Sunday, August 21, 2011

Summer reading

Even though I'm no longer a student and have the summers off, I do work at an academic institution where the summers are quiet and there's a rush of activity in September. So I still like the concept of tackling a long book, or a book I've been meaning to read for a long time, in the summer. When I was in high school, the books were assigned - Bleak House, In Country, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Later, I took on books that seemed to need the boundaries of summer to push me to finish them: The Brothers Karamazov, Pale Fire, and last summer (as chronicled here) Infinite Jest.

This summer, I read James Gleick's book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. When I bought it, I unabashedly judged it by its cover. Usually, I'm not really interested in books whose titles follow this model - e.g., Cod: The Fish That Changed Everything, or The Tipping Point: Whatever its Subtitle Was. But this book didn't seem gimmicky or patronizing. And in this case, judging the cover was correct. While reading The Information, I was often challenged. I had to stop and read passages multiple times to understand them. And, despite having an advanced degree in a subject that includes the word information, I realized that I didn't expect a lot of what the book was going to cover, especially in the chapters covering the present day. There was a lot more about numbers than I expected, which just shows my bias toward verbal information - not the majority of information around today. Even the words I'm typing will be posted by some process involving a lot of zeroes and ones.

In any case, this is definitely a summer reading book: long, challenging, and probably best broken up with a shorter, lighter work here and there. There were (as usual) a couple of passages that stuck out to me. Two are related to information skills, or verging on information literacy (a documented professional and personal interest of mine). The first is a quotation from Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician and computer scientist:

"The computer does not have that capacity [of a friend], and for our purposes that deficiency is an advantage. Instructions given the computer must be complete and explicit, and they must enable it to proceed step by step." (p. 349)

This is what I have a hard time communicating to college students. In their minds, Google understands what they're thinking, and in a lot of cases, it does. But it doesn't occur to them that there are imperfect processes, that don't involve intuition, going on behind that search. Which leads in to the second quotation, from Lewis Mumford:

"Unfortunately, 'information retrieving,' however swift, is no substitute for discovering by direct personal inspection knowledge whose very existence one had possibly never been aware of, and following it at one's own pace through the further ramification of relevant literature." (p. 404)

In library stacks, of course, one would call this "browsing."

The last one - and I just now realized that all of these are Gleick quoting someone else - is from Tom Stoppard's Arcadia (and points out to me what a huge hole I have in my reading, having never read any of his plays). It's about the burning of the library at Alexandria.

"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language." (p. 379)

I don't know exactly what I think about this idea, but I found it very interesting and moving.

Anyway. I recommend the book - it's full of things I didn't know before - but you may want to wait until you have a long stretch of time to devote to it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The specificity and strength of my relation"

This week, I read a book I've been meaning to read for a while: Maggie Nelson's Bluets. I first came across Maggie Nelson's work when I was working at my college library, shelving on the level with the Ns and Ps. Since I was working on my own senior project writing poems, I often pulled volumes straight from "to be shelved" to read, and this was the case with Nelson's book The Latest Winter. I loved reading that book, her later Jane: A Murder, and now this one.

After reading a review of Bluets, I wasn't sure where to look for it at the bookstore - literary nonfiction, poetry, fiction? As it turns out, I had to have it specially ordered anyway, but I guess what I would call the short, numbered pieces in the book are meditations. In fact, that may have been what the reviewer called them, and I'm just plagiarizing. They're meditations on blue: the color, but also the concept, and other, related concepts: depression, heartbreak, drowning, holiness. It's a very moving book. The writing is literate and honest. There is a lot to think about, and I'm still thinking about a lot of it.

Aside from all that, though, the experience of looking for it in the bookstore, and of reading it, underscored a transition (?) I've been going through lately. I've talked to a couple of people recently who asked me, "Are you still writing poems?" And I am, but far fewer than I used to. Often I find myself with thoughts I want to write down, but at a loss for their proper vehicle: they just don't make a good poem, or even part of one. Reading writers like Maggie Nelson and John D'Agata make me wonder if I should just accept this, write, and then shape whatever it is, whether it turns out to be a poem, an essay, or something else. I'm reminded of the retrospective essay I had to write to complete my English major. I wrote about taking a fiction writing class as a freshman, how it made me realize that I wasn't cut out to write fiction - that I cared so much more about individual words and sentences than plot and dialogue, and should probably concentrate on poetry instead. I wonder if this a similar shift is going on now.

