Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Books (page 1 of 16)

Today in audiobook opinions

“Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading?”

Neurologically, no, but it still counts as reading a book, and is often better than merely reading one.

“Portrait of the Voice in My Head”

Great profile of “golden-throated” audiobook narrator Grover Gardner and the booming audiobook industry:

Gardner’s advice to aspiring narrators is to take a digital recorder and a book, sit in a quiet room, and read aloud for an hour without stopping. “Then tell me if you still want to do it. The answer is often ‘no,’ ” he says. “If you had to break down all the components of what goes into quality audiobook narration, it’s staggering. All the things you’re juggling in your head, in the body, in your throat and your voice.

I never recognize audiobook narrators, but I always respect their art.

Summer assignment: visit your local library

Despite their great intentions, those “required reading” lists of books make me cringe. Required reading usually feels like work, whether they’re from a friend, a professor, or a stranger on the internet. Pleasure reading should be based on freedom and empowerment and whim, not compulsion. Use those lists as a resource, sure, but don’t feel obliged to them.

Austin Kleon gets it right by assigning not a specific book, but a way to get one:

  1. Visit your local library and apply for a library card. (Or pay your fines and renew.)
  2. Ask a librarian for a tour of the library building, the online catalog, and the digital holdings. Ask the librarian to show you how to put materials on hold, how to request materials for purchase, and how to use interlibrary loan.
  3. Check out at least one item. (So you have to return.)

My #4: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re not bothering librarians by doing so. It’s why we’re there!

I can’t tell you how beneficial these would be to you and your kids, and how happy this would make your librarians. Summer is the perfect time too; most libraries have summer reading programs for kids and adults, with prizes and fun activities.

Happy reading!

Atlas of a Lost World

We think of ourselves as different from other animals. We extol our own tool use, congratulate our sentience, but our needs are the same. We are creatures on a planet looking for a way ahead. Why do we like vistas? Why are pullouts drawn on the sides of highways, signs with arrows showing where to stand for the best view? The love for the panorama comes from memory, the earliest form of cartography, a sense of location. Little feels better than knowing where you are, and having a reason to be there.

— from Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs, a meaty and winding travelogue around North America investigating notable Pleistocene spots, like the Bering land bridge in Alaska and the woolly mammoth remains in Clovis, New Mexico.

I recently realized how fascinated I am with prehistoric people and their times: What was life like back then? How similar were Ice Age humans to us? Childs goes a long way in finding out, hiking through tundra and camping out in a polar vortex and trudging through Floridian swamps. Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, mythology, and philosophy all come into play.

“Science is useful,” he writes. “It fills in the blanks with precision, but history is ultimately more about stories and the unfolding of human whims.”

The story of a star

This was a star that had left behind the fiery extravagances of its youth, had raced through the violets and blues and greens of the spectrum in a few fleeting billions of years, and now had settled down to a peaceful maturity of unimaginable length. All that had gone before was not a thousandth of what was yet to come; the story of this star had barely begun.

― Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

I wish I’d read Clarke’s book before rewatching Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation (in 70mm at the Music Box in Chicago). It would have filled in a lot of context for the famously opaque film. For understanding how the film got made I highly recommend Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.

Do librarians read all day? Should we?

Librarians and library staff have been fighting the incorrect stereotype (among many others) that their jobs consist of reading all day long. And while I still have programs to plan, books to weed, research questions to respond to, and other things to worry about, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, we took a little time to read on the job and model the behavior we want to see, if we just might see our communities a little better for it.

— Abby Hargreaves, “Do librarians read all day? No, but they should”

I love the spirit behind this, especially for youth librarians seeking to model and encourage positive behavior. But since the whole premise of this article is that patrons assume we’re reading a lot anyway, are PDRs (public displays of reading) the best way to bust this particular myth?

If it were up to me, all librarians would be allowed to do some pleasure reading while on the clock. It directly relates to the essence of the job, even if it doesn’t specifically include readers advisory.

But to “model the behavior we want to see” would require us to read while on public service desks, and I think that’s bad customer service.

If we’re engrossed in or even skimming a book, they will think they are bothering us if they ask a question, which is another very common assumption I would love to destroy.

That said, if you can fit reading in with the other aforementioned responsibilities away from the desk, all the better! It’s a shame some managers would frown upon this. As if looking busy in your cubicle is the only metric for what constitutes good work. I find lunch breaks, pre-bedtime, and audiobooks during my commute enough for me to read 70-80 books per year, but your mileage and busyness may vary.

