Review: Cloud Cuckoo Land

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. New York: Scribner, 2021.

Summary: A story of five characters living in three time periods, whose lives are tied together by the story of Aethon the shepherd written by Antonius Diogenes.

I ordered this one as soon as I could. I thought Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See one of the best novels I’ve read in the past twenty years. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and I couldn’t wait to see how he would follow that tour de force. I guess my response, having read the book, would be to say, “It’s complicated….”

For one thing, it is complicated as a story, really three stories occurring in three time periods of five people whose lives are tied together by another story. The story that ties these three together is of Aethon the shepherd who embarks on a quest to find a mythical city in the clouds where all his questions will be answered and longings met. Successively, he is transformed into a donkey, a fish, and a crow before he finds the city and gains admission at the gates. The story is actually based on a few extant fragments of The Wonders of Thule, the remainders of an 1800 year old manuscript by Antonius Diogenes, according to a note by Doerr.

The first story is occurs in 1452-53, in the attack on Constantinople. Anna, an apprentice seamstress, to supplement her wages to get medical help for her sister, becomes a petty thief, climbing a tower with a lost library. While her and her accomplice sell various items, she keeps an old, somewhat mildewed book that is the tale of Aethon, which she reads to her dying sister, and preserves as a treasure, which in later years made it to the Vatican. Eventually she flees the city, meeting up with Omeir, ostensibly an enemy, a hare-lipped young man, something of an outcast, whose gentle life had been spent tending oxen used to transport siege materials. They flee together to his home.

The second story is in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the 1930’s to the 2050’s. The older of the characters is Zeno, a gay Korean war surviving POW, who first heard Aethon’s story from Rex, an antiquities scholar from England and fellow prisoner. Zeno returned to Lakeport, Idaho, where he spent an uneventful life as a plow driver, punctuated by a visit to Rex and his gay lover in England. Subsequently, through the local librarian, he learns of a digitized version of the only surviving manuscript of the story of Aethon. Consulting with Rex, he spends his retirement years translating an annotated version of the story, until enlisted one day by the librarian, Marian, to help her occupy a group of five fifth graders. He turns his translation into a play that he rehearses with the fifth graders and it is on the night of the rehearsal that he has his fateful encounter with Seymour.

Seymour is an autistic youth raised by a single mom in a double-wide she inherited, as she struggles in low wage jobs to make ends meet. What helps him survive are woods behind his home, where he encounters Trustyfriend, an owl he sits with who brings peace to the cacophony of his autistic world–until developers turn the woods into a high end development. Trustyfriend disappears. And then one day, he finds the wing of an owl. Over time, he becomes an extreme environmental activist, drawn into a dark web group for which he must commit an act of violent protest to be initiated. He chooses to make a bomb to blow up the library–on the night of the rehearsal.

The third story center around Konstance, the precocious daughter of a scientist father and teacher mother on an instellar, multigenerational voyage in the twenty-second century, who heard the story of Aethon from her father before being confined in quarantine when a disease sweeps through the ship, apparently killing all the others. Sybil, the all-knowing “Hal” of the ship will not release her, so she begins to research the story of Aethon, reassembling the scraps of the manuscript and tracing the provenance of the story, including a beautifully bound copy she sees in a digital image in a window of her father’s childhood home.

Doerr moves back and forth between the three stories, weaving successive episodes of the story of Aethon through the whole narrative. As I said, it’s complicated, layered…and for me, it worked, in ways both similar and different to All the Light We Cannot See. Like that book, children play a significant role here, as well as one older storyteller. In the first story, two children on the opposite sides in a siege intersect, with a very different result. Like that book I hear Doerr’s quiet voice unfolding a story of beauty and pathos What is so different is the use of an overarching story to connect the other three, a story that transforms characters in each of the three stories.

Perhaps the import of this all is in the dedication: “For the librarians then, now, and in the years to come.” The narrative is about the preservation of a book, a story nearly lost, hidden in a derelict library, digitized in another, translated in a third, and rediscovered in a fourth. A library played a powerful shaping role on the life of Zeno, as it did on the five children in this play, one of who turns out to be an ancestor of Konstance. A bibliophile at one point in the story reminds us that out of the thousands of ancient Greek plays, we have only thirty-two. Books may be destroyed by fire, water, mold and mildew, insects, shredding, and in our digital age, by erasure or the degradation of digital information or obsolescence of the devices on which the books are read. Doerr offers a quiet polemic for the protection of the stories of our civilization and the vital role of libraries and librarians in that work.

