Category: Books

Refer Madness: Buyers and Borrowers

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A patron walked into the library and approached the desk.

“I was just at a bookstore but I didn’t want to buy too many,” she told me.

She had a list of books she wanted, some of which she got at the bookstore but a few she left to see if she could get through the library.

“Sometimes, when I buy books,” she said, “they just sit there. If I get it from the library, I’m reading up a storm.”

There is absolutely something to this. I have a bookcase full of books at home, yet I can’t remember the last time I picked one off those shelves to read over a library book. Because I know they’ll be there indefinitely, there’s no urgency to read them. A library book, on the other hand, has a deadline attached to it, and often a waitlist.

In the debate about library ebooks, one of the key points ignored by publishers is that there is broad overlap between library users and book buyers. More than that, the relationship between libraries/librarians and bookstores/authors is symbiotic. We may have different priorities, but I believe we’re on the same team and help each other immensely.

Yet publishers (and their new overlord Amazon) would have people believe libraries are parasites, stealing potential customers away from authors with free* books.

(* not actually free)

The book world isn’t a zero-sum game. In the case of this patron, everyone won. The bookstore and authors got paid, the library got checkout stats, the woman got what she wanted, and the books got read (victims of tsundoku aside).

I keep thinking of the quote from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist about his illicit relationship with Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain:

You know, it could be like this, just like this, always.

In the context of the movie, this was a naive, desperate wish. I sincerely hope that’s not the case for the future of ebooks.

My son’s media of the moment

Based on the ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

The Best of Raffi. The man is famous for a reason. I’ll bet even the mere mention of “Baby Beluga”, “Down By the Bay”, or “Bananaphone” has you singing along in your head.

Dance for the Sun by Kira Willey. It’s kinda stunning how immediately this album calms my six month old, specifically starting with “The Dancing Mountain”. Been the case since he was born. Now any four-syllable word can send me into a “Caterpillar Caterpillar” cover.

Elizabeth Mitchell. Another children’s music legend you can’t really go wrong with, whether her solo work or collaborations with Dan Zanes and Lisa Loeb. “Little Sack of Sugar” from You Are My Flower is fun if you have a chubby baby you can jiggle along with it.

Super Simple Songs. These cartoon videos on YouTube stun the Boy into a motionless daze, so we play them usually only when we need to trim his tiny fingernails. “Apples and Bananas” is the go-to.

Toot by Leslie Patricelli. This board book has an impressive 4.9/5 stars on Amazon from 715 reviews, a rating I fully endorse. Nice to have fart-positive books out there to teach little ones the ubiquitous and hilarity of flatulence. I’m proud to say the Boy loves it and giggles at the mere sight of the cover.

Bunny Roo, I Love You by Melissa Marr. This very cute board book features a mom comparing her baby’s behavior to different baby animals. The first time I read it to my son, the line “Then you yawned and slopped, and I thought you might be a tired piggy” made me laugh out loud. Not only because he’s a chunker who loves to breastfeed, but he squeals and snorts when he’s happy and gets a little floppy and sloppy when he’s tired. Love my little piggy…

Get Thee Back to the Future

Whether it’s my podcast-heavy diet or baby-induced reduction in mental bandwidth for extended concentration, I haven’t been doing much book-readin’ lately. Which is OK, as not reading is fine too.

That doesn’t stop me from trying. While browsing the new releases at a neighboring library I spotted Ian Doescher’s Get Thee Back to the Future, a complete retelling of Back to the Future in Shakespearean verse.

It’s an incredible literary feat. What plays in the movie as this…

DOC: Are those my clocks I hear?
MARTY: Yeah, it’s 8:00.
DOC: They’re late. My experiment worked. They’re all exactly 25 minutes slow!
MARTY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that it’s 8:25?
DOC: Precisely.
MARTY: Damn. I’m late for school!

…Doescher turns into this:

MARTY: Alas, what ringing! Why hath this commenc’d,
The tintinnabulations of the bells?

DOC: Peace! Count the clock.

MARTY: —The clock hath stricken eight.

