Saturday, October 23, 2010

The New Official Watha Blog

It's been a great ride here at Blogspot. Your sincere devotion to this blog really showed, and we are all extremely appreciative of the great comments and the turnout for our award winning programs.

We're shutting down the Watha Blog here in blogspot, but you can still get the great articles and event announcements you've come to expect from us over at our new official site:

If you're one of our RSS subscribers you can load up our new page from:
Again, thank you all so much for your participation here. We couldn't have gotten where we are today without you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Graphic Memoirs

Small, David. "Stitches: a memoir" W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London 2009, G.N. Catalog # 92 S6369

Bechdel, Alison. "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" Houghton Mifflin: Boston, New York, 2006, Catalog # GN 92 B3915

The genre of memoir has attracted much attention in the past few years with the success of the autobiographical reflections on youth in the work of Mary Karr in “The Lairs Club” and Kathryn Harrison with “The Kiss.” Their work has generated a fascination with the retelling of personal histories that rivals interest in the imagined world of fiction. Of course in many respects these genres are not too far apart in that they both use the imagination. One must add to this the recent spate of Graphic Memoirs, including, Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and David Small’s “Stitches.” It takes a great skill in use of both memory and imagination to find the most effective way to image events of one’s life in metaphor and make analogies between one’s experience similar experiences. As sensory beings who discover life through taste, smell, and picture, we need very concrete forms to portray an emotion, or thought with precision. This can be done with just words but graphic memoirs have the advantage of being able to directly present images and figures to do this. But such representation can never be an exact transcript of experience in a photographic sense.

The author of graphic memoirs has an advantage in that he/she may use actual pictures of gestures, faces, expressions, and actions to tell the story of his or her life. However, more importantly, the author can present a literary comparison, mental image, or metaphor in a physical shape drawn by the hand. One example of this concreteness of expression in graphic memoir can be found in David Small’s “Stitches” when he describes his mother’s temperament that he endured as a child. She was angered by young David losing his shoes while exploring the upper floors of the Hospital where his father worked. Her “silent fury” is compared in the text to a “black tidal wave” and then that wave is pictured as a massive ocean wave topped with foam breaking against the picture of his mother glowering with rage. He then he pictures himself being drawn into the whirlpool left by the wave. The inappropriateness and injustice of his mother’s anger is conveyed with startling impact in the very simple drawings and the effect upon the child of that anger is shown in an even more dramatic way. David Small would often present a series of traumatic experiences such as a punishment through scalding by his grandmother with a mute series of stark images. In these simple sharp black and white drawings he shows his grandmother’s angered expression, the hot water pouring in the sink, and his fear afterwards lying shivering in bed. The series of terrifying moments are drawn in outline pictures that are very effective. There is no dialogue or commentary to soften the blow. These were some of the most moving scenes of the memoir. The reader is made to suffer the terrible events passively with no language as a cushion or barrier just as a child might experience these things.

Alison Bechdel uses the possibilities of graphic memoir to convey experiences through fantasy and literary analogy very effectively. She is able to literally redraw her parents as characters in a F. Scott Fitzgerald or Henry James novel to make an important comparison. She imagines her dad, the focus of her memoir, in his early relationship with her mother, as a young F Scott Fitzgerald in the army falling in love with Zelda. She shows this by morphing his image into that of Fitzgerald. She makes the unreality of their early romance clear by how it was shaped by his father’s fantasy life through visually quoting from his letter imaged with his handwriting. Bechdel also extends the methods of graphic memoir by representing the actual handwritten text of her father’s diary and integrating the diary into the frame of her young father sitting in his army bunk. This technique of layering using facsimile of diary, letter, and notes into the drawings of imagined scenes is her father’s youth. In this way, she adds multiple textures to the story she is telling. What one gets a full sense of memoir as a constructed artifact. The reader is able to observe all the elements that the author is playing with to allow one to get a full sense of how she is constructing and reconstructing his image. These two examples indicate that graphic memoirs are a new and startlingly effective literary form that can be used to convey the both immediacy of the moment and elaborate reflection on the meaning of one’s life.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

As Much Chaos As We Can Stand

Cognitive Surplus:
Creativity and generosity in a connected age
by Clay Shirky
Penguin, 2010
242 pgs.

I have finally finished reading Clay Shirky's phenomenal new book Cognitive Surplus and I have been blown away by it from beginning to end. Shirky, a professor at NYU, explores how the default settings inherent in social media software are driving not only how we connect with each other, but about the kinds of massive projects that we can create if we spend even just a modicum of our free time (time usually spent watching television) contributing to them.

The depth of this book is difficult to summarize, but let me give it a shot.

Each of us has an amount of time, thanks to the labor struggles of the twentieth century, with which we can do what we will (our cognitive surplus, i.e. leftover brain time). With the advent of television we slowly became consumers of a passive media environment, so much so that many of us watched enough television that it could be considered equivalent to having a part time job. This wasn't because we necessarily wanted to be couch potatoes, but this was the environment we had. It was a default pattern, not necessarily a desired state of being.

