Tag Archives: nostalgia

Ideal Bookshelves

A thoughtful relative gave me a copy of My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection of essays in which famous people in a variety of fields talk about the books that are most important to them. You’ll find essays from luminaries like Alice Waters and James Franco, as well as from people who are prominent in their fields, but not necessarily “famous.” The gorgeous illustrations that bring each person’s choices to life are colorful and exciting, a wonderful reminder of just how much emotional and psychological resonance physical books still hold for many people. You can learn more about the project, which is the brainchild of Jane Mount and Thessaly LaForce, at the book’s companion website, which also features many other ideal bookshelves on various themes, from Jane Austen to sci-fi, available as prints, paintings and note cards. You can even submit your own ideal bookshelf for custom design!

At first I was overwhelmed by the thought of picking only ten books that were meaningful for me–couldn’t I just have an Ideal Bookcase? But on reflection–and sober contemplation of my savings–I decided that I’d better think about it a little harder. I’ve whittled down the many, many books that have danced through my life over the years to a list of five that have a special meaning. The other ones? Well, you’ll just have to ask me about them next time you visit the library!

ideal

The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater.

Walter, our hero, is introduced to the art of snarking out–sneaking out of the house at night to go to the 24-hour movie theater–by his friend Winston. Walter and Winston are bored with the lack of academic challenge at their school and the tedium of their everyday lives, so when a typical night of snarking out turns into an adventure involving a missing scientist and his greatest invention, the boys are definitely up for the challenge.

This novel was the first book I’d ever read that implied there’s a lot of interesting things going on underneath the surface of everyday life. It was also the first book I’d read that criticized teachers who give tons of busywork instead of actually teaching, something to which I could, sadly, relate all too well. For good or ill, I credit Snarkout Boys for making me the contrarian adventurer I am today.

The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein.

Heidi Holland lives through some exciting times, but she isn’t always sure what to make of them as they pass by. Between glimpses of Heidi in her current life as a feminist art historian, the reader is treated to long scenes from various times in Heidi’s life: trying to figure out boys; discovering consciousness-raising, radical politics, and good sex; and navigating the shallow, greedy culture of 80s materialism, to name but a few. Can a determined young woman live life on her terms? Heidi Holland can, and does, but it’s not easy.

Of all the shows my college theater group produced,  Heidi Chronicles was my favorite. I had only one scene, but I went to as many rehearsals as I could so I would understand how this baffling, cultural-reference-riddled play (I had to stop and look something up in just about every line of dialogue) could ever come to life. Between the words on the page and the skillful architecture of the stage, I came to understand a lot more about art history, women’s history, and feminism. Theater really should be seen and heard, as well as read, so try the digital audio version on for size, too.

Cooking for Dummies, Bryan Miller.

Although IDG’s “Dummies” series takes a lot of good-natured ribbing for their approach, this particular title is extremely helpful. Miller’s introduction to kitchen skills covers basic tools and techniques for the beginner kitchen wizard, then moves on to simple foods, like salads and pasta, that are pretty hard to screw up. Once you’ve got those under your belt, you can move on to strategies for shopping, meal planning, and dinner parties. Miller ends the book with lists of books and resources to consult next, ensuring that you can take your cooking up to the next level, if you want. Perfect for new college grads, or anyone else who’s tired of relying on take-out and the microwave.

This book saved me from a lifetime of eating frozen dinners. I was trying to get serious about exercising and losing weight, so I thought it would be a good idea to learn to cook properly, too (go big, or go home). Miller’s book gave me the basic kitchen skills I needed and the confidence to try more advanced dishes, and I plan to give it as a gift to all the kids in my life when they’re ready to strike out on their own. This is also the very first book I ever checked out of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger.

Henry’s rare genetic anomaly randomly sends him back and forth in time; Clare’s life follows a normal, sequential pattern. Their asynchronous love affair is magical, passionate, and exciting, but also fraught with difficulty. After all, it’s exasperating when the person you love can vanish at any moment, and it’s no picnic for the vanisher, either. Is this a love story for the ages or a train wreck waiting to happen? Literary romance fans who haven’t devoured this book should bump it to the top of their lists, at once.

