Author Archives: Chad

The Bomb Librarian

Lots of great bits in this Atlas Obscura story about the Manhattan Project‘s librarian. J. Robert Oppenheimer selected Charlotte Serber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, statistician, and freelance journalist to organize and lead the scientific library at Los Alamos not because of her library experience (she had none), but because “he wanted someone who would be willing to bend the rules of cataloguing.”

At one point Oppenheimer sends Serber and her husband to Santa Fe and personally spread false information about Los Alamos to dispel any true rumors:

The Serbers entered a local bar with the express intent of telling residents that the Los Alamos scientists were building “an electric rocket,” rather than a bomb. But no one seemed to care. At one point, Charlotte danced with a local man, all the while pestering him about Los Alamos. “What’s your guess about what cooks up there?” she asked. “Beats me,” he said. “Don’t care. May I have another dance later?”

In fact the secrets almost did get out. The Santa Fe Library sent out routine letters to library card holders, which reached scientists at Los Alamos:

A small crisis ensued. The security teams demanded to know how the Santa Fe Library had obtained the names of so many Los Alamos scientists. As a result, “a dark and cryptic gentleman appeared to find out how this flood of mail happened to be sent them and where All Those Names were obtained.”

Turned out, many scientists, impatient with the long wait for books, had gone into Santa Fe and checked them out themselves, under their real names—a major security violation.

When the Santa Fe librarians explained this, the man left. “If a strange character with a long cigar and his hat over his eyes tailed the staff members, they were not aware of it and feel that he could rarely have had a duller assignment,” the library later wrote.

Read the whole story here.

Rhythm Sand Booms

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We stayed at a beach community in Michigan for the Fourth of July extended weekend and went to the chapel service they had on Sunday. One of the pastors began with a quote from Erma Bombeck:

You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.

I get nervous in churches around the Fourth of July. Celebrating a secular holiday within a religious environment can lead to grotesque displays of nationalistic idolatry, or it can produce something more appropriate for a church that celebrates its country while respecting the benefits of separating church and state. Luckily this was the latter. We sang hymns, heard a good message, and that was that.

What was more powerful to me happened the next evening, when the whole community gathered on the beach to watch a fireworks display, as they do every year. We brought beach chairs and set up facing southward along the beach, where the fireworks would be. Slowly more people congregated and added to the festival-like atmosphere. Families took pictures against the amber sunset, teens tossed a frisbee, kids twirled sparklers, and I read The Iliad until it got too dark to read.

Then we all sat and waited for the twilight to fade to black enough to allow the fireworks to be that much vibranter. When they began, I remembered once again what it was like to share something with a group of people that wasn’t on a screen. I didn’t notice many if any devices out. The rows of heads I saw when I looked behind me were only tilted upward, not downward as they would be with a smartphone in hand.

Many of these families had been partaking in this tradition for decades. I only recently married into it, yet it still impressed upon me the power of ritual, and how, when combined with the spirit of a place, it can foster an acute state of grace. I was grateful for Lake Michigan. I was grateful for the opportunity to look at the stars and contemplate my place in the universe and my nation while watching the fireworks burst before me. I was grateful to lie back with my fellow Americans and enjoy a celebration that didn’t involve guns, tanks, and soldiers.

The scene, like the fireworks themselves, dissipated as quickly as it materialized. We folded chairs, shook off sand, filed off the beach en masse, and trundled to our beds to begin another American year.

Image: the view from the beach at sunset.

Norman Doors & More: Notes on ALA 2017

I went to the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago two weeks ago. Got to meet up with old colleagues, collect some sweet pens, and hear some interesting speakers, including the godfather of Hamilton, Ron Chernow. But most enriching were the sessions I attended. Here are some notes from the ones that enlightened me the most.

The Intentional Library: Creating A Better User Experience With Service Design And Design Thinking

Presenters: Joe Marquez, Annie Downey, Julka Almquist, Juliana Culbert

This session got me thinking about how to look at our library space as if I were a tourist seeing it for the first time. Would our service design make sense to them? If we aren’t intentionally seeking feedback from patrons and staff about how we can meet people’s needs and eliminate patrons’ “pain points”, then we’re not serving our patrons well.