With the introduction of the internet we began developing a different pattern of social behavior toward our media. From the creation of ASCII art as a humble little creative endeavor in early emails we have progressed to an era where we can create our own original videos and share them with the entire world. Beyond even that we have also grown to the point where massive, globally shared projects, like Wikipedia are made possible by the dedicated efforts of millions of people spending time creating content instead of being a passive receptacle of pre-packaged media.

What drives us to create and share things like lolcats, fan fiction and YouTube videos, or to participate in large scale protests or create alternative news reporting outlets?

Shirky's answer: we have the means and opportunity to do so, for free, and the software that has been designed to support these structures promotes an environment of creating and sharing. These things have always been going on, but the ability to share our personal creative works, or to participate in a mutually creative and supportive environment has just not been available at this scale ever before. We all know people who wrote fan stories of their favorite television show, or who went to conventions and shared their hobbies with each other. Social media allows us to not only find those people who share our interests, however bizarre they may be, but to engage in them with an unprecedented level of speed and freedom, thus nurturing subcultures to greater heights.

Beyond the level of subcultures we have begun to develop massive multi-user created systems that have a great deal of civic value. Projects like developing open source software like Linux or Apache, creating articles for Wikipedia or reporting news on Ushahidi have become invaluable resources to society. These works could not have been done without the ability to connect disparate people who have a shared ethic, vision and need via social media.

The long term view of how the internet is shaping our society has yet to be seen, and the examples he provides of similar revolutions in communications show that one can never really predict where we will be fifty or a hundred years from now. What Shirky does provide however is a bit of a roadmap outlining what factors lead to successful social media environments, and an excellent review of how far we've come in just a few short years.

This was one of the most engrossing reads I've had in quite a long time. Fun, informative, and a great amount of positive speculation about the internet. I strongly recommend it, not just for people who have internet wonkery as an interest, but for pretty much anyone who has a deep love for culture. The stories are thought provoking, funny, scary and over all brilliant.

Check it out!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anyone can make a record now. Yeah, most of us have heard this sentiment banging around musical circles and the blogosphere, but not a lot of people know what this means. First, a very brief history is required.

Magnetic tape recording began in 1949, which could record only one performance, all on the same tape. Multi-tracking was largely developed by jazz guitarist/inventor Les Paul, but was still in its infancy in the sixties. In the mid-sixties the true potential of stacking many tracks on top of each other came into bloom.

In 1966, the Beatles holed up for nearly half a year at 3 Abbey Road, St John's Wood, City of Westminster, London, England and created what most music magazines (including Rolling Stone) call the best album of all time. In creating Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ recording team used huge tape recorders precariously daisy-chained together, making it possible to overlap sounds, add lush layers of instruments, and finally painstakingly splice together a masterpiece of unprecedented extravagance. From that point forward, multi-tracking was established as the industry standard for making records. Then along comes digital…

Fast-forwarding through the eighties, nineties and the last decade, we find ourselves in quite a different audio climate. Once digital recording became the industry standard in professional studios, it wasn’t long before any musician with a laptop and a microphone can make a record (I’m not talking about vinyl here. Not yet, anyway). Amazingly, we are not talking about a low-fidelity garage record—clear, high-quality digital audio workstations became available on the consumer level more than ten years ago. A company named Digidesign came out with a computer program called Pro Tools, which quickly became the most popular program on the market. Now everyone I know has (at least) a mini-studio capable of recording thirty-two or more audio tracks and mix them down to a CD-quality digital version. Finally I arrive at the point of this rant: should the new Watha T. Daniel Library be outfitted with a recording rig?

I run a modest recording studio, mostly to mix records of bands I like and my band, which I also kinda like. I recently upgraded to an Intel Mac and set aside my G4 and Digidesign Digi 001 interface for something newer. Now my old rig is just sitting, gathering dust and looking lonely. I’m not going to throw away my old machine. Nobody will want a system that still runs Pro Tools 6.4. I was thinking of creating a program at the new building in which we write, record, and mix a song—the whole process from start to finish—but I have doubts about whether I could get enough participants. What do I do?

Remarkably, despite the arsenal of audio tools available, very few artists have really achieved the level of clarity and perfect orchestration as Sgt. Pepper’s. However, the new generations of young, computer-savvy musicians may be ready to tackle the challenge. At the very least I know they have tons of ideas, and often no way to get them out there. This recording program might help kick-start the process.
What do you think?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hip Hop Hippie

Lang, Michael with Holly George-Warren. “The Road to Woodstock” Harper Collins: New York, 2009, 781.6607 L271
Tiber, Elliot with Tom Monte. “Taking Woodstock: a true story of a riot, a concert, and a life” Square One Publishers: Garden City, NY, 2007, 92 T5528

I was thinking about all the books and the film that have come out recently about the Woodstock Festival of 1969 among them “The Road to Woodstock” by Michael Lang, and the memoir and movie “Taking Woodstock” by Eliot Tiber. It has been a long time since that eventful weekend but interest in the event remains strong. One has to ask oneself why is there still such interest in a festival that represented excess, mud, and great music. It think the reason is that there was more too it than meets the eye. Woodstock was a staged event if you accept the term that was meant to express something of the vision of peace, harmony and opposition to a war that was behind the whole hippie and peace movements of the 60s. It was in a sense the culmination of the high craziness and idealism of that era.

