Tag Archives: Dan

Meet Everyone Brave is Forgiven and Little Bee Author Chris Cleave This Friday

everyonebraveChris Cleave, whose Little Bee and Incendiary have become favorites of many library customers (and a whole bunch of library staff) will be stopping by the Main Library’s Lecture Hall for a talk and signing at 7 pm on Friday, May 13.

When we first began talking with our wonderful partners at Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures over a year ago to see how we could build on our successful collaborative efforts to bring children’s and teen authors and local authors to the library, we saw an opportunity to get bring in top authors who are touring in support of a new book.

And boy, were we right about that! Cleave will be visiting just 10 days after the release of Everyone Brave is Forgiven, in which he weaves a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of World War II London, a story that was inspired by the experiences of his grandparents.

The basic plot follows Mary North, her friend Hilda, and two young men they meet. Mary signs up at the War Office when World War II breaks out, and is assigned a position at a teacher in an elementary school. While there, she meets Tom Shaw, who runs the school district, and his roommate Alistair, who enlists in the war. The novel details the various struggles and intrigues of these characters, explores their feelings for each other, and traces their lives as they grow and mature.

The book is a hit and has gotten rave review from People, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and just about every other publication that reviews literary fiction. Here’s a snippet from Kirkus:

Among all the recent fictions about the war, Cleave’s miniseries of a novel is a surprising standout, with irresistibly engaging characters who sharply illuminate issues of class, race, and wartime morality.

But all of you Cleave fans out there already know all of that. What you need to know is that you can meet Chris at the Lecture Hall on Friday at 7 pm.

Tickets are $10, and you can get them by clicking here or by calling Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures at 412-622-8866.

-Dan, who will probably be at the Lecture Hall door to smile and greet you at the door on the 13th

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East of Liberty Screening on February 2


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Eleventh Stack are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting books, music and movies by African American Artists. We also have a ton of great events and programs for children, teens and adults. You can view all of our Black History Month posts here.

Although the changes to the demographic and socioeconomic makeup of East Liberty have been coming for quite a while — the Whole Foods has been there for 14 years! — the rate of change seems to be increasing exponentially these days. It can feel as though every week brings a new large scale real estate development or business moving into the neighborhood.

The north- and west-facing windows of the the office that I work in, located on the second floor of our East Liberty branch library, have proven to be a good vantage point to watch some of these changes unfold. In the two and half years since my department has occupied this space, we’ve seen the vacant 1909 YMCA converted, at great expense, into a boutique hotel; a Jordan Monahan mural that had become something of a neighborhood icon painted over as a new tenant occupied the old Novum Pharmaceuticals building; and, at the Penn Plaza apartments across the street, tension has grown between tenants of the apartments and the owners of the development who wish to evict them so that they can further develop what has become a very valuable piece of real estate.

Watching all of this change from an office window is one thing, but to really understand a neighborhood, you have to talk to the people who live there. Filmmaker Chris Ivey has been doing just that from the early days of the redevelopment of East Liberty. As he describes on his website:

“I was hired to document the tearing down of the high rises. At the same time I interviewed some of the residents who lived in the high rises and they weren’t happy at all because of the spectacle that was before them. They were really angry. It was their home, it was where they used to live, some for 30 years or more. Even though in many ways it wasn’t the best place to live it was all they had and to see strangers having fun by shooting paintballs at the block left them furious.”

Over the past decade, Ivey has been working on a film series called East of Liberty. So far, the series includes “A Story of Good Intentions,” which follows residents who were displaced from the high-rises that were demolished to make way for much of the new development; “The Fear of Us,” which highlights the experience of business owners who are fighting to remain open as new businesses emerge to appeal to a changing demographic; and “In Unlivable Times,” which is about youth culture.

Chris Ivey will be screening “In Unlivable Times” at CLP – East Liberty on February 2nd, starting at 6pm. This film, which portrays inner city youth in their own voices speaking about their experiences and dealings with neighborhood violence, will be shown in its entirety with time for a discussion after.

If you cannot make the screening, the library does have copies of the film series available for checkout, but I will say that it will absolutely be worth the effort to come out if you can. Ivey’s next film, “Youth Rising,” is currently in production, and as this recent Post-Gazette piece by Diana Nelson Jones shows, he and his work have a way of bringing people out to have meaningful discussions about very difficult subjects like race, class, displacement and neighborhood violence, which means that it will be well worth coming out on a cold Tuesday evening in February to watch it with other community members.

