Collection Spotlight: the 300s

This is the first post in a series that wishes to highlight important aspects of a public library’s collection that might go unnoticed. (You can read the introductory post here.)  But before we start…. 

A public library doesn’t just have books, let’s be honest.  It has music, often in the form of CDs or digital tracks we can stream or even download through a streaming service like Hoopla.  It has movies, blueray and DVDs, often categorized by genres like drama, action, documentary, and comedy (but see our movie collection here at River, which also has a wonderful and unique foreign film section; and also definitely check out Kanopy, a free film streaming service offered by many public libraries (including River), which has an astonishingly high quality selection of films, especially in the documentary genre).  Public libraries have magazines and newspapers, concerning a variety of interesting topics – everything from culture to technology to books to the arts to politics to psychology to business to cars to philosophy and beyond – and these are resources that are unfortunately often very expensive to subscribe to, but can be read at your local public library for free.  And they have audiobooks and e-books and e-audio books and playaways, etc.

Now there is of course a very understandable emphasis nowadays in the public library world on digital collections – ebooks, e-audio books, e-magazines, film and music streaming, etc.  And that’s fine and good – I know I sometimes feel I need a book very quickly, and the Internet (via libraries, Amazon, but most especially, for me at least, the wonderful, fabulous Internet Archive) gives it to me, lickety-split. But sometimes we forget that public libraries are also gathering places, in the physical world, where you can slow down, disconnect from the admittedly rather frightening, time-devouring monster-tentacles of social media, turn the pages of an actual book, and sit next to a neighbor who is also reading something. I mean, where you can actually see your neighbor, give him or her or they a nod – and maybe strike up a conversation about something you share in common, or (better yet?) something you don’t, but which he or she or they might find interesting, anyways. Everyone has heard about how so many social institutions in our country are being eroded – social clubs, unions, families, government, places of worship – and how this erosion frays the threads that bind us together as a community, culture and country.  And that is troubling, no doubt about it, and we need to talk about this. But public libraries are places where we can practice each day to keep these threads tight and taut, and in doing so “talk about it.” Because, yes, of course it’s great and convenient to download a book on a Kindle.  But it’s also great, as Sherry Turkle has pointed out over and over, just to see and talk to actual human beings.

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In today’s post, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not going to focus on music, movies, newspapers or magazines, but on books, which are still (and I think should be) the bread and butter, the heart, of a library’s collection. And I’m going to focus on one of my favorite sections in the library, the 300s, which I’m guessing many people might not be totally aware of. What does “the 300s” refer to?

The 300s is a Dewey Decimal Number that stands for a very large category called the “social sciences.”  In that sense, the 300s are exactly what they sound like – they are the numbers on the spines of books that start with 300 and end with 399. (When you look for a book in an online library catalog, the “call number,” which is the Dewey Decimal Number for most public libraries, will be what you use to find the book on the shelf.)  Every single book in the 300s will be about the social sciences.  Okay, so what are the social sciences?

Well, look at the phrase – “social sciences.” The social sciences are a bunch of different ways or lenses (“science” means “knowledge” in Latin) for thinking about and looking at society (“social”).  Are they sciences, like hard physical sciences – physics, chemistry, astronomy?  Well, not really. Are they like the humanities – literature, poetry, fiction, visual art, film, music, where people “make stuff up” and are super imaginative, we could say?  Well, no, they’re not like that either. So what the heck are they?

The social sciences are more squishy that the hard sciences and harder than the humanities, let’s say.  Or we could say, more philosophically (and probably contentiously), if the humanities are primarily concerned with beauty, the self, and subjectivity, and science is concerned with truth, nature and objectivity, the social sciences are considered with ethics, culture and inter-subjectivity.  (The threads that bind us together.)  But all this is too abstract.  Here are the main topics within the 300s:

Sociology

Anthropology

Statistics

Political Science

Economics

Law

Military Science

True Crime/Criminology

Education

Commerce

Customs and Etiquette

Folklore

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Okay, now that we’ve got that covered, let’s look at actual particular physical (and of course digital, since we are writing and reading this online) examples.  But first, look at this:

What do you see?

This is a view of some shelves here at River. But that sticker on the shelf on the left – that shows us what call numbers can be found all down that row, starting with the 280s (religions) all the way through the 300s, ending at the 330s (economics).  So what books can be found in the 300s?

Well, let’s look at one example (talk about pressure!).  Here’s our example:

The first picture is the cover – and book covers I think are always fun to look at and wonder about, though bestseller covers (Patterson, Danielle Steele, etc.) can, let’s be honest, be kind of homogeneous and uninspiring – along with the title, author’s name, and the name of the author who wrote the foreword.