The symbolism we remember: long hair, colorful clothes, and connection to nature, all pointed to a larger ideal that some developed of how things ought to be. Their idea was if we could resist certain negative trends in our technological and overly urbanized society. Like the Be-ins of the previous year in New York’s Sheep Meadow Park and the original Be-in in San Francisco this was a designed happening. The spontaneity came from the flood of up to a million people that actually came and the ordered chaos that ensued. But overall there was a message behind the madness. In some strange way the vision of harmony with others, closeness to nature, and the creation of a small utopian city became real at least for one weekend.

Today there are other creative movements among them the work of Hip Hop musicians, rappers, and oral poets. They are trying to shape the vision of another kind of utopia with their creativity and energy. Strange to say, in some ways they are attempting to do something similar what the hippies were doing. They are confronting society with its problems of crime, racial injustice, and inequality with the magic of words and rhythm. The styles of different, hip hop tries to be hard and edgy emphasizing the realness of the real while the hippies of Woodstock emphasized a softer image that was oriented toward a back to nature philosophy. Yet both movements try to confront the larger society with a message of how things could be. The stereotypes of hippies as sentimental and soft fall aside when you consider the Woodstock festival had a cultural and political ideal behind it. It was confrontational in its craziness. It was a search for three days of peace and brotherhood. At the same time hip hop isn’t all anger or the description of hard times in the city. It includes a flow of wild images and creativity with words that defies gravity. So one might combine the two terms and call a these purveyor of the utopian arts a hip hop hippie.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fantasy and The Hero's Quest

Lewis, C.S. “The Magician’s Nephew, Book 1 Chronicles of Narnia,” Harper Collins: New York, 1955

Zimbardo, Rose A. “Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism,” Houghten Mifflin Company: Boston, 2004

Having enjoyed a good escape in reading the “Magician’s Nephew” by C.S. Lewis over the weekend, I began to consider about how fantasy literature provides something that no other genre gives to the reader: a second world of conflict and adventure. What fantasy literature offers is the opportunity to imaginatively enter into a second world that has its own structure and rules that one assumes when temporarily living in that world. The world of C. S. Lewis called Narnia is such a special world. It is a world created by Aslan, a lion/savior figure. It is governed by magical forces and where human intentions are manifested physically. Animals talk and any object can sprout like a plant. Time is totally different from time our world. Events occur at a different pace. Time is more like eternity and death does not seem to exist. To operate in this world one must learn to live according to the new rules. But the advantage of this world is that it can teach us things that lie closer to the core than what we learn from daily experience.

Why does C S Lewis create such a different world in his fiction? It may be: because this kind of a world responds to heroic endeavor much more readily than in our world of objective laws. The very nature of the heroic quest demands such a world to frame it. The heroic quest according to the poet W H Auden, involves a call to a task for the hero that only he/ she can fulfill because of his or her unique qualities and the actions of the quest have strong influence on the destiny of the world he or she lives in. This kind of thinking helps one consider one’s identity as a reader in another light. In the pre-scientific view of the physical world in the middle ages that included miracles and magic lent itself as a setting to stories of heroic deeds and great quests. Narnia functions in a similar way to create an appropriate setting for heroic action of Digory, Polly and other characters.

But with C S Lewis there is another secondary world that appeals to us: the supposed “real world” of Victorian England that he portrays in all its detail from ornate streetlamps to horse driven carriages. His characters come from that Victorian world at the beginning of his novel and return to it at the end of the action. The nostalgically manufactured Victorian world of Lewis is as mythical to us as the fantasy world of Narnia. The furniture and fashions of Victoriana are everywhere in the Narnia saga. They are saturated with affection and homeliness. Victorian London is also a consistent world with its own laws and established patterns of action. For the modern reader contemplating that Victorian world is also an escape and one that makes certain kinds of moral reflections more real. So we are living in CS Lewis’ fiction in a two layered universe both worlds are secondary worlds, fictions of escape and settings for action. The two worlds are both set up to help reflection on human possibilities.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Memories of Back Home

For our Great Coffee, Great Books book club selection this month we're reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society. I began reading it yesterday and fell so deeply in love that I made it half way through the novel in an afternoon. Apart from the simple fact that reading letters is a quicker endeavor than reading a narrative story, the book struck a chord in me and I couldn't bear to put it down until I was falling fast asleep.

