Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Time Keeper - by Mitch Albom

This fable about "Father Time" was a bit too sappy for my taste. I normally like a bit of fantasy in which worlds collide, as was the case with this book, but the religious overtones, the way in which everything was wrapped up a bit too tidily in the end left, in addition to a rather obvious moral left me feeling uninspired by this work. It is the story of Dor (Father Time) who is sentenced to an almost-eternity of listening to others beg for more time for his "crime" of being the first chronologist. Eventually released from his prison he finds himself in a time (2012) he could never have imagined, in which everyone is obsessed with time. He also is bequeathed an hour glass which allows him to slow time to an almost stand still so that he can explore things in this new world, and catch up on 6,000 years, at his leisure. He makes use of his hour glass at a library in Madrid, Spain "reading more than a third of the volumes. He read history and literature, studied maps and oversized photo books. With the hourglass turned this took mere minutes, although in real time, decades would have passed."

This was a quick read, and it was good to have along at the conference I attended over the weekend since it has a lot of natural breaking points, so I could read bits of it between sessions. I imagine it will have some appeal to others, beyond the fact that it has a library in it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Swamplandia! - by Karen Russell

Heaven, Kiwi thought, would be the reading room of a great library. But it would be private. Cozy. You wouldn't have to worry about some squeaky-shoed librarian turning the lights off on you or gauging your literacy by reading the names on your book spines, and there wouldn't be a single other patron. The whole place would hum with a library's peace, filtering softly over you like white bars of light.

If Libba Bray and Carl Haaisen had a baby she would probably be someone like Karen Russell. In Swamplandia! a colorful posse of quirky south Florida characters inhabit a not-quite-magical place for a  wonderfully unpredictable read.

Siblings Osceola, Ava, and Kiwi Bigtree live in Swamplandia!, a tourist trap where their mother, Hilola; and father, Chief Bigtree, put on an alligator wresting act. When tragedy strikes the Bigtree family the three children each end up on a journey that turns out to be more dangerous than any routine dive into an alligator pit.

The Bigtree children are homeschooled with the help of packets sent by the Loomis County Public Schools. Their independent studies are supplemented with books they find on the Library Boat.
...a coppery green twenty-foot schooner at permanent anchor...listing in the rocks...It held a cargo of books. In the thirties and forties, Harrel M. Crow, a fisherman and bibliophile had piloted the schooner around [their] part of the swamp delivering books to the scattered islanders.
The Library Boat remained where it was left after Crow's death "miraculously...unscavaged and undestroyed by hurricanes".

Some of the books on the Library Boat were from its original collection, others were left by other swamp dwellers for a constantly evolving selection of reading material.

It is on this boat that Osceola finds the book The Spiritists Telegraph which starts her on a journey, which in turn leads Ava on another. Their adventures collide in a climactic coincidence, but not before Kiwi begins studying to take the GED in night school on "the mainland" where he uses the Loomis Public Libray
the two-story brick building near the courthouse downtown, with large placid librarians moving through the stacks like human galleons and glass green pots in plants.
It is here that Kiwi researches colleges and does the additional work that earns him a "check plus" from his GED teacher, rather than the simple check mark for credit only. He also uses the public library computers to do the "Reach for the Skies" flying lesson modules in his quest to become a pilot.

A good summer read. Thought-provoking, yet fun.
To learn about a real-life library boat see this video.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Feminine Mystique - by Betty Friedan

During World War II millions of American women went to work in factories at jobs left by men who were fighting overseas. Spurred on by a government campaign that included Rosie the Riveter, these women also became de facto heads of household and were responsible for running the household finances. When the war ended women were not only forced out of these jobs (again, by government campaign) so that men could have them, they were also discouraged from completing their educations, so that they could instead marry young and become "housewives". Aided and abetted by women's magazines, and even the curriculum in women's colleges, the myth of the "feminine mystique" gave the post-war generation of women the message that they could best find fulfillment as wives, mothers, and housekeepers. The messages and images from the 1950s put men in the role of protectors and breadwinners, while women were told they didn't need an education, career, or even a job (Rosie the Riveter not withstanding). Having these things would not only prevent them from fully developing as women, it would also undermine their husbands' roles. In reality, of course, the women's development was stunted, and they were left to wonder what was missing from their lives.