The second picture is the call number – 305.800973.  And the 305’s are….”social groups.”  Okay, so what’s this book about? Well, here’s an excerpt from a review from the NY Times.  (Book reviews published by good sources of information, like the NY Times, for the most part, are great ways, probably the best ways, to help us make decisions about what to read and therefore what to spend our valuable time on and with; this particular review was written by a journalist from the Times named Lauretta Charlton, who is also an editor and music columnist):

In the essays, written between 1994 and 2018, Pinckney reports from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown. He traces the ways in which the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fiery sermons nearly derailed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He charts, block by block, the gentrification of Harlem, and visits a recovering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where he tells the story of the ham.

In “How I Got Over,” he reflects on black expatriates — from Richard Wright to James Baldwin, Pinckney’s lodestar — who left for Europe to escape Jim Crow, only to witness racism by another name: Islamophobia.

But what stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member. Pinckney grew up in a middle-class family, in the 1960s, when being black and middle class often meant being accused of “trying to act white,” he writes. His mother and father were civil rights foot soldiers who in their spare time would do things like sue their hometown police department to force it to desegregate. His father “hawked N.A.A.C.P. memberships in airport men’s rooms.” His mother’s cousin was lynched in 1931, while a student at Atlanta University.

 

This blog post is not exactly about the content of books, so much as just making one hopefully more aware that important content such as this is not only available, but free with a library card.  But I should say that Pinckney is a novelist, playwright and essayist, and that I personally enjoy Pinckney’s writing, and sometimes read his essays in a magazine called The New York Review of Books.  But also, and more importantly, the book has gotten good reviews, and would therefore not be a bad place to start if one wishes to explore the social sciences, race relations, racial discrimination, and African American culture.

Well, that’s our collection spotlight post for today. But just think about how many examples there are out there – many of which have received good book reviews from people who are experts in their respective fields – from all the various branches of the social sciences – politics, economics, law, education, true crime, criminology, military science, anthropology, folklore, etiquette, commerce, customs, statistics, sociology.  I mean, basically, the sky is the limit. And public libraries are avenues, which cost no money at all, for rocketing right up there into the illuminating blue.

 

 

Collection Spotlight: Introduction

In the next few weeks, I’m hoping to write a few blog posts that spotlight different sections of the library’s collection that patrons seem to be less aware of, but that are just as worth checking out as the bestsellers (no offense to the bestsellers!).  Libraries have so much, but sometimes we need someone just to point to these things, to say “hey, look at this!,” so we can become aware of things we haven’t noticed yet, or weren’t even aware existed.  William Jamesone of the greatest, most original, perceptive and creative psychologists who ever walked the earth, pointed out a long time ago that all human beings have blindspots.  This series will be an attempt to point things out we might have missed because of our natural human blindspots. In order to jumpstart this series, here is an introductory post. 

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Maybe it’s a cliche, but I’ve always taken seriously the idea that the best way to know if a book is any good is whether or not it passes the rereading test.  What’s the rereading test?  Just what it sounds like, really – if you read a book for the second time, does it still hold up?  Has it “grown with you”?  Does it still help you to learn, think, grow?  Or is it, alas, juvenile, dogmatic, immature?  In other words, when we read a great work of literature as an adolescent, say – Jane Austen, or Dickens, or “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Whitman – and then read it as an adult, we find that we have completely different interpretations of said work.  In that sense, the work has grown with us, changed with us.  The best works of literature are always a step ahead of us.  What we experience from Don Quixote in our thirties will be very different from what we experience in our sixties – I’ve actually heard it said by one reader that Quixote read in old age is a much sadder book.

I wanted to start this blog post with the analogy of how, as we age, we notice entirely new things about books we reread, because if we really think about it, the same can be true about our experience of space itself, of the physical, perceptible world.  How do I mean?  Well, have you ever heard the idea that you can never step into the same river twice?  It’s really a wonderfully incisive insight.  Why?  Because if you think about it, it’s really true – if you walk to a gas station at 9am, say, and visit the same gas station at 9:45am, in a way it will not be the same store.  There will be different people, different conversations.  Less coffee in one dispenser, more coffee in another.  Different music playing.  The light itself in the place will be different, in accordance with the different time.  It might seem like the same store – the cardboard box holding the Three Musketeer candy bars is still there, and it looks like the same amount of Three Musketeers are there as well – but in a way it’s really not. (I’m not a big science guy, but I’m sure we’ve heard of the idea, in a similar way, that our bodies themselves are constantly changing.)

Okay, that was quite a detour!  Why am I talking about this stuff?