Another key takeaway was that from a patron’s perspective, everyone who works in the library is a librarian; they don’t understand the professional distinctions. So regardless of job title, all staff should understand the library as a whole and be ready to serve the patron with good customer service skills.

Notes:

  • “If the point of contact between the product and people becomes a point of friction, the designer has failed.” -Henry Dreyfuss
  • If seeking to implement new design, follow the process: empathize → define → ideate → prototype → test → implement
  • need fresh eyes on space and processes, like a tourist
  • there are differences between what people say, do, think, and feel
  • discover people’s needs and pain-points, and create solutions to those so users can get what they want
  • educate colleagues on user experience (UX) and what it looks like to put into practice
  • questions to consider:
    • what is the audience?
    • what is the goal, call to action for users?
    • what is the timeline?
  • mindset to have:
    • everyone is a designer
    • embrace failure
    • people are at the center
  • prototyping builds confidence and saves money
  • Inherited ecology: older things and systems that haven’t changed but should, need new eyes
  • libraries are “tightly coupled” system, so changes affect everyone
  • from patron’s perspective, everyone is a librarian; all staff should know library as a whole
  • understand needs and expectations of patrons: these are often unexpressed
  • everything is a service
  • establish reasonable duration and tempo for patron services
  • accessibility: a range of behaviors are available to patrons
  • ask patrons: what problems do libraries solve? why are we important?

Resources:

What Do You Need to Know? Learning and Knowing and Libraries in the Age of the Internet

Daniel Russell is Google’s Über Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness and he studies “how groups of people think about, understand, and use the technology of information.” He expanded on the concept of informacy, or the literacy of information, which requires a deep knowledge of information as a domain and knowing how to work well within it. Three things he said librarians ought to know were: 1) what’s possible to find online, 2) what search capabilities allow you to find them, and 3) what do you need to know to be able to do this? Pairing these skills with curiosity and a skeptical eye will help librarians make the shift in mindset from things that used to be impossible to find to what’s now expected to be provided instantaneously.

Notes:

  • Russell is a software engineer, research scientist, and a self-described “cyber-tribal-techno-cognitive-anthropologist” who studies “how groups of people think about, understand, and use the technology of information”
  • literacy: the ability to read and write in a symbol system and assumed, associated body of knowledge; defined with regard to a cultural group
  • “Pear Republic” hoax on Snopes is an example of the “false authority” fallacy
  • Need to perceive knowledge gap
    • skills of how to look things up
    • attitude of curiosity
  • Things librarians ought to know:
    • What’s possible to find online
    • What search capabilities allow you to find them
    • What do you need to know to be able to do this?
  • example of finding location of a photo using EXIF metadata (EXIF Metadata Viewer) and Google Maps
  • intuition/understanding of what and how often you do something is unreliable
  • informacy (like numeracy): the literacy of information
    • deeply knowledgeable about information as a domain, and knowing how to use and interact with it
  • Ctrl-F not used by 90% computer users: why?
  • Examples of untrustworthy sources on the internet:
    • fake author “Lambert Surhone” on Amazon
    • Clonezone
    • Italian Wikipedia article for Leonardo da Vinci much longer than English one: which one is better?
  • need to shift thinking from impossible to instantaneous
  • how to convert attitude from complaining to seeking out answers?
  • Social metacognition strategy of using “contact list intelligence”: know people who know things you don’t
  • “When in doubt, search it out”
  • “knowledge exists outside of yourself”
  • Three keys:
    • learn how to ask questions
    • know who can answer questions
    • know what tools are out there

Better Service than Amazon and Nordstrom: Secrets to How It’s Done

Presenters: Jane Martel, Linda Speas, Caroline Heinselman

This was presented by staff from the Arapahoe Library in Colorado, which gets very high marks in customer service rankings, even compared to popular companies like Amazon and Apple. I gathered there were 3 aspects of their customer service success. One was creating “exceptional experiences” for patrons that “surprise and delight” them and turn what would otherwise have been a good but standard library experience into great ones that they might tell their non-library-using friends about. Another was finding ways to “say yes” and avoid saying no in customer service situations, and documenting the times you have to “say no” so that you can pinpoint problems and get to yes. Another was rigorously training and supporting staff, not only in how to provide great customer service but also by allowing staff to feel fulfilled in their jobs by gathering positive stories of staff successes.