My family's lived here in America for nearly 400 years, and though they were English when they came here, we've not kept any ties to whatever distant family there may still be out there across the sea. But it's not the blood-connection to the English that's resonating with me. It's the story telling. The characters in Guernsey remind me so deeply of my family, and the way they tell a story; such that I want to hear every single detail. I want to hear how Elizabeth McKenna slapped Adelaide Addison across the face in the church, how they rendered pig fat into soap and how the ladies cried over it, and what a loving reunion it was when the children returned from the countryside and young Eli learned how to whittle animals, even though wood was a scarce commodity. It's the little stories of their lives that intrigue me.

But Guernsey isn't the only book that has caught me up like this. I fell in love with Lake Wobegone Days by Garrison Keillor when I was a teen. The quiet humor and the subtle pathos of the people living their lives out there in rural Minnesota was yet another tie to those stories my parents told me about their lives growing up in small towns in Ohio and Kentucky. That got me to start listening to the Prairie Home Companion on NPR and making an evening of a Saturday night with knitting, hot tea and colorful stories on the radio. Moments like that just warm my heart.

Other books that captured that spirit of down home storytelling with a sense of humor were Ferrol Sams book Run with the Horsemen about a boy growing up in rural Georgia. I read Horsemen around the same time as I read Wobegone, and they both tapped that same chord with me. Similarly, David Sedaris's short stories in Barrel Fever and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim about his wacky family in South Carolina, while more contemporary also have that same evocative flavor. Though sad in their own way, the movies Fried Green Tomatoes and Steel Magnolias also have that resonance. I'll never forget moments like those.

There's something about knowing the lives of the people around you, and the sheer joy that comes from hearing those tales. It's the best part of calling my mother, just to find out what's been going on in town and who got hit by a tractor, who's having a baby, who got mad at who in church, what did my cousins down by the river do now. Though I've been gone from there nigh on fifteen years, to hear my mother tell me those stories, it's like being right back there again. Sitting on the front porch swing, drinking sweet tea, waiting for grandma to make Sunday dinner after church and being there with the whole family. That's where these books take me. Right there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WTD Photo Shoot - Take 2

Hey Neighbors!

For those of you who couldn't make it to last Monday's photo shoot, you get a second chance to be a part of the photo mural for the new Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library. If you would like your face to be included in the mural, please come to the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Interim Library, Monday, May 24, from 5:00-8:00 pm. Our photographer will be there taking pictures for the mural. You will need to sign a photo release form to participate, and minors must get the signature of their parent or guardian. This is the second chance for a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of your neighborhood library, literally!

For more info, contact

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Playing Those Mind Games

Of late, I have been completely obsessed with watching back episodes of LOST. To be honest, I hadn't really been into the show until fairly recently (last on a bandwagon), so when I got hooked I had to catch up fast to make it to the series finale. But as much as the story lines, and all the twisty-turny unexplainedness pulled me in, there was one scene in particular that was the absolute clincher for me. In Season 4, Locke has Ben held captive in Ben's own basement. He brings him a plate of breakfast and a book. But what book gets chosen? VALIS by Philip K. Dick.

Now, I've written about a lot of Philip K. Dick novels on here. You can just look back a few entries to the Are You Living Underground post, as well as the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep post. But I hadn't touched on VALIS before. Why not? Because VALIS is the head trippiest book I have probably read in my entire life, and to even begin talking about VALIS means that you're going down the rabbit hole into the land of the ultra-surreal.

The main narrator of the book is Horselover Fat, and VALIS is the story of Fat's slow revelation that the world he lives in is not the world that truly is. To compare it to the Matrix would be fair, but a vast understatement. See, the folks in the Matrix get to see the reality behind the curtain. The characters in VALIS know that there is a deeper, different reality behind what's seen, experienced and known, and the story is about the dawning realization of this unseen realm, the interconnectedness of everything and the hints that point us toward the "real" world. You're also probably wondering why I keep capitalizing VALIS. It's because it's an acronym, but I'll leave you to find out what it stands for.

Needless to say when I saw this scene in LOST it reaffirmed that the show is firmly rooted in the realms of the bizarre, and that's a place I love to go.
If you're looking for something to blow your mind here are a few additional recommendations.


2001: A Space Odyssey
Being John Malkovich
Lost (Season One)
The Matrix
Twin Peaks

Children's Works

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Red Book by Barbara Lehman

Graphic Novels

Black Hole by Charles Burns
Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Ring / Spiral by Koji Suzuki
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Everything is under Control by Robert Anton Wilson
Occult America by Mitch Horowitz
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
Teleportation by David J. Darling
Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Friday, May 14, 2010

Want to be in Pictures?