In the same way in which our experience of ourselves and the physical world is constantly growing and changing, the same can be said for our experience of libraries, as well as the stuff inside libraries, i.e. books, among other things. In other words, I’m not sure people see libraries as places that are so utterly ripe for discovery, in the same sense in which a walk in nature can be, or reading a great book.  And I wonder if this is because many people don’t realize what libraries have and/or offer.  And, among many important and beautiful and life-giving things, libraries have books: good books, books that are important and can change how one sees the world.  And these books are free.  Which, for me at least, never gets old.

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So the question then arises, what kinds of books can be found at libraries?  Because the library doesn’t just have books in a big random pile!  No, we have books that are organized a certain way.  Here at RRPL, we organize our books according to the Dewey Decimal System.  There are other ways of doing this – many academic libraries use the Library of Congress organizational schema – but I want to focus today on Dewey. Well, what is Dewey? Here is the breakdown of the Dewey organization.  We might not have books on every category here at RRPL, but we are a part of CLEVNET, and CLEVNET has a staggering amount.

Did you look at it?  It’s kind of astonishing, honestly, isn’t it?  I mean, knowledge isn’t everything – I think who someone is matters more than what they know – but it’s still just sort of dumbfounding to look at and contemplate.  And, when we pause and think about it, we might conclude that, yes, we can’t help but have blindspots, considering how much there is to know, think about, wonder, discover, imagine, experience.  So, this series of blog posts aims at pointing out sections, categories, books, that we’re probably not aware of – not crazily obscure or outdated things, just hopefully interesting and alive things that might pique our curiosity and even, eventually or suddenly, broaden our reading, thinking and imagining lives, and make those blindspots slightly less blind, or oppressive, or just annoyingly in the way.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

Andrew’s Favorite Four Books for 2019

Dear Reader,

I don’t know about you, but I love writing these kinds of things. Why? For many reasons – but one is the chance to see how one’s reading tastes change over time.  Because after I scanned the books I mentioned last year, and compiled this list, I concluded that one big difference between the lists was that none of the books from last year were funny, at all – they were, instead, super serious.  That’s, of course, fine – we live in some weird, dark, dystopian times (was life ever not weird, dark and dystopian?), but sometimes seriousness doesn’t cut it, and laughter does. (But see Madame Bovary and, with some slight exceptions, Topeka School, below.)

My favorite books this year seemed to fully understand the insanity of our world, but they also did not exactly let the insanity “get them down,” or prevent them from being fabulous, subversive, uncanny, smart and creative.  Books that acknowledge and articulate the outrageous suffering at the heart of the world, but do not wallow in it; books that are clear-eyed and idiosyncratic, compassionate and dark, smart and funny.  Of course, not all the writers on this list are funny, nor are they all contemporary.  But I think, for me, writers like George Saunders and Chelsey Minnis flip a switch, let’s say, and help us to laugh, which the American comedian Milton Berle once called an “instant vacation,” and I guess I feel like Milton Berle would know?

Thus: here is my top-ten (okay, four, because I write way too much) list for this year.  It is hopefully satisfying like a good soup, or for that matter a Milton Berleian instant vacation – palm trees waving lazy green hellos, beach chairs with the backs at a good angle, hopefully some good pop music playing, cool breeze, glass of lemonade, book.

  1. Tenth of December by George Saunders

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It seems like a mantra people chant: “Saunders is a necessary voice.”  “Have you read George Saunders? He is a necessary voice.”  But, when it comes down to it, that chant (I think) is admittedly true.  Saunders is a necessary voice, and a voice we need to hear – especially now, but also always.  Why?  Because Saunders – unlike politicians, Facebook, Google, the world – is not trying to sell you anything, except the idea that underneath all our political, religious, national, etc. layers is just (why do we forget this?)….a regular old human heart: foolish, hilarious, hopeful, dreaming, sad, longing, quixotic. For me, that’s the main reason.  But Saunders is also a master of the short story form.  For example, he is constantly doing fascinatingly innovative formal things with free indirect discourse, which is a fancy literary term that refers to how an omniscient narrator dips into and out of the consciousness of a character.  Saunders is also just amazing with things like story structure, dialogue, syntax, other things, too.  His characters talk and think like we do – the rhythm of their speech, the sound/feeling – at least that’s my perception of it – and that is easier said than done.   I cannot recommend this book enough (and, in particular, the stories “Victory Lap,” which opens the book, “Home,” near the end, about a soldier returning home with PTSD, and “Tenth of December,” the final story, which is a masterpiece).

