An MLIS student I know recently asked me to provide a “brief but insightful” response to the following question:
“Emerging technologies and changing library services will require an almost continuous state of change in libraries and information centers. What are the implications for leadership in those organizations in terms of organizational structures, staffing, and managerial behavior?”
My first thought1 was “That’s a stupid question. Libraries have always dealt with change and good management/organization should be technologically agnostic.” My second thought was “She probably won’t appreciate that response as much as I do.” So, I got to thinking and decided to answer at slightly greater length and re-frame the question. I include my response, in full, below and invite comment, criticism or ridicule. The Library Oracle keeps regular business hours and inquiries to his person may be delivered by carrier pigeon, written longhand on a papyrus scroll or posted in the comments.
This is less a forecast for the future and more a statement of the current situation. Emerging technologies have always driven change and shaped library services. I think what this question is getting at is the acceleration of technology that requires more frequent change in response to what is possible for and expected of libraries.
The biggest challenge facing leadership based on the rapid acceleration of change is in determining what libraries as institutions will look like in the future. We need to set our institutional missions based on what technological change makes possible and how this affects what our community expects. If, in the next ten years, ebooks are the dominant form of content distribution, what do we do about buldings and services that are based around physical books? How will publisher control over e-content shape what we can and cannot do? What services do we provide that become obsolete when physical limitations on media go away? What new services can we provide absent these limitations? Is our relationship with the community primarily transactional (checking out items) or relational (a place to gather, share, learn, etc.)? These are all questions that are affected by the rapid change of technology and need answering. These are questions that will determine what people think of when they hear the word “library” ten years from now.
The answers to these questions will affect the what of staffing, organizational structure and managerial behavior but I’m not sure they have much to do with the how. The tools are going to be different but the core principles should look pretty familiar. You need to hire an adequate number of staff members who have the core competencies to fulfill the mission of the library. You need to manage that staff in a way that keeps them motivated and productive. The implications for leadership in this case is that you have to keep pace with the world around you and hire/manage accordingly. I don’t see this as being a fundamental change from previous decades.
Aside from a broader physical distribution of the workforce (telecommuting, distance learning centers, “virtual branches”) the organizational structure will still require leaders with vision, managers with people skills, and workers with technical proficiency. I don’t think technology is going to bring about some sort of mercenary/contractor workforce in libraries that removes the traditional hierarchy of an institution. The challenge for leaders during this decade, as ever, is to maintain the viability of the institution by enhancing the life of the community they serve. If libraries do indeed survive as institutions, the things that make institutions tick will still apply.
Both brief and insightful if you ask me.
We’ve all had the experience – a program crashes, customer service shuts off your internet instead of downgrading your cable, you can’t access your checking account. And, depending on temperment, circumstances, etc. we handle these situations with grace, aplomb, frustration, resignation or rage1. Another response, of course, is humor. As Jerry Seinfeld once famously asked a telemarketer for his home number so he could call during dinner, we can often make our point, or at least offset our frustration with a gag.
I hope Mr. Murray will take my imitation as the sincerest form of flattery as it is now my intention to do this with software crashes from this point forward. I’m sure this type of thing entertains the poor sap in technical support who gets these things, and it surely channels frustration better than banging things around2.
So, really I just wanted to pass on an entertaining link for your Wednesday morning but figured why not editorialize while I’m here. Head on over and enjoy it with your morning coffee, chai tea, or diet soda. Thanks to the folks over at Galley Cat for the catch!
1 one of my many failings
2 again, guilty.
We revisit our Monday obsession with all things kids’ books this week with the enjoyable No T.Rex in the Library by Toni Buzzeo illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa. This apparent no-brainer1 actually took a little getting used to but after a few run-throughs this reader2 found it to be delightful.
We start out on a peaceful Tuesday morning in the library. Young Tess comes in, all smiles and sunshine, with her mother. As there are – in fact – no such things as quiet mornings in libraries, Tess quickly begins contributing to the chaos. Put in time out, she pouts and accidentally3 knocks over a book cart, freeing a rowdy T.Rex from one of the books. And so the romp begins.
The rest of the book is a well-worn investigation of the many worlds that are open to the voracious reader of books. It also tells the parable of the girl who slolwly realizes that the dinosaur is her. What separates this tale from others of its type is the writing and a sly nod to mischief at the conclusion.
On first read, the writing seems all out of whack. The rhythm is awkward. Maddeningly the author gets up a pretty good head of rhyming steam and then brings it screeching to a halt. But, like a well planned racetrack4 the patient reader soon learns the curves and comes to enjoy the subtlety of the course. To wit:
Water spills as the story pit fills with fish and aquarium treasures/Orcas spout high. Swordfish, jellies, and squid reel by the knights doing synchornized swimming
Say wha!? I was just getting on a roll! Why not knights taking “extraordinary measures” or “enjoying the ocean’s pleasures”? What gives!?
Ah, but once you expect it, it makes a certain sense. The lack of rhyme subverts expectations just as the idea of knights in full armor strains our notion of what is good, right and orderly. The rollicking rhyme, brought to a standstill by a seemingly out of place word reinforces oursense that a might tyrant lizard is stampeding recklessly through the library.
As the T-Rex careens to new heights of destruction, Tess pleads with him to spare the books. Finally, she is fed up and puts the T-Rex in time out. Unruly behavior in the library brings the same punishment for prehistoric beasties as for young girls. But Tess realizes that her purgatory – and by extension that of T-Rex – is temporary. As she sits quietly, for now, in time out she whispers to T-Rex “I’ll be back for you.”
The children’s room in the library is not for the faint of heart, and No T.Rex in the Library reminds us that we can put but temporary reins on the madness. Time out or not, Tess will be back. All you unwary patrons have been warned.
