Why Do People Ban Books?

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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.


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)











August Playlist

We’ve hit that back to school season and the suffocating heat has worn off. That isn’t going to stop us from embracing the perfect weather for afternoon picnics, or combing the shores of Lake Erie for beach glass. Here are the tunes that are helping us make the most of this prime forecast.

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:

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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:


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.



What we’re reading now…..

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

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Whitehead’s harrowing story about a reform school in Florida during the Jim Crow-era is fictional, though based on real life accounts.  The story does not dramatize the violence and horrors of the reality, rather lets the circumstances speak for themselves.  It is a powerful story regarding the very real racial inequality of our country in the not so distant past.  Beth

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

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This is the second short story collection I have read by author Karen Russell. Just like her other anthology Vampires in the Lemon Grove : Stories, Orange World offers the reader a variety of stories where everything seems similar and yet uncanny. In a USA Today interview Russell has said that her work isn’t so much magical realism as it is “magical thinking” writing. Highly recommend for fans of Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Victor Lavelle. Greg

Russell’s third collection gives readers eight amazing stories that span a variety of subjects and experiences, all beautifully written, insightful, and often wonderfully weird. Each work is wildly creative, whether you are transported to a future Florida ravaged by rising ocean water and climate change, joining two young women as they attempt to survive an evening trapped in a haunted ski-lodge, or following a widowed farmer as he recklessly returns to a life of raising tornadoes on the Nebraska prairie. Russell skillfully weaves tales that combine both the supernatural and mundane, crafting subtly creepy and emotionally resonant stories. A highly recommended volume for fans of her prior collections, as well as those who enjoy darkly humorous literary fiction. Nicole

The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

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I recently read the stage play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by writing partners Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It was first published in 1970 during the Vietnam War era, a time when many young people were protesting the American involvement in that conflict. In the play Henry David Thoreau, as a young man, engages in Civil Disobedience by not paying his taxes to show his disapproval of the Mexican-American War. The parallel is clear. The play also shows Thoreau’s relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson and allows the character to express several themes that he would write about in his middle age before he died at the age of 44. The script is often dream-like with multiple flashbacks from the jail cell used to highlight moments from Thoreau’s development as a thinker who would not just “go along” with the status quo. Byron

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

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This is the story of Edith and her sister Helen who have been estranged for decades when Helen convinces their father to leave the family farm to her. Helen uses the money to rebuild the Blotz beer brand with her husband Orval Blotz. When granddaughter Diana’s parents are killed, Edith raises her. Together they barely scrape by. Diana has a talent for making beer and eventually buys a small brewery. With Diana’s talent, perseverance, and the help of her grandmother and Edith’s elderly friends, the brewery is successful. This is a hopeful and heartwarming story of take-charge women when the going gets tough. Emma


The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

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In the Spring of 1981, the four young Skinner siblings lose their father to a heart attack and soon to follow will lose their mother to severe depression, a time period that the siblings will refer to as The Pause.  Caught between the easy & comfortable life they once had and an uncertain future, the children navigate The Pause with fear and resentment, only to become fiercely loyal to each other.  Two decades later The Skinners find themselves again confronted with a family crisis that will test the strength of these bonds and force them to question the life choices they’ve made and what exactly they will do for love.  This book was much like Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.  If you like family drama, like I do, I recommend this book. Mary

The Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson 

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is convinced that her best friend’s death is not part of a suicide pact that has already claimed the lives of the school’s two most popular mean girls. When she finds a mysterious grimoire with a too good to be true solution to her problem, she sets out to resurrect Riley. Of course things don’t go as expected–instead of bringing back Riley to get answers to her murder, she resurrects her bestie AND their bullies, the newly dead mean girls June and Dayton. To make matters worse, none of them have any memory of their deaths. Mila has one week to figure it all out while keeping her zombies out of sight. Surprisingly deep and insightful, this body-positive witch tale is a fun exploration of bullying, friendships, and redemption. Megan

Follow Her Home by Steph Cha

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Juniper Song has no experience as a detective.  The closest qualification she has when asked by her best friend to investigate whether his father is having an affair is that she is a Raymond Chandler super fan.  However, this lack of practical training does not deter Juniper from taking the role of Phillip Marlowe and agreeing to do some light snooping.  Following the tradition Marlowe long ago set, Juniper is quickly knocked out soon after she begins looking into the matter.  Only, when Juniper wakes up, the stakes have risen when she also finds a dead body in the trunk of her car.  Great noir that, while paying homage to Chandler, looks to update and add to the genre. Trent