2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not sure this is still happening (I’m guessing it is…?) but for awhile people were talking about the word “relatable” in the context of reading – it was a kind of buzzword used by readers who wanted literature to reflect themselves, to be relatable.  And if it wasn’t relatable, for whatever reason, then, well, it just kind of sucked.  Ira Glass, the usually smart and canny host of the NPR radio show “This American Life,” even at one point in 2014 claimed that King Lear “sucked” (?!), because it wasn’t…relatable. But of course, this criteria, at least to my mind, is ridiculous.  It is important to see ourselves reflected in the books we read, for sure.  But sometimes we should also stretch ourselves, leave what we are comfortable with, and relate to aspects of a book that are not immediately familiar, that question our assumptions, familiar concepts and understandings. Why am I saying this?  Well, I kind of suspect that many of the characters in Madame Bovary – a book which I fell in love with this year, when we read it for our Classics Book Club – would also latch onto the concept of relatability, and use it as a cudgel to exclude anything that hovered slightly beyond their worldviews. Madame Bovary itself is relatable, I guess, but it is also very subversive and therefore relevant – timely and timeless (Lear is, too).  Bovary exposes the hypocrisy of our conventional society – the tired mores and sayings we use to squelch what we actually think and feel; the oftentimes preposterousness of our attachments, blindspots, blueprints, groupthinks, denials. Madame Bovary is not really a funny book, like Tenth of December, but in other ways it does participate in much of what Tenth does well, though with more acerbity – showing us aspects of society that do not promote our actual freedom and creativity, in order to show us aspects that do. Emma Bovary, for example – I found her absolutely insufferable, a hard-to-empathize-with Quixote, ungrounded and without a modicum of common sense. But isn’t that the whole point? We care about these characters, even though they are ridiculous, because they are so representationally convincing. Flaubert for the win.

3. The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

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It’s a commonplace in psychoanalysis to say something like, “if you don’t become conscious of your parents – strengths and weaknesses – then you are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” In Ben Lerner’s Topeka School,  which is – I don’t even know what to call it without sounding redundant – an “autobiographical novel”(?), this adage is taken to a fascinating and far extreme.  How so? Lerner’s book, I would argue, is about ventriloquism, in a way – in the sense of both channeling and creating voices – but ventriloquism in the service of art, and therefore in the service of individuation.  Because what Lerner does is not only fictionalize his life, which is what we all do, whether on the written page or in the more private theater of our minds, but he actually speaks the voices of his (fictional) parents.  Meaning, there are sections of the book written in the first-person (“I), and the “I” that is speaking in those sections are either Lerner’s fictional Mom (Harriet Lerner in real life, a best-selling clinical psychologist) or fictional Dad (also a psychologist – both parents worked for the Menninger Foundation, a famous clinic, sanatorium, and school of psychiatry that was located in Topeka, Kansas).  This is, to my mind, is really really interesting to think about.  What does it mean to not only write in the voice of one’s Mom, but to actually do it well, to pull it off?  To me, it seems like the writer would need to have an almost preternaturally exquisite or fine-tuned ear, a very deep and subtle sense of the cognitive music of another human being’s way of talking, feeling and thinking.  And Lerner, if this needs to be said at this point, does.  When he writes in, through, within the voices of his parents, it is both a deep homage and, to be honest, a rather sly and interesting form of separation or individuation, by which I mean he is inhabiting their voices, exploring their reverberations and contours, but, of course, in reality inhabiting and creating his own, of which the novel is the fruit, the “earned achievement.” (The section written about Adam Gordon, Lerner’s fictional alter-ego, are written in the third person, which is also interesting for lots of reasons.*)

The Topeka School is the third novel in a trilogy of novels – Leaving the Atocha Station was published in 2011, and 10:04 in 2014 – all of which are challenging in interesting ways and also wonderful.  All three revolve around Adam Gordon at different periods and crises in his life (though the first two are written in the first person).  But Lerner is also a really talented poet – he published three books of poetry before turning to novel-writing – and I think it is the poet in him that is able to pull off this astonishing act of voice-channeling/creation.  The Topeka School is interesting for lots of other reasons as well – there are fascinating and really perceptive passages that explore the relationship between whiteness, adolescence, privilege and violence, and the book is bursting with marvelously interesting and creative experiments in language, meaning and structure.  Last but not least, (and this is a more personal reason for loving the book), Lerner not only writes poetry well, but he writes about poetry well.  There are really great passages in all three of his novels where Adam Gordon thinks about and explores the meaning of lots of great American poets in fun ways – Whitman, Ashbery, Dickinson, Robert Creeley. I really recommend this book.