1 I mean, really. It’s about dinosaurs. And libraries.
2 and more importantly, his son…
3 or was it?
4 Indy car, of course. All you have to remember in Nascar is just keep turning right
The thundering, indomitable drone of vuvuzelas has dropped below the horizon, two hemispheres removed once more as the television cameras direct their gaze away from South Africa. Gone are the fever-dreams of Germans dancing the Brazilian samba, Dutchmen fortifying their goal with hammer and nails and a lion-maned Diego Forlan roaming the African Savannah in search of his next kill. What remains is the inevitable hollow feeling that comes when the pageantry and drama of international spectacle ends.
And yet we rejoice at having been witness again to why this game belongs to the world – to why it retains it’s allure as The Beautiful Game. The great joys of sport revolve around identity – the building of allegiances, the thrill of seeing perfected that which you enjoy recreationally, the communal bond created in stadiums, arenas or even an empty lot. So what better sport to draw people together than the one played everywhere by nearly everybody?
The World Cup is about telling these narratives about identity both on and off the field. The joy of the tournament is in the early rounds, when every team has a chance to win and we learn the stories of those who have worked so hard to reach the pinnacle of their profession. The great soccer powers enter with prepackaged identities – the joyful play of Brazil, the clockwork efficiency of Germany and the creative vision of the Dutch. But every four years even these giants must either reinforce or remake their stories along with each of the thirty-two teams that enter the arena.
As with all tournaments, the World Cup begins with possibility and ends with heartbreak for all but the victor. This year was no different. Ultimately, the final was unsatisfying. The Dutch tactics where too brutal by half, and the Spanish for all their technical expertise seemed to forget that this was not just a large-scale game of monkey in the middle. We appreciate the expertise but we yearn for the goal. Finally, the Spanish got their goal and with it their first World Cup trophy. All congratulations to the victors, but the true beauty of the game was on display elsewhere.
The true beauty of the game happened in moments both small and large. As Americans, the moment of the tournament was a last-gasp goal by Landon Donovan to save the team’s hopes. For the host nation it was to be found in seeing their home team – already eliminated from the tournament – seal the disgrace of mighty France. For the continent of Africa it must have been the steel nerve of Asamoah Gyan sealing victory for Ghana over the Americans in the quarterfinal. For South America the early joy of seeing all their teams advance gave way to the disappointment that resurgent past champion Uruguay could only in the end muster a fourth place finish. And for Uruguay, oh what joy to watch the player of the tournament, Diego Forlan, lift the team on his shoulders to defy expectations again and again.
For those who love the game, the World Cup is a treat not to be missed that comes around every four years. And every four years those who don’t love the game, even those unfamiliar with it, learn a little more about what it means to embrace its beauty. Even in a year where complaints about referees, the ball, and conservative tactics threatened to drown out all but the loudest of the horn blowing fanatics, we know that nothing quite like this will come around for another four years. In the meantime we revel in what we have just witnessed and we wait. For all of us hope remains and we, as have so many fans for so many years, set our eyes on the future and proclaim “we’ll get ‘em next time!”
So I’m a Googler, you’re a Googler, Conan’s a Googler, we get it… But here in Gibberish land we like to search about a bit too. One of my favorite non-googling sites was Clusty, a meta search engine by Vivisimo, Inc. that clustered results topically under headings – good for general concept searching and allowing quick, easy relevancy-narrowing. Clusty was recently sold and is now Yippy, and Yippy is freakin’ weird. They sort of look like Clusty did, clustering results and whatnot, but they advance a religious patriotism that makes me cringe. To each their own, I s’pose, but it does beg questions about censorship, information rights, and the best ways going about making the internet safe for your family, those sorts of thing – mightn’t you use a less zealous kid-specific search engine, for example? Is this a good option at work? Mainly I’m mourning Clusty here. So what clustering meta engines do you fair LG readers employ for your dastardly web deeds? Surely not Yippy – it lacks all the turpitude and depravity I know you degenerates so desire… Ah well, guess I’ll have to Google around and find a replacement.
For those of you noticing Conan’s conspicuous absence of late, in a fit of football fever he got vuvuzelas stuck on his hands and can’t type. I suggested voice recognition software but it can’t make out the muffled ramblings of a madman amplified through the plastic horn either. Alas, we wait and wish him well.
Hi there. Remember me? I used to blog here. Anyway, thought I’d stop in really quick to enlighten you folks with this fine video. Ghostbusters. And libraries. Do I really need to say any more?
Now that’s what I call dedication.
Zombies are all the rage these days. Don’t believe me? See for yourself. I generally ignore the mania for the undead, but in the realm of gaming I have, alas, succumbed. To wit – Plants vs. Zombies the irrationally addictive game from our good friends at Pop Cap.
Not only do I tend to avoid zombies, I also dislike, nay, loathe tower defense games. But I guess the Devil1, as they say, is in the details. Plants vs. Zombies is immaculately well done and the creativity is evident across the board. Plus, it’s just plain satisfying to watch your well-placed tools of destruction cut down wave after wave of nefarious Zombies.
Full Disclosure time: The link here is to Pop Cap’s free online trial of the game. They are in the business of creating high quality games and selling them. As my wife can attest, I have played copious amounts of the paid game on my iPod touch. Those of you with iPods or iPhones will certainly get your $3 of paid entertainment. I can’t vouch for the paid PC version. The free web version? Um, it’s free. Stop complaining and go waste your time!
1 Or perhaps the Zombie
Let’s see, where were we? Oh yeah, that’s right – I was busily reviewing good kids reads, recommending time wasters for your workday and occasionally remarking on grown-up books I’ve read and the state of libraries and technology.