All this occurs against an apocalyptic backdrop, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the worsening environmental crisis of the present, and the desperate efforts to plant a human civilization on a distant world. Is there a word here that our civilization’s stories may be even more vital to preserve in desperate times when the temptation is great to neglect them? Might we find ourselves even in the seeming silliness of the story of Aethon and profit from the story of his quest? Only if the stories remain.

A Thank You To Librarians

Wikidata education for librarians group at WikiCite 2018 by LiAnna (Wiki Ed) licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Libraries in many places are just starting to open up. But librarians have been hard at work all along, even though they miss having patrons in their buildings. I asked people on the Bob on Books Facebook page what they would want to say to librarians.

A word that kept coming up was “lifeline.” Whether it was help getting e-books or gathering their book requests for the curbside pickups many of you provided, people were so grateful for the effort you invested in getting books to us safely.

People didn’t merely see librarians as helping them, but the whole community, just as they always do. But in a time of isolation and strain, your service sustained that sense of knitting together a community and serving that community.

Several mentioned some of your challenges, from the time it took to get book requests to your need to take our temperatures. We just wanted to say “we understand, and appreciate all the things you are doing to keep us safe. We want to keep you safe as well.” And we won’t microwave the books!

You are so creative. Some of you provided craft kits in your communities or special online programs.

We think of you as essential! We want you to be safe and we will wear our masks (over our noses!) when we can come back to the library. We don’t know what we would have done without you during the pandemic.

We appreciate all those library skills and research skills you taught us. We’ve had all kinds of professional and personal reasons to use those during the pandemic.

In some cases, infection rates are still too high to open up. We want you to know how much we miss you!

Your service moves some of us to song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; You make me happy when skies are grey.

One person wrote, “You are important, loved, necessary, and valued!” Some pray for you, others bless you, and what everyone wants to say is:

Why Libraries are Worth Our Support

Rose Reading Room

Rose Reading Room, New York Public Library. Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia.

Right now, libraries in many parts of the U.S. are facing cuts to funding. The most visible case of this is the New York Public Library, which while not technically facing a cut is only receiving an increase from $387.7 million to $388.8 million, which given inflation and increased demand for services, amounts to a cut. High profile figures, including Sarah Jessica Parker have joined the fight to increase library funding in the different boroughs of New York City.

I think libraries are one of the best deals out there today for those who pay taxes. I only occasionally borrow books at the library, but even my occasional borrowing, if I consider the retail price of the book, more than offsets the portion of my taxes.

My basic argument for libraries is that they are one of the most powerful weapons we have for sustaining our democracy, particularly given the growing income disparities in our country.

  • They provide online access, computer terminals, and printing facilities for those who cannot afford these.
  • They offer books for children who cannot afford them, fostering literacy at the most critical time of life.
  • They provide resources for job searches, and often basic courses in job-seeking, and computer literacy that is fundamental for many workers.
  • Many offer homework assistance for students and language assistance for immigrants wanting to learn English.
  • Libraries make available expensive manuals and reference materials for those who by necessity are do-it-yourselfers.
  • Many offer help with college admissions tests, helping to offset the advantages that more affluent students have with test prep courses and other assistance, legal or illegal, in getting admitted to colleges.

In addition, libraries offer so much at no cost to patrons simply for personal growth and entertainment–books, recorded music, videos in both physical and e-formats. They offer a range of programs serving every age group from children to seniors for personal enrichment. The demand for all these services continues to rise, often meaning personnel in the libraries are trying to stretch funding to acquire materials, and often the same people are working harder and longer–many of whom hold at least masters degrees in library science.

Librarians also are increasingly have to cope with the social challenges of our age. Librarians may be the first to spot child abuse. In urban centers, librarians often serve patrons who are homeless, chemically dependent, or mentally ill. In some instances, librarians are the first to respond to a drug overdose and many are trained to administer Naloxone.

All this is to say that I am proud to support the library in my community and extremely impressed with all that they accomplish with our tax dollars. I would venture that this is true in most communities. Why not take time to thank a librarian this week? And if there is a tax issue on the ballot, the best way you can say thanks is to vote yes. It not only is a great bargain (often less than your Prime membership, and certainly your cable bill), but it is one of the best investments I can think of in sustaining our democracy.