Perhaps a more structured “read-in” event would be another option: “Read With Your Librarian” or a kind of (not so) silent reading party. People reading in libraries is not a novel concept, but people of all ages intentionally reading their own books together with their neighbors is a photo-op waiting to happen.

Quisling: What’s in a name?

In July 2016 I visited the Norway Resistance Museum in Oslo, which told the story of Norway’s occupation by the Nazis during World War II. A name that kept popping up throughout the museum was Vikdun Quisling, the Norwegian politician who collaborated with Hitler and seized control of Norway’s government during the occupation.

I wanted to know more about the man who put himself in that position. What compelled him? What happened in an occupied country during World War II? And how did his name instantly and internationally become synonymous with “traitor”?

Luckily there’s a book on him: Quisling: A Study in Treachery by Hans Fredrick Dahl. It’s definitely niche history—I had to get one of the few library copies via interlibrary loan—but as a part-Norwegian World War II buff this happened to be right up my alley.

The crux of this story is that Quisling honestly believed he was doing the right thing. Highly intellectual, aloof, and humorless, he dreamt of establishing Universism—his homegrown philosophy combining Lutheranism and science—as the “new world religion”, with Norway as the homeland of the supreme Nordic race. In that respect, along with his anti-Bolshevism and anti-Semitism, his eventual partnership with Hitler made perfect sense.

Once the Nazis occupied Norway, and its King and legislature had fled London with the other governments-in-exile, Quisling and his National Union party quickly filled the power vacuum, working with their Nazi occupiers to establish a fascistic, one-party authoritarian state.

But being an occupied country that officially was neither at peace nor at war with Germany stymied Quisling’s ambitions for a “new order” in Norway. (The goal of this new order? To stamp out the “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”.) And since Hitler refused to discuss peace terms until the Axis had won the war, Quisling in his quasi-legitimate government was left to tussle with his German commissars from above and the Norwegian resistance movement from below.

Throughout it all, Quisling remained naively optimistic about leading an independent Norway into his utopian future. Even when Germany capitulated and the war was over, he assumed he’d take part in a peaceful transition back to the old Norwegian government. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and executed by firing squad at the Akershus Fortress, which, in a delightful irony, now houses the aforementioned Norway Resistance Museum.

Dahl’s book is admirably thorough, so most people will probably prefer the Wikipedia summary of his life story to a 400-page book elucidating the same. But I’m glad for such an in-depth study of a tragic figure at a crucial historical moment.

(And for the realization that one of the few spots the Quisling name lives on is in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, at the super-cool looking Quisling Clinic, which was founded by Quisling’s cousins.)