How time files when you’re having fun. Though idle on the intertubes for the past few weeks I assure you dear reader1 I have been a busy little bee.
So, for the sake of posting something, and at the expense of long-form coherence, here’s what I’ve been up to. Many of these could have been – and still may be – their own posts, but so it goes. In bullet form:
- Presenting to the regional VEMA conference on recommending books to older teenage readers. Powerpoint here and book list here.
- Reading Alex Berenson’s The Faithful Spy and The Silent Man – books 1 & 3 of his John Wells series. Short review – Pass. Slightly less short review – Berenson tries to shoehorn Baldacci’s Oliver Stone character into a John LeCarre novel. Just doesn’t work for me.
- Taken up running again. Specifically, waking up about an hour-and-a-half before G-D himself and whipping my lazy butt back into shape.
- Thinking about the National Broadband Plan supposedly being released today by the FCC. Hoping they will follow up on their ambitious goals with an actionable plan. CNN has an interesting take on the issue, highlighting a woman who makes her living designing websites but doesn’t have access to broadband in her home. Worth the read.
So that’s the news from down on the farm. Hopefully we’ll be back on a semi-regular basis with your weekly recommendations and ramblings. Until then.
1 Surely there’s at least one of you still out there. Yes? Hello?
We’re going to keep it short and sweet this Monday after a working weekend and a night bereft of sleep. So follows an unequivocal recommendation that you read to your young one Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Strickland.
Dinosaur Roar is full of simple rhymes that also teach the concept of opposites.
Dinosaur Roar / Dinosaur Squeak
Dinosaur Fierce / and Dinosaur Meek
Dinosaur Sweet, Dinosaur Grumpy/ Dinosaur Spikey, Dinosaur Lumpy
You get the idea. The rhymes roll off the tongue and the dinosaurs are charming and colorful. This was Zeke’s favorite for quite some time during the first year and he still asks for it from time to time. This will delight the younger crowd and come back around when it’s time to start learning to read1.
1 Plus, seriously, dinosaurs! What kid doesn’t like dinosaurs?
Today’s fun ‘n’ game comes from a recommendation by good friend and fellow blogger at this site Walter. Do we detect some deeper going on when a man enrolled in an online LIS program sends us a game that involves evading guards and escaping a physical library building? Perhaps, dear reader. Perhaps.
Nevertheless, Library Labyrinth is a variation on a well heeled puzzle concept. You move one space while your opponent – the library security guard – moves two. For all his freedom of movement, the guard is constrained by rules1. He moves horizontally first and cannot see over, under, around or through obstacles. And he has no hops; he is unable to hurdle desks, chairs or study carrols to snatch your punk-ass bald for talking above a whisper in his hallowed halls.
But I digress. The point is, you need to work your way through the library putatively in search of your lost sister2. Victory is within your grasp, but tread lightly. Woe betide the poor fool who gets caught in flagrante while treading among the sacred stacks. Good luck and happy weekend.
1 RULES!? In a library!? Unthinkable.
2 The more realistic scenario being that you want to get your hands on that first edition of Dickens they have on display in the archives. But whatever.
OK, so hopefully all of you that stop by here from time to time are functionally literate1. I hazard a guess that most of my regular readers2 are informationally literate, even if you don’t really know or care what that is. Heck, if called to testify before a Congressional hearing I might not even be able to explain it in full. But to hit the high points, most of you know how to evaluate your sources. Most of you probably understand where to start a search for information and follow a trail to satisfactory results. You can read words, yes, but you also know how to find and interpret information.
Blah, blah, blah. What’s the point? My ilk, librarians, have always been in the business of information. And thus, of information literacy. It has long been the purview of librarians to be experts at navigating, finding and conveying information. With the advent of a networked world it has become increasingly more important3 for us to teach people how to do what we do. Teach a man to fish, and all that.
This is the modern paradox. It has never been easier to access information. As a result, finding the right information and putting it to use has become an increasingly complex problem. Note, that I don’t think using information has become prohibitively difficult – just that ways of collecting, using and interpreting data have changed. With so much information on computers and the ability to manipulate, transmit and aggregate it in so many ways there needs to be a way to wrangle all of this good stuff. And that way is computer code – PHP, Java, Ruby, Python and any number of public APIs4.
So far, all of this is great. We have lots of data, we have lots of ways to manipulate it, and there are lots of people who can do this. Anytime you post a story from CNN to Twitter, or share your Facebook feed through your phone or track swine flu on Google Maps you’re using harnessing code to manage or manipulate data. Moreover, you are doing this transparently – you don’t have to understand the code to use it.
But someone does. Code has always been a way libraries have wrangled data. Specifically through the use MARC records5. MARC is transparent – you can use a library catalog without knowing what the 005 field means, or why the author information goes in subfield b. But it is not especially extensible. That is to say, you probably won’t be using Google Maps to find available copies of new best sellers in close proximity to where you happen to be.
The proliferation of data/information has requires a move to more flexible – cross platform – code. And this, think some, is a make or break issue for libraries. We can make websites, we can promote programs but how do we make information about our physical holdings available outside of proprietary closed systems that read MARC data?
How do we make sure we call attention to all of the quality information we house without being passed over in favor of easy information? That is the crux of information literacy – finding good information efficiently. The more efficient the method the less likely quality of information matters.
This brings me to my final point6, the increasing role that code plays in the life of an information professional. There are numerous library projects out there trying to integrate physical holdings with online data. These include things like the Social Opac, the Extensible Catalog and Library Thing for Libraries. More and more it seems that to do my job I not only need information literacy but technological literacy. In order to harness these technologies I need to understand at least a little of what’s going on under the hood.