Librarians in Dystopia


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.

National Library Week 2016


Did you know that April 10 to 16, 2016 is National Library Week, a campaign of the American Library Association (ALA) to promote the important contribution our libraries make in our lives, our communities, and our country. And within the week’s celebration, did you know that today, Wednesday April 13 is National Bookmobile Day celebrating the work of librarians who take their services on the road to those without easy access to the library.

This year’s theme is “Libraries Transform”. They even have a contest that involves completing the “Because” statement in the graphic above and submitting it through one of the following ways:

Entries can be posted to Twitter, Instagram, or on the I Love Libraries Facebook page during National Library Week for a chance to win. Entries can be a picture or text.  Creativity is encouraged. Just be sure to include the word “Because” and the hashtag #LibrariesTransform for a chance to win. Entries can also be submitted directly to the Libraries Transform website. The promotion begins Sunday, April 10 at noon CT and ends Saturday, April 16 at noon CT.  

My own answer for our local library is “because our library serves as a community hub and provides critical resources and technology for those of every age.” I wish I could distill that to fewer words, but here is what I have in mind.

Our library is a community hub in a suburban community that did not have one until it was built. When a group of us met to save a local wetland from being turned into an office development, where did we meet? The library. Where do we post information for our church’s community garden or the concert announcements for the community choir I sing with? At the library. In fact, the library hosts a number of meetings, book groups, teen gatherings, and, in the summer, outdoor concerts. Whenever I drive by, the parking lot is always full or nearly full.

The other part of my “because” statement has to do with all the critical resources our library provides, including current state of the art technology as well as information resources one might not be able to access on one’s own. It is still the case that 25 percent of American households still lack internet connections. Computers at our library have high speed access as well as all the basic office software. For others, it is free access to online e-books. For others like myself, it is the ability to reserve books online that I want to read but not own, either from our library system or via inter-library loan. For students, there is a homework help center, and there is a job center for those looking for work or seeking a better job. You can see the list of all the things my library offers at their website.

Of course, libraries, along with families and schools, are great places to encourage the love of reading. From read aloud and summer reading programs to the simple fun of wandering the stacks and the shelves with new releases, there is always the fun of that serendipitous discovery of a book you’d not know about that piques a personal interest. More than once, I’ve gone to the library for one reason, and come away with a new book to read, just because something caught my eye.

This is a good week to stop by your local library. If nothing else, your taxes contribute to its operating budget and you should check out how they are being spent. When I look at our library through this lens, I’m always delighted, as I see the way staff serve the public and all the ways our library enhances our community. Reviewing my property taxes, I see that I contribute $18 a month toward our local library. That’s less than the cost of most new books these days, less than half what I pay for internet service, probably less than I spend at Starbucks in a month. The value to me is not just the personal benefit I receive but also the recognition that it is one place that is providing, not a hand out, but a hand up to those who are trying to make a better life for themselves. The value is how the library makes my community a good place to live.

While you are at the library, take some time to look at who is using the facilities. Notice all the programming that takes place. Talk to a reference librarian about the resources at the library or online that might be helpful to you. Just spend time browsing the books and other media available. And, if you don’t have one, or it is out of date, sign up for a library card. You will be amazed at most libraries with all the things you can do with that little card, many from wherever you are! And, if you have the chance, thank someone at the library for making all this possible. National Library Week is a good time to do that.

Big Brother at the Bookstore and Library

Well-worn library and member cards

Well-worn library and member cards

One of the troubling aspects of modern life is how much data about us is stored in various computer data centers. Shopping at my local grocery, I use my shopper card to receive discounts on groceries and fuel while providing the grocer a whole profile of my shopping habits that allows them to customize coupons to my shopping tastes. Every online vendor collects similar data and cookies on our computers track our browsing habits. Health records are maintained on a number of sites. My cell provider has data on all my phone activity and even where I make calls from and where I am (or my phone is) at any given moment. A quick Google search of my address provides information of the appraised value of my home, how many bedrooms and bathrooms we have, and how much I pay in property tax. And this blog and other social media sites provide a substantial amount of information about me. Much of this is done with my knowledge and consent (whether I’ve read those disclosures or not). And most of the time I don’t trouble myself that much, except when this information is compromised by hackers, which seems to happen with disconcerting frequency.