I’m not the sort of person who reads popular books at the same time everyone else is reading them. I made an exception, though, the year I went to library school, and everybody was swooning over this book. A time-traveling librarian? How could we notIt was the first time I’d been on the same page–literally and figuratively–with a group of friends over a book, and the fact that we were all working hard, studying hard, and partying hard together made it even more meaningful and worthwhile.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s collection of tough-love advice, collated from her tenure as advice columnist “Dear Sugar” on The Rumpus, is tough, tender, hilarious and heartbreaking. Strayed’s overall tone is warm and friendly, making you feel as if you’re sitting in the kitchen–or maybe a coffee shop–with the very best kind of friend: someone warm and sympathetic, but unafraid to call you on your crap, if need be. Letter-writers bare their souls on topics from the loss of a child to professional envy of a friend, and Strayed answers them all the even-tempered wisdom that is hard-won by those who have seen, and survived, many of life’s more unpleasant aspects.

When I grow up, I want to be just like Cheryl Strayed. She’s endured a great deal in her life, but she didn’t let it make her bitter. She writes with both wisdom and humor. She knows when cuss words make a piece of writing work, and when to use gentler language.  And she genuinely cares about the people who write to her, and wants to help them achieve their highest potential. Those aren’t bad things to aspire to, methinks, and I ask myself sometimes, “What would Cheryl say?” when I ponder my own dilemmas. Hopefully keeping this book handy will keep me grounded and sensible–but not too sensible–as I navigate my 40s.

Your turn: what books would be on your ideal bookshelf? Tell us about a book that means a lot to you, or reminds you of a specific time in your life.

–Leigh Anne

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Happy 40th To Me

Last month I celebrated my 40-year anniversary working for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I was hired as a clerk, fresh out of college, at the CLP Bookmobile Center. I was armed with an undergraduate degree in library science, qualified to be a school librarian. Alas, school library positions were hard to come by. It was the 70s, the Vietnam war was going strong, and every other person wanted to be a teacher. To be a public librarian, then and now, a master’s degree in library (information) science was required. I was lucky to find a library-related job.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Click the image to read more about the history of bookmobile service in Allegheny County.

Like many Pittsburghers, except for college, I had never ventured too far away from my Brighton Heights home. The travel radius around my home was tight. I rarely went beyond the North Hills to shop, or to make a visit to my cousins in Penn Hills. Going downtown was always a special treat. Lunch at Stouffers, then shopping at the three big department stores: Horne’s, Gimbels and Kaufmann’s.Sometimes there would be a stop at the Candy-Rama for some special sweet treats. Movies were a draw to town as well, at the Penn, the Stanley, and the Fulton theaters. But I never went to the downtown library. I took the scary bus trip to Main in Oakland (transfers were involved) for my high school research papers.

However, I was a library brat. I had one maiden aunt who worked at the Allegheny Regional library and another who worked closer to home at the Woods Run branch. Books and libraries were in my blood and a habit from my earliest days.

So, working on the bookmobile was an adventure for me. I really loved it! We traveled weekly routes all over the bridges, hills, and valleys of Allegheny County to deliver books to customers from our 3,000 volume mobile libraries. We went and parked at shopping centers and municipal buildings large and small, in mill towns and suburbia. I made friends there that I will always have, though many are now retired.

Bookmobile service was a very personalized, almost boutique service. You really got to know the regular borrowers and often chose books for them based on what you knew they liked to read…without them even asking. The bookmobile was a great training ground. There was no card catalog on board. Staff had to memorize b0th the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress call numbers (CLP switched classification systems in 1972), so you could find the subjects people wanted on the orderly shelves, for both kids and adults.

The bookmobile customers were voracious readers, especially of all kinds of fiction. You really learned all the genres and authors–popular, classic, and literary. We were allowed to read as we drove to and from our stops so it was not uncommon to read a few books each week. This was like feeding steak to a lion.

All of the work was done manually. Registering customers for library cards, taking requests and filling holds–all were done with pen and paper and we kept the information in cardboard shoe boxes. For checking items in and out we used a camera system. Book requests were searched for and laboriously sorted into bins for placement on each of five bookmobiles. Services were very transaction-oriented. We even called the date due cards we put in pockets in the books “trasaction” or “T-cards.” The T-cards had holes along the side like early computer data punch cards and staff used long, thin rods which you skewered into the holes systematically to sort for adjacency of dates. All of the returned T-cards were matched up against the photo logs of check-outs to see if all T-cards had been returned. If not, well, that’s the way we identified if someone had materials overdue, and if they had fines. We kept long lists of names and folks with fines so we could send them overdue notices in the mail.