The screening will be on the second floor of CLP – East Liberty, at 130 S Whitfield Street, starting at 6 pm. The film is approximately 55 minutes long, and discussion will follow.

Here’s a link to the event on Facebook. We hope to see you there!


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Explore the Unknown with Your Library Card

Since I was a kid I have looked to the library to indulge my curiosity for things that, well, let’s just say I might not want to ask about too loudly in polite company. The relative anonymity of the library’s nonfiction classification system is much better for exploring interests that you might be a little embarrassed about; you may be reading about continental philosophy, you might be reading about astrology, but unless somebody gets really nebby and takes a close look no one will ever know which one it really is.

The library in Richland Township was the first public place that I remember my mom allowing my older brother and me to be in without supervision. In those pre-Internet days, there wasn’t much trouble that a kid could get into in a small, suburban library in the time it took her to go to the Shop’ n’ Save, so during the summer we’d get dropped off for an hour or so. After a few visits, probably once I exhausted the library’s collection of Peanuts books, I decided to venture into the nonfiction section, and it was there that I somehow managed to stumble upon this:

Alien Encounters

Cover photo courtesy of Amazon.com.

For the uninitiated, this is Alien Encounters, part of the Mysteries of the Unknown series of books put out by Time-Life in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Our collection of these is sparse because librarians, following good collection maintenance practices, have correctly weeded most of the copies from the collection.) These books are an encyclopedic reference to all kinds of paranormal activities, from alien abductions to psychic events to alchemy to straight up magic, supported by very clinical looking illustrations of aliens and monsters, and backed up by the kind of “Coincidence? Or…ALIENS?!” logic that has recently been taken to its logical extreme by the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens show. To a ten-year-old kid, finding these books on the shelf at the library in the company of history books, science books, and how-to books (and with embossed pleather covers no less) was like getting an official confirmation from the land of adults that those things that go bump in the night are in fact real, and are probably looking in your bedroom window every night. It was a rush! And although that building was demolished to make way for the lovely Northern Tier Library years ago, I can totally remember right where those books were on the shelf.

Of course, I never really believed in any of that stuff, and as I entered in to adolescence, I had plenty of other avenues of curiosity that I wanted to explore in the pages of books. (I can also remember exactly where on the magazine rack where you could find around that time the racy-by-early-90’s standards Rolling Stone with Janet Jackson on the cover.) And as my reading habits have evolved, and my to-read list has grown long enough that I probably won’t finish everything that I know I want to read in my lifetime, my reading about aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, and anything else that may have appeared on an episode of the X Files has really dwindled down to none.

It had dwindled, that is, until a little over a year ago when the Library added digital magazines to our eCLP collection. Before Zinio launched publicly, staff had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the new collection. I quickly found some old favorites — Runner’s World, New York Review of Books, Bon Appetit, Saveur, Esquire — and while I was very excited about having digital access to these, I soon found that, like those Peanuts books when I was a kid, they soon felt a little stale. As I browsed the holdings, like young me wandering the nonfiction stacks, I stopped short when I came across this:

Courtesy of Zinio.

Suffice to say, I don’t make many paranormal discoveries these day, and this gave me a little taste of that excitement of reading “serious” writing about something that, while I really don’t believe in it (really!!), gives me a little thrill. In the spirit of sharing that discovery with you, I won’t go into detail about this. Let’s leave it at this — if the Weekly World News is like the New York Daily News of the world of the strange and paranormal publications, the Fortean Times is like the New Yorker for that world.

To read this awesome magazine, or any of the other hundreds of great, if less fantastical, magazines available through Zinio with your library card. But don’t blame me if you can’t sleep tonight!

-Dan, who, unlike Fox Mulder, believes that the truth is nowhere near as “out there” as he’d like it to be.


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I can understand anything if there’s a comic about it; Logicomix is a comic about logic; therefore, I can understand logic.

…mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about nor whether what we are saying is true. People who have been puzzled by the beginnings of mathematics will I hope find comfort in this definition and will probably agree that it is accurate.

