Reading or Listening?

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Photo by Photorama -CC0 via Pixabay

A while back, when I asked some friends on Facebook about why men read less, on average, than women, one responded, “I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.” I started to explore and found that this is true for many people. I had been living in a kind of bubble, thinking books were things that you read.

Audiobooks have been around for a long time. At one times, they were on cassette tapes. Later they were burned onto CDs. My first exposure to audiobooks was on a trip between Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio listening with my driving friend to a James Patterson thriller, feeding another CD into the player every hour or so. Only problem was that we got home before we got to the end of the book.

This trend has accelerated in the era of podcasts and digital downloads. Sales revenues of audiobooks have doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the number of titles published increased from 4,600 to 35,500 during the same period (Source: Statista). By 2017 the latter total reached 79,000 titles (Source: Good E-Reader). Library Journal reports that 86 percent of libraries reported increases in audiobook circulation in 2016. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company) has reported membership growth of 40% a year for its $14.95 per month subscription service.

What’s behind all this growth? A Quartz article proposes that it is a relentless drive to greater productivity. Audiobooks and podcasts allow us to fill the downtime, or even the time spent doing something else that doesn’t demand all of our attention–driving, exercising, or commuting on public transportation. While sometimes we may just listen to a book, in most cases we are listening while we are doing something else–multitasking. Some tasks, like riding public transportation don’t take a great deal of attention as long as we notice when its time to disembark and this might be one of the best ways to use the time, particularly if all of the other riders are in their own media bubbles.

The question could be asked of the impact on our lives of this relentless drive to be doing something “productive” and the effects of multitasking, which research has shown makes us less effective in whatever tasks we are engaging. I know that I cannot listen to much more than the news while driving, and if I try to listen to an interview or lecture while engaged in a task like writing, I can remember almost nothing of what I was listening to. Research suggests it isn’t just me, but if you think you can pull this off, I won’t argue.

I’m also intrigued by the kinds of books that are most popular in terms of audiobook sales. As you might expect, fiction and literature, followed by mystery, thriller and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and romance top the list of sales. Business books, children’s books, and biography and memoir are much further down. I can particularly understand why children’s books aren’t as popular in this format. The artwork is as important as the words, something that cannot be reproduced in audio format. Serious forms of non-fiction (a good part of my reading) don’t make the list, and from what I’ve observed, few of these titles are even published in audiobook format. That makes total sense to me, because close reading, reviewing arguments, and footnotes are a part of such texts. (Source: Statista).

It is probably not fair for me to make comments about using audiobooks to read. I don’t do it, but I can see for the genres that are most popular, listening can make as much sense as reading. I did enjoy listening to a James Patterson audiobook with others in the car over 500 miles of basically the same scenery.

I do wonder about the feeling that we have to fill every second with some form of input. Are we so afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts? I wonder if we go through life thinking that many of the things we do aren’t worth our full attention, including our books. We think they are insufficiently productive unless accompanied by some other activity (which we also are judging insufficiently productive in and of itself).

The ubiquity of our digital devices tempts us to this. I couldn’t even sit through the intermission of Phantom when it was in town without pulling out my phone, answering a few emails, approving an expense report, and checking Twitter. And here I was sitting in this gorgeous old theater having just enjoyed some glorious music performed magnificently. I wonder if I were to get into audiobooks whether this will tempt me even further to surrender life in the real world to a digital one.

Mostly, I find myself wondering about this phenomenon and whether this represents a temporary fad (e-books spiked and then faded) or whether this is something different. I suspect like many things, it is double-edged, with upsides and downsides. As you can tell, I really have little experience with this stuff. I’d love to know what others think who listen to their books.

The Great American Read

The Great American Read

Image from https://www.facebook.com/GreatAmericanReadPBS/

Have you heard about The Great American Read? On May 22, PBS will premiere an eight part series exploring the power of reading, hosted by Meredith Viera. The program explore this through the lens of 100 works of fiction selected through a poll of the favorite works of 7200 people and narrowed the list to 100 books. The series will consider how and why the authors of these books created their fictional worlds, how these books affect us, and what they say about the diverse mosaic that makes up America.