Notes:

  • poor customer service acts as a barrier to access
  • library being essential vs. “nice to have”
  • what can we offer to bring in more non-users? Nothing to convince them to come.
  • who are we at our best?
  • get users to “tell a friend” via word of mouth; create exceptional experiences they will want to tell about — ”surprise & delight”
  • specifically ask people to tell their friends/family about good library experiences
  • find ways to say yes and avoid saying no
  • hire for people skills over library skills: harder to teach
  • train and support staff: CS training for all
  • Process: greet warmly and smile, introduce yourself, have good small talk, offer assistance in “let’s find out” attitude, say thank you, make known they aren’t interrupting
  • have someone intentionally look at birds-eye view of CS
  • have staff submit positive stories: recognition/morale, training examples, board (Desk Tracker or Google Form?)
  • new hires: welcome bag, lunch, etc.
  • October 3 Customer Experience Day cxday.org
  • Tips for improving CS:
    • No log or Sorry/Thanks log to chart when have to say no and spot pain points
    • annual CS survey for patrons: look for things that either can be solved or are repeated
    • online anonymous comment form
  • staff see much more than patrons do

Desegregating Public Libraries: The Tougaloo Nine

Presenters: Michael Crowell, Geraldine Edwards Hollis, Susan Brown

This session was less about modern library practices and more about how past ones have failed patrons. Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of the Tougaloo Nine, a group of students in Mississippi who did a “study-in” at their local segregated library and were arrested. Hollis told the story of the experience, which I’d never heard about until then. The session was a good opportunity to consider potential blind spots we have in current library services and honor those who risked their livelihoods to challenge them in the past.

Notes:

  • Hollis: a voracious reader
  • During this session was the first time Hollis had seen footage of the study-in and her arrest since it happened
  • Hollis: they didn’t want to just do lunch counter sit-ins or something mediocre: they did a library because libraries and reading mattered
  • Group started with 50 students interested, but once possibility of beatings, jailing, or even death was made clear, only 16 remained interested
    • many had parents who worked for state and schools, so those who remained had the least at stake
    • 16 total involved: 9 in the library, the rest on lookout
  • parents didn’t know until a few hours before
  • Hollis made her own clothes, was very meticulous; “I made sure I was well padded” for jail with lots of layers
  • Hollis: we were told all their lives we didn’t belong, but what what we were showing was “we belong where we want to be”
  • Read more: Wayne Wiegand’s Desegregating Libraries in the American South and the new journal Libraries: Culture, History & Society

Asking for a Friend: Tough Questions (and Honest Answers) about Organizational Culture

Presenters: Susan Brown, Richard Kong, Megan Egbert, Christopher Warren

This panel was comprised of one middle manager and three library directors, all of whom had taken over from long-serving directors and embarked on an overhaul of their organizational structure and culture. It was largely Q&A, with librarians voicing a variety of frustrations with their management, office politics, and other challenges that can pop up in the library environment. Key takeaways include: managers need to remember that some people view change as loss, and creating change means accountability combined with compassion.

Notes:

  • organizational culture is something you can hope will change, or be intentional about it
  • moving people to different offices was “worst thing ever” (Kong)
  • can’t reshape OC alone: need evangelists
  • OC defined by worst behavior that manager allows
  • counter toxic culture with emphasis on serving patrons
  • accountability + compassion to create change
  • communicate a lot, but also hold people accountable to consuming it and responding; if there are complaints of communication lack, look for what’s underneath
  • find ways to help people contribute to positive culture
  • trust: say you’ll do something, then do it — performance tied to trust
  • directors/managers should give time to allow feedback, but once decision is made staff should follow it; everyone gets a voice, but not a vote
  • re: siloing, Kong resists designating one authority figure or chain: wants people and departments to talk to each other
  • mixed departments on project teams and interviews
  • “what’s broken, what’s the rumor” at meetings
  • Junior Librarian program to mentor high schoolers and get non-traditional people in LIS
  • technical change vs. adaptive change (mindset)
  • some view change as loss

Folks, I’m Telling You

I don’t remember where I got the idea, but recently I’ve started memorizing poems and posting recordings of me reciting them on Instagram. They’ve been mostly short thus far, 10 to 15 lines. But I aim to take on longer ones as I get more under my belt and feel more adventurous.