-Bertrand Russell from the essay “Mathematics and Metaphysicians”, printed in Mysticism and Logic (London, 1919. Longmans, Green, and Co.), which is in the public domain and is thus freely accessible through Google Books.

To a borderline innumerate person such as myself, the gist of the above quote — that mathematics is in any way unknowable and abstract — is a little shocking. The fundamentals of math that we begin to learn in grade school, and that many of us never really master, seem to be rigid enough. You have little bites of concepts, backed up with practice exercises that a teacher or knowledgeable parent or friend can glance at and determine whether it’s right or wrong. Then you have a test with a small collection of those minor concepts, and you get graded on that. And then you move on to the next set of concepts. Math, from this perspective, is quite knowable. After all, the answers are in the back of the book!

Bertrand Russell, an intellectual superstar of the first half of the 20th century, was driven by the pursuit of certainty, and he is almost certainly referring to himself in the above quote as a person who has been puzzled by the beginnings of mathematics. As a mathematician and logician, Russell relentlessly pursued definitive proof of the most basic concepts. To give an example, he and colleague Alfred North Whitehead famously took 300 pages of dense symbolic text in their influential Principia Mathematica to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. While that might strike many as a world-historic act of navel gazing, it was, in fact, this sort of questioning that led to the establishment of modern logic, without which algorithms and the computers that they run could not have been developed. In a sense, Russell and his peers made this blog possible by laying the conceptual groundwork for computer science.

That quest for finding a rational explanation for everything, and the ultimate impossibility of that task, is a central theme of Logicomix, an ambitious graphic novel by writer Apostolos Doxiadis, computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou, and artists Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna. I say ambitious because the authors set out to explain some pretty complex concepts — the sort of math and logic that Russell and Whitehead were working out in the Principia — to a common reader. This is a work of historical fiction, part biography of Russell, part semi-fictional history of science (semi-fictional because most of the events in the book did happen but not exactly as portrayed in the book), and part primer on logic.

To me, the most interesting thing about this book is how the authors set out to accomplish all of that. They do so using a pretty complex technique that involves three main narratives nesting within one another like Russian dolls. They begin the book with the authors in their studio discussing how they will tell this story; this creates the opportunity to explain some of the basic concepts that they will deal with in the Russell narrative, and the authors return to this thread throughout the book when there is a need for explanation or summary of what has happened in the historical narrative. These scenes sort of function like a chorus in a Greek play would.

The next layer features Russell giving a (fictional) speech at an American university at the very outset of World War II. This layer of the story sets us up for a discussion of the question of why we should care about this obscure and complex math — as the world begins to descend into a bloody war, students at the university demand that Russell, who was, in addition to being a mathematician, also a social commentator and a critic of war, take an absolute position against US involvement in the war. Russell’s speech to the students is the third narrative, in which he tells the story of his early life, his work as a young mathematician, and the development of the ideas for which he became famous. Throughout the story of Russell’s life, we return to him making the speech. In this way, we can situate the major theme of his story, that intellectual certainty is hard to come by because every idea is build upon other ideas whose foundation may not be particularly solid, into the real-life context of whether it is wise to take an unambiguous position on a complicated question. Russell ultimately refuses to take a firm stand on the question of whether the US should become involved in World War II, but rather encourages the protesters to think through the problem and come to their own conclusion.

I have been circling around Logicomix for several years. It was first recommended to me by a mathematician friend, who thought it might be a good window for me to get at least a little glimpse into the kind of questions he was grappling with in his research. More recently, my brother, a high school math teacher, told me that he lends his copy of this book to interested students and it often resonates with them. I’m glad that I picked this up when I did, because I happened to be able to consume it in two big gulps, reading on my back patio on two consecutive warm spring evenings. To me, this is the perfect summer read — it’s complex and thought-provoking, but at the same time not so dense as to be too daunting to tackle. Comics are a great way to try to push yourself intellectually; in fact, the “For Beginners” series was an early player in the graphic non-fiction game and have been popular for many years as a not-so-intimidating entree into tough concepts.

For me, however, Logicomix is a much more than just a palatable explanation of difficult philosophical and mathematical concepts. The explanation is there, but it is all in service of the story. Logic is simply another tool that we can use to understand the world around us. When Russell passed away in 1970, the term graphic novel had not yet been coined, and comics were largely considered to be light fare. With Logicomix, authors Doxiadis and Papadimitriou use the medium to beautifully connect history and math to make some powerful points about the nature of the world we live in. I daresay Russell would approve.