The first episode will run two hours and introduce the 100 books. The next five episodes will look at concepts common to this list. Then the final episode will announce America’s favorite book. And how do they discover that? Beginning May 22, we all can vote either online or on social media. Voting will continue all summer with the results announced in October 2018.

A few caveats on the books. Only works of fiction are included in this list. They must be in English. Series are allowed but only count as one book. Only one book per author is included on the list. The list ranges from classic works to contemporary novels, and covers various genres of fiction from mystery to thriller to young adult to science fiction.

So, what books are on the list? By going to “Read the 100 List” you can see cover images of the book and can click on a link giving a short summary of the book and a brief profile of the author. My only wish is that they had a downloadable list of the books. Obviously, some of the items on this list have not yet stood the test of time such as The Martian or Ready Player One. Young adult fiction like The Outlanders and The Hunger Games make the list.  I was surprised to see Christian thrillers by Frank Peretti, Dave Hunt, and Tim Lahaye, and Paul Young’s The Shack. I was pleased to see literature from an ethnically diverse selection of authors: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Another Country James Baldwin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and others. Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien make the list, but Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton are missing. I’m also surprised at the absence of William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and John Le Carre.  There are others on the list I easily could replace with them. The list is called America’s “most loved” books–not the greatest works of fiction in English.

You can take a quiz as to how many of the 100 you have read. I’ve read 35 of the works on this list. There are some I will take a pass on, like The DaVinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, this is on the list), but I also got a few new ideas like The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I seriously hope I can read Don Quixote and The Count of Monte Cristo one of these days.

There are many different lists of great books, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. But one of the delightful aspects of this series is that it gets us talking as a country about books we care about, which might be a better conversation that much of what passes for public discourse. Having a vote for the most loved book is kind of like American Idol for book nerds. You can geek out on social media, following them on Facebook and Instagram and tweet about them at  #GreatReadPBS. The only thing I’d suggest is make sure you find a few on the list that interest you, and take some time to talk with others about what you like about them. Wouldn’t it be great if The Great American Read could become the Great American Conversation?

Why Do Men Read Less…on Average?

I recently came across the contention that men read fewer books a year than women. The statistics vary but the most current I could find indicated that on average, women read 14 books a year and men 9.

Clearly, I’m an anomaly, having read over 100 books a year each year of the current decade–but then I’ve always known I’m a bit of an anomaly! I read more than my wife, so our household is an exception to the norm.

Since I am an anomaly and not a good judge of these things, I thought I would go to that fount of all wisdom, Facebook, and ask my friends about this. Their responses seem in line with what has been written about this.

One friend wrote:

“While I can’t speak for all guys, I can remember growing up and it being seen by many as “nerdy” to read, and thus something to not do. This view was mostly held/expressed in elementary school, but I think that if someone absorbs this viewpoint at a young age, then it will likely be hard to change later in life.”

Another wrote:

“Could it be because it’s hard to read a book while you’re throwing or catching or hitting a ball?”

I resonate with this. Probably one of the reasons I read is that I wasn’t athletic in elementary school, usually the last to be chosen for teams. Since I already was teased for my lack of athleticism, I thought, why not read? But I can see how it would be harder for others who actually had athletic skills!

Another person responded,

“Women tend to have more verbal/language skills than males typically, it may be an off shoot of that trend”

This may relate to some other comments:

I just asked my husband, and his immediate response was “shorter attention span.” I think technology is to blame. He spends more time staring at screens, and he jumps around on them so much that it’s become a habit.”

“True for my wife and I. She reads many more books, I read a lot more news/blogs. Short attention span?”

“I’m post literate. Seriously though, I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.”

Some have proposed that there may be biological differences between men’s and women’s brains but these comments also raise the question of technology. Do men and women interact differently with technology? Does listening to books count as “reading” and do these make it into these statistics? Or do men and women read different kinds of things? Statistically, the answer is “yes” with women reading far more fiction than men while men prefer non-fiction. This is particularly true in the category of romance fiction where women outnumber men 84 to 16 percent. Two of my respondents said,

Not positive but I suspect men read more newspapers. Women I know read fiction while men do not.”