The new Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Library, located at 7th and Rhode Island Avenue, NW, opens this summer. The new Shaw library will feature a large photo mural depicting 300 faces of the Shaw community. If you would like your face to be included in the mural, please come to the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Interim Library, Monday, May 17, from 4-5:30 pm. We will have a photographer there taking pictures for the mural. You will need to sign a photo release form to participate, and minors must get the signature of their parent or guardian. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of your neighborhood library, literally!

For more info, contact

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

History of the World Through Film

Spartacus statue by Denis Foyatier from WikipediaThe other day I was watching the new Spartacus series on cable and that got me to read the article about Spartacus on Wikipedia, which in turn got me reading the article about the Third Servile War. After learning how closely this followed into the realm of Julius Caesar, I immediately thought of the HBO series Rome. The two shows fit together so well historically that I began to wonder. Could I construct a history of the world using feature films and television shows? Sure it's going to be silly and ahistoric, and given the constraint that the movies had to be in the library collection, made it even more of a challenge. So here's my go at it. I'll give you the timeline, the movie title, a brief description and a link to the item in the collection. Enjoy!

  • 10,000 B.C. - 10,000 B.C.E. - a silly account of cave people
  • 300 - 480 B.C.E. - Battle of Thermopylae
  • Hero - 221 B.C.E. - The unification of China under the Qin Dynasty
  • Spartacus - 73 B.C.E. - Spartacus leads the third servile war (and obviously this is too soon to be in the collection)
  • Rome - 44 B.C.E. - Julius Caesar and the rise of Augustus
  • Cleopatra - 30 B.C.E. - Romances and tragedy of Cleopatra
  • Jesus Christ Superstar - 33 C.E. - Teachings and Passion of Jesus of Nazareth in a catchy Andrew Lloyd Weber musical way.
  • I, Claudius - 54 C.E. - The Julio-Claudian Empire of Rome
  • Beowulf - ca. 450 C.E. - The mythic adventure of Beowulf vs. the monster Grendel
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail - ca. 516 C.E. - The end of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, again, quite silly.
  • The Lion in Winter - 1183 C.E. - Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the wittiest argument you will ever see
  • Mongol - 1186 C.E. - The life and times of Ghengis Khan
  • Brother Sun, Sister Moon - ca. 1209 C.E. - The life of Francis of Assisi and the founding of the Franciscan monastic order with a soundtrack by Donovan.
  • Braveheart - 1297- 1305 C.E. - The life of William Wallace and the First Scottish War of Independence against Edward I of England.
  • The Tudors - 1520-1540 C.E. - Henry VIII and his many wives in glorious and gory detail. Seasons 1-3 cover wives from Katherine of Aragon through Anne of Cleves.
  • Elizabeth - 1558-1572 C.E. - The beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I and the declaration of the Golden Age of England.
  • Shakespeare in Love - ca. 1590 C.E. - William Shakespeare finds inspiration for his plays through his love affair with Viola de Lesseps.
  • Pocahontas - 1607 C.E. - The Disney-fied version of Pocahontas and John Smith complete with singing animals.
  • Girl With a Pearl Earring - 1665 C.E. - Johannes Vermeer through the eyes of a servant girl.
  • The Libertine - ca. 1670 C.E.- The downfall of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, hard drinking, bawdy playwright and poet.
  • The Crucible - 1692 C.E. - Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in Arthur Miller's scathing portrayal of the Salem Witch Trials.
  • Roots - 1750-1870 C.E. - The story of Alex Haley's family from the enslavement of Kunta Kinte in Gambia, West Africa through to the family's move to Tennessee after the American Civil War.
  • 1776 - 1776 C.E. - The founding fathers sing their way to Revolution.
  • John Adams - 1770-1826 C.E. - John Adams's life from the Boston Massacre through his presidency to his death in 1826.
  • Amadeus - 1783-1825 C.E. - Herr Salieri, Court Composer to Joseph II of Austria recounts his rivalry with Mozart.
  • Jefferson in Paris - 1784-1789 C.E. - Thomas Jefferson's tenure as the Ambassador to France prior to the revolution and his relationships with Maria Cosway and Sally Hemings.
  • The Civil War - 1861-1865 C.E. - Ken Burns's exhaustive documentary of the American Civil War told through the photographs of the era and the voices from journals and letters of the time period.
  • Glory - 1863 C.E. - The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first military troop in the United States to openly enlist African-American soldiers, led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw.
  • Lawrence of Arabia - ca. 1916-1935 C.E. - T.E. Lawrence leads rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
  • Gandhi - 1915-1948 C.E. - Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi leads the non-violent revolution against British colonial rule.
  • Schindler's List - 1939-1945 C.E. - German soldier Oskar Schindler creates a list of "skilled" inmates who are saved from extermination in the Auschwitz concentration camps.
  • From Here to Eternity - 1941 C.E. - The attack on Pearl Harbor by way of a love triangle.
  • Au Revoir, Les Enfants - 1943-1944 C.E. - The effects of World War II on a French boarding school, and the death of Jewish school children in Auschwitz and their teacher's emprisonment in Mauthausen.
  • The Great Escape - 1944 C.E. - 50 Allied prisoners of war escape from a German POW camp, and there's Steve McQueen on a motorcycle.
  • Seven Years in Tibet - 1944-1950 C.E. - A former Nazi soldier encounters the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, and the experience changes both their lives.
  • Evita - 1936-1952 C.E. - Madonna belts out the famous "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" while pretending to be Eva Peron.
  • M*A*S*H - 1950-1953 C.E. - The kooky surgeons of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital get up to pranks to make it through the trauma of the Korean War.
  • The Motorcycle Diaries - 1952 C.E. - Based on the diaries of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and his encounters with the desperate poverty in South America that led to his Marxist rebellion in Argentina.
  • Battle of Algiers - 1954-1960 C.E. - Recounts events surrounding the war for Algerian independence from the French.
  • Capote - 1959-1966 C.E. - Truman Capote becomes obsessed with the murder of the Kansas Clutter family and pens his magnum opus "In Cold Blood."
  • Mad Men - 1961-1963 C.E. - Madison Avenue advertising executives with hard drinking habits relive the peak moments of the era from the inauguration of JFK through the assasination of Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • Malcolm X - 1965 C.E. - Denzel Washington's magnificent portrayal of African-American activist Malcolm X.
  • A Beautiful Mind - 1950-1994 C.E. - The life of John Forbes Nash, Jr., game theorist and mathematician who suffered from paranoid schizophrenic episodes.
  • Frost/Nixon - 1977 C.E. - British talk show host David Frost interviews former president Richard Nixon about the Watergate scandal and the abuses of his presidency.
  • And the Band Played On - 1981 C.E. - Epidemiologists discover a strange virus spreading rampantly through gay men in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, what would come to be known as HIV/AIDS.
  • Good bye Lenin! - 1989 C.E. - The fall of the Berlin Wall, the arrival of capitalism to East Germany, and the reunification of Germany.
  • Hotel Rwanda - 1994 C.E. - Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina saves the lives of his family and over 1,000 refugees at the Hotel des Mille Collines during the Rwandan genocide.
  • Blood Diamond - 1996 C.E. - Takes place during the Sierra Leone Civil War and the people forced into slave labor in diamond mines, and terrible cost of the diamond trade.
  • Black Hawk Down - 1996 C.E. - Americn Black Hawk helicopter loaded with Delta Force soldiers is shot down over Mogadishu, Somalia.
  • Breach - 2001 C.E. - Robert Philip Hanssen former American FBI agent and spy for Russian and Soviet intelligence gets busted for being a double agent.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Have You Been Living Underground?