-Dan, whose latent interest in math could be an explanation for why I took Algebra I at least three times.



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Farewell Gabo

Gabriel García Márquez from National Archieef Nederland, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month novelist, journalist, and social activist Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away in Mexico City at the age of 87. It is a testament to his artistic achievement that his works are both highly regarded by critics and are very widely read — Salman Rushdie notes in his New York Times obituary that Ian McEwan’s comparison of Garcia Marquez to Charles Dickens in that regard is accurate — and so it comes as no surprise that people around the world are marking his death by taking a look back at his work and what it has meant to the many millions of readers who have been moved by it.

Here are a few pieces that I have enjoyed reading:

The Paris Review has dug into their archives to make available two great pieces, a 1981 Art of Fiction interview:

I think that writing is very difficult, but so is any job carefully executed. What is a privilege, however, is to do a job to your own satisfaction. I think that I’m excessively demanding of myself and others because I cannot tolerate errors; I think that it is a privilege to do anything to a perfect degree. It is true though that writers are often megalomaniacs and they consider themselves to be the center of the universe and society’s conscience. But what I most admire is something well done. I’m always very happy when I’m traveling to know that the pilots are better pilots than I am a writer.

…and an incredible oral history of Marquez’s life and work compiled by Silvana Paternostro:

WILLIAM STYRON: Gabo could not exist in the Anglo-Saxon world. We have no real tradition. It’s not that writers to some degree aren’t respected in this country. They are, but not to the degree they are not only respected but venerated elsewhere. Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz had that effect in Mexico. Mario Vargas Llosa was close to becoming president of Peru. Gabo is this sort of phenomenon par excellence. The idea of a writer having such a profound political and cultural influence in the United States like Gabo has in Latin America is inconceivable.

The New Yorker enlisted Edwidge Dandicat to write a piece for their blog:

I am often surprised when people talk about the total implausibility of the events in García Márquez’s fiction. Having been born and lived in a deeply spiritual and extraordinarily resourceful part of the Caribbean, a lot of what might seem magical to others often seems quite plausible to me.

Of course a woman can live inside her cat, as the character Eva does, in García Márquez’s 1948 short story “Eva Is Inside Her Cat.” Doesn’t everyone have an aunt who’s done that? And remember that neighbor who died but kept growing in his coffin, as in the 1947 story “The Third Resignation”? What seems implausible to me is a lifetime of absolute normalcy, a world in which there are no invasions, occupations, or wars, no poverty or dictators, no earthquakes or cholera.

The Guardian showed his life in photographs.

The Columbia University Press highlighted his journalistic accomplishments by reprinting excerpts from a piece written by Miles Corwin for a book of essays about classic works of journalism called Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage:

The public always likes an exposé, but what made [Garcia Marquez’s] stories so popular was not simply the explosive revelations of military incompetence. García Márquez had managed to transform Velasco’s account into a narrative so dramatic and compelling that readers lined up in front of the newspaper’s offices, waiting to buy copies.

NPR gives readers a little ray of hope by covering the publication of an excerpt from an unfinished new story by Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.

-Dan, who discovered Clandestine in Chile on a display on Main’s First Floor and is looking forward to reading some of Marquez’s journalistic work.


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California Readin’ on Such a Winter’s Day

When this post goes to press, I will be capping off a week-long vacation in Los Angeles by taking my three-year-old to a certain well-known southern Californian theme park/kingdom that I swore that I’d never go to, until I found myself using visiting Cinderella as my primary negotiating tactic for ending tantrums at the grocery store, using the potty, leaving the playground, etc.

I mention this not to make you jealous about my vacation in the sun, nor to fess up about my questionable parenting techniques, but rather as a messenger from the other side of the ice, snow, and freezing rain that have dominated our region for the last four months.

Spring is coming! And after a long winter, you may have forgotten how wonderful that annual thaw can be. A few things I did this week that reminded me of life after winter were:

  • walked outside without a coat, hat, gloves, etc.
  • walked outside without shoes.
  • drove without being on the lookout for black ice.
  • drank coffee at a table on a sidewalk.
  • smelled flowers.

