Little Book of Typewriters

I’m a little tardy on this, but I wanted to share what my wife got me for Father’s Day. After a great deal of secret preparations, she presented a one-of-a-kind Little Book of Typewriters for me and our son:

The first page includes a scan of something we got from Tom Hanks in reply to one of my letters to him. It’s his “Eleven Reasons to Use a Typewriter” pamphlet, signed and with an inscription saying “Chad — they are all true”:

Then she took pictures of our typewriters and laid them out with their names. Here’s a few:

It’s become one of 18 Month Old’s favorite books. He’s even started saying “Dora!” when he sees it. Though he has his own typewriter, I have a real Royal Royalite that’s beat up enough to allow a toddler to tap and pick at. One day he’ll graduate to more quality machines. Here’s to raising the next generation of typists! ~/:::/°

In the meantime, he and I have this incredibly thoughtful and useful book to enjoy. We’re lucky guys.

Media of the moment

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

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 Manhunt by 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.

When the past isn’t past

Alan Jacobs:

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.

See also: synchronicity.

Ideology and ‘Information Hunters’

When I first heard of the new book Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss, I thought it was so far up my alley it should have just moved in.

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories:

  • 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.

Peiss:

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.)

Favorite Books of 2019

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

The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson)

Favorite Books of the 2010s

See also: my favorite films, TV shows, and albums of the 2010s.

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

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Media of the moment

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

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: 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.