I love getting the NPR updates on my Facebook, because I'll find fabulous gems like this article about the new underground bunker company Vivos. Make sure to watch the video as well.

Seeing these luxury disaster shelters immediately made me think about Philip K. Dick's underground world in The Penultimate Truth. In this novel people dwell in an series of connected pods miles below the surface of the earth. Their purpose in these pods is to produce robot soldiers to go to the surface and continue fighting the war that destroyed everything that lives and irradiated most everything else. Each day these pod societies churn out more robots, only to receive orders to build more robots. All the while, on the surface military fiefdoms have cropped up and the folks who orchestrated the war in the first place have carved out vast empty cities to belong solely to them, while the robot soldiers do nothing more than defend their territory from the encroachments of similar military lords. These Ozymandias-like princes jaunt around the country for pointless meetings in private helicopters and jets, and continue to think up ways to perpetuate this mythic war to the billions of humans dwelling underground. Needless to say a few brave souls in the pods are starting to question their conditions, and that's when things begin to really change. This was a quick read and absolutely fascinating.

In a more wacky fantasy vein there is also Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Simon is a digger in an underground village. His family died as the result of a cave-in back when he was younger and he was raised by his best friend Kamina. The lives of the people in Simon's village are turned upside-down when one day a giant robot crashes through the dome ceiling, revealing that there is both life on the surface and that it's unbelievably dangerous. Simon and Kamina team up with a surface girl named Yoko to defeat the giant robot and save their village, but that's only the beginning of a story that spans the most outrageously epic story you will ever read.

If you're more in the mood for a classic you may want to look at Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth made into a film starring Brendan Frazier. In this novel a professor travels down into different layers of geologic history, and along the way encounters the flora and fauna of the ancient earth. Yes, wooly mammoths and dinosaurs! How can you go wrong? On the other end of speculative time is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, where in the far future the peaceful, childlike Eloi people dwell in the decaying surface buildings while the pale ape-like Morlocks live in the dark underground.

Any of these works would make good reading while living in your own beatiful underground dwelling.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Nature of Satire and Enjoyment of Gulliver's Travels

People encounter satire in various forms; in the mocking political commentary of the Capitol Steps, the gentle ridicule of the American family in "The Simpson's" and in the laughter-raising political commentary of the satiric newspaper "The Onion." Nevertheless, people may enjoy these art forms and not fully grasp the nature and purpose of satire as a form of literature. The enjoyment of satire requires a greater familiarity with the characteristics of the genre than other forms of literature. A new edition of Gulliver's Travels has come out that keeps some of the flavor of the original keeping some of the original capitalization and printing of the eighteenth century edition.