And who knows? Inside of a month, you may be able to do these things too.

In the meantime, the end of winter is close enough that you can go ahead and get excited by checking out a book, movie, or CD that takes you to a warmer place. Some of my favorite California reads (or views, or listens) are listed below.

You can pick from many classic detective novels set in LA, but The Long Goodbye is, for me, the most titillating representation of the wild old boom town that Los Angeles once was. Let the sex, booze and murder warm you up while you wait for Spring.

Of course, if Chandler’s seedy LA is too tame for you, why not pick up a volume of poems by Charles Bukowski? His disciplined poetry, such as what you’ll find in the posthumously published Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way, offers a nice contrast to his famously debauched lifestyle in which the poorer places in LA play a central role. He supposedly spent his young days reading and writing at downtown LA’s beautiful Central Library.

You could start reading Los Brothers Hernandez’s Love and Rockets books, say, in October and still be watching these intricate tales unfold all over LA come spring. The Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories volume is a good place to start, but you can really dip in anywhere; there’s enough here to last through the longest winter.

I moved to California for a few years in my early twenties and I must admit that even though I lived in Northern California, a part of me expected my west coast lifestyle to in some ways resemble that of The Dude from the Coen Brothers cult classic The Big Lebowski. And while I ended up spending a lot of time going to work and very little time bowling, I did recognize in many Californians a dedication to leisure, pleasure, and enjoyment of the beautiful gifts nature has bestowed upon them. The Dude could never abide in Western PA…

The Beach Boys are perhaps a too-obvious choice, and while Surfin’ Safari and Fun Fun Fun are definitely great tracks to play to take a mental beach vacation, the recently released Smile Sessions, unfinished recordings from Brian Wilson’s famously ambitious attempt to make the great American album, is to me by far the most interesting listen in their catalog. It’s a beautiful, scary look into Brian’s troubled mind and a wonderfully complex example of pop music, which is of one of LA’s greatest exports to the world.

-Dan, who will do his best to bring some sunshine back with him upon his return to PA on Tuesday.

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Idle Worship

Here are a few selections from the table of contents of Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle:

(Chapter 3) 10am: Sleeping In

(Chapter 5) Noon: The Hangover

(Chapter  10) 6pm: First Drink of the Day

(Chapter 19) 3am: Party Time

The book features a full 24 hours of this kind of stuff, essays in favor of smoking, throwing away your clocks, taking long walks, and staying up late at parties. If you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound like a typical self-help book*, I’m right there with you! This troublemaker came to my attention when he was included in the 2007 best books list on Slate for a similar book that he put out in 2007, The Freedom Manifesto.** Among the usual middle-high-brow literary fiction and volumes of top-shelf journalism included in this year-end roundup, here was a book about ditching the stress of a fast-paced modern life for the pursuit of happiness through a very active version of idleness that involves working as little as possible for pay but instead gardening, drinking beer, making art, cooking, reading and napping.

Sounds great, right? Of course, most need only skim the books to realize that following Hodgkinson’s advice would have a ruinous impact on our careers, financial obligations, and good standing in the community. But the spirit of the thing is invigorating, and I dip into a chapter or two of one of his books frequently. Why was I so worried about that report I have to write? Will the world end if I don’t cut the grass today? I don’t even think Hodgkinson takes his own advice very seriously – as a fairly prolific writer and editor of a journal, I would guess that he works a lot more than he lets on, for one thing – but this is the ultimate self-help, written by an Englishman, for a malady that has stricken Americans from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison*** to the working people of today: namely, the unfortunate tendency toward being uptight that causes us to get stressed out over all sorts of things that don’t matter that much.

There are two things that I love about this guy’s writing. The first is that there is not even a hint of preciousness about his prescriptions for a better lifestyle. He’s not crafting an artisinal path to enlightenment by raising goats and doing yoga at the crack of dawn. He’s interested in having time to think, time to pursue things that make him happy, and time to spend with his kids.

The second thing that I love is the sources he cites for his ideas. You will find no double-blind research studies in his bibliography. Hodkinson instead draws on some great literary figures to back up his call for idleness.