I go to used bookstores, and I’m always amazed by the number of romance books they have. They really outnumber most other genres.”

This makes me wonder if some of the difference is the kinds of books read. We will tend to read fewer books that take time to read (densely written academic books for example, or history books with longer page counts that tend to have a male audience) than page turners, steamy or otherwise. One person (a woman) noted:

I read a lot less than the average person but largely academic books. The same is with my husband. Maybe that’s why we read a lot less. Some of the “average” women I do know also read mostly smut books…. which I refuse to partake.”

Another commented:

I’d be interested in a more complex breakdown of these numbers. I know some folk who put up huge Goodreads books numbers, but all they read are 200-pg pop fiction. With mass numbers and the common person, what kinds of books are the average women reading, etc?

“That information would tell us if we’re talking about “the average reader” (male and female) or “serious readers” or “academic readers”; my suspicion is that the gender differences will vary significantly between those three (or more) groups.”

I was thankful to find a few men who are as anomalous as I am. One wrote:

“I buy and read two or three times as many books as my wife, and she reads a lot.”

“We already know everything! 😂. Seriously, I read a LOT of books, so I don’t know why others don’t.” (Emoticons in actual comment.)

My very anecdotal and unscientific survey does suggest to me that there is much more to look at than the raw statistic of average books read for men and women. The questions of what kind of reading each do, including media other than books, what kind of books they read, and even what kind of readers we are all factor into this discussion. One article I looked at noted these types of readers:

  • Page Turners: avid readers (48% of women, 26 % of men)
  • Slow Worms: slow, serious readers who finish their books (18 % of women, 32 % of men).
  • Serial Shelvers: those who have shelves of books they haven’t (and probably won’t) read (17 % of women, 20 % of men)
  • Double Bookers: have at least two books going at a time (12 % of both women and men).

I found that a bit puzzling because I fall into three of the four above categories. What all this suggests though is that there is far more to be understood about our reading habits that these blunt-edged statistics don’t capture.

What are your thoughts about the differences between men and women when it comes to reading?

Do You Read Introductions?

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Beginning of the Introduction (p. 7) to the Norman Denny translation (published by Penguin) of Victor Hugo’s  Les Miserables.

Do you read the introductions and prefaces to books? And when do you read them if you do? I’m in a book group where this came up. We are reading Boccaccio’s Decameron. The edition we are using is a modern translation with a long introduction by the translator. Some of us ignored it. Some of us found profitable background. And some of us felt like it would make more sense after we had read the book, or even while we are reading the book.

I’m in the “read it, and read it first” camp, which may reflect a weird, OCD part of me. I’m always afraid I’ll miss something important that will better help me understand a book if I don’t. But I sympathize with those who read the introductions afterward, because sometimes, when it is someone else commenting on a book, the commentary doesn’t really make sense until I’ve read the book.

This is less of a problem when an author comments on their own work, particularly works of non-fiction. Often, they give helpful statements of why they wrote the book, what they are trying to get across (their argument), and how the book is organized. It fleshes out the table of contents and helps me not get lost in the forest of chapters and miss the big idea. Many writers of non-fiction write the Introduction last, perhaps because you don’t always know where a book is going to go until you’ve written it. Or it is a way of trying to bring a semblance of coherence to what they have written.

That’s one reason, when I go back to a book to review it, why I re-read or at least skim the introduction. I want to ask the question, “did they do what they said they were going to do and how well did they do it?” I also look at whether there were parts of the book that weren’t essential to the point that was being made and how well the book hangs together.

When it comes to fiction, most of the time I’m grateful when there is no introduction and we can just get into the story. Usually, an introduction feels like an admission of a writer’s lack of skill in getting his or her message across in the text itself. Most of the introductions to fiction are in classical works. The ones I appreciate the most give me the important contours of the life and times of the author and the setting of the work. I don’t find it as helpful when the introduction goes into literary criticism of the work. I would rather think for myself about it. Those who write these introductions should leave this kind of material to academic journals.