Flexible code is the ubiquitous, unseen force behind almost all networked interaction these days. The proliferation of code is both an opportunity and a challenge. We have the tools to set data free in more ways than ever. But librarians are faced with a steep learning curve and the potential need for drastic adaptation of their job descriptions. I didn’t set out to become a computer programmer, but how much of what we do depends on that particular skill set? Can we just outsource this to the specialists – or a new type of sub-specialist within the profession? Finally, how do we adapt our code to the new Internet reality? It’s almost as if we have to create and release our own API for developers, hobbyists and professionals to manipulate our data. The questions are how do we do it, and can we do it in time?
1 But what do I know, you could just be here for the pretty pictures.
2 Whom I think I can count on about 1 1/2 hands.
3 Not that it was ever unimportant…
4 Application Programming Interface.
5 MARC: MAchine Readable Code
6 If you’re still even reading, thanks for humoring me.
I think it was Confucius who first said “Love is a Battlefield.”1 Wise words indeed. An no less applicable in the realm of human devotion than to the love of reading. Though you often can judge a book by its cover, you are never quite sure what you were going to get. So it was that I picked up The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton. I was in search of a page turner – a quick read to clear the mental palate after some slightly heavier stuff2 with which I had engaged my synapses.
What I expect out of these page turners is action, minimal dialogue and multiple – often predictable – plot twists. I tend toward crime/spy fiction for my fix and my guilty pleasure is Star Wars novels.3 At worst these books are the equivalent of a junk food binge. It sounds like a good idea at the time, you realize you are overdoing it about halfway through and by the end you’re bloated, cranky and remorseful. At best they are something like The Lock Artist.
The Lock Artist is pure recreation. You’re not going to do too much soul searching after this one. There isn’t too much insight into The Human Condition here. But, I think I mentioned up top that this sort of thing isn’t what I’m looking for here. The plot’s the thing and such niceties as character development, good writing and dramatic tension are all icing on the cake.
Fortunately, Hamilton ices his cakes pretty well. His two main hooks are a protagonist who is left mute from a childhood trauma and asynchronous storytelling4. Michael, or so he calls himself, is our protagonist and we meet him first in prison. His talent5 is an affinity for locks. Specifically, the ability to coax the combination from high-end safes. The kind of safes that criminals might want to relieve of their contents.
You really don’t need to know much more than that. This is the story. A kid, adopted by his uncle, traumatized in his youth, with an ability that makes him a commodity among big time gangsters and con artists. There is psychological tension, romantic intrigue and coming of age. The pace is fast and the characters unrepentant. At this point you’re either interested or your not. And if you are interested, I’m here to tell you it’s worth your time.
1 Or was that Socrates? Whatever.
2 Though nothing on the order of what my good friend Walter has been into recently
3 There. I said it.
4 Pretty simple really. We get the first half (childhood) of the plot told in alternating sequence with the second half (adult years).
5 Though it didn’t get him too far in life – he is in prison after all
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic had been getting quite a bit of buzz, including the coveted Fresh Air interview.1. So I decided to grab it hot off the library shelf when it arrived. Haslett’s first novel, following a critically acclaimed volume of short stories, is largely about the circumstances leading to the current financial crisis.
What I suspect garnered much of the attention for this novel is its setting several years previous to the actual – the historical – meltdown that currently reverberates through our lives lending it, for some, a feeling of prescience. Notable also is the meltdown’s proximity to the events of 9/11 and the subsequent second Iraq war. In essence Haslett has taken the three defining events of the past decade and squished them together for viewing through a literary lens.
Union Atlantic is Haslett’s view of our contemporary world. As such, he offers some critiques. His main character, Doug Fanning, is an ex-military2 man turned ultra-rich banker. In some ways he is the poor boy made good but in others he is a symbol of morally barren America. In the other corner is Charlotte Graves, a failed history teacher from old money who rages against what modern society has become as embodied by Doug Fanning. In between are a cast of characters who will be familiar to most readers in situations that should be as unsurprising as they are competently rendered.
Union Atlantic is engaging but flawed. Though Haslett’s work may well have been prescient when he began, the fact is that much of his tale feels familiar. What may have been a cautionary tale ends up being a simple retelling of what we have just lived through. Union Atlantic, the bank for which the novel takes its name, may have been a compelling character in its own right if we didn’t know so much about Bank of America, or Chase, or AIG or any number of other institutions Too Big To Fail. Instead it is just a grim rehashing of what we already know personified by characters who are no less likable in their personal lives than are their professional actions.
For all its hype, I came to Union Atlantic having read little about it and with few preconceived notions. The one snippet I had seen was the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani’s review calling out the novel for being uneven. For much of the novel I scratched my head at this verdict. Sure, there are matters of taste, but the writing seemed coherent and the narrative had a confident stride. It wasn’t until the end that I finally realized the truth of Kakutani’s criticism.
Haslett has a sure hand with character and his scene depicting Massachusetts high society on the Fourth of July is one of the best I have read in recent memory. But in the end, the story doesn’t cohere. For all the interconnectedness and tightly woven stories that begin the novel, the characters simply dissipate into the mist. For all the bang that Haslett seems to point to, the final notes are more of a fizzle. Sure, this could be an indictment of the modern existential condition, but I don’t think that’s where Haslett had his sights set.
Union Atlantic points to Haslett’s skill as a short story writer. He writes scene and character well but can’t seem to hold it together for the long haul. He has little to offer in terms of insight to a public over-saturated with news coverage about what exactly happened to whom and why in the banking crisis3. Instead we are left with something that very much resembles a petting zoo. Come see the local fauna. Ogle their rich/lavish/empty/principled lives. See them interact in their native habitat. This was enough to keep me reading but not enough for me to insist that you do the same.
