Monday, January 28, 2008

The library school student at a party

I've had a variation on this conversation a couple of times in the last couple of days. My friend Michelle and I are discussing laminating it on a card and handing it out at parties to preempt people. Not that we're bitter. Our working theory is that people don't ask these sorts of questions of, say, investment bankers because it's obvious why someone would want to be an investment banker (i.e., big piles of money). Librarianship, however, remains a veiled mystery to some, as you shall see.

OTHER PERSON: So, what do you do?
ME: I'm in grad school.
OP: Oh, for what?
ME: Library science.
OP: You have to have a master's for that?
ME: To be a professional librarian, yeah.
OP: Huh. So what are your classes about? The Dewey Decimal System? [Melvil Dewey is invariably mentioned.]
ME: Um, not really. [I try to explain a class I'm currently taking and why I find it cool.]
OP: Well. How'd you get interested in that?
ME: That's a good question.
OP: Do you really like to read?
ME: Yeah, but that's not really why. [I try to explain access to and organization of information succinctly. This rarely works.]

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Last of the pre-semester pleasure reading

Last night I finally finished What is the What by Dave Eggers. If you didn't know, it's a novel based heavily on the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "lost boys of Sudan." There's really not a whole lot I can say about the book without trivializing the unforgivable things that happen to Valentino and other children. Eggers did choose an interesting and effective way to frame the novel, and the narrative is devastatingly paced - the way this boy's life must have been. Each event just punches you in the chest. It's difficult to say if I recommend the book, or if I liked it. Basically, it just made me think about the utter pointlessness of this (and many other) conflicts, the way people use each other for retaliation, for volume of destruction. It's despicable.

Switching gears entirely. A friend of mine came back into town recently and lent me The Bell Jar on CD, as read by Maggie Gyllenhaal. I was pretty excited; MG is one of my favorite actresses. I read The Bell Jar probably when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and it had a huge impact on me. Hearing it again, I realized how good it is, how well-written. There are those unmistakable Sylvia Plath metaphors, like comparing some fixture (a lamp, I think) to a "death's head." And Gyllenhaal is really great at the tone - there are times when she'll pause between words and it's perfect. She also sounds, a good deal of the time, like the recordings I've heard of Plath reading her poems - a low voice, dropping each word as if she couldn't wait to get it out of her, was a little disgusted by it. Plath, though, always sounds older, though she only lived to be thirty. Hearing Maggie Gyllenhaal is like what I imagine this young college-age Plath sounded like. It's pretty spectacular.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Thank you Arts & Letters Daily

Here's a really interesting article about marriage, thanks to Arts & Letters Daily. It touches on a couple of questions I was wondering about after reading that Lillian Rubin book.

That's all.

Want to help me with my homework?

So, this spring I'm taking a course in subject analysis, which is...just what it sounds like, I guess. It includes the concepts of indexing, abstracting, and determining the "subject(s)" of a work, whether that work be a book, website, painting, etc. There's a big old project due at the end of the class, and I need to decide what I'm doing it on in the next few weeks.

From the assignment description:
"Examples of projects include databases (using any database management system), subject indexes to collections of Web resources, modified or newly developed thesauri, single-item indexes, and so on."

I found two examples of what people had done in the past; one was an index to a novel, the other a thesaurus (or controlled vocabulary) in the area of typography.

Why am I talking about this? Because I can't decide what to do. I was thinking about doing some collection of poems or letters, maybe a small archival collection (though I'd want to have more access to it than M-F 9-5). It has to be not already indexed, obviously. So, if any of you wonderful people out there have resources you need subject-analyzed or indexed, just tell me, and it could be a win-win situation. I'll come up with something eventually, but it would be cool if I could actually do something useful.

That's all for this afternoon. I lied again about writing about Dave Eggers! An entry on him will be forthcoming, as will discussions of my other courses (which start next week).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Just friends

So, I said quite a while ago that I would write about a recently-read book, Just Friends by Lillian B. Rubin. Rubin conducted interviews with 300 people about their friendships, following up by contacting the people participants named as "friends." (There was a recent episode of This American Life, "The Ties That Bind," that also addressed the question of what we call "friends." It was really good.) I've had the book for awhile, but I'm glad I read it now, because I've been thinking a lot about human relationships: love, marriage, friendship, sex, and romance - and how all those things intersect. The idea, for instance (pretty common in our current society) that one person should fulfill all of these roles and needs for another one - is that harmful? Is it putting too much pressure on one person and relationship? I'm not sure.