Good introductions are short. The one to my edition of Les Miserables is only seven pages for a 1232 page work. I can see why people embarking on reading a long work don’t want to wade through fifty pages before they even begin reading the actual work. What I do find helpful are footnotes or annotations that unobtrusively anticipate the details of place or culture about which many of us are unaware. To put most of this in the introduction means it will likely be forgotten when I get to page 800.

Those are my thoughts, for what it’s worth. Do you read introductions?

Princeton Theological Seminary Religious Texts on Internet Archive

Holsinger s history of the Tunkers and the Bret

One summer, years ago, I got my first exposure to the work of digitizing archives when my son, something of a computer geek, spent a summer during high school digitizing old documents and photographs, learning how to handle and document this work. He wore gloves to protect old paper as he scanned documents. His work along with that of countless other volunteers is still online at Worthington Memory.

Digital archives are a profound boon of the internet era. I’ve accessed out of print books, census, geneology, and death records, old newspaper articles, plat and survey maps in the course of blogging. One of the biggest sources of digital archives is the Internet Archive. A recent article on Open Culture reports that Princeton Theological Seminary has digitized over 70,000 religious texts from all the great world religions. You can look at a first edition of J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a King James Bible from 1606 or an edition of Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection by E. A. Wallis Budge from 1912 (if I am reading the Roman numerals correctly).

When I visited the Princeton Theological Seminary archive, I was delighted to scroll down and find a history of our own small denomination, Holsinger’s History of the Tunkers and the Brethren ChurchIt is an amazing and eclectic collection with everything from Kathryn Kuhlman’s Victory in Jesus to an early edition of the MahabharataOne can find histories of particular congregations, mission society histories, hymnals, language studies, William Paley’s Natural Theologytheological monographs, and much more. These are not electronic texts but digital editions of works in the Princeton Seminary Library, with library stamps, signatures, damage and aging to the paper.

There is a search box, and you can filter by collections or individual texts, by year, by subject, by collection, by creator (denominations or individual authors), and by language. A few searches yielded everything from postcard images of Youngstown churches, to works of Charles and A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield.

Obviously, I had great fun just scrolling through the first few pages of texts. Some texts are simply early editions of books readily available. Some are works, like old Bible dictionaries, that have been superseded by recent scholarship. Yet I suspect there are scholars who find research-worthy studies in the comparison, or in tracking down earlier literature. Fine biblical and theological work has been done for centuries and to limit one’s study to the last ten years is limiting indeed.

This is just one archive within the Internet Archive. While browsing around I also came across the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) which advertises nearly 21 million images, texts, video and sound from across the United States. But that’s for another post!

 

Have You Been Hounded By A Book?

Pet Hound Animals Hunting Dog Dog Portrait Pets

CC0 Public Domain via Max Pixel

Have you ever been chased by a book? Maybe it is a book that has been sitting on your shelves for a long time that you have always been meaning to get around to read. Or perhaps it is one of those books you never heard about until a week ago, and suddenly three unrelated people told you about the book and insisted that you needed to read it.

I was reminded of this experience while reading The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, which I recently reviewed. His bookseller, Roger Mifflin is talking to his young protege’, Titania Chapman, when he asks:

“Did you ever notice how books track you down and hunt you out? They follow you like the hound in Francis Thompson’s poem. They know their quarry! Look at that book The Education of Henry Adams! Just watch the way it’s hounding out people this winter. . . . That’s why I call this place the Haunted Bookshop. Haunted by the ghosts of the books I haven’t read. Poor uneasy spirits, they walk and walk around me. There’s only one way to lay the ghost of a book, and that is to read it.”

I did read The Education of Henry Adams but never felt hounded by it. Nor do I feel haunted by ghosts of books I haven’t read. But hounded? Chased? Yes. For example, I never got beyond the first 50 pages or so of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship until a few years ago when I read it with a book group. Yet I quoted Bonhoeffer’s statement in the book, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” I could talk about “cheap grace.” But it bothered me that I had never read the whole book, a profound exposition of the sermon on the mount. Later in life, several different friends mentioned Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace until I finally sat down and read this profound account of the “other” and how we might encounter those very different from us.