If you have even a smidgen of up-tightness that you’d like to overcome, please by all means check out How to Be Idle. And to tide you over until you can get to the Library, here are some of Hodgkinson’s idle idols to give you an idea of where he’s coming from; many of these are in the public domain, so you can find complete works for free on the Internet****:

  • As an Englishman and a counterculture figure, Hodgkinson has a predictable affinity for William Blake. He quotes Blake’s 1794 poem London: “I wander through each charter’d street,/near where the charter’d Thames does flow,/And mark in every face I meet/Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” His interpretation of this? The morning commute stinks, so don’t go to work*****!
  • Robert Burns is central to his argument in favor of beer drinking. Here Burns sings the praise of beer in Scotch Drink: “Thou art the life o’ public haunts;/But thee, what were our fairs and rants?/Ev’n godly meetings o’ the saunts,/By thee inspir’d,/When, gaping, they besieged the tents,/ Are doubly fir’d.”
  • Part of Hodgkinson’s awakening as an idler involved a move from London to a rented house in the country. He identifies, then, with Coleridge, who wrote “For I was reared/In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,/and saw nought lovely but the sky and stars” in his poem Frost at Midnight.
  • According to Hodgkinson, depression  is “a sister to joy and must be embraced.” ******He finds in KeatsOde on Melancholy a way to handle depression — rather than turning to drink or taking antidepressants, instead go for a walk: “But when the melancholy fit shall fall/Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,/That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,/And hides the green hill in an April shroud;/Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,/Or on the rainbow of the salt sand wave,/Or on the wealth of globed peonies…” 

All right: back to work slacker!

-Dan, whose personal favorite lines about the joys of idleness come from a Silver Jews song: “I’m studying the ceiling/On a little afternoon/And when I paint my dining room/I really hope you come around.”

*And its BF 485 call number means it gets shelved with a bunch of self-help books at the library.

**I’ve read a couple of his books, including his parenting manual The Idle Parent, and they are all pretty much the same.

***Franklin and Edison are the targets of a lot of Hodgkinson’s ire.

****And if you go on to read through these poems and essays for an hour or two while you’re at work, I daresay that Hodgkinson would consider that a small step towards being an idler.

*****Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles” crop up regularly in Hodgkinson’s writing. It is a pretty evocative image…

******It goes without saying that he is in no way qualified to give medical advice.

A day of leisure, a day of giving Click here to learn how you can support the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on October 3rd.



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Geek Assistance Needed

Oh, the things I’ll do in the name of professional development. I have had the opportunity to learn pop songs on the uke, figure out how to play X Box (and subsequently get trounced upon by a bunch of grade school kids in a Just Dance 4 dance off), and brush up on my trivia for a game of Stump the Librarian at Market Square Reading Room, all in the name of doing my job. Whatever it takes to get folks excited about the library, I’ll do it.

String meme

The latest professional challenge facing me, however, may involve a complete change of identity. You see, the Library has embraced geek culture in a big way — see The Den, The Buzz, Out of the Gutter, Hands On Workshops, and a goodly chunk of our Teen programming, to name a few. The library and geeks are natural allies — we love technology, learning, making lists, collecting things, and pop culture. And in my role as an outreach librarian, I have an obligation to go out and bring the library’s mission of lifelong learning and literacy to geeks wherever they may work, play, and LARP.

The problem is, despite my love for the obscure and a deep-seated and strong opinion in the Star Wars v. Star Trek debate, I am not yet a geek.

That’s not to say that I am a prep or a jock or any other non-nerd John Hughes archetype. I simply have never been able to stick to anything long enough to get really knowledgeable about it, which for me is the hallmark of geekiness. Sure, I’ve read some sci fi, played a few video games, read a decent number of comics, watched some movies, and made some stuff, but my knowledge in these areas is too broad for me to even be accurately called a generalist. I’m a dabbler at best.

There’s a bit of a sense of urgency here, because I would love to represent the Library at the Pittsburgh Comicon 2013 on September 27, 28, and 29. When I was working the table at the Comic Art Festival, I got called out as a non-geek because I wasn’t able to identify a web comic character. Never again! Now’s the time to cultivate my inner geek.

That’s where you come in, dear Eleventh Stack readers. Be my Virgil, er, Yoda, and guide me to be a +10 level geek!

Professional development literature. It's a tough job but somebody's gotta do it.

