Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 - by David Sedaris

I went to my fourth David Sedaris event last Thursday in New Bedford (MA). The very next day James and I wrapped up our reading his latest book together. In the introduction to this work of diary entries he makes clear that this is only a "small fraction" of all that actually appears in the 156 volumes of his diaries. And that a different edit "from the same source material could make [him] appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even...sensitive". What I saw, as a fan who has been following him since I first heard him on NPR in the early 1990s, was a person who was all these things, as well as a person who is a regular, if not frequent, user of libraries.

His introduction points out that the "early years, 1977-1983, were the bleakest" and "fueled by meth". I think it is also significant, then, that he mentions going to the library only infrequently during this time period. The word "library" appears three times during the first five years of entries, and only two of those were to discuss his own visits to the library, the other was as part of an overheard conversation at the IHOP - a place Sedaris appears to have frequented more often than the library - between two blind men one of whom talked about "the library for the blind and some good books he'd listened to lately." There is a definite change in the tone of the entries in 1984 when he moves to Chicago, and, I would add, a slight uptick in his frequency of discussing his use of the library, or reading of a library book.

In one of his first entries after moving to New York in 1990 he rambles about working out his "coffee situation". He is not crazy about either the IHOP which while they serve awful coffee (no surprise), they do give customers a whole pot, nor the Bagel Buffet which serves coffee in paper cups (blech) for .60 each. He wraps all this up with this truth: "Now I need a library card." There is no mention at all of the library in any of his 1991 entries, but he makes up for it by making two references (pun intended) in 1992 - one to lament that the library is closed on Lincoln's birthday. After this there is a concerning drop in the number of times the author uses the word library. I can only hope that this was simply an editing oversight, and that a different edit of this diaries would be in fact teeming discussions of all the great library books the author read, and how helpful and friendly the librarians were, but this edit has only mentions the word library twice after 1994 - one in 1998 (Paris) which was only to relate a story told to him about a friend of a friend, who, when he starting flipping through a magazine at a newsstand was told by the proprietor that they were not a "lending library".

I found the final mention of the word "library" in the last entry for 2001. It was poignant in its wistfulness. While contemplating what to wish for as he blew out the candles on his birthday cake Sedaris laments
When told to make a wish, I settled back in my chair, realizing I should have given it some prior thought. One option was an apartment in London, but in the end I wished for the opposite: the absence of things. Over the past few years I've fallen deeper into the luxury pit. I used to get pleasure from sitting at the pancake house with a new library book, but now I mainly buy things and work crossword puzzles.
Here's hoping that we see a resurgence of library use in the second volume.

If you haven't yet discovered David Sedaris, you really are missing some great humor. Find out more at

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What's New About Fake News

Last fall I was on sabbatical. My intention during my time of reflection and scholarship was to research how to teach students to evaluate web resources. However, as the 2016 election season heated up I became concerned, as did many, with the proliferation of fake news and falsehoods being reported (both intentionally and unintentionally) in news sources and social media. And so my research was refocused. Ultimately what I concluded was that people need to read more, and read deeply if they are to become informed, critical thinkers, especially where the news in concerned.

I was excited to learn that the MassHumanities Fall Forum this year would bring together a panel of top-notch journalists to discuss the very topic I have been studying and presenting about during the past year. The panel included documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson; Managing Editor of The Onion Marne Shure; and Claire Wardle, Strategy and Research Director of First Draft. Moderating this impressive group was Pulitzer Prizer winner Sacha Pfeiffer.

Ms. Wardle opened the discussion by admonishing all (panelists and audience members alike) to abolish the use of the term "fake news". She instead identified three different types of information that have been given this moniker:

Misinformation has no bad intent - perhaps something that is mistakenly reported by news media. Once the news source recognizes the mistake they rectify or clarify with the correct information.

Disinformation is deliberate, intentional spreading of news that is not true.

Malinformation is news that while true, or based in fact should not be disseminated. Examples are leaks, and hate speech.

Ms. Shure followed with commentary about satire, which is assuredly not the same as "fake news". Satire intends to train, not trick. Satire is used to help us see a larger truth through the use of humor. She specifically stated that when one of the stories from The Onion starts going viral as a "true" story it means that the writers have failed at their job. I especially liked what she said about Facebook's labeling of "satire" for stories such as those from The Onion. Labeling removes the burden of the "mental labor" required on the part of readers to identify satire themselves. This is not a good thing. Labeling essentially takes away the reader's agency.

I learned some new terms from the panel that helped me to think more deeply about how news is consumed and disseminated:

  • Frankenbiting - splicing together of sound bites to make it appear that a person said something they didn't, even though all the words are theirs.
  • Strategic Silence - a move on the part of the news media not to mention a fake news story, even with the intention of debunking it. Even when they report it as false, it helps the story to spread.
  • Emotional Skepticism - Something that we should all employ before hitting the "share" button (or posting a comment). That which tells us to actually read a news story, and then wait a few minutes before sharing it, rather than simply reading the headline and allowing ourselves to become indignant.
  • Arms race on technology - as new technologies are applied to programs in order to fight malicious information, we can be sure something else will be created in order to combat those. When we allow technology to make decisions for us how long is it before the technology is hijaked? Again, this conclusion mirrors one that I came to myself when I did some research for a presentation I gave at the Tafila Technical University in Jordon this summer. Technology is a tool, but it is not the end answer, (there is never just one answer)! Fresh concerns over consumers' agency arise. Most of us (myself included) do not understand the algorithms being used to tell us what to read. When we let other people, and machines, decide what we see we give up control. 

Once upon a time we all consumed the same news. Everyone in the neighborhood got the same paper, and watched the news from the same three networks on television. Now, each person can choose what they see, and what they don't see. This makes for a challenging way to run a democracy.

A special thanks to David Leonard, President of the Boston Public Library for the "shout out" to librarians at the end of the program!

More information about the forum and the panelists can be found here My husband's insights on the program can be found on his Environmental Geography blog.