.  And, unless these same people read reviews afterwards, they left the movie with the notion that this person was real, when he was not.

What are the implications of this?  I suppose this depends on the person thinking about it.  Die-hard Dylan fans who enjoy Dylan’s own career-long conflation of fact and myth, in everything from the meaning of his name, to interviews with him about his autobiography, etc., might chuckle and be glad to be in on the in-joke.  Other people might shrug the whole thing off – the movie is not called a documentary, so why should we hold Scorcese to the facts?  Still others, like me, might feel sort of hoodwinked in a squeamish way – yes, I learned about how various scenes were “mockumentary,” but what about probably the majority of people who watch the film, who have no idea that what they are seeing with “Van Dorp” and Sharon Stone et al. has no actual historical veracity whatsoever?  Who aren’t in on the joke?  Isn’t there something weirdly disingenuous about that, or at least overly clever and gimmicky or something?

I do not really want to rehearse in this post arguments about the move within the context of our “post-truth” culture, though such arguments could be interesting and are always relevant to think about and discuss.  Instead, I want to talk about something a bit different, which all librarians the world over have a huge crush on, (or should), and this is “information literacy.”

What is information literacy?  Well, what is literacy?  We often think of literacy in terms of reading and writing – and it is that, for sure.  But nowadays, literacy also means something like “knowledge and competence in a specific area.”  There is visual literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, civic literacy, and, of course, our favorite, information literacy, (though there are also important overlaps between these various knowledge competencies).  Information literacy, according to the American Library Association, is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”  Such abilities often involve aspects, as many have pointed out, of skepticism, judgment, questioning, free thinking and understanding.  These are abilities and skills we each need to develop, as we hopefully hear often, if we are to be informed, intelligent and active citizens.

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After the Dylan movie experience, I had two other experiences recently that required me to tap into my information literacy skills.  One involved visual literacy as well, since it was a book cover that caused me to question and think.  The book in question is called Why Do They Hate Us?  Making Peace with the Muslim World, by Steve Slocum, an aircraft design engineer and former Christian missionary.  I came across a review of this book in a librarian trade magazine called Publishers Weekly, and next to the review was an image of the book’s cover.  Here is that image:

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The cover of the book, like my experience reading the Richard Brody review, made me pause.  What was up with this cover?  The book itself got a fine review – the anonymous reviewer said, at the end of it, that “Effectively countering pernicious, misinformed narratives, this is an essential contribution to interfaith studies.”  Okay, good.  But why did the cover make me squeamish?  Well, let’s take a look at it.  The title and subtitle, for example.  Why is the actual important purpose of the book – “making peace with the Muslim world,” which is the subtitle – relatively small, while the first part of the title, with the capitalized words “HATE US” in red font, much more accentuated?  And what about the image of the Muslim woman at the center, wearing the Black niqab?  Yes, of course, millions of Muslim women wear hijabs and naqibs in the world, and some of these hijabs and naqibs are the color black.  But why the black background?  In other words, why was this particular image chosen, from literally millions of images, to represent or stand for, somewhat ridiculously, the entire “Muslim world“?  “A picture is worth a thousand words” is true – images seem to grab us, consciously and, even more so, unconsciously, even more than words and text.  So, again, why was this particular image chosen?

I would argue here that there is something about the arrangement of the text, and the font-color, and the image, and the background, that taps, in a sensationalist and rather manipulative way, into our own fears of the “other” – in this case, Islam.  This is not meant to deny that there are many fundamentalist Islamic groups that are, well, fearful, just as there are Christian fundamentalists or Jewish fundamentalists or Buddhist fundamentalists or Hindu fundamentalists that are also fearful.  And I don’t mean this in a culturally relative way, as if to say – well, we are democratic pluralists, and they are fundamentalists, and we are just different cultures, and that’s that.  No, I think clearly fundamentalism of any stripe can be fearful.  But why choose an image and font color that seems to argue that the entire “Muslim World” is fundamentalist?  Why shrink “Muslim World” into that one image?  Does this actually line up with the argument and purpose of the book, which is, as the review, states to “counter pernicious, misinformed narratives”?