1 Although honestly, God save us from Terry Gross already.
2 His military experience providing context for both the terrorist bombings and the brewing conflict in with Iraq.
3 And really, this probably isn’t his fault. But as they say, timing is everything.
Today’s reading recommendation comes with a warning. So be warned – trying to read this book too fast, too soon will only result in heartbreak. But if you take it slow you will eventually win acclaim for your verbal virtuosity and win the unending love of your young one1.
Yes, I’m talking about that old classic from old Mr. Geisel himself – Fox in Socks2. And for all the blustery warnings about taking it slow, we start out OK. Seuss warms us up with the building blocks of his tongue-twisting tome.
See the mischief brewing in fox’s eyes as he ponders what kind of trouble he can cause with these innocuous items. See the placid look on unsuspecting Knox’s face – the calm before the linguistic storm that will contort his tongue, try his patience and, frankly, test credulity3.
Hear the simple rhymes that will bring a grin to your toddler’s face. “Fox in socks/ Knox in box;” “Knox in box ON Fox in Socks.” And it warms up slowly. We add chicks and clocks to the mix. “Let’s do tricks with bricks and blocks sir/ Let’s do tricks with chicks and clocks sir.” And we progress to making quick trick brick stacks; quick trick chick stacks. Try reading that a few times quick. We’re just warming up.
I’ll spare the grisly details, but suffice it to say that it gets pretty tricky. To the point that Knox repeatedly bemoans his fate to that tricky Fox.
Undaunted, Fox continues to up the ante until Knox finally snaps. Rattling off on of the the longest, most complex tongue twisters in the book Knox tells fox where he can shove it and shows that for all his protestation he has been paying a little attention. Like his cousin in Green Eggs and Ham Knox realizes at the end that hey, this was a pretty good idea all along.
Good fun indeed and it is impossible to overstate that you must read this book aloud. So this one’s great for any kid who likes being read to and a good challenge for advanced readers still learning the craft.
Finally, a bonus video of two men who obviously practiced reading such books as loud and as fast as possible. Skip to about the 5:00 mark for the famous gravitas rematch, the ending of which puts even the trickiest passage of our humble kids book to shame4.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
1 Though, to be fair, if you don’t have that yet, Dr. Seuss may not help you
2 Yeah, I know I’m not digging up new finds here every week. But this particular title is a favorite at home and I think gets passed up for many of Seuss’ more popular titles. So there.
3 I mean honestly, a “Goo Goose” and “Cheese Trees”. Come on.
4 Or, you know, watch the whole thing. Or none of it. I’m not the boss of you.
Banks are failing, working men and women lose their jobs and paranoia about the future of the American economy is widespread. Sound a little like 2010? Think again. It’s the Great Depression and Thomas Mullen writes about the Fireson1 brothers and their experience trying to survive economic and near-social collapse.
They were already worshiped during their bank-robbing spree between the spring of ’33 and July of ’34. They were already celebrities – heroes or villains depending on one’s position on the ever-shifting seesaw of the times – indistinguishable in fact from the many folktales chorusing around them. But they became so much more during a two-week spell in August of 1934 starting with the night they died. The night they died for the first time.
Mullen’s introduction leaves no doubt as to what this story is about. It is about truth shrouded by myth. It is about hope and fear. It is about bank robbing. Make no mistake – this book is about guns, broads, big scores, flatfoots, bootleggers and thieves. But it is also a book of sociology and of metaphysics.
One half of Mullen’s narrative is a straightforward account of a family coping with the Great Depression. Jason, the eldest of three Fireson boys, rebels early against his hardworking father and gets into the bootlegging game. Profitable, violent and risky, this gig lands him in jail for a couple of stints estranging him from family and introducing him to darker elements. After a curtailed final attempt at the straight life – one in which his erstwhile upstanding father falls prey to his darker nature – Jason uses his big house connections to become a bank robber, taking in middle brother Whit as an accomplice and leaving their youngest brother on the outside of the new family business.
Which brings us to the second half of Mullen’s narrative. It is a half narrative that runs parallel to the straight story. One that whispers of deep family bonds, brotherly affection, carnal love2, sacrifice and most notably resurrection. Yes, the title of the novel means what it says.
The brothers’ first resurrection happens in basement morgue of a police station. Mystified at first, the brothers quickly adapt to their circumstance, planning jobs with the lingering expectation that death by lead bullet will be but temporary. Mullen does an excellent job transmogrifying the metaphor of public immortality into actual invulnerability to Death’s grim scythe. Throughout the text we are reminded of Dillinger and others infamously gunned down who live on, much like Elvis would later in the century in newspaper and eyewitness sightings.
But the Firefly brothers live on in lore as their corporeal forms stick around to stay in on the joke. The inescapable puzzle is why? Why do they die grisly deaths under dire circumstances just to rise and do it all again? What unfinished business do they have on this mortal coil? What of redemption3? Most, though not all, is revealed in time and Mullen allows the piece to breathe. He gives his readers just enough rope to leave themselves dangling from the rafters of meaning and conclusion. The ending satisfies without solving. The actual rubble of the Fireson’s last known hideout is indistinguishable from the moral rubble of the brother’s crimes.
By the end of the novel prohibition has been repealed, America is on it’s way out of economic collapse and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is ascendant. But lives remain unaccounted for, the undercurrent of civil unrest still flows and whispers continue that the Fireson’s may yet live in more than just the public imagination. Spend some time with this fine novel of America during the Great Depression and you will be richly rewarded with action, adventure, intrigue, metaphysics, mysticism4 and social commentary. All in a day’s work.