*When I wrote this review, I hadn’t finished the book – I think I had one section left.  Therefore, word to the wise: do not do this, ever!  Because in the last section of the book, contra my point about Adam writing only in the third-person in Topeka, he does write in the first-person, in the section that ends the novel.  This, too, like pretty much everything else in the novel, is a fascinating move – formally and otherwise.  Why?  Because, through the decision to write in the first-person in the last section, it as though Lerner, through Adam, is moving away from the cool objective third-person and more towards owning, even accepting, his own first-person experience.  Which is a powerful thing.

4. Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis

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Poemland, the fourth book of poems by Chelsey Minnis, was published in 2009, but it feels wonderfully contemporary.  It is also, like Saunders, both smart and funny.  To be honest, I”ve never before in my life encountered poems like Minnis’s, who achieves a very complex tone that manages to be very giddy and very dark.  The book is composed of very short sections – four or five pages a piece, say, separated by a page of mostly black – and, on each page there will be about four to six shortish lines or sentences, separated by white space, and often ending (each line or sentence) with an ellipses or exclamation mark. Weirdly enough, these punctuation marks get at the heart of what Minnis pulls off.  Because through ellipses and exclamation points, she opens up whole new regions of irony, feeling, and innuendo. One of the famous chestnuts of criticism, though always relevant and true, is the idea that a writer should know what to say and, maybe even more importantly, what to leave unsaid.  Minnis seems fascinated by the unsaid, by white space and the lack thereof, by the proverbial iceberg of feeling that is tickled and activated by really just about anything – ellipses, say, which are literally just three dots in succession, (…).  In two earlier books, Zirconia (2001) and Bad, Bad (2007), Minnis pushes the possibilities of the elliptical to an extreme, so that an entire poem is made up of a few (interesting, funny, provocative, weird) words or phrases, but in-between and connecting (disconnecting?) these words are just a series of periods, basically a kind of prolonged ellipses.  Sometimes a whole page will be ellipses, with a few words.

How do we read these kinds of poems?  To my mind, these earlier poems, with the strings of periods, suggest a kind of suggestive, even at times sexual, static – it’s like an ironic, pregnant pause, that reminds me of the work of a comedian like Sarah Silverman, her persona on stage, how she creates a kind of aura about her that revels in filler words like “um….” or “uh…..”  In that sense, Minnis’ ellipses in the earlier books actually signify a form of (ironic) thinking, even waiting, while also playing hilariously with the idea of the “dumb girl,” twirling her hair, say.  In interesting ways her poems also play with Whitman, because Whitman in “Song of Myself” also uses ellipses in very suggestive and interesting ways.  (Minnis’ earlier poems also remind me, though I think they are more perverse, of the poetic form of erasures (where a poet will literally erase certain words, often in found texts, but leave other words in), and the work of Tom Phillips in A Humument.  In all three kinds of texts, there can be a really interesting tension between verbal and non-verbal forms.

But all this talk about formal stuff is possibly leaving out the pleasures of reading Minnis. And Minnis is fun because she is genuinely funny.  Yet her funniness (said the librarian seriously) is not without its cunning.  It’s been pointed out millions of times, but comedy works because there is often a kind of violence beneath the surface – a pushing of boundaries and taboos, let’s say – and this violence provokes us into laughter because, in a way, it makes us uncomfortable, makes us feel the incongruity, the vast gaping spaces, between what we think and what we say.  Think of the slapstick in The Three Stooges, or how we laugh at Malvolio as he suffers in Twelfth Night. I am reading Don Quixote right now for a book discussion, and there are scenes of very intense violence inflicted on Quixote and Sancho Panza.  But often these scenes are, in an admittedly disturbing and enjoyable way, incredibly funny – I’m thinking of one where Sancho Panza is wrapped in a blanket and thrown around like a football.  These scenes are both hilarious and heartbreaking – hilariously heartbreaking, heartbreakingly hilarious? Minnis, in the poems I’ve read of hers from Zirconia and Poemland, is profoundly aware of the rich, ambivalent hues of our feeling worlds, our idiosyncratic, to use her phrase, “poemlands.”  Her comedy, like all good comedy, is cathartic – she knows that when we are genuinely laughing, there is always something else going on, which I think is probably that our own need for pushing boundaries is being assuaged, mollified, satisfied, and maybe most importantly, encouraged.  Because Minnis is fully cognizant of this dynamic, she exploits it to really great effect.  Her poems are both excruciating and delightful.  Much, much recommended, especially for poetry lovers.

Thanks for reading!  And Happy New Years!

 

 

 

 

Why Do People Ban Books?