DOC: A-ha! Then mine experiment hath work’d!
They run as slowly as a tortoise gait,
Behind by minutes counting twenty-five!

MARTY: What shocking words are these thou speak’st to me?
What presage of mine own delay’d arrival?
What prelude to a future punishment?
What fable of a race against the clock?
Is’t true, what thou dost calmly say to me?
The time is verily eight twenty-five?

DOC: Precisely—science is not lost on thee!

MARTY: O, fie upon it! I must play the hare,
And skip most jauntily upon my path,
For I am caught up late for school—again.

DOC: Godspeed, then Marty, on thy merry way!

And so on for the entire film. It’s essentially a funny gimmick that Doescher takes to the extreme. Such an endeavor requires an intimate knowledge of and skill with Shakespearean style, which consists of a lot more than just adding the occasional “hath” and “thou”.

Doescher has written several other Shakespearean retellings like Much Ado About Mean Girls and Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. Here’s hoping for many more.

Library ebooks are not free

Those of you not in the library world probably don’t know about the contretemps currently roiling the industry.

Library users don’t see how much ebooks cost for libraries. I order them as part of my job, and I’ve never quite gotten over the sticker shock of some costing as much as $90 each. And that’s just for a license of 2 years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first (almost always the 2 years).

Still, libraries will buy as many as they can because ebooks and eaudiobooks are only growing in popularity. Given the limited collection budget for most libraries, now you understand if you’ve ever placed a hold on a library ebook and found yourself #237 on the waiting list for the whole consortium of libraries sharing access to that ebook. Pity the poor souls who want to read Daniel Silva’s latest:

But guess what: that wait time is about to get a lot longer.

On July 25, John Sargent, CEO of the publisher Macmillan, announced that Macmillan would make only one ebook version of their new titles available to each library system for the first eight weeks after publication. This is meant to frustrate library users enough to where they will give up and buy the ebook or print version rather than wait so long. And perhaps they will: more power to any book buyer.

But if you’re thinking, “One copy for a whole library system, which can contain dozens of libraries and thousands of users, sounds like a terrible idea,” then you are correct.

Sargent claims libraries are “cannibalizing sales” based on several factors:

“a seamless delivery of ebooks to reading devices and apps”

He should sit at the Info Desk with me and watch me help an elderly technophobic patron get library ebooks onto their Kindle.

“the active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers”

This might blow his mind, but people can be both purchasers and borrowers at the same time and often are, in the case of books.

“apps that support lending across libraries regardless of residence”

If he’s talking about sharing among a regional consortium of libraries, then yeah, that’s the point. The one my library is in consists of over 100 public and school libraries in and near the Chicago area that share a collection of ebooks and audiobooks, and do so mostly to share the enormous cost of buying ebooks. But it’s not like I can borrow from NYPL’s collection, and I can’t even access any extra copies another library in the consortium purchases.

Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, one of the largest distributors of ebooks to libraries, responded to Sargent’s specious reasoning and counterproductive pricing with appropriate skepticism:

For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian. Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming – as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic. It blames public libraries and librarians for the work they do to promote reading, books, authors and help sell the publishers’ products. It blames libraries for the millions of dollars they spend on Macmillan’s product, encouraging the reading of Macmillan books and authors.

And perhaps most importantly:

There is zero acknowledgement by Macmillan of the reality that library ebook readers are Macmillan readers and customers. The high degree of overlap between library users and book buyers is well documented. Libraries build audiences for authors and books, promote reading and discovery, and are a most trusted source for recommendation on what to read next.

Internet-famous librarian (and excellent newsletter writer) Jessamyn West wrote a column for CNN summing up this imbroglio nicely. In “Libraries are fighting to preserve your right to borrow e-books”, she brings the heat right away:

Librarians to publishers: Please take our money. Publishers to librarians: Drop dead.

Then gets to the crux of the issue:

As publishers struggle with the continuing shake-up of their business models, and work to find practical approaches to managing digital content in a marketplace overwhelmingly dominated by Amazon, libraries are being portrayed as a problem, not a solution. Libraries agree there’s a problem — but we know it’s not us.