Part of this is a memory exercise. I haven’t been obligated to memorize something of value since college (sup, Gray’s “Elegy”), and I know it’s good for the brain to do so. But it’s also because quoting poetry or Shakespeare at opportune moments is a cliche from the movies I think we could use more of in real life. And until now the only poem I could recite was “Advice” by Langston Hughes—a whopping 19 words long.

So far I’ve done “Nothing Is Too Small Not to Be Wondered About” by Mary Oliver, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, and “Carrying On Like A Crow” by Charles Simic. I found them more or less at random by opening those authors’ poetry collections and paging through until something jumps out. I recommend doing that the next time you’re at the library.

Which reminds me: I gotta find my next poem.

The Vanishing American Adult

51gFJx7Js5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI can’t believe it. I think I may have just found a Republican U.S. senator I’d actually vote for.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I read, let alone greatly enjoyed, Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse, Republican (but, phew, #NeverTrump) senator from Nebraska. I really think the only reason I picked it up was because Sasse’s face isn’t on the cover. If it were, it would look like every other politician’s memoir and therefore a waste of time.

But this isn’t that, not by a long shot. Sasse, a Ph.D in history and former college president, was troubled by the lack of certain skills and self-sufficiency in his college’s incoming freshman classes. He doesn’t use the term, but it’s those darn Millennials he’s talking about. Though the book does give off the slightest aroma of Kids These Days and Back In My Day, I’m inclined to endure it because Sasse is largely right.

Part I examines education, which Sasse sees as the root of the current coming-of-age crisis. He’s not a fan of John Dewey, who crusaded to make schooling the central influence on children, rather than make it something that was supplemental to the education children should receive at home. (No surprise that the Sasses homeschool their kids.) But he’s right about the self-perpetuating nature of bureaucracy and how it runs counter to good education:

Unfortunately, centralized education and bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a product of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. Most of these experts are blind to the possibility that perhaps we are still trying to spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, to work and to become the kind of students to ask questions before being handed a three-point formulaic answer.

One man’s boilerplate Republican talking point is another’s sensible conservative approach to an evident problem.

Beyond the school walls, Sasse sees a conglomeration of factors that have led to the current coming of age crisis: too much medication, screen time, video games, and porn; living with parents too long and getting married later; too much helicopter parenting and intellectual sheltering and not enough religion. One can debate each of these to death, but taken together it’s a potent cocktail for Peter Panism.

Part II gets into the practicalities of cultivating self-discipline and good character and how they can foster a healthy transition to adulthood: avoid age segregation, work hard, consume less, travel, and read a lot. Basic stuff, right? Sasse dives into each of them. As a librarian I was especially tickled by the chapter on reading: Sasse has developed his own “essential reading” library that is impressive in its scope and depth, and even inspired me to pick up The Iliad in my ongoing quest to fill in the gaps of my public education.

I don’t foresee any more books by politicians on my reading horizon, so I’m glad I lucked out with this one.

Some Quotes

Production > consumption:

Consumption is not the key to happiness; production is. Meaningful work—that actually serves and benefits a neighbor, thereby making a real difference in the world—contributes to long-term happiness and well-being. Consumption just consumes.

Self-sufficiency > permanent dependency:

Allowing our culture to devolve from one that encourages self-sufficiency into one that indulges permanent dependency is to tolerate a disengagement of the soul akin to permanent training wheels. Letting the next generation believe someone else will solve their problems imperils not only them but our whole society.