Notes & Quotes from the book

  • At military academy Quisling scored highest average examination in 100 years
  • Held high regard for Soviet organizational skills, if critical of Bolshevik policies
  • Skills were more organizational and staff-bound rather than executive and creative
  • Developed theory of Universism, which combined Christianity with modern natural sciences, especially physics
  • Original manuscript over 2,000 pages; final 700-page version from 1920s; dense and ambitious but not good
  • Dreamt of establishing Universism as ‘new world religion’, Norway as homeland of Nordic race; like “a combination of the United Nations and the Catholic Church”
  • Became a scholar of Soviet Union, studied Russian, and was appointed military attaché of Norwegian legation in Petrograd in 1918
  • Present during Terror, and sent back reports that were widely read including by the King, before he was forced home
  • Book about Russia shot him to fame in Norway, and began slide toward fascism; founded movement aimed at overthrowing Marxism, enhancing Nordic race
  • Defense minister of new Agrarian Party, then new National Union (NS) party
  • Little sense of irony, not much humor, crippling shyness, aloof, but highly respected for his mind
  • Knew Norway wouldn’t be able to remain neutral in war due to its strategic significance and low defense spending
  • Urged cooperation between British naval hegemony and German continental ambitions
  • His growing anti-semitism signaled ideological sympathy with Hitler; thanked him for having “saved Europe from Bolshevism and Jewish domination”
  • Thought Hitler was wrong to sign pact with Stalin given how advanced Germany already was, and knew Red Army was weakened by purges so wouldn’t be able to conquer Finland
  • Envisioned Germany would topple Soviet government and reestablish nation-states with German capital
  • Met with Hitler December 1939 while reported Britain to use Norway as transit country to aid Finland; Quisling offered loyalty from his party
  • Preferred neutrality but didn’t think it possible, so would act in Germany’s interest to prevent British establishment
  • Hitler saw value to occupying Norway before Britain could
  • Naval skirmishes between Germany and Britain in April: King and government relocated, but Quisling characterized as fleeing and initiated coup
  • Quisling hoped for legal appointment understanding from King, but King refused to accept man twice beaten at the polls
  • Wide campaign to get rid of Quisling as he sought legitimacy
  • Hitler supportive at first but then in setting up “government commission” put Quisling in reserve; when commission failed Hitler sent Terboven to command Norway occupation
  • Miscalculated public’s feelings and sense of morality
  • Quisling name almost immediately became international byword for traitor
  • Curried Hitler’s favor as they strategized voting in new occupation government; became prime minister due to his warning of Britain
  • Quisling’s “New Order” in Norway stamped out “destructive principles of the French Revolution: representation, dialogue, and collegiality”
  • Unresolved whether Norway and Germany were at war or peace; Quisling wanted full NS government to provide legitimacy and eventually got it, though with Reichskommissar
  • Sincerely believed he was doing the right thing for Norway and eventual Nordic dominance
  • Oslo University source of strong anti-NS “Home Front” resistance, along with prominent bishop Berggrav, who had tried to broker peace in Berlin and London
  • Photos of “Fører Quisling” everywhere, became authoritarian state sans functioning legislature and King
  • Quisling sought to limit NS membership despite one-party rule to strengthen quality
  • Edict to make youth service in NS Youth Organization compulsory backfired, as did new teachers corporation; when backed by bishops, revolt began
  • Mass teacher resignations followed by large-scale arrests
  • Lobbied Hitler for peace treaty but was denied and remained occupied country, also lost direct contact with Hitler
  • Had different ideas of future than Hitler, whose world domination plans were more improvisatory
  • Began rounding up and registering Jews in 1942
  • Hitler refused to negotiate peace because then other occupied countries would want it, and Quisling’s dreams of Norwegian supremacy dashed
  • After Hitler died, naively assumed there would be peaceful transition of power back to exiled government
  • Arrested May 8; said he knew suicide would be easiest but wanted to “let history reach its own verdict”; thought he’d be deified
  • Quisling Clinic in Madison founded by cousins in interwar years; otherwise name has disappeared

A skeptic’s “Glance at the Public Libraries” of 1928, from H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury

Watch out, world: we’ve got ourselves a 90-year-old hot take!

In the June 1928 issue of The American Mercury, a periodical edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, there’s an article by Fletcher Pratt called “A Glance At The Public Libraries”. I stumbled upon the issue while processing material at the Frances Willard House Museum. It was there because of the article about Willard in the same issue, but the library article was what first caught my eye.

Pratt, a writer of science fiction and history, worked at Buffalo Public Library for a time and used that experience to write this sardonic, dismissive, sexist contrarian take on the public libraries of that time.

Why read it at all? First, as a historical artifact, it provides valuable context from a different era. Second, even though it’s almost 100 years old and, to modern minds, retrograde in its view of library workers and their work, I think it’s important to read contrarian perspectives on issues close to one’s heart and mind. Librarianship is my career and one I love, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore criticisms of it.

It’s also just plain funny, in a tongue-in-cheek, insult comic kind of way. Pratt goes Don Rickles on the profession in a way only someone familiar with it could pull off.

So let’s consider what Fletcher Pratt tells us about how public libraries have changed since 1928 and in what ways they remain the same, if at all. I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full experience. But let’s take a look at some of my favorite parts:

It begins:

Every public library in the United States now places restrictions on the use of fiction.

Librarians, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Restricting fiction seems laughable now, given how popular and dominant it is in the book and library worlds.

American librarians, in fact, have become obsessed with the idea that the national literature will go to the dogs unless they persuade their customers to read something beside fiction. Indignant papers in the library journals and long discussions at librarians meetings are given over to the great question of how to keep the public from reading what it likes and how to induce it to read the moldering stacks of books it doesn’t care about.

That’s what I mean about funny.

Three classes of books—travel, biography and history—are held in orthodox library circles to be the best antidote to this depraved fondness for works of the imagination. To these the best shelves are given, for them the special bulletins are printed, and on them the lady attendant spends the best efforts of her cajolery to make her percentage of nonfiction circulation high.