Watching You by Lisa Jewel

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I read this quick moving thriller in a few sessions. Told from the points of view of a few “watchers”: a young, restless newlywed living with her brother and his wife has her eye on the handsome older neighbor who is the new school principal; the awkward teenage principal’s son has his eye on most of the neighborhood; the crazy lady next door is sure EVERYONE is watching her, and her daughter has heard terrible rumors about her new principal and is befriending his son to find out if they are true. This voyeuristic neighborhood is thrown into turmoil when someone is brutally murdered. Everyone saw something, but can anyone put it all together? Sara

The Religion of Tomorrow: A Vision for the Future of the Great Traditions by Ken Wilber

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Wilber is a philosopher and transpersonal psychologist, and this is one of a few tomes he has written, all wonderful, about helpful ways of thinking about more out-there topics like mysticism, consciousness, and spirituality.  Wilber is also a Buddhist, but his critiques of religion are applicable to Western and Eastern approaches.  I have been reading him for some time now, and have always found him very insightful.  For anyone interested, a great place to start to understand his framework, which is called “AQAL” – standing for “all quadrant, all level” – is his Integral Psychology from 1994.  Andrew

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!

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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.


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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

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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.


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











Two Highlights from the 300s, With an Ode to Analog Browsing Inserted Sneakily

Image result for browsing libraryBrowser in action

It is always a pleasure to post on this blog about topics I care a lot about: poetry, or fiction, or music, or even in some cases spirituality.  One thing I haven’t really written about, that in some senses undergirds all my former posts, is my role as an adult services librarian here at RRPL.  For today’s post, I want to talk about an aspect of my happy-making job as an adult services librarian, and use that aspect to share some information about some fascinating books that have come out recently.

Okay, what is this aspect I am talking about?  Well, basically this: one of the greatest parts of being a librarian is that we get to order books for the library.  This means reading through the various trade journals, like Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, and purchasing books – what we think is interesting, or relevant, or important, or will have an audience, or might not have an audience off the bat but deserves and warrants one.

After we order these books, and they come in and are cataloged and outfitted by our Technical Services team, we place said books in the “New” sections in the Grand Reading Room – New Fiction, New Non-Fiction, New Biography, etc.  And there they wait, for three months, to be seen, picked up, scanned, looked at, considered, and perhaps, best of all, borrowed – or, even better – devoured, read, imbibed, thought about, etc.  This is part of the life of a new book.  But, when three months have passed, a new chapter (pun intended) dawns on the new book, and we then change the status of the book, and place it away from the “New” section, in the regular Fiction, Non-Fiction, Biography, and so on.

Changing the status of the book is absolutely necessary, if we are going to have space for the newer books (there are always newer books).  But sometimes – and this is why I am writing this post – something is “lost in the translation.”  How do I mean?  New books are in some ways more visible than the books in the larger fiction and non-fiction sections.  People like to browse the new book sections; there is something about a new book that people feel is relevant, timely, even in some ways perhaps on the “cutting edge.”  People also like to browse the regular fiction and non-fiction sections, but I wonder if browsing happens less there, and that when people do go into these sections, they have a more specific idea about what they are looking for.  (Ode to Browsing: “Browsing,” which comes from the Old French word for “nibbling off buds,” can be an incredibly fun, edifying and pleasurable thing in life, though I’m not sure people write about it very much, let alone do it a lot, at least in the analog world – I could be wrong.  When I was a student at the University of Michigan years ago, they had this enormous library called the Hatcher Graduate Library, with at least seven or eight levels.  As an undergraduate, I used to love visiting the literary criticism section on American poetry, and just browse the titles, see what popped out at me, sparked my interest, and then pull whatever seemed interesting, to see if the book would help me somehow, in my thinking, research, or whatever else.  I wonder sometimes if the newer trend of electronic mobile shelving – where one presses a button and the whole shelf moves – while definitely conserving space, (and being sort of spooky and neat), also makes generative browsing less possible, because there is a sense that one has less time to luxuriate in browsing mode, before another hungry reader comes along and needs to collapse the space to find his or her own book(s).)

Adult services librarians at public libraries are often assigned, or ask for, certain Dewey sections to order for – ideally that they have an interest in, as they will be reading quite a bit in the trade journals about the new books coming out in those sections. (I was really blessed here at RRPL to be able to order the 800s, which is the literature (though not fiction) section, so: poetry, criticism, essays, plays.)  Another of my sections is the “300s,” the social sciences.  If you want to get crazy, as well as get a sense for a librarian’s helpful mania for categories and subjects, you can look at a thorough breakdown of the 300s here, (from the Online Computer Library Center).  But the 300s are basically sociology, anthropology, political science, economics, law, military science, true crime, education, transportation, and folklore.  And recently, (coming to the point), when I was changing the status of the new 300s, I realized that I was looking and holding some really interesting books.  I was sad that these books might not be read, as they were no longer “new.”  What were these books?