Professional development literature. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

To set the mood for my quest, I’ve started with a book that was recommended to me by both my Dickens-loving brother and a fantasy-loving librarian friend, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I have fallen in love with this book, and I’ve got several years’ worth of reading, viewing, and playing suggestions to work through based on the story. If you haven’t heard of this book, check it out immediately. It’s a dystopian adventure story set in a riot-filled, poverty-stricken, environmentally-wrecked near future in which the vast majority of inhabitants of Earth escape the ugly reality by plugging in to a massive virtual reality video game universe called the OASIS. The genius inventor of this virtual world left an “easter egg,”(which I learned is a hidden challenge within a video game that has no bearing on the primary game-play) a series of challenges that will yield to the winner a vast sum of money and a controlling stake in the game’s universe. This book pits our hard-luck teenage protagonist against a massive corporation with dubious intentions and I LOVE IT.

Other recent forays – Joss Whedon’s X-Men series, Twin Peaks, Makey Makey — have been equally promising. But since time is scarce, I need some help! For starters:

  • Do you have to start a comic series from the beginning, even if it goes back 50 or 60 years? Can you just jump in?
  • Manga — I’ve read some Osamu Tezuka, what’s next?
  • What’s an entry point for a fantasy-curious reader?
  • What Superman series will cure me of my tendency to find him boring?
  • If you only have time for one science fiction TV series, should it be Firefly or Battlestar?
  • I’m not a teenager, do I have enough time left in my life to consume and understand Dr. Who or should I move on?
  • I like Red Fang and Sleep, but I fear that these groups are false metal. Please discuss.
  • What’s this Homestuck all about?
  • Do you have a favorite Cthulhu story not written by Lovecraft?

What else do I need to know before Comicon?

-Dan aka Morath, my new Klingon name


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Aspiration: A Very Short Introduction

All right class, raise your hand if you’ve ever had the feeling that you didn’t make the most of the educational opportunities offered to you in your youth. Whether you dropped out or just got an occasional B+ instead of straight A’s, do you ever wonder what could have been if you had just applied yourself a little more?

You’re certainly not alone: a Northwestern study published in 2011 asked a sample of adults to name one regret that really stands out in their memories, and 13% of respondents passed up lost loves, trips not taken, and childhood cruelties to identify a missed educational opportunity as a source of regret. I suspect it’s a common theme among adults — maybe as a kid you spent most of physics class studying the trajectory of a spitball, and now you can’t resist refreshing NASA’s Twitter feed when there’s a big announcement pending. Or perhaps your interest in verse during 7th grade English was limited to finding that just right word to rhyme with “smells” in an ode to your sister, but now you make sure not to miss a reading or 3 Poems By session here at the Library.

Now, we all know there are great pleasures to be found in being a full time student of the People’s University. I’m sure I would have pulled a much better GPA in 10th grade had my schedule resembled my current reading list…

and so forth. (n.b. Obviously pleasure reading and formal schooling are two different things, and I’m sure my dream schedule would be someone else’s [namely, my wife’s] nightmare schedule.)

I think the  dream of a lot of us academic underachievers, however, is that we could somehow suddenly have a broad, traditional, liberal education behind us. Do I want to learn Greek? Um, maybe next year. But do I wish I already knew Greek? Heck yeah!

The publishing industry has long recognized this impulse of wanting to take the easy path to enlightenment. Dr. Eliot‘s prescription at the beginning of the Twentieth Century — 15 minutes a day of hard reading — was supported by a widely-advertised series of books that promised readers the opportunity to become well-educated generalists with just a little effort. The Harvard Classics, and a number of similar publications such as those put out by Library of America, Oxford World Classics, Everyman’s Library, and The Great Courses have long been a great boon for educational late-bloomers as well as people for whom good schooling wasn’t available, offering anybody with access to a library (or some cash to spend on books) the chance to participate in intellectual life that may have otherwise been out of reach.

Even now, in an age in which anyone with access to broadband can sit in on MIT courses, there’s something welcoming about limiting your self-guided education to a book or two on a given topic. After all, it wouldn’t be hard to spend your 15 minutes a day clicking deeper and deeper into a hyperlinked detail in a Wikipedia article, and who needs all of those diversions when there’s a liberal education to be had?