1 Dubbed, ultimately, by a media hungry for spectacle “The Firefly Brothers.”
2 The aforementioned broads.
3 Don’t be disappointed – you’ll not find much of that.
4 Though who are we to say that these two are not one and the same?
Belonging is an eternal struggle for most of us, especially in our youth. Using simplicity in both illustration and story Leo Lionni tells a touching story about belonging, friendship and acceptance. A Color of His Own starts out with the universal truth that “all animals have a color of their own”
Except for Chameleons1. Chameleons, we learn, change color wherever they go. Lionni catalogs the various circumstances upon which chameleons might change color, including the haiku-like line “and on the tiger they are striped like tigers.” And it is, in fact, on such a tiger that we meet our protagonist -the chameleon who longs for a color of his own.
So he decides to stay put, hoping that physical stasis will result in the color fastness he so desires. Unfortunately, he decides that if he remains on a leaf he will be green forever. Of course:
Oops. Had the chameleon simply chosen, say, a red wagon his wish may have come true2. After a long winter of discontent, Spring comes and he meets an older, wiser chameleon. Plaintively he queries, “Won’t we ever have a color of our own?3:
The older chameleon, full of understanding4, breaks the news softly. No, they will never have a color of their own, but if they stick together they will share both color and solace in their solidarity. And so it is that the chameleons change color wherever they go. They are yellow together, purple together and red with white polka dots together. And like many good stories, they live happily ever after5.
1 And certain marine invertebrates, iguanas and maybe a few others. Are we gonna split hairs?
2 At least until the decision to stay one color or starve presented itself. Maybe it’s better he chose a leaf…
3 What is he expecting? Some sort of Chameleon civil rights movement?
4 It must be that all chameleons pass through this phase and only age and experience bring acceptance.
5 Or, as the Beatles remind us – “All you need is love.”
Reading dead white guys (DWGs) is passe, if not downright anti- this & that. Leave some Conrad or Mailer on your table, you’re surely a scoundrel. I base this loosely on schooling and past retail experience, the latter involving an intellectual comaraderie well-suited to judgment. In college, and largely still, I read a lot of current fiction.1 A healthy dose of these are Native American authors, owing to an inscrutable professor2 of that literature in college, who also turned me onto my other fiction-passion: Jews. I branch into other Eastern European authors, but at heart I want the Yid perspective. A course in comparative African literature left lingering interest in the literatures of that continent.3 So aside from some honkeys like DeLillo, O’Brien, Vonnegut, and Barth (I’ll leave Pynchon for Conan, out of deference), most of my reading post-college has been of authors like Szjkvldstykstzkskz.4
The above is unnecessary, really; my point follows. I was inspired to writing by Conan’s recent post about The Swan Thieves. While he described exiting a book in abject misery, really just giving up, I was, how should we say, in-the-text. I was living it up, wallowing in the Word. I didn’t want to rub C’s nose in it then (well, sort of), but he’s of thick hide it would seem. That specific Good Prose was Barth’s The Development which I recommend. Curiously, next I brought home a stack from my public library of E.B. White and John Cheever, white guys dead and buried both. I looked at them. What’s come over me, I thought? I turn 30 and look here. Looking back reveals a pattern. Over Christmas I crossed the ponde to scan some Wodehouse – gasp! Last summer I picked my way through Ten short modern novels, reading several authors notorious for lacking melanin but holding a y chromosome: Faulkner, Mann, Gide. And last winter, gobs of Stephen Crane (M verily forced it on me, but I loved it). Hmm, I wondered.
I promised a point; I’ll attempt delivery. Lately I’ve been in John Cheever’s Journals and E.B. White’s Letters & Writings from the New Yorker. I’ve never read any Cheever that I recollect. His covers are awesome, so here we are. The Journals interest me for several reasons. It’s the prose behind the prose, the ‘inner writing’ of a professional writer, that still reads on the page as professional and inspired writing. I guess that’s talent? It is interesting to glimpse what concerns a novelist in the day to day: money, family, writers’ block (writing well about writers’ block…), alcohol, sex. Other entries are splendid mini-stories, really sublime. Surely the journal is a writer’s device to aid creativity.
Now White. Again, save the children’s classics and his little grammar aid, I can’t recall reading any E.B. His prose is concise but not proud. There would seem little chance for self-deprication in such style, but it surfaces beautifully, and we see in White’s brevity humanity at once arresting, personal, and universal. Read ‘Hunger’ where the narrator bumps into an old friend starving himself to death because he’s increasingly paranoid about what lurks in our food. It’s absurd, but it reveals systemic societal paranoia, some founded some not. Kudos. Read ‘Tomorrow Snow’ where a diner waiter delivers heavy news:
“I’ve been listening to the radio,” he said. “Tomorrow snow, turning to rain.” He was a man carrying foreknowledge in his breast, and the pain was almost unbearable. We don’t remember a winter when people followed the elements so closely and when foreknowledge so completely destroyed any chance of momentary bliss.5
I nearly cried reading this late one night, after yet another day of scraping the frozen muck the plow spreads back across my driveway each morning. This has been a winter of great Sisyphean shoveling here. You’ll note I employed the same tactic as White, I envied it so: I nearly cried, like the waiter’s pain was almost unbearable. White belies a stoicism that attracts me. We suffer through, this is our predicament, all that jazz. Updike, another DWG, introduces the Letters and hints at a nervous condition that kept White on edge, or something like that. White’s New Yorker writings intimate this, from the food paranoia to a piece on dizziness. My Personal Private Affliction puts my world topsy-turvy too, leaves me reeling from the sun, and I delight in well-wrought prose capturing similar experience. Nothing is mentioned in White of migraine save for the odd ‘headache’ reference in letters. New Yorker editor Harold Ross allegedly said of Thurber and White, “Look at them, my two best writers, one can’t see to cross the street and the other is afraid to.”6 So I pretend a comrade and commiserate. Content aside, White’s prose, for those of us here at Literary Gibberish who revel in such matters, is downright breezy. Browse a passage and marvel at the space between words where you surely would have put words. ‘Omit needless words’ is a Strunk and White rule. Right ho!
