Monday, January 25, 2016

The Map Thief - by Michael Blanding

My husband, James and I read this book aloud together. It was recommended by a friend as it brings together James' passion of geography and mine of books and libraries. We finished this a few weeks ago, but I held off blogging about it because I found out that we would have the opportunity to hear the author speak at the Massachusetts State Library in Boston shortly after we finished it. It was not our first visit to the State House - James goes there about once a year with his EarthView globe-, but it was the first time visiting the State Library. Blanding was witty and seemed to thoroughly enjoy speaking in the stately room. He smiled the entire time as he showed slides with maps and photographs and discussed how he did the research for his book. The Map Thief  is the true story of E. Smiley Forbes III who stole maps from the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library, the Beinecke  and Sterling Libraries at Yale, Harvard Library, as well as the British Library. In order to pay the phenomenal debts he racked up for his home on Martha's Vineyard, as well as for his planned community Sebec, Maine, Forbes, a well-respected map dealer, began stealing rare maps in order to sell them to collectors. It was a Yale librarian, Margit Kaye, who first suspected Smiley, when she noticed a smudge mark on a map that Smiley had posted on his website - a smudge she was sure she had made! However, when she brought her suspicions to the attention of her supervisor his response was a dismissive "what do you want me to do...arrest the guy?" Ultimately it was another Yale librarian, Naomi Saito, who set in motion the events that lead to Smiley's arrest in 2005.

Blanding talked to a number of librarians and map dealers in the course of researching this book. He also explores the history of maps and mapmaking, and discusses my favorite Librarian/Geographer, Eratosthenes, head librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt in 240 B.C.

Blanding's book also tells of how maps were recovered and then how forensics were used to determine which maps belonged to which library. I was especially interested in the clever librarians who used wormholes to identify their map of Gerard de Jode's Speculum Orbis Terrarum
For centuries libraries had been plagued with wood-boring insects that laid their eggs in the stacks. When the larvae hatched, they used the digestive enzymes in their alimentary canals the chew through wood and paper, leaving behind a tiny trail. Somewhere in its 427-year history, the Beineke's copy of the Speculum had contracted its own case of pests. In the front of the book, a dozen pages sported a small constellation of three pin-sized holes near the bottom and another hole three inches up. Now, as the librarians laid the map carefully back into the volume, those holes matched identical holes in the edge of the map where it had been held in place.
Well researched, well written, and full of real-life clever librarians, this is a title truly worthy of its place on this blog.

A post script: While the book is finished, the story is not. As recently as November of last year  the Boston Public Library  recovered a stolen map thanks to an "eagle-eyed" librarian who identified a the map based on flaws in the document.

My favorite quote from the day: "It was a battle, but it was a quiet battle because they were librarians."

Author Michael Blanding signs copies of his book, surrounded by maps, at the State Library.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Heart Goes Last - by Margaret Atwood

Like Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale this is a brilliant piece of dystopian literature. The Heart Goes Last, however, is a bit lighter and more satirical. It tells the story of Stan and Charmaine who are living in their car until they find out about the Positron Project - an experimental community in which residents spend every other month living in prison, while their "alternates" live in their houses. There is no unemployment, and the "prisoners" are treated well and provided with good food. Stan and Charmaine start out adjusting to the life, and are glad to have a nice home for six months out of the year, but when Stan discovers that Charmaine is having an affair it sets off a chain of events that neither of them could have ever expected involving a plethora of Elvis impersonators, a knitted-blue-bear fetish, and chilling Stepford-esque experimentation.

Even dystopias have libraries. Positron has one but apparently it's picking are slim. During one of her trysts Charmaine and her paramour, Max, are so swept up in the passion we learn that
he couldn't wait, and because he couldn't neither could she. It was like the copy on the back of the most lurid novel in the limited-titles library at Positron. Swept away. Drugged with desire. Like a cyclone. Helpless moaning. All of that. She'd never known about such a force, such an energy inside herself. She'd thought it was only in books and TV, or else for other people.
Of course this one reference to the library had me questioning what kinds of books were being withheld from the good citizens of Positron. Clearly bodice-ripping sex was in, so what was out? We are left to ponder, as this was the only instance in which the library was mentioned.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Improbable Libraries - by Alex Johnson

The subtitle of this book is "A Visual Journey to the World's Most Unusual Libraries". It is indeed a visually stunning book with some fabulous photography of a variety of different kinds of libraries including some that I have blogged about before:

Little Free Libraries

I learned about libraries in airports, metro stations, and hotels. In addition to the horse-drawn carriage and the donkey-transported libraries (referenced above) I found out about a library carried by a camel (The Mongolian Children's Mobile Library) and that Boom-Boom the elephant brings books to children in rural villages in Laos (I also learned that "boom" means "book" in Lao).