What the Edward Snowden affair made clear is how much of our information is vacuumed up unbeknownst to us through NSA monitoring. The reality is that we probably should assume that very little of what we do, and nothing of our online lives, is private. What may not have occurred to us is that even our bookstore and library searches, if tied to an account (a library card or shopping card, for example, or our name) are also subject to search and seizure without our knowledge under the Patriot Act. Under current laws, according to an article in The Nation, federal authorities may seize any “tangible” thing considered relevant to a terrorism investigation and workers are under gag orders not to disclose these seizures.

What librarians facing this issue have done are to post warnings of patrons that their library internet activity and searches may be monitored. Some have gone so far as to pro-actively destroy wait-lists, caches, and other records. One librarian quoted in The Nation article commented that “It used to be a librarian would be pictured with a book…. Now it is a librarian with a shredder.”

Section 215 of the Patriot Act that permits these kinds of seizures is due to expire on June 1. According to a Publishers Weekly article a coalition of booksellers, authors, readers, and librarians is pressing for the passage of a USA Freedom Act which would restore some privacy protections. It would not eliminate information requests but limit the scope of requests by requiring individual account information under an individualized standard of suspicion.

My personal opinion? While this is an improvement, it does seem that we have eviscerated the Fourth Amendment that reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

These searches involve search orders but no warrant issued from a judge’s bench, nor are these orders presented to the person whose records are being searched. It is all done in secrecy. The truth is, as I’ve already stated, we should probably assume that nothing we do on a phone, with a credit or shopping or membership card, or do online or give others permission to store online is private and we can expect that it may be accessed without our knowledge. But to justify warrantless, secret searches as protecting a free and democratic society is to delude ourselves. That ship has sailed.

Something to consider the next time you check out a library book or use your Barnes and Noble card to buy the latest best-seller.

Why Publishers Need Libraries



I was over at my neighborhood library yesterday. I had to do some planning for a conference talk and the library can be a good place to get away. And because there were books there, I spent some time browsing, particularly the new books section. I did not borrow any books on this trip, but I got some ideas. And a few of these might end up as book purchases. I also found a free publication with lots of book reviews called BookPage. Among other things, it had reviews of David McCullough’s new book on the Wright Brothers, and a review of H.W. Brands biography of Ronald Reagan–and a back page ad from Penguin Random House.

In short, that is why publishers need libraries, as a recent Publisher’s Weekly article observed. Fewer and fewer people are finding books at a bookstore. In the last five years, the numbers have dropped from just under a third to a mere 17 percent. Furthermore, the best-seller lists, another source of purchasing ideas are dominated by a relatively small number of authors. Think about how many times you see David Baldacci or Bill O’Reilly on one of these lists. It is hard for lesser known works to get much notice unless someone like Oprah or Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates talks about them. In light of all this, libraries may be among the best book show rooms around. While online retailers like Amazon have just about anything on their website, it doesn’t all fit on your computer screen and you may not find a new author unless you are already looking for that author or a book title.

One of the most interesting ideas in the article was that libraries don’t cannibalize book sales. For one thing, they buy books! In addition one third of the people who borrow a book in a given month also buy one. Libraries are also a great way to try out a new author you are not sure you like. Sixty percent of frequent library users buy a book by an author they first read at the library.

Staff picks

Staff picks from Worthington Libraries

Librarians know books and work hard to help their patrons know books. Most libraries these days publicize staff picks and staff book reviews as in the screen shot from the website for our local library. Good booksellers often do the same thing. And it occurs to me that sometimes a recommended book ends up wait-listed. That can turn into a book purchase if it is something the individual wants right away.

The article proposes that publishers work more closely with libraries, particularly in highlighting the work of new authors. Libraries could fall victim to the same forces that are pressing the publishers themselves. Free e-books and the growth in the number of titles are making it harder for libraries to bring in patrons and curate new authors. It is easy to just promote the best-sellers. Yet some of the most dedicated readers use libraries and are looking for new authors to read; and teamwork between libraries and publishers could be a win for both.

Reader question: have you purchased books because you learned about a book, or an author at your library?

A War on Public Education?

Yesterday, I came across an article in our local paper that I found alarming. It seems that our State (of Ohio) Board of Education is seeking to relax a rule that requires all of our state schools to provide 5 of 8 of the following services in our schools: elementary art, music or physical education teachers, school counselors, library media specialists, school nurses, social workers and “visiting teachers.”