These are tough questions.  I’m not sure I’m trying to answer them completely, but instead want to model what information literacy (and here, visual literacy) might involve.  We should be able to take a step back and actually think critically about the information, textual and visual, that surrounds us, in both the digital and analog worlds.  Another interesting and important example could be the books called the “Killing Series,” written over the last few years by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.  These books are incredibly popular – an estimate from 2015 says that at that point 6.8 million copies of the “Killing Franchise” had sold, and there have been at least three books published since then.  Macmillan Publishers, who are owned by the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, say on their website,

In Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Series, America’s bestselling historian and Martin Dugard present compelling narratives of the true events surrounding the deaths and destruction of some of the most influential men and powerful nations in human history. From U.S. presidential assassinations to the downfall of mighty empires and the murder of a man more than two millennia ago whose teachings form the values of billions of people, the historical thrillers in this #1 New York Times bestselling series reveal fascinating facts about the lives of those famous people whose actions changed the world.

Barnes and Noble has a blog post from 2016 called “6 Reasons Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Series is a Must-Read Addition to the History Shelves.”  Those reasons include, “he never talks down,” “his books read like thrillers,” “he clearly enjoys history,” “he’s unapologetic,” “he’s got a nose for mysteries.”  But, if we really think about it, are those actually the criteria we would want from our historians?  Yes, we want a history book to be interesting and entertaining.  But if we were teaching younger students about the writing and reading of history books, would these be the things we would emphasize?

I guess I don’t really think we would.  And O’Reilly has been criticized by both sides of the political spectrum for his sensationalist treatment of historical fact, many articles of which can be found with a quick Google search.  But I can’t help wonder, do his readers know about these really relevant and helpful criticisms?  Do they care about these criticisms?  And does this even matter, in the long run?  What’s wrong, anyways, about reading a history book that is mildly or extremely sensationalist?  Life is short and hard; why can’t we just relax and read something entertaining and distracting?

Here’s my librarian-ly answer: by all means, read whatever you want – distracting, entertaining, difficult, challenging, fun, boring, mind-blowing, mind-boggling, beach reads, Finnegan’s Wake.  But it’s also and always important to at least be aware, somewhat, somehow, of other interpretations of what we read, even if we go ahead and read the book, anyways, and even (hopefully) enjoy it.  I am currently reading Madame Bovary by a French writer, Flaubert, for a Classics Book Club.  The book is supposed to be a masterpiece, and I personally think it is.  But I am also not comfortable with just my own conclusion – I want to know what other people think about it.  That way, my own take on the book is enriched and deepened.  To frame it a different way, there really is a certain amount of humility that comes when we as “media consumers” admit that we do not know everything – that all human beings, no matter how smart or whatever else, have blind spots.  If we are truly going to be practitioners of information literacy, I think we should keep this mind – if there is an image, or a film, or an article, that makes us pause, and even feel squeamish, we should honor that pause and that squeamishness, and use these things as opportunities to really use the gift of our minds and think.  A famous philosopher named Martin Heidegger (who is himself in many ways quite problematic) once pointed out the phonetic similarities between “think” and “thank.”  If we can think more clearly, or critically, about the various media we encounter, I think we will experience more freedom, and feel more grateful – more thankful – because we will have a wider and deeper perspective from which to make choices and judgments about what we watch, listen to, read, see, and, more generally, absorb.

Relevant Resources

CRAAP test for evaluating information (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose)

Interesting Article called “Issues” from Australia about Different Meanings of Skepticism

More academic article about critical thinking

ALA bookmark (costs money, but questions to ask about a source are useful and important and below this link):

Does the headline sound realistic?

Check the author’s credentials

Make sure the headline and/or picture matches the content

Consult and compare competing sources

Fact check stories with sites like Snopes, FactCheck, and PolitiFact

Dig deeper: Follow up on cites sources and quotes

Beware of online filter bubbles that show you only items that are similar to what you have liked

Be open-minded. Ask questions

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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