A quick read with lovely pictures, this is a treat for those of us who are passionate about books and libraries.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History - edited by Alice Crawford

The Millicent Library (the public library in Fairhaven, Massachusetts) looks like a castle (as do the Town Hall, High School, and Unitarian Church). I made my first visit to the beautiful Millicent Library about a month ago, although I have been spending weekends in Fairhaven regularly since August of this year. I spotted Crawford's book immediately as I walked in the building, and remembered that I had recently read a review of it. It became the first thing I checked out of the Millicent Library. Divided into three parts: The Library Through Time; The Library in Imagination; and The Library Now and in the Future each of the 12 chapters was written by a different person on a different theme. I was most interested in the second part as it included chapters on "The Library in Fiction" and "The Library in Film" (a.k.a. on this blog as "'Library' Books" and "Librarians on film", respectively) so I was surprised that it was the chapter on "The Library in Poetry" that I enjoyed the most. I generally don't read a lot of poetry, and I don't think I've seen much library poetry, but I will now most certainly be looking forward to reading Jorge Luis Borges "El guardian de los libros" (The Guardian of the Books) - in the original Spanish, of course; as well as Emily Dickinson's "In a Library".

The final chapter "The Modern Library and Global Democracy" was written by recently retired Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. He introduces the chapter by stating that 
  1. librarians are becoming more (emphasis in original) rather than less important in this new age of instant electronic communication; and
  2. libraries as places have a key role to play in building and sustaining participatory and accountable democratic societies-the kind that have historically not fought one another.
He points out that even during the Soviet era libraries in Russia "provided refuges for scholars unwilling to become propagandists...preserv[ing] and provid[ing] access both to the memory of Russia's pre-Communist past and to the experience of the post-World War II West." Further he tells of learning from a Native American chief that "long before European settlers brought books to North America, the elder of a tribe would preserve the knowledge of his people in his head the way librarians would later do in their collections. 'But we didn't call him a gatekeeper' [the word Billington used]...we called him the dream keeper". Billington uses this metaphor of "dream keeper" to round out the chapter
Wonder and silence are better for dream keepers than for image makers. Reading can balance our noisy, hurry-up, present-minded world with what Keats called "silence and slow time". Whatever else you do in life do not fail to experience the simple pleasure of being alone with a good book on a rainy day.  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Just Mercy - by Bryan Stevenson

The 2015-16 Common Read for the Unitarian Universalist Association I will be participating in a book discussion with members of my church this month, and again with members of Messiah Baptist Church in Brockton, Massachusetts in March. This is the true story of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative a "private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system." (from the website).

This is a powerful work that tells the story of rampant corruption throughout the criminal justice system - lawyers, politicians, judges and law enforcement officials who are more concerned with appearances than in assuring that justice is served, even when there is incontrovertible evidence that the wrong person has been jailed. Sometimes Stevenson was able to have wronged convictions overturned, but sadly, too often, he watched as innocent people were executed. It is a good companion book to read with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

I got almost to the end of this book believing it wouldn't find its way to this blog, but the final chapter "The Stonecatchers' Song of Sorrow" came through. The bar for inclusion on my blog is at least one mention of a library or librarian, and this book met that standard. In discussing the Supreme Court's decisions to ban life-imprisonment for juvenile offenders (in 2010 for non-homicide crimes and 2012 for homicide) Stevenson tells of
...several former juvenile lifers [who] had developed outstanding institutional histories with very few disciplinaries, even though they did their time with no hope of ever being released or having their institutional history reviewed. Some became trustees, mentors and advocates against violence among inmates. Others had become law librarians (emphasis mine), journalists, and gardeners.