There are some books that continue to hound me. The Chronicles of Narnia are begging for another reading. Just to my right I see the old, second hand copy of the Modern Library’s edition of Capital by Karl Marx. No, I’m not going to become a communist, but I’ve always been interested in work and workers, and often come across references to this book. Haven’t cracked the book as yet. That equally applies to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, one of the first attempts to define what is distinctive about the American experiment and The Federalist Papers, and their arguments for the Constitution.

One of the books that has hounded me was Boccaccio’s Decameron. I inherited an old edition of the book from my mother, one of the works she loved. A book group I’m in has just started reading this Italian classic from the fourteenth century in modern translation. Witty, ironic, perceptive of human foibles and more than a little bawdy at times, but not boring. I finding myself wondering what stories mom liked most. That goes for the set of Balzac novels she loved as a girl. Other than Pere Goriot, they are still hounding me.

Have you been hounded by a book? What was it like to finally sit down and make friends with the hound and read the book? Did the book become a friend, or did you find yourself wonder, “what do people see in this?” What books have hounded you?

What Makes a Book a Good “Read”?

GrantWhat makes a book a good “read”? This has been a question I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Grant. As I write I’m 680 pages into the book and into Grant’s presidency. There are about 300 pages to go, and this is one book I don’t want to end. I contrast this with some 200 page books where i get to page 50 and wonder when it will end.

I’ve come up with several things that I think play into making a book of any length and any type a great read:

First of all is the choice of a subject or plot focus. Grant as a person makes for a fascinating subject. Son and son-in-law of two overbearing fathers. Resigned his position in the Army due to drinking problems, which dogged his heels all his life. A failure in civilian life in the years leading up to the war. Yet he comes alive with the Civil War as a leader who doesn’t worry about what others could do to him, but wants Confederate officers to worry about him. He takes the fight to his enemies. He finds an aide, John Rawlins, who acts as his conscience, keeping him more or less sober. He fights Lee fiercely, wearing him down, and treats him with grace at Appomattox. He sees Blacks as people, and embraces Emancipation and Reconstruction, when so many, even in the North, resist it. He is a man of integrity, yet can be strangely blind to others of lesser character. And on it goes.

A good writer finds or creates interest in her plot or subject. In one sense, almost anything can be interesting if the writer finds what is interesting in it. What a good writer seems to do is tease out the richness, the fascination, the goodness, and flaws of his character or characters. This is far more than a bare narrative of Grant’s life–one event after another. It is an exploration of what it was to be Grant. Chernow’s obviously thought about the strength’s and flat sides of Grant–how what worked on the battlefield and didn’t in political office. He considers the people around Grant, and their influence without submerging the influence of Grant himself.

Then there is the question of pace. How can someone write a thousand page book without being tedious? It comes down to keeping things moving. Chernow always seems to move on before I start wishing he would. Sometimes this is not the case with books that are considered “great.” Readers often complain they are hard to read, even if they explore fundamental matters of the human condition. I’m not sure what to say about this except that perhaps there are times when what is being said is of such importance that we hang in there, even if we wish it had been written with greater facility.

Finally, I think it comes down finally to good sentences. As a reader, what one notices is that you don’t bog down in the text but just move down the page. Meaning comes through clearly, and the sentences aren’t too complex. You don’t keep going back asking, what did I just read?

A good read is a pleasure. We often spend far more on a good meal or performance than we do on a good book that affords hours of pleasure and enriches our lives. I’m coming more and more to believe it is money well spent, a way to say “thank you” to authors, publishers, and booksellers who bring this goodness into our lives.

 

Should Reviewers Endorse Books?

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The Source of the term “blurb”. Public Domain-US via Wikimedia

I had never thought about this question until recently when asked by an aspiring author whose work I had agreed to review whether I would do a book endorsement (or blurb) instead. I had to think about that one. In the end, I decided not to do this. Here’s my thought process (along with some further reflections).

For one thing, an endorsement serves to give credibility to a book. People look at the back cover or the inside of the book to see if people they know and respect think this book worth buying. Honestly, part of my reason for saying “no” is that I am not a household name, despite having a decent following, Most people would just say “Bob who?”