Here are two of them, with links to and excerpts from book reviews.  Just because these books are three-months old does not mean they are not new!  And, by extension, a new book does not necessarily mean a good book, just as an old book does not necessarily mean a bad book.  Maybe this doesn’t need to be said.  Still, in our current age, where everything goes by so fast (saith the grumpy librarian), sometimes it’s good to be reminded that older things – books, ideas, and so on – do not necessarily mean dated things, (though sometimes it does).  One of the reasons why I love CLEVNET is that we have access to both old and new books – we really have a very great depth and width to choose from.  And really, when you think about it, this dichotomy between “new” and “old” books is pretty absurd – perhaps we should rather differentiate, in the spirit of William James (19th century psychologist, philosopher, and “adorable genius”), between living books and dead books. James wrote about “living hypotheses” and “dead hypotheses” in a famous lecture he gave called “The Will to Believe.”  (“New” and “old” also take on different colorings based on the section one is ordering for; the sciences have a greater need to be up-to-date; literature, in some ways at least, not so much.)

Without further ado, here are two books that this grumpy librarian believes deserves a wider audience (click on the cover to reach the catalog entry):

  1. Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason by William Davies, (English writer and theorist on politics and sociology):

Image result for nervous states: william davies

Short review of Nervous State in the New York Times:

“In this interdisciplinary masterpiece (available next month), Davies, a political economist, seeks to solve a major mystery in electoral history: How did a sleazy Croesus sway enough blue-collar workers to be chosen president of the world’s greatest democracy? This political dyslexia was at first simply attributed to racial animus and/or economic anxiety. But the recent rise of elected authoritarians around the world has inspired several authors to dig deeper into what motivates such voters and whether democracy itself is “dying.”

One pioneering effort into illogical thinking was Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind.” Now comes “Nervous States” to seamlessly blend psychology, biology, economics, philosophy, advertising and religion — from Hobbes to Freud — to illuminate how centuries of unreason have spawned our current president.

Davies thinks that right-wing populism is (mis)leading millions to substitute emotions for evidence because of impulses “deep in our psyches and bodies beyond matters of fact: physical pain, fear of the future, a sense of our own mortality.” Demagogues, blaming various villains (Jewish bankers, immigrants), can then convert distress and disempowerment into hatred and a “rejection of progress.” This emphasis of fear over facts creates crowds for whom “it really doesn’t matter … what is said, but merely how it makes them feel.”

“Davies urges rational leaders to better deploy “imagery, sound and speech” to elevate reason over emotion, democracy over reaction. Imagine the epic irony if President Trump paves the way for a Democratic president who then becomes a 21st-century version of Franklin Roosevelt cleaning up after Herbert Hoover’s elephantine mess.”

Longer Review of Nervous States in the New York Times

The Guardian (British daily newspaper) Review of Nervous States

2. Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions, by Briallen Hopper, (Assistant Professor of Creative Non-Fiction at Queens College, CUNY):

Image result for hard to love hopper

Excerpts from review at NPR:

“That lavish kindness comes, largely, through friends. In this sense, Hopper is contributing to a growing body of recent writing (Text Me When You Get Home, The Friendship Cure) and pop culture storylines (Broad City, Insecure) that underscore the depth and significance of female friendships. But Hopper’s book feels distinct from and, in some ways, more daring than these. Depictions of best friendships between women are radical in their suggestion that a fulfilling partnership doesn’t need to be a heterosexual romantic relationship. Yet they operate within similar constraints; a romantic partner gets substituted with a friend. Hopper shows there’s a far wider array of possible platonic relationships than usually appear in print or on screen. Her friendships take on a variety of configurations (different sizes, many are long distance), involve serious commitments (caring for a chronically ill friend), and, at times, complications, like when Hopper gets taken in by a friend and resentment brews.”

“By giving dignity to female friendships, to the feeling of finding a home in a fictional neighborhood bar or solace in an item, Hopper rejects what she calls the “two American creeds”: marriage and self-reliance. Marriage, as far as she can tell, is the sole socially permissible form of dependence in the United States. A single woman in her late-30s, Hopper isn’t interested in that kind of dependence, but nor does she desire stoic self-reliance. She’s repelled by the brand of singleness that celebrates a life shorn of commitments to others or solitude valorized by American writers ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joan Didion.”

Full NPR Review of Hard to Love

Review in the Observer (British Newspaper that comes out Sundays) of Hard to Love