Reading this stuff of late I am transcended, I am on a plane I can only describe– like earlier– as refreshingly in-the-text, a sort of formalist mind ill aware of the politics of DWGs nor any other critical meta whatnots. Reader, surely I lie– I earlier described White the humanist and hinted at a fictional narrator submerged in Cheever’s Journals; my training won’t be stymied. But this is pleasurable, heavenly, delightful reading so elegantly wrought that looking upon it is much like appreciating distinctly American furniture– far from lacking refinement in its understated forms and simple designs.
1 Mostly post-WWII, so comparably current in the span of English Letters.
3 Black, White, Afrikaaner esp.
4 Not real
5 Writings, 6.
6 Letters, photo insert.
Long has it been the pleasure of those not part of the establishment to knock – when possible – the elite from their metaphorical1 high horse. And so we arrive in this strange geometrical kingdom where the royalty seems borderline narcoleptic. What’s this!? Asleep with a kingdom to run? Surely this is a problem that no longer afflicts us this modern day!
Your task this Friday is to awaken these slothful royals and goad them to action. The mechanics are those of a traditional physics puzzle but instead of stacking pieces you combine them. As the game advances the Rube Goldberg machines get more complex and the puzzles a bit more tricky. But the satisfaction of knocking these peacocks off their perch never wanes. That’s about the sum of it folks. Happy weekend!
1 and sometimes even actual.
In case you missed it, Google just announced a plan to install 100Gb fiberoptic networks in several communities nationwide. Say what now? 100 what? Fiberoptic who? In brief, this is plan to bestow1 upon a number of unsuspecting citizens internet access at a speed that runs circles around Verizon’s Fios service, currently the fastest commercial internet available to any significant number of customers.
“OK, so where do I fit in” you may ask? Well, I’m glad you did. There’s a current belief2 that much of what troubles the American Economy may find its remedy in widespread availability/affordability of broadband access. There is even a bit of a groundswell in the philanthropic realm to begin providing such access to rural communities3. And as someone in the so-called trenches of one such rural community I sit firmly in the camp that believes expanded access is not just an economic but a social imperative.
Every day, in numbers that continue to rise we see people coming in to use our computers. Many of them are surfing facebook but many others are applying for jobs, updating their resumes, looking for services and filing for unemployment. Why do they come here? Internet in our county is expensive and slow. The fastest “broadband” speed available to residential customers is relatively pokey DSL.
Still confused about how this affects you, dear reader? Setting aside discussion about whether we view it as essential that one be able to facebook, youtube, email and other such activity4, we now live in a world where you need online access and computer skills to apply for a shelf stocking job at Food Lion. Setting aside, again, the fact that those with the most need and the least access pay the highest price in this game we see that internet access is quickly becoming a necessity of everyday life.
And trust me, it ain’t getting any less necessary anytime soon. Which brings us back to Google, and eventually libraries. What Google seems to be doing is firing a shot across the bow of telcom companies who often find themselves in a monopoly situation5. By showing an alternative way of building infrastructure – partnering with communities – and offering competitive prices for superior speed Google is challenging the current economic model. And here’s hoping it works.
Finally, back to libraries. I’ts always going to come back to libraries around here. Happily, my library has just finalized paperwork that will bring 10Mb/sec fiberoptic internet to county residents at our six locations. Although we currently provide faster internet than many people have access to the county, this will give our people faster access with fewer interruptions in service6 in an economic climate where whenever we can provide more we should.
Libraries are always going to be a stop-gap for the underprivileged and those in the greatest need. This is often a source of satisfaction and frustration in my day-to-day. But by providing this service we, like Google, will hopefully start to exert some economic pressure in some meaningful way. Perhaps the more projects we see like the one from Google and the more institutions (read: libraries) that offer these types of speeds the more people will come to expect broadband saturation. And that’s good for everyone.
So what do you think? Is expanding broadband speed and access for everyone a priority? How dependent have you become on having ready access to the internets? Are you now planning to petition Google to bring fiber to your neighborhood? Discuss in the comments.
1 I use the word bestow in a limited sense – the big Goog does plan to charge for this access, but promises “a competitive price” to between 50,000 and 500,000 customers.
2 evangelical and wild-eyed though it may be…
3 full disclosure: my place of employ is included as a beneficiary in the linked grant.
4 Yes, I argue – and this may end up as its own post.
5 Sure, I can choose between Verizon and Comcast, but the choice is between slow (Verizon) and expensive (Comcast).
6 Heavy YouTube use still drags our network to a crawl.
For anyone living in the greater Mid-Atlantic region1 we probably need do no more than post the book cover with no further comment:
And yet as a blog dedicated to both visual image and written word I should add my own boilerplate2. In The Snowy Day Ezra Jack Keats reminds why snow is one of the cardinal joys of childhood. If, as we like to imagine, childhood is an idyll – a time to play without inhibition and wander around aimlessly – then what better venue for this than a city snowed to a standstill? We open the book and read that
One morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see.
This, we find, is a great boon to Peter who promptly sets out to take full advantage of his situation. Clad in his snowsuit and mittens, the snowy world is his oyster:
But as all great literature must do, The Snowy Day, keeps us grounded – reminding us that all of childhood is not idyllic. Challenges abide, even for the young and carefree. To wit: young Peter sees some older boys engaged in combat3 using against each other the very matter that the beneficent sky gods have showered upon them. Upon quick evaluation Peter decides it’s best to steer clear of the older boys for now.