Beyond this, book endorsements are always positive, and they imply that one approves the ideas of the author, and particularly the book in question. I can fully understand why that is important in promoting a book. An endorsement by a person known to the prospective reader is an encouragement to at least take a look, and think about buying this book.

And that brought me to my other reason for saying “no.” I have developed this blog around reviewing, and reviewing is different. It is not one to three sentences about what is so good about a book. It is a longer form, in which I try to summarize a book in a way that helps my readers decide whether or not to buy the book. If I’ve done my job well, someone who buys a book I review won’t think I misled them, even if they have a different “take” on the book. While I generally try to be gracious in my reviews because I have some sense of what goes into writing a book, I will not always agree with the book’s point of view or think that it was particularly well-written. Sometimes I will note issues it fails to address. Reviewing gives me the freedom to make negative as well as positive comments about a book.

Sometimes, an author or book publisher or publicist will excerpt a quote from a review I’ve written (often on Twitter) that looks like an endorsement. I have no problem with this as long as there is proper attribution and a link to my full review (note the copyright paragraph on this blog). For anyone who cares, they are able to consult the full review…and it provides traffic to my blog as well!

This points to the place of both reviewers and endorsers in the book industry. Both are important in “getting the word out” about a book and helping people decide whether to buy it. We both have in common an appreciation for the work that goes into a book, we both think reading good books is a valuable endeavor, and we both recognize that publishers, authors, and booksellers depend, at least in part, on our efforts in securing sales of a book. Also, in most cases for both of us, this is purely a labor of love, unless we work for a review publication like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. Otherwise, paid reviews or endorsements raise all kinds of ethical questions (especially online reviews at bookseller sites).

But the two roles are different. While some do both, in truth I’m uneasy about endorsements if I am to maintain my independence as a reviewer. At very least, I could not review the same or another work of an author for whom I had written an endorsement. [Similarly, I’ve done anonymous reader reviews of a couple of manuscripts that were later published. I did not write reviews on these books.] Maybe deep down, I worry that if I endorse books, people will think any positive reviews I write to simply be endorsements of the book.

So, for now, I won’t be appearing in any book blurbs…not that people are beating a path to my door! I’d be curious how others have thought of this.

Postscript: I do think the endorsement thing can be overdone. I wrote a while back about a book I reviewed with six pages of endorsements. The more endorsements, the more suspicious I get about the book, but that just may be me.

 

Librarians in Dystopia

1930's_-_ca._-_Alma_Custead,_Librarian,_and_Staff

Patchogue-Medford Library, [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia

Remember when the role of the librarian was to help you find research materials for your homework, sign you up for a library card, help you log onto the library computers, and check out your books? Remember when librarians were the guardians of a safe, quiet place of discovery?

Our news is filled with accounts of opioid abuse and overdose deaths, gun violence, and sexual harassment and abuse. In many of our minds, we consider the library a sanctuary from such things, a place to read the newspaper, to hunt for your next read, to do research on a business start up idea. When, in my mind I conjure up my idea of a “safe place” or my “happy place” some version of a library often comes to mind.

Sadly, the reality of the evening news has invaded my safe and happy place. A recent story run by our local CBS affiliate cited the statistic that police answered 3200 calls to our city’s libraries in the last two years. They received calls for drug overdoses, shootings, gang fights, and sexual harassment and assaults.

In one incident, a librarian was punched in the head by a 12-year old boy after asking him to be quiet. Plainly, librarians are being called upon to deal with situations most of them probably never dreamed of when they decided to pursue the profession. This was the subject of a recent Bookriot article by Katie McLain that gives a glimpse into the brave new world librarians are confronting each day. In some major cities, for example, librarians are receiving training in administering Naloxone. One Philadelphia librarian, Chera Kowalski, has saved dozens of lives and was recognized by Hillary Clinton for her work at the 2017 American Library Association convention, according to Fobazi Ettarh’s article, Vocational Awe and Librarianship.