Within Bluets, Maggie Nelson comments on what she's writing and how she's writing it:

"...I imagined creating a blue tome, an encyclopedic compendium of blue observations, thoughts, and facts....I thought I had collected enough blue to build a mountain, albeit one of detritus. But it seems to me now as if I have stumbled upon a pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone...." (91)

And (referring to Leonard Cohen's song "Famous Blue Raincoat"):
"...I have always loved its final line - 'Sincerely, L. Cohen' - as it makes me feel less alone in composing almost everything I write as a letter. I would even go so far as to say that I do not know how to compose otherwise, which makes writing in a prism of solitude, as I am here, a somewhat novel and painful experiment." (41)

And finally:
"It does not really bother me that half the adults in the Western world also love blue, or that every dozen years or so someone feels compelled to write a book about it. I feel confident enough of the specificity and strength of my relation to it to share." (61)

The thoughts I have, the ones I want to write down - about street names in New England and human behavior and adulthood and a bunch of other stuff - I don't know yet which ones I feel confident enough in their and my specificity to share. But I think I'm going to have to stop tying them to one form to find out.

All quotations from Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. New York: Wave Books, 2009.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

So, life has been busy, and it's about to get busier in the next few months. I have some topics in mind to write about later on. This entry is not about books.

Today is Father's Day, a day I don't normally give too much thought, other than wondering where the apostrophe goes (I think it's where I put it). This year, as usual, I bought a card and sent it to my dad. It's mostly a ceremonial gesture, and not doing it would be more trouble than it is to do it.

I don't hate my dad. He's a human being who's made mistakes (like me). Most of his big ones are in the distant past, and I've forgiven them. When I at long last came out to him two years ago, though, he didn't speak to me for six months. It seems to me like we've both decided to keep it cordial, and not to excavate emotions and history and all that. Sometimes people just aren't close to one or both of their parents. I get it.

So I wasn't thinking too much about today - just another silly holiday to sell barbecue aprons or whatever - and to make people who don't have fathers feel bad. But then I turned on the radio yesterday and "This American Life" was airing a Father's Day show (the show will be posted at 7:00 on Sunday evening, here: One of the stories was a remembrance by Michael Ian Black of his father, who died when he was a kid. Near the end of the story, he said something to the effect of: he didn't miss his father any less as time went by; he missed him more. And that got me thinking about the person who, for me, comes closest to what people talk about when they talk about what makes a good dad: my stepfather, Jeff. I know I've probably written a lot about him on this blog; I know I've written a lot of poems about him. He was only in my life for four years, but they were formative years, and I do miss him more now than when he died over ten years ago. He wasn't perfect, and we disagreed on a number of subjects, but we respected each other. He was interested in the things I liked because I liked them. He came to my orchestra concerts and left college brochures in my room with Post-its attached in his terrible handwriting; he thought I should apply to Wellesley and Middlebury.

One of my favorite memories of Jeff is a time we were watching TV and an infomercial for this fancy pen set came on. Fancy pen sets were the kind of thing that got me excited in high school. Fancy pen sets, Indigo Girls, and The Mists of Avalon: that's the kind of teenager I was. Wellesley and Middlebury, indeed. I commented that they looked cool, or something along those lines. He picked up the phone and ordered them right then. I'll be thinking about him today, grateful for his enthusiasm and love.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

What librarians do

Lately, I've been reading columns about librarians that trade in bold statements like "reference is dead" or "if libraries don't catch up, they'll be dead" - lots of death language, actually, now that I think about it. I have to catch my own reactions to these, because I don't want to be reactionary in a self-preservation kind of way. But I have this instinct that the recommendation, personalization, and monetization aspects of much online information (which I guess is supposed to replace resource description and reference) doesn't apply to every information need. What librarians have always done is just being called by new words now - curation, for instance. And you can post all the books and images online you want, but without good metadata, search does you no good.

Anyway - if the first paragraph is all my own ranting, this one is about the validation I found in the introduction to All Facts Considered by Kee Malesky. For those of you who don't listen to NPR around the clock (even the credits), she is a reference librarian there. FIRST of all, Malesky refers to librarians as "generalists, people who know a little about a lot of things" (2). She took the words right out of my mouth/blogger profile! Then she gets at one of the fundamental functions of librarianship:

"Knowledge is inherently ambiguous and any system of classification is arbitrary; one could argue that it's absurd even to attempt to sort things into categories. But sort we must because it's in our nature, and because it's necessary to make information manageable. (Managing information is something that all librarians do every day.)" (4)

Leaving aside the huge amount of information that is neither online nor machine-searchable, and leaving aside the access (financial and physical) much of the country, and world, has to broadband or mobile Internet, there has not yet been a substitute invented for helping people adjust their searching keywords or techniques based on a good reference interview. That reference interview can be through e-mail, chat, text, or the brain-chip instant-communication I'm sure will be here soon. When the consequences of finding the right information matters to people (whether it's health information, articles for a research paper, or correct facts for a NPR piece), the way information is organized and having someone to help you is where librarians thrive.