A favorite device for increasing circulation painlessly is to require every reader who uses a reference book to fill out a slip for it.… Another potent scheme is to take books into the schools; a third is to offer vacation libraries of twenty-five or fifty books for the summer. Are they read? Who cares? It makes circulation, and circulation, in the librarian’s mind, is the summum bonum.

Here is where things get a little more familiar to us moderns. Circulation remains the summum bonum of the profession, however much local value and subject matter still factor into collection development. If a book doesn’t circulate, it won’t last long in a space-limited library.

Nothing is more curious to the outside observer than the typical librarians’ preoccupation with the infinitely little. Recently, for example, an angry controversy raged through the library world as to whether Radio or Wireless should be the heading under which books on the subject were classified. … In the library where the writer once worked hours of discussion at a staff meeting were given over to the absorbing question as to whether it was better to hold a book in the left hand and insert the charge slip with the right, or vice versa.

Book in left, charge slip in right. Wanna fight about it?

This tireless energy over trivialities argues that small minds are at work, and sure enough, there is a certain lack of intelligence among librarians. The reason is not far to see; intelligence follows the cornucopia, and library work is probably the worst paid of all intellectual vocations.

In our defense, tedious discussions about trivialities are hardly exclusive to libraries. But if you’re mad about Pratt asserting a lack of intelligence among librarians, you’re definitely not gonna like his reasoning:

Since girls first discovered that it could furnish them with pin-money while they waited for someone to love them, library work has been a prime favorite with the female of the species. It involves little labor, and that of a highly genteel character; it demands no great mental ability and it places the husband-hunter who enters it on public exhibition, where she can look over and be looked over by all the nubile males of the district under the most refined auspices.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest Pratt would not have fared well in the #MeToo era. Next he tackles library school:

In no case does the course extend beyond two years, and the pedagogues have had to drag in such subjects as the History and Philosophy of Printing to make it last that long. Before the schools got under way the libraries trained rather better staffs than they have now on a month’s lectures with practical experience. The truth is that there is very little to teach; any literate person can learn all there is to a library system in a few weeks. Consequently the library schools have to drill their future B.S.’s and M.A.’s in the beautifully vague principles of “library economy,” and to impress them with the importance of such details as inserting the charging slip with the right hand, or lettering the title on a thin book in the proper direction.

I’ll save the discussion about the pros and cons of library school for another post. But “beautifully vague principles” mixed with arcane details is pretty spot-on—and why I love libraries so much. He then tips his cap to Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of library buildings:

There are never enough branches to go round, but the head librarians, pushed from below by their staffs and from above by aldermen anxious for pork, do their best, and so new branches are added apace. The fund established by the obliging Mr. Carnegie makes it easy; all the city has to do is furnish the books; the Carnegie fund will put up the imitation Greek temple and even the funerary vegetation around it.

Finally, Pratt touts the Newark library as the “highest peak” of effectiveness, unlike that of its neighbor:

Right across the Hudson is the great New York Public, in any one of whose vaulted corridors Newark’s whole collection would be lost. The contrast of striking. In the New Jersey institution one watchman is at the door and a whole corps of eager assistants stand ready to help the visitor; in the marble monument to the Astors one may count a dozen policemen in neat horizon blue idling about to enforce the library rules, while one poor boy struggles vainly with requests for information.

Reading serendipitously

In an interview, Sven Birkerts talks about how serendipity guides his reading:

Any good book will, in the manner of a pool-table bumper, send you angling off to another, and that to another, on and on. The trails are not predictable, they really are serendipitous, but not in the manner of Pandora (“If you liked …”). It’s much stranger than Pandora. Mention of a name in John Berger sends you to some art critic who sends you to the letters of so-and-so, who you find out was mesmerized by X. … You do this for years and it creates this referential network. …

And it never stops, because you really are never done with any worthy writer, you can’t cross him or her off the list. How many times has some writer sent me back to the same essay by, say, Emerson. Each time it’s like “I’ve never read this before.”

Discovery is half the fun of reading. So many books, movies, albums, apps, whatever, I’ve encountered because some other book or tweet or interview or review mentioned something that piqued my interest and sent me pinballing somewhere else.

See also serendipity’s cousin: synchronicity.

At the corner of 84 Charing Cross Road and Typewriter Street

A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.

Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.

And:

what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?

— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)

Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.

And yet, she’s not precious about them:

My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on some solid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:

Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:

There’s also the real Helene:

How to ‘Win Bigly’? Have no shame

Until about two years ago I knew Scott Adams only as the Dilbert guy. But once he started accurately predicting Donald Trump’s unconventional political path using the lenses of persuasion and hypnotism, gaining critics along the way but scoring on predictions over and over when most everyone else was aghast at Trump’s successes, I figured his new book Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter was worth the read.

Turns out it was worth it, if only for an understanding of some of the concepts undergirding the chaos that Trump inspires. He calls Trump a “Master Persuader” using “weapons-grade” techniques to flummox opponents and win admirers. Whether it’s his constant Twitter attacks—”It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic,” says Adams—or his bombastic hyperbole about The Wall—being intentionally inaccurate but “directionally” true will win supporters and fluster opponents—Adams detects and explains what he sees as the method behind the madness. (The “Persuasion Tips” peppered throughout the book are applicable far beyond politics.)

He repeatedly claims his interest in this subject stems not from his politics but from his lifelong interest in persuasion techniques. (His other chief interest? Scott Adams.) It seems true to an extent, but Adams loses some of that nonpartisan credibility by the end of the book when he’s openly cheering for a Trump win.

Despite his compelling arguments, I knew there was another key element to the Trump story. I couldn’t pinpoint it until I recalled a passage from Jon Ronson’s excellent book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, about Max Mosley, a race car driver and son of a prominent British Nazi who was outed by a tabloid for his seemingly Nazi-themed sex party. Ronson’s book is about the people whose lives were upended when their behavior went viral. But Mosley survived his scandal relatively unscathed. Why?

Like me, [Mosley had] been thinking a lot about what it was about him that had helped him to stave off even the most modest public shaming. And now, he wrote, he thought he had the answer. It was simply that he had refused to feel ashamed. “As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed,” he said, “the whole thing crumbles.”

A-ha, I thought. That’s it: no shame. That’s the key to Trump not only surviving scandal after scandal, but surviving all the way to the presidency. A normal politician running for president probably wouldn’t have lasted long after insulting John McCain’s war record or calling Mexican immigrants rapists. But he thrived.

(This also explains the vociferous #Resistance to all things Trump. He doesn’t conform to the commonly held assumptions about political behavior, so like a new viral strain or zombie he just refuses to (politically) die. That makes him particularly vexing and infuriating as an opponent.)

Adams basically confirms this shame theory: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.” No wonder he understands Trump so well! Beyond their persuasion prowess, both men are rich New Yorkers with robust egos but no inner filters. Such a skill set helped build the Trump brand in the business world, and it’s now reshaping politics, the presidency, and the world.

Though reliving the 2016 election through this book won’t sound fun for most people, I recommend it. Adams has written a kind of Rosetta Stone for a less examined aspect of The Trumpening, and I think that’s very valuable and illuminating regardless of your political beliefs.

Notes & Quotes

  • Political commentators without business experience were at a disadvantage when trying to interpret Trump
  • Encourages readers to remain skeptical of his book
  • Trump’s hyperbole “weapons-grade persuasion”: i.e. large opening offer
  • Trump matches emotional state and priorities of supporters
  • Not factually true but emotionally and directionally true
  • Campaign policies are “more persuasion than policy”
  • “When Trump’s critics accused him of laziness, ignorance, and cruel intentions, I saw a skilled persuader who knew what mattered and what didn’t.”
  • Adams has a similar “talent stack” as Trump: hypnotist, New Yorker, rich, doesn’t feel shame: “I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people. I wasn’t always this way. It’s a learned skill.”
  • “Intentional wrongness” paired with something that’s “directionally accurate”, like Trump’s Wall, is powerful persuasion
  • Errors suck up attention and energy
  • Persuasion tip #4: “The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.”
  • “A good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.”
  • Persuasion tip #8: “People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.”
  • Trump is actually thick-skinned, having endured a lifetime of criticism
  • Trump’s constant counterattacking is good persuasion: “It tells people that being his friend is better than being his critic.”
  • A good response to someone’s poor action or words: “Is that the person you want to be?” Higher-Ground Maneuver
  • Says “Fairness is an argument for idiots and children.” [WTF?]
  • Trump’s slogans, branding, nicknames were successful because they were “sticky”, simple, and unusual for politics
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