In addition to confronting crises like those named above, librarians often are confronting issues once addressed by social agencies, the health care system, and other neighborhood institutions like churches, parishes, and other religious bodies. They are called upon to address homelessness, unemployment and mental health issues along with the more usual questions for which they trained. McLain asks the question of whether we are asking librarians to be our local “superheroes,” a role that can be exhausting, albeit rewarding.

It seems to me that this new reality that our librarians face in our dystopian world is something they should not face alone. It seems at least three things are important:

  1. If they are expected to regularly handle these situations they should be trained, institutionally supported and appropriately compensated.
  2. Libraries will need to spend more on security. The local news report I mentioned above indicated that our metropolitan library has spent $600,000 in upgraded security cameras in addition to hiring more security personnel. If we want our libraries to be safe and to provide the same or enhanced levels of service, in most municipalities, we should be prepared to pay for it.
  3. We need to recognize that, in addition to societal factors, the erosion of other neighborhood institutions puts more stress on the libraries to fill the gap. In particular, I think we have seen a decline in neighborhood religious institutions, which, along with mom and pop stores, have yielded to “big box” facilities 5, 10, or 20 miles away that have no connection with where their parishioners live. Likewise, many social agencies are in a central location, often distant from different parts of the city, and inaccessible to those lacking transportation. What can we do to strengthen networks of care in our local communities?

Finally, it probably won’t hurt to thank your local librarian for all that he or she does. It may in fact be far more than you think.

Book Recommendations

book-recommendationDo you like book recommendations? I do, at least most of the time.  But not always, and I’ve been thinking about the difference between the ones I like and the ones that are not as welcome.

The book recommendations I appreciate the most are personal. They come out of conversations, sometimes about books,sometimes about other things. For example, a ride back from a conference and a discussion about “skunk works” operations led to a recommendation of Skunk Works, the story of the original “skunk works” operation under Lockheed, that developed the X-15 and the first stealth fighters. A conversation with another friend who was a mystery buff put me on to Michael Innes, and his detective, Sir John Appleby.

I’ve often enjoyed, and sometimes invite, a conversation, about “what have you read recently that you enjoyed.” Almost invariably, I’ll hear of a book I want to read. I finally read, and loved, Walter Wangerin’s Book of the Dun Cow, because of one such recommendation after having known of it for years.

I do learn about books through reviews, ads, publisher catalogues, websites, and emails. Just as I suspect you don’t read all my reviews, and you certainly don’t buy everything I review, neither do I. All these formats give me the space to choose, or move on.

One trend I’ve enjoyed among booksellers are cards placed with books they are recommending. I always find intriguing what fascinated someone about a book, even if I decide not to buy it.

I really don’t like impersonal recommendations–you know, the ones based on recent viewing or purchasing history, For example, for a while, all I would see was cookbooks, because we’d ordered a cookbook for a friend.

The other kind of recommendation is kind of an occupational hazard of reviewers. Just because I’ve read a book on a particular subject or in a particular genre, that does not mean I want to hear what I really “should” read. Sometimes this is a vehicle  for authors to promote their book, or another blogger to promote their blog with a link to it. It’s one thing if you have a different take on the book I’ve reviewed and are posting your review to engage with me. But promoting something else is hi-jacking and bad manners.

Sometimes it is more innocent. Someone just likes another book on the subject, often one I’ve not heard of, and messages me on Goodreads or Facebook or on the blog. My challenge comes down to “so many books; so little time.” Often, I have a pile of books I’ve requested for review, and other books I want to read.  I thank them for the suggestion (and secretly hope they won’t be offended when they never see me review the book).

Probably, and I think this is true for all of us, we love the space to choose to read books that pique our interest. On the other hand, nothing repulses me more than the statement or insinuation that I “should” read something. Probably, as a Christian, the only book I should read is the Bible, and even in this case, it is not a question of “should,” because I find it life giving. “Should” never has been a good motivator for me.

I think what it comes down to is that there is a certain serendipity about the best recommendations, similar to coming across a long-searched for book at a second hand store or book sale. They are especially fun when personal, and unanticipated, when your own sense of “I think I’d like that” matches up with your friend’s “I really liked this and here’s why.”

I’d be curious, am I just being cranky, or do others think this way?