Earlier this year the publishing and library magazines that routinely come across my desk featured articles that reflected on the 50 years since the publishing of Friedan's feminist manifesto. (A 50th- anniversary edition has been published, but I read a 10th-anniversary edition). I had heard about this classic work, and remember selling copies of it back in my college days working in a bookstore, but I had never read it. It seemed the time was right. I could not have imagined how right it was. I started writing this post even before I finished the first chapter. By the time I got to the third chapter my head was spinning. There is just so much to say about this book. As the writer of this New York Times article states some of the attitudes reflected in the work "remain unchanged". Here I point to several recent news stories:

Facebook recently lit up with protests when Swiffer co-opted the famous World War II "Rosie the Riveter" icon to sell a cleaning product. 


Swiffer did respond to protests by removing the image from its advertising.

A recent report from the University of Chicago revealed that in 40% of households women are the primary breadwinners. In many cases this is because there is no man present, nevertheless, four commentators from FoxNews have a meltdown over this news.' It is against nature'. 'It will destroy the American family'. The fear that the men's role as protector will be undermined is too evident. This shows little change from Friedan's statement 50 years before that "[a]t every step of the way feminists had to fight the conception that they were violating the God-given nature of women". Friedan also quotes from the book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex which claimed that "careers and higher education were leading to the 'masculization of women with enormously dangerous consequences to the home...'"

To follow up on this vitriol, in June  a high school commencement speaker in Indiana told graduating young women to embrace their roles as wives and mothers. "We don't need more women CEOs" he says in clear response to the popularity of Sheryl Sandberg's recent bestseller Lean In (which I just started reading, if she mentions libraries you'll find out here!).

Short stories in women's magazines the 1950s & 1960s contained messages that women should be wondering why straying husbands were looking elsewhere. What could a woman do that might bring her husband back? Change her hair color? Lose some weight? Keep the house cleaner? It is her job to figure out why he is cheating, and make the necessary changes to herself! so that he'll come backAnd so also says Pat Robertson, 2013.

Articles in women's magazines then (as now) featured actress not in their roles as successful career women, but as wives and mothers. (And, by the way, can we please stop using the term "baby bump"? And what's with the arrow always pointing to a celebrity's stomach, as if we wouldn't know which part of a woman's body to look at for evidence that she's pregnant!?)

Janet Maslin, the author of the aforementioned NYT article closes by saying "I have a photograph of myself with Betty Friedan. We were together on a radio show. I was there because I was a critic for The Times and I arrived at The Times because of opportunities her book created. I wish I had known how much I owed her." This statement I contrast to conservative political commentator Monica Crowley's remarks in the fabulous PBS series "Makers". Twice in her short segment Crowley refers to feminists as "so called" feminists, as if that is not what they really were (or that perhaps we no longer exist), and clearly has no recognition that she would be never have gotten where she is without benefiting from their struggle. I highly recommend watching the Makers series, BTW. All three episodes can be viewed by clicking on the link above.

But what does Friedan say about libraries?
Yes, Betty Friedan did write about libraries in this work. She begins with acknowledging the "Frederick Lewis Allen Room of the New York Public Library and its provision to a writer of quiet work space and continuous access to research sources" without which "this particular mother of three might never have started a book, much less finished it". She also describes sitting "for many days in the New York Public Library, going through bound volumes of American women's magazines for last twenty years." This image resonated with me because it reminded me of doing the same sort of project myself in the 1980s when I took my first Women's Studies class. I was assigned to look at women's magazines from the 1940s and remember sitting with the big bound volumes at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Other students in my class were assigned to look at other decades. I remember our professor telling us that we shouldn't expect see much change in the messages over the 50-year time period we were studying, even though the images may have evolved. I was particularly interested in the fact that Friedan discovered that the magazines from the 1930s and 1940s did carry more articles about "the world outside the home" than those of the 1950s and 1960s. 