What was deeply concerning to me is that this represents both a narrowing of our idea of “education” to what is tested on proficiency tests, and seems to eliminate some of the activities that make an education experience rich for our children. It also strikes me that some of the services like counselors and librarians play an important part in helping kids, especially from low income backgrounds stay in school and get into college.

State board of education members by district

State board of education members by district

What was also unsettling to me was how unrepresentative our State Board of Education is of the population they are serving. From what I can tell, only one of the nineteen members is a person of color. At most, only three come from the large urban school districts in our state, yet I suspect these rule changes could have the greatest effect on these districts and the economically disadvantaged students in these districts. Richer districts that can support these programs with property taxes would seem more likely to continue them.

A couple of my posts this week have dealt with the continuing challenge of overcoming the class and racial divides in our society. I am deeply concerned that these rule changes reflect at best a lack of grasp of how these changes will deepen the divides of race and class in our state.

I am also saddened that art, music, and physical education are considered “dispensable”.  In an era where obesity and diabetes are childhood diseases, physical education seems more important than ever. Fit minds without fit bodies just doesn’t make sense. Also, it seems that artistic intelligence is key to many technological innovations as well as enriching our lives. One of the things Steve Jobs taught us is that the aesthetics of our technology matter as much as their function.

At large members

At-large members of State Board of Education

Do I think public education is the best it can be? Hardly! Do I think people should have the right to home school or send children to private schools? Yes. But both I and my son were publicly educated and the services that could be cut played important parts in our lives and success. I’m concerned that changes in rules like this will gut the the existing quality of our public schools. I don’t want to see public schools gutted and education farmed out to for-profit schools. This has been highly ineffective at the university level and of questionable effectiveness at primary and secondary levels. All of us try to get our kids into the best schools possible. That won’t stop. The question is whether we will continue to support quality public education for those who can’t afford private options or don’t have the time to home school because of needing to work.

I sincerely hope the representatives of our State Board of Education will remember that they serve ALL the citizens of Ohio. I sincerely hope they will pursue policies that bridge the real divides between classes and races that still exist in our state rather than accentuate them. This, too, I think, would have been part of Dr. King’s dream.

Summer Reads

The summer vacation season is finally here, and with it trips to the beach, the mountains, a cabin, or just to a shady spot on your deck or in your yard with a cool drink and, if you are a reader like me, a good book. summer reads

For many people “summer reads” and “beach reads” are synonymous. Usually this is light reading–a page turner that holds your attention, or even if you doze off, memorable enough to pick up where you left off. It could be a romance (not my thing) or an action thriller or spy novel or mystery or maybe some Young Adult fiction. Some people would call this “mind candy” and look down on it. I would suggest that while you don’t want to live on candy, sometimes candy is just the right thing!

I have a few other thoughts, not so much about particular books as about types of books you might consider for summer reads. All you need to do is Google “summer reads” to find several lists of suggestions.

1. If you will be “stay-cationing” this summer, you might consider reading a travel book or other history of another country. Learning about a part of the world you can’t visit may not be as fun as going there, but sometimes the trips we take in our minds can be pretty good.

2. If you have children, check with your librarian about some age-appropriate read aloud books you can take on trips or have around for rainy days. If your family never read aloud, this might be the time to start and make some good memories around good books.

3. Pick a book in the category of “I’ve always wondered about…” This could be a book on anything from particle physics to the paintings of Van Gogh.

4. Along this same vein, you might think of reading a book in the category of “I’ve always wanted to learn how to…”

5. The last category I would suggest might be a book or two that you will read slowly because it is a great work of beauty or thought to be savored. Perhaps this is the summer to pull that impressive copy of War and Peace off the shelves and actually read Tolstoy’s masterpiece (hint: figure out a way to keep track of the names). Perhaps it might be a work of great spiritual depth like Augustine’s Confessions or Abraham Heschel’s work on the prophets.

Look for a post soon of some of the books I hope to read this summer.

Your local library probably has a summer reading program and can offer great recommendations in all these categories. As a kid, I used to come home with stacks of library books to read on our shady front porch when I wasn’t at the pool.

We often think of summer as a time of physical refreshment. A few good books can make it mentally refreshing as well. So here’s to a cool breeze, a shady spot, a comfortable chair, and a great book that is even better than it looked when you picked it up!