This is a "rah-rah librarians" post. I admit it. I needed to create my own antidote to the gloomy "the Internet always knows exactly what you want" stuff I've been reading lately. (Which doesn't preclude adapting and learning new things...see below!!) And I'll close with it, too. Kee Malesky, take it away:

"I've always believed that being a librarian is a vocation, a calling, and not just a job. What we do matters in the world. Every moment of the day, I must be open to learning something that will help me to be a better librarian." (5)

All quotations from Malesky, Kee. All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Talisman of the Moment: Peggy Olson

Roger Sterling: Peggy, can you get me some coffee?
Peggy Olson: No.

-from Mad Men, Season 3, Episode 13

In my cubicle at work, I have a Mad Men calendar, and the April picture is the one at right, of Peggy Olson. I have found myself looking up at it a lot, thinking that she is the appropriate character to accompany the month I was born. I can relate to Peggy's pragmatic feminism. She doesn't have lofty ideals about civil rights like Paul Kinsey; she's just tired of being treated like crap because she's a woman. In this picture, she knows that guy in the shadow of the subway stop is staring at her - but what else is new?

Is Peggy sometimes abrasive? Does she know she's working for The Man even as she makes inroads for women? Does she have a lot to learn? Yes, yes, and yes. I'm grateful for this calendar month; it reminds me that I am still learning how to be an adult and a person in the world. Peggy is far from perfect, and so am I.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sex at Dawn: An Exercise in Evaluating Information (Part 1)

Writing an entry that includes "Part 1" implies that there will be a Part 2. Fair warning that this may or may not happen.

Okay. So I recently finished reading Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. I had heard Ryan as a guest twice on Dan Savage's podcast (one of my favorites, which can be downloaded here). I was intrigued by its central concept (basically, a takedown of what is commonly thought of as "natural" about human sexuality). In terms of content and style, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking book, though I wish there had been more about homosexuality.

As I was reading, however, I found myself thinking about work. That is, the part of my job where I try to think critically about information and research I encounter, and ask students to do the same. You know, what librarians call information literacy. With each point they made, I tried to ask the questions I'd expect students to ask: Is this argument sound? Do I trust the sources the authors are citing? Are they citing where they need to be? What follows are some preliminary thoughts and examples, with (possibly) more to come.

My first thought is my first problem. If you're writing a book that says that many accepted "experts" have drawn incorrect conclusions, and that even the ways they collected data were often flawed, it's not easy to apply tests of authority and accuracy to the sources authors cite. In other words, how can you compare against established sources when the central argument is that many of those sources are wrong?

That being said, I have some minor quibbles with citation. Sometimes statistics are not cited. Sometimes a citation will be nothing but a URL, with no corresponding entry in the list of references, which raises my librarian hackles; URLs are changeable things. There are also some examples of different standards the authors have for accuracy: for example, looking at two studies on sexual arousal, they point out the importance in one of reported sexual arousal versus measured physical arousal (gone unnoted in the original study). But the next study mentioned studied only reported physical arousal, and used a different method to measure. (pp. 276-277)

That's an example of one place where I think the book's argument could be tightened up. Also, while I accepted the argument about agriculture being the advent of war, competition, and concern with paternity, I didn't think the authors explained as well as they could have how that led (in their view) to the subjugation of women.

In any case, this entry is long enough already. More in Part 2 (maybe), but I do just want to say this. I am nitpicking because I think the argument in this book is extremely important. Even if it's not the most logical or most "true" interpretation of anthropological and evolutionary data, I think that if people even considered it as a point of view, we might be a lot less unhappy. I'm not (and they're not) advocating dishonesty in any way (i.e., lying to your partner about sleeping with someone else or violating an existing monogamous agreement). But if people (and politicians) could acknowledge that sexual monogamy is neither easy or natural, maybe we could stop running people out of office and berating them for it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"The grand test of virtue"

I finished Down and Out in Paris and London a week or two ago. Until I started reading it and saw the category "Fiction" on the back, I had assumed it was a memoir. From what I can gather, it's based on Orwell's experiences, but Orwell generally had money and family to fall back on, unlike his Down and Out protagonist. I may be the last person on earth to read it, but if you haven't: the first part is basically a depiction of the working poor (in Paris), while the second is a depiction of the homeless (in London). The book was first published in 1933, but some of his observations about poverty are no doubt still true, and the book in general felt modern - as Orwell seems to be able to do. I can't help comparing his language and ideas with those of Virginia Woolf, whose diary I'm picking back up (Volume 2). Woolf is an admitted snob and a total classist, even as she worries about money and writes some of the most beautiful and universal prose I've ever written. Orwell, on the other hand, knows the lives and humanity of all "classes" of people, and writes in a straightforward way that I also admire. It's interesting to read them so close together.