Aging > perpetual adolescence:

We latch onto evidence hinting that aging can be put off, perhaps indefinitely. It’s no surprise then that our young today inherit a fear of growing up and growing old, and a near allergy to confronting honestly the only certainty in life besides taxes. …

Denying meaningful rites of passage and obscuring the distinction between childhood and adulthood cheats the generation coming of age of something vital. Lowering expectations, cushioning all blows, and tolerating aimlessness not only hurts them, it also deprives their neighbors, who desperately need their engagement.

So?

Remember in 2008 when Dick Cheney, when confronted with polls showing two-thirds of Americans opposed the Iraq War quagmire, responded with So?

I thought about that when I read this part of the Washington Post‘s story on Obama’s struggle to punish Russia for Putin’s election assault:

In early September, Johnson, Comey, and Monaco arrived on Capitol Hill in a caravan of black SUVs for a meeting with 12 key members of Congress, including the leadership of both parties.

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

So? went McConnell. With apologies to “Make America Great Again”, the most important slogan of the 2016 election was “When they go low, we go high”. It’s a beautiful sentiment that is also a recipe for failure when your opponents are the Dick Cheneys and Mitch McConnells of the world, who go low like their lives depend on it.

If the investigation into Russia’s election interference and the Trump administration’s collusion proves substantive, I predict the only thing we’ll hear from McConnell, Ryan & Co is one big fat So?

The American Health Care Act will throw 23 million people out of health coverage and gut Medicaid in order to give the rich a massive tax cut they don’t need. So?

Trump has mishandled classified info, failed to disclose financial conflicts of interest, threatened the FBI director, and so much more they’d be pissed about if he were a Democrat. So?

And so on.

God help us all.

Wonder Woman

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I recently began reading The Iliad for the first time. Having that in mind when I saw Wonder Woman was helpful in my appreciation of both works. The way Ares interacts with humanity in Patty Jenkins’s excellent film—first subtly, then catastrophically—mirrors that of the gods of The Iliad, who bounce in and out of the affairs of men, sometimes at whim and sometimes with purpose.

The other lens through which I tried to watch Wonder Woman was as through the eyes of women. In this way several images from the movie stuck with me. Steve, the drowning dude in distress, seeing Diana standing atop his wrecked plane before she rescues him. Diana’s glasses, thrust upon her in a winking attempt to de-glamorize her in Edwardian London, quickly and symbolically crushed during a back alley brawl. Steve’s commanding officer, despite being handed the intelligence coup of Dr. Poison’s stolen notebook, caring much more about—God forbid—a woman in the war room.

Not to mention the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, which I later learned brought many women to tears. What I found powerful about it, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land.

And most of this was from her ally Steve! Nevertheless, she persisted. When she finally deployed her powers in full force, all that naysaying seemed silly in retrospect. Of course she was the right person for the job. She was no man, and the better for it.

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On top of her combat prowess, she later on develops keen insights about humanity, in spite of (or maybe because of) her outsider status. Her battle with Ares triggers a revelation that speaks to the depth of her inner character: that men are capable of great evil does not disqualify them from her protection; in fact, it seems to make her more resolved to provide it. “It’s not about deserve,” she tells Ares. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” It’s an extraordinary thing for a superhero to say, especially within the bleak Zach Synder DC Universe.

(Her compassionate spirit, her dedication to doing the right thing, and compulsion to tackle challenges head-on reminded me of Chris Evans’ Captain America. Both are alienated from their times—one due to cryogenic preservation and the other by her magical hidden island—and also are the rare superheroes to cry on film. It’s a shame we won’t see those two characters fight together anytime soon, but I’d be all for it.)

That it was a female superhero who brought love into the superhero’s creedal calculus will no doubt rankle those who wish for Diana to upend the sexist assumptions of what a female should believe. (She still upends plenty.) But I didn’t see it as the hokey platitude it is on the surface. I see it as an acknowledgement of love’s deep meaning and the impact it makes upon us. However short her time was with Steve, it made an indelible impression on her and subsequently her worldview as a superhero. Pairing this experience with her incessant drive to do something when faced with injustice makes her a potent force for good in man’s fallen world, and in the larger world of superhero movies.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-poster-header-700x300.jpgJosh Larsen posted my response to his middling-to-negative review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in his Why I’m Wrong feature. I wanted to post it here as well, along with follow-up thoughts about how the movie reminded me of his great new book Movies Are Prayers.