In my opinion, there’s no better resource for the time-pressed aspirational reader than Oxford University Press’ “Very Short Introduction” series. These tiny books — typically between 100 and 150 pages and perfectly sized to fit in the back pocket of a pair of Levis — offer the broadest treatment of the most difficult subjects imaginable, written by top experts for a lay audience.

Imagine if you ran into an CMU professor at a party and, over the course of a drink, she explained her research using analogies, real-life examples, and maybe a quickly drawn graph on a napkin. These are the book version of that.

Very Short Intros

A dabbler’s delight.

There are hundreds of these things, covering topics from Angels to Writing. (I guess they haven’t gotten to X-rays, Yemen, or Zoroastrianism yet.) Some topics seem to better lend themselves to this treatment; I find the natural sciences, psychology, and theology are strengths in this series. But really, I haven’t found a dud in the bunch.  I recently had a good time reading Very Short Introductions to dinosaurs, Bertrand Russell, and the Old Testament. And while I certainly can’t say that I’m now an expert on these subjects, or even have an above-average knowledge of them, I figure that I’ve retained about as much as I would if I had payed attention in school, which is really all I’m after.

Perhaps the American Library Association should have a marketing campaign — “Make up for your misspent youth @ your library!” It has a nice ring to it…



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Bonny Billy Goes to Town

It’s been a good month in Pittsburgh for fans of off-kilter, unsettling, lo-fi indie Americana. Thanks to the Warhol’s Sound Series, we’ve had a rare visit from Jeff Mangum, who brought his pretty-yet-soul-crushingly-sad sound to the Music Hall.  And this weekend, Louisville’s own Will Oldham will travel up the Ohio River (maybe) to give a concert at the Lecture Hall. It’s an intimate venue for a legendary singer-songwriter, and it’s sure to be a memorable show.

If you aren’t familiar with Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Bonny Billy, aka Palace, aka Palace Music, there are about a million places you can start. The guy is prolific – I’ve long since giving up trying to keep up with his EPs and collaborations.  The LPs, which come about once a year, are typically excellent, and the library has a number of them available for checkout. Just about any of those in the library catalog are worth a listen, particularly, IMHO, “Beware,” “Master and Everyone,” and the live “Summer in the Southeast.”

It’s those albums, and the dozen or so others that we don’t have in our collection, plus who knows how many EPs, that have solidified Oldham’s permanent spot on a lot of listener’s playlists, and for good reason. His music is a strange merger of traditional Appalachian music with very modern confessional lyrics, and he always manages to give his music an edge – through an unexpected “explicit” lyric, a brazen synth sound in a sleepy acoustic number, or just a generally sinister vibe that permeates his otherwise pretty songs — that keeps his albums interesting. There is truly nobody putting out records quite like Oldham’s.

But if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “geez, another sensitive singer-songwriter who makes quiet boring music?  No thanks!” (which might well be a direct quote from my wife), you might be interested in Oldham’s frequent departures from making these records. I think that anyone would have to admit that a person who covers Bjork, R Kelly, Merle Haggard, and the Misfits on the same record is someone who has diverse interests.

Consider the following five unusual moves for an indie-folk troubadour:

He did a cover album with post-rock legends Tortoise and re-recorded some of his early songs with a band of Nashville session musicians.

Are these “essential” albums? Probably not, but come on! A synth-heavy avant gard cover of Elton John’s Daniel? Check.  A glitzy Nashvegas rendition of “Agnes, Queen of Sorrow?” Sure!  These records are a lot of fun, and the library has both of them!

He made a video with Zack Galifianakas for Kanye West’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing

This one really speaks for itself. He’s the one with facial hair (har har).

He tried his hand at stand-up comedy.

He was reportedly not bad, not great, but who knows but those who were there? And you have to give the guy credit for stretching himself artistically. He has also had comedic roles on Wonder Showzen and Squidbillies, an absurdist, gross-out cartoon that runs really late at night on cable.

He had roles in some critically acclaimed movies.

In fact, he was known as an actor (for his role in Matewan) before he put out records. He has recently starred in a couple of movies (Old Joy, The Guatemalan Handshake) and had smaller roles in a couple (Junebug, Wendy and Lucy).

He has a fragrance.

Why should J Lo fans get all the perfume glory? 

Intrigued yet?

-Dan, who will be missing the event because my toddler doesn’t care what time I go to bed, we’re still getting up at 5:30.


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