By nature satire is a less straightforward type of literature than many. It implies, suggests, and exaggerates. As many have pointed out, the appreciation of the genre of satire requires knowledge of the use of many literary techniques including: irony, distancing and the use of a persona for the speaker to highlight the author’s view point. Satire usually has corrupt customs or practices as its target and a familiarity with that target is also necessary to fully enjoy satire. So a review of a few principles of satire may help people enjoy works in this mode. According to the Merriam Webster’s dictionary satire is the “use of irony, sarcasm in verse or prose in which human folly is held up to scorn or derision.” There are two main types of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian. Horatian satire a mild form of satire that is a playful exposure of folly or vice using mockery and exaggeration. The best example of this kind of satire is the TV cartoon show, "The Simpson's." The habits, attitudes, and preoccupations of Homer Simpson and his family are ridiculed in a gentle way that shows some affection for the objects of mockery. The second type of satire is Juvenalian. This kind of satire is contemptuous, and abrasive. This kind of satire seeks to "address some evil in society" through the use of "scorn, outrage and savage ridicule." The characteristics of this form of satire are "irony, sarcasm and moral indignation." It is often serious in tone rather than playful. Satire often has a political component and is used to attack some political regimes.
The literary work "Guilliver’s Travels" by Jonathan Swift is a good example of a combination of both kinds of satire: Horatian and Juvenalian satire. Swift used both methods as the first journalistic satirist and his sharp observations of the workings of politics in the different kingdoms in "Gulliver’s travels" reveal the effectiveness of the method of close journalistic observation of the institutions of society. His focus in satire was on revealing the foibles of society as a whole rather than those of individuals. One of the main techniques of satire applied by Swift in " Gulliver's Travels " to ridicule social faults by diminution. Diminution is often accomplished through use of critical terms and exaggeration. But Swift has the genius to literally make the kingdom he is satirizing small in size.

In "Gulliver’s Travels" Swift uses the method of diminution as a physical reality for his character and to great effect. The people Gulliver encounters on his first Island where he is stranded are very small in height. They are of course the Lilliputians. Their extremely small stature allows Swift to magnify the folly of their foibles and strange customs by the humorous way they strike us. The customs and institutions of the court can then be made to seem even more ridiculous when one sees them from the perspective of a giant. The most significant moment for this satire is the scene where the courtiers of the king compete for political office. Here Swift examines their method of competition that involves jumping on a taut rope to see who can jump the highest. Political office is given to the one who jumps the highest. This ridiculous competition is made even more absurd because the courtiers are only a few inches high. The custom of jumping to obtain a political office is demeaning to the person of the courtiers but again the fact that they are so small increases the sense we have of how they are morally demeaned by those customs.
Always with Swift and all satire there is an implied standard of human dignity and worth in play where the one senses the distance between the ideal and the real. The court life of Lilliput is far from ideal. It is ridiculous, small minded and maddening in its triviality. Many commentators have mentioned that Swift is criticizing the court life under George 1st and Queen Anne along with the corruption of Parliament under the Prime Minister Walpole. But knowledge of the details of history doesn't matter so much as having a general sense for what court life involves and dangers of favoritism. We also don't need much knowledge of the details of the politics of Congress to recognize the attitudes of pride and arrogance the Capitol Steps is ridiculing.
In addition, Swift uses another technique of satire: the mask or persona, in this case the persona of the unreliable narrator, Gulliver, who seeks to instruct us about what he sees in different lands. Gulliver as naive observer who shows an unthinking admiration for the ways of this diminutive court that only increases our uneasiness with what we are viewing. Here again Swift is using the satiric technique of inverting praise and blame that is another method of satire. Gulliver's admiration of the ways of the court only increases our disapproval of them and him. The persona of Gulliver is that of a complaisant naive English traveler who is only able to play the one note of amazement and approval. He cannot recognize moral degradation when he sees it. The consistent wrongness of the judgements of the narrator increases the effect of humor and our offense at what he is praising so that we come to object to what he approves. The best contemporary example might be a reference to the family activities that Homer Simpson approves.
Looking at the methods of satire used to depict of the life of the court of Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels, we can enjoy them more if we have a sense of the parameters of satire in general. That knowledge can help us to appreciate the humor of this classic work. Satire is a method of literary exposition that encourages critical thinking about our world and helps us to evaluate the customs of our own society by seeing them in relation to an ideal of humanity that everyone shares to some extent. Once we catch on to the often used methods of distancing, diminution, exaggeration and the inversion of praise and blame, we can enjoy the work more and finally get the joke as well as enjoy a good laugh at humanity. It is hopefully a laugh that is not harsh but informed by insight into the follies of humankind.