Image result for librarian super heroes

 

Let me begin this blog post with the probably obvious announcement – especially considering our Nancy Pearl action figure above – that librarians are super heroes.  Perhaps you already know this.  Maybe as a kid you interacted with one of these strange heroic creatures, and came away thinking, “man, that librarian was AMAZING!”  Maybe this was because this librarian recommended a book that changed your life, or allowed you to think about things in a new way, or helped you with your computer skills, or introduced you to a new technology, film or database, or just generally gave you the encouragement, implicitly or explicitly, to read voraciously all your life and cultivate your inner world, as a deep, satisfying consolation for living in this crazy world.

Yes: librarians are super heroes.  But, inquisitive minds will ask, what are other ways that librarians are super heroes, beside the more obvious reasons listed above?

Well, dear blog habitue, that is the reason for this post.  Because, although you might not know this, there is an actual week that librarians, along with other bookish super heroes (booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all stripes) celebrate, exclusively to celebrate the joy of reading and the freedom to seek and express ideas – even and especially if those ideas are unpopular or unorthodox (more on that in a bit).  And that week is called….(drumroll please)……

Banned Books Week!

(pause to enjoy happy multicolored exclamations)

Okay, so what is Banned Books Week more specifically?  Banned Books Week is essentially a whole bunch of events that happens each year, in libraries, bookstores and schools all across the country and abroad, during the week of September 22-29.  These events are promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International, and can involve anything from displays to dramatic readings to film screenings to tables at farmer’s markets to festivals celebrating intellectual freedom – you name it.  But all these events are united by the desire to highlight the value of free and open access to information.

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A plausible response to this description might be: Why do people ban books?  And then, maybe with more bafflement, Who would ban a book?  Books are the best!  But, if we look at history as well as our current times, people definitely ban books.  Just look into the state of affairs in countries like China, Cuba, North Korea, Saudi Arabia (and a lot of other places, too, unfortunately), and you’ll see as much.  And that’s just in reference to current times.  Historically, books have been banned since we started reading the technology we call the book.  One of the first books ever printed was a Latin translation of the Bible, and we know how contentious various readings of that book have been ever since.

Even before the Printing Revolution, there are other, equally classic instances of people trying to suppress information. (I’m thinking now of more Western examples, though it applies to Eastern examples as well.)  Think about Plato banishing the poets from his ideal Republic (what a nut!), or the ongoing, vexed relationship in Judaism and Christianity between what is considered orthodox, (and therefore worthy to be read and more popular, normative or mainstream), and what is considered heterodox or heretical, (and therefore – so the argument goes – less worthy to be read, and consequently less popular, normative and mainstream).  The list goes on and on.

We might even ask, thinking about all this: what’s the benefit of celebrating the heretical, the unpopular, the unorthodox, as Banned Books Week does?  My own personal answer is a quote, “I think now that myth is simply gossip grown old, whereas heresy is the breath of profound poetic voices” (from Harold Bloom’s Possessed by Memory).  Think about it – Galileo was considered heretical; so were the Gnostics before him, and so were the Civil Rights and LGBT movements after him.  People thought William Blake was a madman; Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was deemed immoral, as was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  These things made people profoundly uncomfortable – they contradicted their deeply held beliefs, assumptions, expectations, conventions and mores.  But belief, assumptions, etc. are historical, meaning they change and are therefore fallible.  What is common sense today is not common sense tomorrow – there are not many believers nowadays in the geocentric system of astronomy, to use a much-used example.  In that sense, our common assumptions about reality are in some ways analogous to deep, worldwide trends, cosmic fads – in one day, out the next.

Because things do change so incrementally and radically, we need to have the best information at our fingertips – the best from the present, and the best from the past – so that we can make intelligent and informed decisions about “How to Live, What to Do.”  Banned Books Week celebrates how lucky we are, that we live in a culture that pretty much lets us read what we want to read, and therefore think what we want to think, as long as we do not harm other people in the process.  In celebrating these ideas, which are part of our First Amendment, we can deepen our appreciation for intellectual freedom and what it brings us.

So yes, librarians, teachers, booksellers, journalists are super heroes.  But so is any reader anywhere in the world who opens a book and, without too many preconceptions, dives in and encounters a new way of seeing/thinking/feeling/imagining.  When we celebrate banned books, we are really celebrating the ability to question the status quo, what is considered “popular,” and experience something different, outside our ken, so that we ourselves can become “more truly and more strange.”

Fairfield Porter, Iced Coffee (1966)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Online Courses at RRPL: Or, Aristotle Returns with a Vengeance

I wanted to take some time this evening and talk about one of our educational databases at RRPL, called Universal Class.  I have the sneaking suspicion that many people do not know what I mean by educational databases, or for that matter that RRPL offers these educational databases for free, and that through them one can take literally thousands of online classes that cost no money, many of which are of high quality.  In future posts, I hope to talk about Lynda, (now call Linkedin Learning), which has quite an extensive series of courses revolving around technology, and Mango, for learning foreign languages, but today I want to talk about Universal Class.