I was saddened to see this message about librarians in a passage in which Friedan describes the types of career-woman role models she had growing up
The only other kind of women I knew [besides housewives]...were the old-maid high-school teachers; the librarian; the one woman doctor in our town, who cut her hair like a man; and a few of my college professors. None of these women lived in the warm center of life as I had known it at home. Many had not married or had children. I dreaded being like them, even the ones who truly taught me to respect my own mind and use it, to feel that I had a part in the world. I never knew a woman, when I was growing up, who used her mind, played her own part in the world, and also had children. 
I have thought about this passage a lot. It reminded me of learning about Sor Juana Ines, the Spanish mystic nun and author who lived during the 17th century. She, like her brethren, knew that the way for a woman to become educated in their day was to become a nun, which did necessarily giving up marriage and children. It is too bad that Friedan seemed to see these teacher and librarian career women as simply "old-maids", rather than as women who made a choice to become educated and have a career - a choice that allowed the women activists who came after them to build upon their work and knowledge, so that others might have a few more choices themselves. Again, it is important to acknowledge those who came before us.

In interviewing young college women in 1959 Friedan spoke to one senior who lamented not using the library more. She had taken to "wandering around the stacks" to find books that interested her. She wished, in fact that she had developed more interests. She had learned her freshman year to "turn up [her] nose at the library". But as a graduating senior she wished she had taken harder courses and read more. "But" she adds, "I guess those things don't matter when you're married." Another young woman, who admitted to being excited by books, and would sometimes spend all day (8 a.m. to 10 p.m.) in her college library dropped out of the honors program and stopped reading quite so much, for fear of not being able to lead a rich life which she said included marriage, children and "a nice house".

Other places libraries are mentioned were as places for women to volunteer. Remarkably, she also notes that the more interesting volunteer jobs-
the leadership of the cooperative nurseries, the free libraries, the school board posts, even the PTA presidencies - are filled by men. The housewife who doesn't "have time" to take serious responsibility in the community, like the woman who doesn't "have time" to pursue a professional career, evades a serious commitment through which she might finally realize herself; she evades it by stepping up her domestic routine until she is fully trapped.
Furthermore she notes that women who did step into these more challenging roles found a greater sense of fulfillment.

This book is a must read. Its message is clearly just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What Teachers Make - by Taylor Mali

Last month I posted Taylor Mali's video "I'll Fight You for the Library". My husband ordered Mali's book of essays after watching his video "What Teachers Make" - a poem that has made him famous as an advocate for educators. The book includes the "I'll Fight You" poem, as well as mentioning libraries, and librarians in a few other places. I think though, that the essay called "My Best Day as a Teacher" which does not mention libraries, per se, may be the one that best exemplifies information literacy, my own area of expertise. In it Mali describes an incident with a student who said she wanted "to write a persuasive essay that argued in favor of making it illegal for gays to adopt children." Mali "said nothing" except to "remind her of requirements for the paper, the number of different sources" and more importantly, in my opinion "the questions to ask of those sources to make sure they were reliable." He goes on to tell that the student came back to him a few days later to ask if she could "switch sides" because she did not find evidence to support her initial position. Of course there were sources that supported the student's initial position, but once she asked the questions to determine their reliability those sources would have been deemed invalid.