The craziest thing about Sargent’s memo isn’t everything I’ve mentioned already; it’s that Amazon isn’t mentioned once.

But instead of finding a way to work with libraries on an equitable win-win solution, Macmillan implemented a new and confusing model and blamed libraries for being successful at encouraging people to read their books.

The point here isn’t to self-congratulate libraries. It’s to illustrate that Macmillan’s new scheme alienates the very people and cultural institutions that buy their books and get other people to read and buy them.

Meanwhile, can I interest you in Libby?

Quotes from the Underland

I’ve only made it through the preface of Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane—an “epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself”—yet rich quotes abound:

“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives). Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions). Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets). Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”

“Force yourself to see more deeply.”

“The underland is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as our memories, myths and metaphors.”

“Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving.”

“‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years.”

“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

Klazz Brothers & Cuba Percussion. Their Mozart Meets Cuba and Classical Meets Cuba mashups are great for people who want to get into either classical or Latin/jazz.

What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. I much prefer Bell in audiobook form, where his engaging and grounded storytelling chops can really shine. This revisionist history is good for skeptics but better for entrenched believers.

Knock Down the House. The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez origin story I didn’t know we needed.

Avengers: Endgame. Will need a rewatch to decide if it’s better than Infinity War, but my first instinct is that it isn’t.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams. Amazon Prime has the whole series on streaming, so I decided to watch the first episode again just for kicks. Cut to just now wrapping up season 4… This shiiiiiiiiiiiiiii is good.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Good combination of cultural analysis and practical takeaways.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Finally knocked this off my AFI 100 list. I’m pretty sure it was, shockingly, my first Elizabeth Taylor film. Mike Nichols directs it into something more artful than its “married couple argues the whole time” conceit.

Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara. The long-lost story of the female artist who designed the Creature in Creature from the Black Lagoon, alongside reflections on being a woman in Hollywood.

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

A Clockwork Orange. Had been putting this off based on what I’d heard of its disturbing content, but finally bit the bullet for the sake of the AFI 100. Typically impressive Kubrickian cinematography and dark satire.

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz. Kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer. Kotlowitz embeds with people and families affected by gang violence, illuminating the humanity within tragedy.

Captain Marvel. Brie Larson was a great choice.

Minding the Gap. Stunning.

A Star Is Born. Admire Bradley Cooper’s dedication and Lady Gaga’s talent.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Paired with Sapiens and Homo Deus, this book made me at once immensely proud of humanity and profoundly disturbed by it.

Three Identical Strangers. Wild, stranger-than-fiction story.

Pretty Woman. My first time, despite having seen the “jewelry box laugh” scene and shopping montage as parodied in Dumb and Dumber. This wasn’t ’90s Julia Roberts at her peak, but she was on the way up.

Only dopes use drugs

I love everything about this book cover, which I encountered at the Frances Willard House Museum & Archives:

See more from Frances Willard.

Media of the moment, post-baby edition

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

The Baby Book by William Sears. This has been helpful thus far. Though don’t think we haven’t also randomly Googled things at odd hours.

The Cider House Rules. Filling in the gaps of my 1999 movie viewings. This gets less compelling once Homer leaves the orphanage.

Brazil. I’m always up for a good dystopian satire, but this one feels actively antagonistic toward the idea of being likable.

Saturday Night Fever. I was familiar with this from references in Airplane! and The Simpsons, but I hadn’t actually seen it in full. The dance scenes are oddly mesmerizing, but the sexual politics are quite disturbing.

Terms of Endearment. I’m sorry, I just can’t get into Shirley MacLaine. Debra Winger is the highlight.

Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up by Tom Phillips. Reviewing this for Booklist. It’s like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens by way of a cheeky, crude stand-up comedian.

Four quotes from The Overstory

Here are four context-free quotes I like from The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book I’ve only just started and am not sure if I’ll even finish:

“Makes you think different about things, don’t it?”

“Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything.”

“A tree is a passage between earth and sky.”

“They can’t believe a kid worked for months on an original idea, for no reason at all except the pleasure of looking until you see something.”