My defense of GOTG2

What I won’t defend: the glorified carnage, yet another “blow up the glowing thing in order to save the universe” superhero movie ending, or the strange casting of Sylvester Stallone.

What I will defend: Chris Pratt’s ongoing ability to surprise with his acting; how they maintained a healthy mix of irreverent humor, action, and obligatory MCU service; and how these maladjusted Guardian misfits learn to love each other and themselves in a surprisingly uncheesy way. The subplots of Nebula, Yondu, and Mantis hardly drag the focus away from the Guardians. On the contrary, they enhance each of them by calling attention to the compelling parts (or defects) in the Guardians’ personalities, and propelling them toward the reconciliation and peace (however temporary) they crave. The Yondu and Nebula storylines were especially affecting, both on their own and how they affected Quill and Gamora respectively.

How can the antagonism between Quill and Rocket be “forced” given their very believable insecurities and irrepressible need to be the wittiest, most tough-guy fighter of the group? And did you fall asleep during the scenes between Rocket and Baby Groot? They contained the same delightful rapport from the first film, altered for the new, infantilized version of Groot. You must have missed those and the other “grace notes” that peppered the entire film, including the best Zune joke of all time.

No doubt the plot goes a little haywire once Kurt Russell enters the picture. (What was up with his castle and all those porcelain dioramas? Demigod hobby I guess.) It pretty quickly didn’t smell right, so I spent most of the second act waiting for The Turn. But since I’ve lowered my expectations considerably for Marvel villains, my larger concern was enjoying the laughs and unexpected poignant moments along the way.

You insist it’s a small movie trying on big-boy blockbuster pants, but I saw it as putting on one of those clear, gelled spacesuits that Quill wears at one point: the spectacle fits snugly around the human core. I’ll put up with an explosion or 17 for that.

Further thoughts on reconciliation

I wanted to follow-up about how it acts as a prayer of reconciliation. Starting in Vol. 1, each of the Guardians (sans Groot) had crippling insecurities and self-esteem issues that they masked with sarcasm (Quill), steeliness (Gamora), pugnacity (Rocket), or a vengeful spirit (Drax). Insecurities make for great cinema: they compel characters to act for or against things. And when they are paired with comedy and great cast chemistry, you get movies like this, which are fun to watch because the characters aren’t as noble and upright as the Avengers.

But insecurity also signals a hole wanting to be filled, which is where reconciliation comes in. It became clear in Vol. 1 that Quill ached for the love of a real family. He thought he had it in Vol. 2 when Ego came along, but then realized it was counterfeit and downright deadly, causing him to see his relationship with Yondu in a different and profound way. (How beautiful was that line “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy”?) Yondu was able to redeem himself in the end, sacrificing his life for his son and bringing people together for his funeral. (Yes, it was saccharine; no, I don’t care.)

Gamora wasn’t looking for reconciliation, but it nevertheless came for her in a fury. Nebula’s rage, we found out, was yet another cloak to hide deep childhood trauma and pain of not having a sister to love and confide in. When we find this out after their Sister Fight to End All Sister Fights, Gamora is shocked. But later, humbled, she initiates the process of reconciliation, however uneasy, in another small but beautiful moment toward restoration.

Yondu has another great moment with Rocket, telling him who Rocket is and therefore who Yondu is by extension. Deep down, Rocket wants to be seen and accepted for who he is beneath his hardened yet furry exterior. This bit of reconciliation isn’t between Rocket and Yonda, though, but within Rocket, who struggles with the notion that you have to believe you deserve love if you’re ever going to be able to love someone else. You mentioned the chemistry between Rocket and Groot was lacking. It was certainly different, but remember: Groot technically died in the first movie. Rocket lost his best friend and guardian. Thus I assume his character in Vol. 2 is simply grieving.

For Drax, companionship has been a key desire after losing his family. He achieved some peace about it at the end of Vol. 1, but now his budding relationship with Mantis taps into that lost aspect of his life. A man who doesn’t understand emotions paired with someone who only understands them? That’s the basis of a sitcom. Drax & Mantis, coming to Netflix tomorrow.

