Songs for Singin’ by the Okee Dokee Brothers. My eager anticipation was rewarded with this double-album’s worth of characteristically clever, catchy, and joyful tunes. I may have teared up during “Jubilation”.
The Last Temptation of Christ. Sure, there are few regrettably ’80s moments and music cues, but it’s nevertheless one of the most effective and creative reimaginings of the Jesus story I’ve encountered. (See also: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore.)
Da 5 Bloods. It’s simultaneously: a long movie that flew by, an epic that felt intimate, a didactic history lesson that felt urgent, a legendary filmmaker’s 24th feature that felt fresh, and a movie meant for theaters that still works on Netflix.
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhuntby Steven Johnson. My reading was already in a slowdown before COVID-19, and then it got worse. But I blew through this one, which is yet another Johnson gem and changes everything you think you know about pirates.
A Hidden Life. Back on the Terrence Malick train, baby, which I think has been wayward since 2012’s To The Wonder. Malick exhibits some uncharacteristic but welcome restraint with the camerawork and narrative structure (i.e. actually having one). Gorgeous Austrian countryside setting and soundtrack by James Newton Howard too.
Triple Frontier. Makes an accidental but fun double feature with fellow Netflix jungle action buddy drama Da 5 Bloods.
If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground
One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.
Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.
A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.
With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’
As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”
As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)
Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.
But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.
(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)
Compared to 72 books in 2018, I read a relatively paltry 24 in 2019. Between work, a new house, and a new baby, I just didn’t have the mental bandwidth to stick with as many books for extended periods. This resulted in a little more fluff than usual, including several Queer Eye-adjacent memoirs and tons of board books I didn’t even count.
Pickings for this list were slim since most of my reads weren’t from 2019. But here’s what I liked the most:
5. The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Johnson
A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
4. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Probably could have just been a longform magazine piece, but I appreciated its evidence-based advocacy for an interdisciplinary approach to learning and life in general.
3. An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
A kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer, from the perspectives of the people most affected by it. “The shooting doesn’t end. Nor does the grinding poverty. Or the deeply rooted segregation. Or the easy availability of guns. Or the shuttered schools and boarded-up homes. Or the tensions between police and residents. And yet each shooting is unlike the last, every exposed and bruised life exposed and bruised in its own way. Everything and nothing remains the same.”
2. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Newport’s definition of digital minimalism is “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” This certainly inspired me to ask some hard questions about how and why I use certain technologies. A key aspect of this approach is to have what Newport calls “high-quality leisure” activities ready to fill the space in your life formerly filled with mindless scrolling. Otherwise Mark Zuckerberg will win.
1. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
“The right way to talk to strangers is with caution and humility.” With his trademark incisiveness and critical insight, Gladwell dives into the gray areas surrounding the cases of Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Madoff, Sandra Bland, Brock Turner, Sylvia Plath, and other events and figures of recent history you only thought you fully understood. Dovetails nicely with the most recent season of Gladwell’s excellent podcast Revisionist History.
(Also interesting to contrast with Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet, a much more positive though less clinical take on similar territory.)
Other favorite reads
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher
Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon
What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams
This list happens to coincide perfectly with the period of time I began (1) reading for fun once I graduated college, (2) tracking my reading, and (3) reading a lot more.
This means I had tons of titles to consider. I forced myself to determine which books both expanded my mind and soul, and exhibited exceptional writing or creative vision. Not for nothing, almost all of the chosen ones got 5-star ratings on my Goodreads.
(My yearly best-of lists have a lot more gems that just missed the cut. Consider them honorable mentions.)
Here—listed alphabetically because I spent all my ordering energy on my movies list—are my favorite reads from the last 10 years.
Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs
Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson
Circe by Madeline Miller
Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Here by Richard McGuire
How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
The Hunt for Vulcan: And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker
Station Eleven by Emily Mandel
The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century by Richard Polt
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
Just missed the cut:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler
But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us by Nicholas Carr
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.
Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.
Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.
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.
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.
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…
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 finetoo.
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?
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”.
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.
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.