Toute la mémoire du monde - the movie (Alain Resnais)

When I was an undergradute in the 1980s I took a film course on Three Directors of the French New Wave (the three directors were Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Alain Renais). The first night of the class we watched a short film by each. Our instructor told us that the short documentaries we watched represented the kind of work that the directors were trying to move away from. The film we saw by Resnais was Night and Fog" (Nuit et brouillard) - a graphic film with actual footage from the Nazi concentration camps. I think I managed to watch the whole film, although I know I walked out of it the first time I saw it when I was in high school. I only just learned about Resnais' work Toute la mémoire du monde when I read about it in the recent publication The Meaning of the Library edited by Alice Crawford (watch this space for a review coming soon!). I requested the film through interlibrary loan and after I watched it discovered the entire film is available on YouTube (embedded above). A documentary about the Bibliothèque Nacionale de France this should be required viewing for all library school students. It is the library as poetry. I must admit to getting a little emotional about it. I love that the last word in the film is "bonheur" (happiness). I also love that it is in French. Although regular readers of my blog know that I am a Spanish instructor in addition to being a librarian, it is a lesser known fact that my husband and I hold a special place in our hearts for the French language (the language of love) - we met in French class. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See- by Anthony Doerr

In the summer of 1984 I spent a month studying Spanish in Salamanca, Spain. My cousin Lori came at the end of the month to travel with me for a few weeks. She suggested that we take the train to Saint-Malo, France and spend some time on the beach. I was enchanted with the old buildings, and the extreme tides which could strand a person in one of the old ruins for an entire day if you weren't paying attention. I don't think I learned anything of the history of the place at the time though. Reading Doerr's book I felt like I was walking through a dreamscape-something familiar but that didn't seem quite right. It was strange trying to justify my fun vacation 32 years ago with learning about the Nazi occupation. I dreamt about Saint-Malo twice while I was reading this book. I don't remember ever having dreamt about it before.

The story is of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who loves mollusks; and Werner, an orphaned German boy who is a whiz at learning how things work. Werner is curious and clever to the point that the Nazis recognize his abilities in technology. He is recruited for training with the regime - his supremely Aryan looks an additional asset. Marie-Laure is likewise clever and her father does not allow her to let her blindness handicap her. He insists that she learn to read Braille, teaches her how to solve puzzles and builds scale models of their neighborhood in Paris, and another one when they flee to Saint-Malo (to live with Marie-Laure's great uncle) so that she will be able to navigate the streets on her own. The chapters alternate between Werner's and Marie-Laure's two stories until near the end when Werner and his crew arrive in Saint Malo looking for illegal radio transmitters and the two lives converge.

This book was recommended by a friend, not because it was an especially library-centric book, but rather because it is just such a good book. However, it wouldn't be included here if it didn't have at least some library references. There were, in fact, about a dozen or so.

Marie-Laure's father works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris where he distributes keys to other employees " staff...technicians and librarians and scientific assistants..."

Of course, the library is included in the scale model of Saint-Malo he builds as well. The library in Saint-Malo is a place where Marie-Laure also has a few meetings with others. And ultimately, we learn of the the burning of Saint-Malo (and its library) on August 8, 1944
Flames scamper up walls. Parked automobiles catch fire, as do curtains and lampshades and sofas and mattresses and most of the twenty thousand volumes in the public library. The fires pool and strut; they flow up the sides of the ramparts likes tides; the splash into alleys, over rooftops, through a carpark. Smoke chases dusk; ash chases smoke. A newsstand floats, burning.
One Nazi uses the geological library in Vienna to do some research on precious stones. He is assisted by a "mousy librarian" and "an underweight secretary wearing brown shoes, brown stockings, a brown skirt, and a brown blouse." The Nazi soldier is researching precious objects for the "führer" who, rumor has it, "intends to remake the Austrian town of Linz into an empyrean city, the cultural capital of the world. A vast promenade, mausoleum, acropolis, planetarium, library, opera house..."

The library as metaphor is used twice in this work. As the city of Saint-Malo empties of its inhabitants it is described, rather desolately, as a "library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished."

And finally Marie-Laure, many years later, images that the air itself is a library, not only with "images of electromagnetic waves...torrents  of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail...commercials for Carrefour and Evian prebaked toaster pastries..." but also "that souls might also travel those paths...might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings...a record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it."

One final note:
This story reminded me of listening to Michel Chikwanine. His story of being a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo was tragically reminiscent of Werner's story. Child soldiers are still being recruited today. Human Rights Watch has more information.