And Groot just wants to dance, man.

It seems kinda silly to devote this much attention to a movie that would probably just laugh at any suggestion of deep thought. And you’re right that the grace the Guardians extend to each other did not extend to the hordes of henchmen killed without a second’s thought, an unfortunately typical feature of many American action movies. But I’m a sucker for moments like these in any kind of movie, let alone in one you wouldn’t expect.

Movies Are Prayers

Tangerine as an opportunity for reconciliation. Top Hat as a jump for joy. 12 Years A Slave as a song of lament. In his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Josh Larsen performs what he calls “cultural refraction,” revealing how the many colors of prayer match quite comfortably with movies of all kinds. I got an early copy of the book to review, but as is the case with many of the books I review as a librarian, this was one I’d be reading no matter what.

As with movies, there are many genres of prayer, and Larsen dwells on nine of them: praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation, and joy. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves, given how many movies are out there and how rich and layered the concept of prayer is. But Larsen, taking a specifically Christian tack, focuses on how those types of prayer and their analogous movies speak to the creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory of the Bible and the Christian faith it inspires. Through this prism, the central miracle in Children of Men provokes an awe-inducing response to incarnation. The violent anger of Fight Club is a primal scream against a fallen world. And the “holy nonsense” of The Muppets shows that sometimes joy manifests itself in silly and inexplicable ways.

“I can offer lament to God, and often do,” Larsen writes. “But sometimes the movies do it for me.” How true this is, and not only for laments. When I find myself unable to articulate a feeling or grasp at a deep truth, I often reach for a movie (or album or book) to act as a kind of semiconductor, allowing that electric feeling I get from something meaningful to flow freely and charge me up.

But not only do films, like prayer, “voice our deepest longings”, they both also demand thoughtful response, Larsen writes, whether in a sanctuary or theater:

In both instances, we’ve set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration. Often the intention is simply to escape the world (and don’t forget, church serves this function too), but frequently we gather to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.

I first encountered Larsen in his role as editor of Think Christian, where I’ve written a few articles over the years. From there I learned that he co-hosts Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast that now automatically goes to the top of my queue. Having been a regular Filmspotting listener for several years now, it was especially rewarding to read about films that I encountered along with him and Adam through the podcast, like the Apu trilogy and Tangerine.

Larsen puts forward one film that he believes encompasses each of the prayer modes and embodies the entire journey from creation to fall to redemption and restoration. (Read the book to find out which one.) It got me thinking about which other movies could qualify. There are probably many that fit this mold in some way, but I think Toy Story is a good one. Larsen mentions it in the chapter on prayers of confession, but I think it fits in the creation-restoration arc nicely. Not only does the film begin within Andy’s imaginative creation story, but there follows a literal fall (with style) and banishment from the toys’ Eden. (Woody/Buzz gets very Jacob/Esau for a while there.) Woody goes through a process of yearning, lament, and anger as he deals with Buzz’s incursion into his previously idyllic existence, just as Buzz endures his “not a flying toy” existential crisis. Both humbled after moments of confession, they reconcile and work together to return to their rightful place in Andy’s life.

Too often when “Christian” and “movies” come together, a didactic censoriousness and disordered view of art follow. Larsen takes the opposite approach. You’ll see no mention of Left Behind or God’s Not Dead, but you will see George Bailey struggling to be obedient in It’s a Wonderful Life and Alvin’s motorized meditations in The Straight Story and hushed yearning in In the Mood for Love. As his true in his reviews, he brings a generous, exploratory spirit to cinema, seeing the form’s good and beautiful and attempting to understand the bad and ugly. This generosity comes out in the book’s benediction:

As we watch films, then, let’s enter the theater as we would a sanctuary where a prayer is about to be offered. Let’s listen to the prayer carefully and graciously before we add our own words. Let’s be a congregation, not a censor board. Let’s be open to the possibility that as movie watchers, we’re privileged eavesdroppers on a dialogue between God and the creative beings he made.

So rare it is that ardent believers and dedicated cinephiles can bond over the same book that Movies Are Prayers should be considered a minor miracle.