So, what is Universal Class?  Why would anyone want to use it?  How does one access it?

Let’s start with the last question – how does one access it?  It’s easy – go to our website, which is http://www.rrpl.org.  You will see a menu on the left, which I have circled in blue below; and, near the middle of the menu, there is a link called “Research Resources.”  Go ahead and click on that link.

website with research resources underlined

This will take you to the screen below, with two ways of reaching Universal Class – through the “U” in the menu for searching alphabetically, or in the “Featured Databases” section, which the big arrow is pointing to:

Universal on webpage

From here you will be taken to the Universal Class website, where you can create an account with your RPPL library card number.  (If for some reason this doesn’t work, feel free to give us a call – 440 330 7610, and dial 3 for adult reference.)

Okay, so we covered how to reach Universal Class.  Now let’s answer the first question: what is Universal Class?

Universal Class is essentially a collection of online classes.  Online classes (sorry if this is obvious) are courses you can take on the internet, where you can learn at your own pace, based on your schedule.  Online education is, to put it mildly, an intensely booming industry, and is by now a completely permanent feature of our educational landscape.  One cool example of online education are “MOOCS,” which stand for “Massive Online Classes.”  These particular online classes allow for unlimited participation and are free with an internet connection.

Universal Class costs money, BUT with an RRPL card you can access it for free, and then take upwards of 500 classes on topics ranging from Accounting to Personal Development to Poetry to Business to Buddhism to office skills to social work to pet and animal care to health and wellness.  Here are the courses on Universal Class, from Accounting to Psychology:Course Catalog, A-P.PNG

And here are the courses from Real Estate to Writing Skills:Course Catalog, R-Z

So hopefully through this post I have whetted your appetite for online courses and, more specifically, Universal Class.  But we have to answer the last question – why would anyone want to use it?  I guess there are obvious, sort of circular and banal answers – well, you can learn something, you can “enrich your life,” you can professionally develop, you can personally develop.  But what do these phrases even mean? Why would we actually want to learn something new?

I’ve been thinking about learning lately, because it occurred to me recently that much of the writing I do for myself and for work – writing emails, writing blog posts, writing on social media, writing essays, writing poems, etc. – are all instantiations, in many ways, of practices I learned to value when I was still in high school and then college, when I was learning about the importance of “writing for different audiences.”  Writing for different audiences is as at least as old as Aristotle, when he wrote about the rhetorical triangle, my old buddy, as seen below:

Image result for aristotle rhetorical triangle

When we write, as was emphasized in school, we always need to think about ethos (how we establish our credibility), logos (the actual language we use), and pathos (how we move our audience).  Maybe this sounds cold-blooded – do people actually think about these things?  Why can’t they just, I don’t know, tap into their emotions, their unconscious, and pour forth brilliance?  But the reality is that good writers always think about these things, and good readers do, too, whether we’re talking reading/writing fiction, poetry, non-fiction, emails, flyers, social media posts, whatever.  If I write for an academic audience, my actual language is different than if I were writing a blog post.  If I write a blog post on Medium, say, my language is probably a bit different than if I were writing a blog post on “Read It and Weep.” Poems use language in different ways than prose.  In many ways, we are essentially talking about “code switching,” a term you find in the contexts of race and linguistics, but in this case just meaning that, based on who we are talking or writing to, we actually change how speak and write to meet the needs of our audience.  Sometimes, it should be said, we might not think in some ways of an audience at all – here is a great more academic essay on just that:

https://weareteachers.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/closingmyeyesasispeak.pdf

But we often do think of an audience, and this changes how we communicate.

How is this related to using Universal Class?  Here’s how: when I started learning about the importance of writing for different audiences, using the rhetorical triangle as a kind of guide, I don’t know how serious I took this rhetoric business.  I suppose it made sense in a cursory way, and I”m sure I nodded and agreed with what was said.  But I have come to realize that learning about these things – essentially allowing those ideas to gradually germinate and percolate – has actually profoundly influenced my life, in many different contexts and many different ways.  I use what I have learned about rhetoric pretty much every single day of my life, at work and not at work.  In some ways, it is a disciplinary lens or framework through which I see the world, or at least many parts of the world.  In other words, learning something new changed my life, and made it more interesting and meaningful, though at the time, when I was learning it, I didn’t think it would do so, and would probably have laughed if you had told me so, as a visitor from the future.