Instead he decides to stockpile some of this frozen manna for a warmer day:
Ah, the bittersweet optimism of youth. Of course the snow brought inside vanishes into a liquid pool, but oh what a ride we had while it was with us! I recommend a glance through The Snowy Day for all of us who view these mountains of snow through adult eyes. For those of us who dig, and dig, and dig, just to free our vehicles for the next day’s labor. For those of us who sigh at the thought of being cooped up inside with those we love4 for hours on end. For those of us faced with this:
But yearning to re-live this:
Happy reading, and stay warm!
1 Or, you know, watches CNN or the Weather Channel…
2 Come on folks, this is another Caldecott. These books should recommend themselves
3 Mortal Combat, one can only assume.
4 and who inevitably drive us nuts with extended time in close quarters.
What’s that they say about being good for the goose? If you want to survive Endless Migration you’d better be quick or those nasty planes, storms, helicopters and blimps will surely get your gander.
Your task is pretty simple. As flock leader your job is collect wayward geese who will obediently follow you in the classic flying V pattern. Unfortunately it looks like the air traffic controllers are on strike and Reagan isn’t around to order in the scabs. Look out above and below for all manner of flying craft and storms that will slow your progress. As your get deeper into your journey the air gets thicker and even the military gets involved1.
What gives this game a little more replay value than most dodge-and-dash avoidance games is the ability to earn upgrades. Faster wings, friendlier geese and even temporary invincibility are rewards for perseverance and each upgrade it worth it’s weight in feathers. Earn enough points for all of them and you’re a lean, mean flying machine.
So watch your back, protect your flock and let the feather’s fly! How long will you last in Endless Migration?
1 look out for quickly-vanishing stealth bombers!
In the realm of oddball comedic writing that staunchly resists easy categorization Jasper Fforde is king. The bulk of his work consists of re-imagining such literary lives as those of Humpty Dumpty, Jane Eyre, Miss Havisham and others. Fforde creates for his characters richly described worlds with labyrinthine systems of rules and social strata. In short, he makes hay of literary tropes, characters and historical “what-ifs”, all the while paying homage to the giants of the English language on whose shoulders he stands.
Shades of Grey is in some ways a bird of *ahem* a different color. However, fans of Fforde’s work will feel at home with his zany approach to reality that keeps the reader just off balance enough to make a straightforward story feel like a bit of a wild ride.
The curtain opens on young Eddie Russet who is a “Red” by dint of his being able to see color primarily in the (you guessed it) red frequencies of the color spectrum. Eddie’s world is color-0bsessed and we find that class hierarchies follow from left to right the familiar acronym ROYGBIV where Reds are the lower middle class, Yellows the administrative class, Greens the privileged middle class and Blue-Indigo-Violets forming what there is of an Aristocracy. Oh, and the Greys are the proletariat.
We also see quickly that there is room for mobility – a Red may well marry a Blue and sire offspring who see the world through genteel purple colored lenses. And this results in something of a social bartering system wherein “strong reds” may marry into a declining blue family to solidify the line. In exchange for an appropriate amount of credits, of course.
As in his other works, Fforde builds a world with strict rules that must not be broken and strange circumstances that dictate the activity of his characters lives. Why, we ask, are spoons in such short supply? How do the residents of this world mine scraps from a disappeared civilization1 and then pipe it into towns to color gardens, street signs and buildings? Why is it that a particular swatch of color has the power to heal, harm, enthrall or even euthanize its viewer?
As in all dystopian visions the world Eddie Russet inhabits is broken. As in all bildungsromans Eddie progresses from naivete to knowlege. The name of progress is attached to regressive policies that benefit the powerful and oppress the lower class. The denouement of the book is a social awakening that a Washington Post reviewer points out is evident from hundreds of pages away. But rather than grouse that this is a disappointment, I propose that we celebrate an old tale originally told.
The plot of Shades of Grey is well worn but the execution gives it some shine. Fans of Fforde will feel at home in this novel and new readers will, perhaps, be drawn in2. Is this a Staggering Work of Genius? No, but it’s a heck of a good tale not only about social dysfunction but also about coming of age, of love and of loss. Best of all it will keep you reading through these cold winter nights and snowy winter days that seem to be playing in an endless loop around these parts this winter. Happy reading!
1 Our own modern world, dear reader.
2 Surely herr Fforde hopes so, as this is the first volume of a planned trilogy.
In What’s That Noise? William Carman tackles that ever vexing question – just what exactly is it that keeps going Bump! in the night? Except in Carman’s rendition, it’s more like going “GGGGBBBBrrrrrvvccxxxxgggggiiiinnnnnbbbbbggg” in the night. Our hero is a young man who hears a noise and intrepidly seeks its source, giving the book a title in his incessant query “What’s that noise!?”
What indeed? The young lad’s imagination is fueled by everyday objects in his house and rendered on the page in fantastical black and white after each suggestion is proffered. His thoughts range from the mundane (are the neighbors mowing the lawn?) to the outlandish (is it a UFO landing in my back yard?) and even the truly terrifying (it sounds like a bear in mom and dad’s room!). Carman even nods to the motif of monster in the closet and throws in a slightly surreal octopus sighting.
And like all decent bedtime stories this one ends happily. No, it’s not a bear in Mom and Dad’s room – it’s just Dad snoring the night away oblivious to all the commotion he’s causing throughout the household. All is well as we turn the final page and see Mom, Dad and son sleeping peacefully and snore-free on the book’s endpaper.
Thus ends another recommendation1. The art and story both stand out in this one and you’ll want to head over to this interview at Seven Impossible Things and to William Carman’s own plot of real estate on the web to see more. Until next time…
And almost footnote free. You didn’t think you’d get off that easy did you?