Two short passages from the book address this question:
1. "The belief, so common in our society, that the new mate will satisfy all our needs makes it easier to set friends off to the side, to diminish their importance in the immediate afterglow of marriage when such expectations are highest." (118-119) (Rubin found that later on in marriage - or after divorce - friends seem more important again. All of these findings are, of course, highly generalized.)
2. A quote from a participant: "Just like there isn't a perfect friend, there isn't a perfect husband or lover. That's why people need both, and if they don't have them, there's going to be trouble." (141)

All right, I can totally understand that. But what about these ways we define our relationships with other people? I started thinking about this when I was flipping through a Christmas present, The Girl's Guide to Everything (which I think will be most useful for the car and financial advice). The "friendship" section, however, had a little sidebar that I can't quote exactly (not having it at hand), but it was something like, don't get confused or alarmed when you make a new friend and get really excited about her, as if you're falling in love. You're not gay - it's just the flush of new friendship. Talk about labels. One participant in Rubin's study, a psychologist, said, "I suppose there's a sexual tinge to every human relationship of any depth or intensity...." (105) - and I'm more inclined to agree with that. This is probably going to sound idealistic or foolish, but I think a day is coming when in order to have a measure of peace or happiness, we're going to have to admit that some of these set-up dichotomies (male/female, straight/gay, friend/spouse) are not exactly representative of people's real lives and experiences.

Okay, congratulations on reading all those really muddled thoughts. It's a huge question, obviously, and this book is just one perspective from one discipline. I also just want to say that I don't think monogamy (or marriage) is wrong or outdated or naive. Arrangements or denials of love depend upon the people in them.

Next time, less soapboxing, more Dave Eggers and Adam Felber. I promise.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

It's starting to get a little political in here.

I'm going to come back in a day or two and write about the new year and everything that's meant, as well as about the book I'm reading (Just Friends by Lillian Rubin), but for now, this:

I am reproducing the below editorial by Gloria Steinem in full because I'm pretty sure the NY Times takes down their links after a few days, and I found it really interesting and wanted to share it. Ms. Steinem and I might not support the same candidate, but I think she makes a lot of excellent points, and answers the questions that spring to mind when reading ("I'm not advocating a competition for who has it toughest"). It's interesting to me that one thing that "worries" her is that young women have this sort of backlash of hoping "to deny or escape the sexual caste system." While this isn't my personal reason for not supporting Hillary Clinton, I know the feeling. It's like (some, not all) young feminists are so tired of being shot down (the "we're all equal now" counter-argument) that they can't rustle up the outrage that the situation of women - even in this country - should provoke.

Women Are Never Front-Runners

by Gloria Steinem

THE woman in question became a lawyer after some years as a community organizer, married a corporate lawyer and is the mother of two little girls, ages 9 and 6. Herself the daughter of a white American mother and a black African father — in this race-conscious country, she is considered black — she served as a state legislator for eight years, and became an inspirational voice for national unity.

Be honest: Do you think this is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate? After less than one term there, do you believe she could be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth?

If you answered no to either question, you’re not alone. Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

If the lawyer described above had been just as charismatic but named, say, Achola Obama instead of Barack Obama, her goose would have been cooked long ago. Indeed, neither she nor Hillary Clinton could have used Mr. Obama’s public style — or Bill Clinton’s either — without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits.

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.

I’m supporting Senator Clinton because like Senator Obama she has community organizing experience, but she also has more years in the Senate, an unprecedented eight years of on-the-job training in the White House, no masculinity to prove, the potential to tap a huge reservoir of this country’s talent by her example, and now even the courage to break the no-tears rule. I’m not opposing Mr. Obama; if he’s the nominee, I’ll volunteer. Indeed, if you look at votes during their two-year overlap in the Senate, they were the same more than 90 percent of the time. Besides, to clean up the mess left by President Bush, we may need two terms of President Clinton and two of President Obama.

But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo.

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”