Anyway, here are some passages out of Down and Out that I found the most thought-provoking.

Orwell describes the life of a plongeur, a restaurant worker who washes dishes, among other tasks - a life with long hours and one lived day-to-day:

"...they have simply been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them." (p. 116)

If the working poor have no time to think, the homeless have been ground down to either an inability to think, or sheer boredom:

"He was probably capable of work too, if he had been well fed for a few months....He had lived on this filthy imitation of food till his own mind and body were compounded of inferior stuff. It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood." (p. 153)

These last two passages get at the heart of the class system and capitalism, and I think they apply equally to present-day America:

"Very few cultivated people have less than (say) four hundred pounds a year [middle class?], and naturally they side with the rich, because they imagine that any liberty conceded to the poor is a threat to their own liberty." (pp. 119-120)

"Then the question arises, Why are beggars despised? --for they are despised, universally. I believe it is for the simple reason that they fail to earn a decent living. In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modern talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue.
A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a business man, getting his living, like other business men, in the way that comes to hand. He has not, more than most modern people, sold his honour; he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich." (p. 174)

All quotations from Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. New York: Harcourt, Inc.: 1961.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Ghosts, machines, etc.

The other day, I finished reading Matthew Zapruder's book of poetry Come On All You Ghosts. There are many reasons, both trivial and not, for me to like it. The trivial ones include our shared alma mater, and references in the poems to artists I like (Neko Case, David Foster Wallace). The non-trivial are the poems themselves and how they're written. While I occasionally lost the thread reading a poem, I always assume that's my failing. One of my biggest problems in writing poems is slavishly sticking to narrative form. This is not a problem (at least in the final product) for Zapruder.

Okay, so now I'll let the poems speak for themselves, in excerpts, anyway, below. I also recommend the poem "Letter to a Lover," one of my new favorite love poems, which can be found in its entirety on the Copper Canyon Press website.

I can't help but love this one:

"...Come home
those who love a librarian aspect. I am one,
for give her time and she will answer any question
no matter how spiral, no matter how glass,
so slow to judgment you can sit among her
like a reading room and read and think
until the docents come, they move as trained,
as trained they place a careful hand on our shoulder."
-from "Never Before," p. 38

I like these opening lines that get at postmodernism and reality TV:

"In old black and white documentaries
sometimes you can see
the young at a concert or demonstration
staring in a certain way as if
a giant golden banjo
is somewhere sparkling
just too far off to hear.
They really didn't know there was a camera.'
-from "Global Warming," p. 83

The last lines of the book refer back to Zapruder comparing a poem to a machine:

"Come on all you ghosts,

you can tell me now,
I have seen one of you becoming
and I am no longer afraid,

just sad for everyone
but also happy this morning I woke
next to the warm skin

of my beloved. I do not know
what terrible marvels
tomorrow will bring

but ghosts if I must join you
you and I know
I have done my best to leave

behind this machine
anyone with a mind
who cares can enter."
-from "Come On All You Ghosts," pp. 107-8

All quotations from Zapruder, Matthew. Come On All You Ghosts. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

That New Year feeling all year long

The first month of the year is almost over. For me, it's been a challenging one. Between the weekly blizzards (and all the slowing and hazards they create), dreams that make me think about stuff I don't want to, and a rocky start to taking steps to be healthier, my simple-sounding New Year's resolution ("manage stress better") is taking a beating. And one thing that is keeping me determined is this playlist I made. I know it sounds trivial, but the lists I make myself help to propel me forward and reinforce what I need to tell myself. I had actually just made one in December, so this one is more of an EP-length, so to speak, and it doesn't have a specific order, which is a departure from the usual. There are two songs on it by the Decemberists, whose new album I really like, a lot. (It's something new, but it's still them.) I'm going to put the list below.

Sorry for the short, non-book-focused, entry. My reading lately has been for specific purposes (book group, writing an entry for a reference book), but I'm chugging along in Down and Out in Paris and London, as well as Matthew Zapruder's latest poetry collection Come On All You Ghosts, so hopefully I'll write about those soon.

Oh January (order should be shuffled):

"January Hymn" - the Decemberists
"Medicine Wheel" - Aimee Mann
"Dia de Enero" - Shakira
"Don't Carry it All" - the Decemberists
"This Year" - the Mountain Goats
"Calendar Girl" - Stars

"Calendar Girl" really should be my personal anthem - focusing on being alive rather than worrying about how and when one is going to die. And I have this episode of This American Life to thank for the Mountain Goats song.