Too often I am asked by students to help them find information that is either non-existent, or unreliable. They have already written their papers, and come to the library only after they are ready to "quote load" it. They then become frustrated with me because there is no scholarly source to support their position. This is a problem on several levels. One is that the student leaves the library with the perception that the librarian  was of no help which means that we are unlikely to see that student again. Another is that students may find they are incapable of changing their minds in the face of new evidence. A problem we see played out everyday on the news. It doesn't matter what scientific evidence we have, climate change deniers will continue to dig in their heels. They will always be able to find some information somewhere that supports their view. I am reminded of a quote I heard at a conference last week: "We live in an age of information, not of knowledge." Information is easy to find. Finding good information takes time, and a not just a bit of critical thinking. It seems it is time to reassess the value of "instant" information, and of an educational system that has made standardized testing its goal.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Book Your Church Doesn't Want You to Read - edited by Tim Leedom

The title of this work isn't entirely accurate for those of us of the Unitarian Universalist persuasion. I doubt there is any book my church would discourage me from reading, and if there were, I would most certainly put such a work at the very top of my reading list.

Leedom's book is a collection of essays that explores the history of Judeo-Christian mythology (news flash: Bible stories are rehashed from pagan traditions); and points out some serious inconsistencies in the Bible. As well it looks at some contemporary church issues such as clergy sexual abuse, women's role in religious life, and the separation of church and state. The book was published about 20 years ago, but I was interested to see that these issues were all still such hot topics. This passage in particular resonated in light of recent news stories
The sort of moral considerations that could quite properly be incorporated into a [sex education program] are those indicated by common sense, social custom, and practicality. Young boys, to give specific instance, must be taught that they have no right to force their sexual attentions on anyone else, that to persist in doing so is called rape, and that it is a grave crime, punishable by imprisonment, in our society. Furthermore, it should be explained to immature boys that rape is wrong not simply because it is illegal but also because it is a cruel violation of the Golden Rule.
Libraries were mentioned throughout the work in several different ways. Since this book was published "pre-Google" there are a few places where the authors suggest going to the library to look things up (e.g. in a Bible Concordance) that can now easily found online. The discussion of the the Dead Sea Scrolls mentions two libraries that were integral to the dissemination of the scrolls for today's scholars. The first was the "hidden" library of the Essene community of Qumran (AD 132-135). The library was hidden to protect it from the Romans who were "invading the land of Judea and...destroying everything in their path". The scrolls were eventually discovered in 1947 and in 1980s, the Huntington Library "which had a microfilm copy of the Scroll fragments, decided to make it openly available to scholars". The stories the scrolls tell, in some cases, contradict traditional Christian teachings.

A section of the book about the Religious Right (RR) in America includes a political agenda item from the RR from each state for the year 1994. Many of these involved the public education system, and several targeted books and/or libraries
  • In Jacksonville, Florida "a group called Liberty and Justice for All attempted to ban The Autobiography of Malcolm X from all school libraries claiming that the book teaches children to be drug dealers and contains anti-white racism."
  • In Georgia "the House passed HB 1950 which required "that library materials be reviewed by a local media committee if 1% or 500 community residents objected to it."
  • In my own home state of Maryland the Wicomico County Free Library was the target of two attempted book bans involving children's books with homosexual themes: Heather has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate. The Library's Board ultimately voted overwhelmingly to keep the books.
  • And in Washington State The Washington Alliance of Families successfully lobbied to remove Jane Smiley's book A Thousand Acres from the Lyndon High School curriculum.

An essay by Austin Miles, critiquing the tax-free status of churches, begins with this description
As a guide said to me in a richly furnished, gold-leafed monastery and library outside Vienna, "this monastery was built by other than "Christian" means, indicating that "Christian" should stand for something good and honorable. It does not-the ghosts of Christianity's victims will forever haunt the universe. 
I learned a lot about the Bible by reading this book. Since I didn't actually know much about it before I started it went a long way in providing me with some "biblical literacy". However, I imagine that many of those who claim to have more biblical knowledge will likely learn as much as I did. This book will certainly give them plenty to ponder in any case.