The world of libraries has changed dramatically over these past 40 years. Computers were introduced in the mid-1970s and have since changed almost every aspect of our library work, our collections, and our services, both behind the scenes and for public service. Our work then and now has been focused on developing a community of readers of all ages. What the public wants from the library is still somewhat the same, but also very different, too. I will talk about these changes from time to time in this blog in future months. People think of the library as a very quiet, traditional place. We anchor our neighborhood, we help everyone. But scratch the surface and you will discover a dynamic, vibrant institution that has constantly changed over time, and is still changing.

–Sheila

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Disco Sucks!

I grew up on Long Island in the late 70s/early 80s, when one could see that slogan in graffiti everywhere. My friends and I were firmly in the “rock” camp, although this did not preclude me from surreptitiously seeing Prince’s Purple Rain or purchasing an Adam Ant record. One friend was a Rolling Stones fan, another, a Jimi Hendrix aficianad0, and still another was constantly blasting the Doors from her HUGE boom box. My favorites at first were Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and later Frank Zappa and King Crimson, which I listened to through my headphones on my stereo system in my room.

Ah, those were the days of the vinyl record, when you could lie on the floor and study the relatively large album covers. I use the adjective “vinyl” before the word “record” so that you, the reader, would know what I mean; in those days we just said “record” and knew what that referred to. We were all so righteously against anything “pop.” We deplored the Studio 54 club scene and its clothing style. Yes, I felt this way too, even though one of my very first record purchases was the seminal Saturday Night Fever, when I was twelve.

Then the music video revolution came along. I still remember the very first videos I ever saw. I slept over at a friend’s house to watch the movie Woodstock on HBO.  Right afterwards two videos from Devo aired: “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo” (Are we not men?).  We were dumbfounded. Not only did we not have the words “music video” in our vocabulary, but we had never heard music like that before; we talked about how weird it was for weeks. MTV exploded all over America, even making its way to a TV installed in our local deli/hangout, “Eat Joe’s Hogie” [sic]. A clever friend dubbed it “MTVoid” and thought up alternate lyrics to songs we were subjected to over and over, such as “We got big feet!” for the Go-Gos’  “We Got the Beat,” and other less blog-friendly quips.

While disco evolved into MTV new wave, we anti-pop-rock kids were developing a taste for hardcore punk or prog rock. Your high school years are often the ones in which the music you listen to defines you as a person. While I enjoyed going to CBGBs in the city with my punk rock boyfriend to see his band play with bands like The Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, I retained my own musical identity by keeping my hair extremely long, wearing deliberately unfashionable clothes (hip-hugger elephant bell bottoms), and listening to jazz fusion and prog rock bands like Return to Forever, Gentle Giant, and Gong. I was always amused that a group of people so adamant about saying how non-conformist they were actually conformed just as much to their punk style as any other adherent of any other musical style. The girls in the bathroom didn’t talk to me until I let my friend’s sister’s boyfriend give me a mullet.

A good twenty or thirty years later, I am nostalgic to hear any disco, new wave or classic rock song that comes my way, regardless of the genre, and I happily sing along to old songs to which I mysteriously know every word.

–Joelle

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Talking to Girls About Duran Duran

I love the ’80s, and I am not ashamed.

The 1980s, that is. The 1880s were jam-packed with interesting phenomena, to be sure; however, no matter how many serious, “grown-up” books I read, sometimes what I need to make it through the day is a healthy dose of cheese-tastic teenage nostalgia.

It was acceptable in the 80s.

Scoff if you must, but music critic Rob Sheffield understands.  His latest memoir, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, is a heart-felt, hilarious love song to the decade permanently associated with hair metal bands and extreme fashion trauma.  Each chapter bears the name of an ’80s pop hit, and weaves Sheffield’s memories of the music with his poignant, yet snicker-worthy, tales of being young and confused during the Reagan era.  “Purple Rain,” for example, relates the saga of Sheffield’s stint as an ice-cream truck driver during a sweltering Boston summer; I laughed so hard while reading this chapter that everybody else in the coffeeshop went out of their way to give me plenty of personal space.

If you remember the ’80s fondly, or wish to understand the psychology of those who do, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is an excellent summer read.  Put yourself on the reserve list ASAP, and, while you’re waiting, consider taking Sheffield’s first memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, out for a test drive.

 Leigh Anne
who still passes the dutchie on the left-hand side

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