There’s a famous Russian literary critic named Mikahil Bakhtin, who is sometimes hard to understand, but he wrote quite beautifully and convincingly about how even our most mundane, everyday actions, encounters, experiences, are in many ways quite radically creative.  I think he is right.  But, if he is right, then we don’t really know what effect learning something new can have on our life, because even the most mundane new skill is powerful and creative.  Maybe we say, “screw it, I’m going to take this class on business, or ethics, or poetry, on Universal.”  And we do it, and we learn something, and then later we apply this to ourselves, others, the world.  Who can then really say what effect this has actually had on our or others’ lives? On our own characters?  In other words, if we use what we have learned to master something, or hone something, or improve something, I’m not sure we can really calibrate or calculate its benefit, its ripple effect, inside and outside.  And if it does have a ripple effect, then this is proof, evidence, that we can grow or change as human beings.  Why?  Because this effect means that something has changed, in us or in others, no matter how small or how large.  I sometimes think that we can improve our characters and our lives through a very small willingness, even something like learning a new word, a new skill, a new concept, a new idea.  I don’t know if it’s the word or skill or concept or idea itself that changes us, so much as just that willingness, that orientation, that stance, undergirding our action.  But this small willingness, at least in my experience, has effects that I think are really beyond our ability to comprehend. Taking an online course is by no means the only way to learn something new.  But they are free, they can be quite fun and interesting, and you really never know where the things you learn will take you.

 

 

Non-Fiction Roundup – August 2019

Hi Everyone!  For our non-fiction roundup for August, we have an interesting crew – a memoir about becoming absolutely obsessed with chess (All the Wrong Moves), and another memoir about what dementia can mean for a father who suffers with it and a daughter who serves as a caregiver for her father (The Last Ocean).  There is a third memoir by Rick Moody, a really interesting novelist, short story writer, memoirist, and musician, who is probably most famous for his breakthrough novel from 1994, The Ice Storm, which was critically acclaimed and came out as a movie, with the same title, in 1997, directed by Ang Lee.

In addition, we have a work by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic sister, who has been an influential and vocal advocate for abolishing the death penalty.  She wrote a best-selling book in the 90s called Dead Man Walking, which was later made into a movie with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.  Rounding up our roundup is a memoir by Nicci Gerard, who is British and Zimbabwean, and who writes about her father, Tim Fuller, a white Englishman who moved to Africa in the sixties/seventies to fight in the Rhodesian Bush War – a war which led, in the late seventies, to universal suffrage (the right to vote for all citizens, with minor exceptions), and the end of white minority rule in what was then called Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.  Lastly, we have Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg, a book which takes a deep dive into the way our everyday habits – from using smartphones to purchasing clothing, drinking alcohol to using sweeteners in our coffee – habits which we do not give a second thought – do actual, troubling harm to our environment and ecosystem. Patrons who came to our Plastic Purge event in March should be particularly interested in this work.

Happy Reading!

Cover image for All the wrong moves :Cover image for Cover image for

All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything  – by Sasha Chapin. Doubleday (Penguin Random House). 224 Pages.
An award-winning journalist explores the consequences of obsessive addiction through his experiences as an amateur chess enthusiast, revealing how the game consumed his life, compelling two years of international travels in search of grandmaster challenges.

The Last Ocean: A Journey Through Memory and Forgetting – by Nicci Gerrard. Penguin Pr (Penguin Random House). 272 Pages.
The award-winning journalist and coauthor of the Nicci French best-sellers presents a lyrical, humane investigation into dementia that explores the journeys of both patients and their loved ones, exposing misguided protocols that contribute to unnecessary end-of-life pain.

The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Struggle and Hope in Matrimony 
Ricky Moody. Henry Holt. 320 Pages.
The award-winning author of The Ice Storm shares a month-by-month account of a harrowing year of his life, marked by his second marriage, depression, addiction, miscarriages, robberies and the deaths of friends.

 

Cover image for Cover image for Cover image for

River of Fire: My Spiritual Journeyby Helen Prejean. Random House (Penguin Random House). 320 Pages.
An activist nun known for campaigning to end the death penalty describes her spiritual journey from a person who prayed for God to solve the problems of the world to someone who works to transform social injustices herself.

Travel Light, Move Fast – by Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Pr (Penguin Random House). 240 Pages.
The best-selling author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight explores how her late father’s service during the Rhodesian War, work as a banana farmer in Zambia and preference of unpredictability over security inspired her life.

Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have – Tatiana Schlossberg.  Grand Central Pub. 288 Pages.
The New York Times science writer explains the impact of climate change and environmental pollution on everyday life, examining largely unrecognized consequences in the specific areas of technology, food, fashion and fuel.

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

Image result for reading

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.

*

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:

Image result for why do they hate us? dlocum

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