Post-Apoc Pop

Post-Apocalypse novels are a dime a dozen these days. That is not to say they are all the same, or that all the themes have been overplayed. However, there are a couple things about this genre that stick in my craw.

The setup for these novels involves some kind of holocaust. This is not a normal catastrophe--we are talking about a full-scale nuclear war, a global pandemic, a high tech attack by extra-terrestrials, a comet-Earth collision or [insert favorite holocaust here] that is barely survivable. Despite the scale of these annihilations, we picture ourselves as the lucky ones who end up survive.

We picture an exciting adventure-filled future with close calls and savage road warlords, but we survive. We see ourselves sneaking through ghost towns searching for food, exploring desolated forests with rifles slung over our backs, eking out a living in near-unlivable conditions. Ultimately, and egotistically, we imagine ourselves surviving. Miraculously we are the few who live to witness the New Age--either a Utopian do-over or an exciting dystopian struggle. The Handmaid's Tale, The Postman, Earth Abides, I Am Legend, 1984 and even films from Mad Max to The Book of Eli. Then you stumble upon The Road.

Everybody's friend and their friend's friend is reading this book. I put a copy of the audiobook (DCPL has the Playaway) on hold and finally got around to "reading" it (Does this count as reading? I think so). The first fifty pages are slow going. Wading through ash in the dim afternoon, getting ready for the next awful existential crisis. I don't want to give anything away, but luckily that's pretty much impossible with The Road. You know from the book jacket that it takes place in the wake of some God-awful event that rendered most of America a nasty, dangerous wasteland.

You are forced to repeatedly ask yourself, Is this worth it? Would I go through this? Albert Camus said the only question is whether or not to kill yourself. I'd rather not go down this philosophical cul de sac, but don't be mistaken: The Road is not for the faint of heart. The clinically depressed might also want to consult their doctor before reading. All joking aside, this book is worth reading for the power of McCarthy's lyrical prose alone. A writer will learn a thing or two about minimalism. A philosophy student will bask in the author's powerful short sentences, his linguistic economy and contemplations. With this book, I'd venture to say that the plot is not nearly as important as the language with which it is described. The way McCarthy lays out the journey is so bittersweet and poetic I think I'll have to read it again. Maybe on the beach this summer instead of the dead of winter.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Pleasures of Biography

What attracts us so to biographies? When a college student, I always went right to biographies of major figures of an era to spice up my research on an historical topic. The broad outlines of history are fine but it is the life course of the actors of history that compelled my attention. It seems that the exploration of one life history, examining the motives and conflicts of a single well known leader, illumines the landscape of our understanding and allows our history to make sense. The root of this interest may be that we are biological creatures who are born, grow and eventually die. So too looking at history through the lens of a personality gives history greater sharpness of definition. We enjoy learning the telling detail that reveals character. It is often the very limitations of the circumstance under which historical figures developed their characters and under which they made certain achievements that gives their lives a sense of drama. The best biographers give us a view of their inner life trying to show how the ambitions and aspirations of a well known historical figure drove them to their chosen course of life.

We gain a special pleasure from seeking to understand the sources of those inner drives, and considering their results virtues and flaws of one personality.Two examples of this phenomenon can be seen when reading the biographies of Louisa Alcott and Lyndon Johnson. They were both successful public figures in American life but each was motivated by a particular set of inner drives born from poverty. To consider Louisa Alcott first, her life is examined in a biographical chronicle taken from contemporary narratives and letters edited by Daniel Shealy entitled “Alcott in her Own Time.” From the start we can see that as a child of a philosopher, Bronson Alcott, a major figure among the Transcendentalists, Louisa was given certain advantages in the informal philosophical education she was given by her father. However, she also suffered from some serious disadvantages because of the very idealism of her father. Louisa and her mother grew up in conditions of poverty and instability because Bronson had no sense of the practical and could not earn a living. They were cast upon the charity of others to survive. Their misadventures became the material for her best known work "Little Women."

Louisa grew to be very self-dependent person who could engage in any type of work to survive and eventually turned to writing as a way of supporting her family. Her background living in an intellectual household helped her to understand her world and the process of child development in a way few could in her time. At the same time her sufferings helped her to identify with the difficulties of other families. Her writing for children took off, especially her classic “Little Women.” In this way she became a public figure admired by millions for her insight into the life of childhood and youth. Yet her life was a series of struggles. Nothing came easily for her. She was a self-made intellectual who had to figure out the best way to live for herself and chronicled her attempts to understand her world in her writings. We can admire her ambition and industry and understand its costs. It is paradoxically the limitations of her life, her wrestling with poverty and the prejudices against activities of women outside the family that make her a fascinating figure.

There was a similar pattern in the life of Lyndon Johnson. The poverty and distress under which the young Lyndon Johnson grew up, according to Robert Caro, his biographer in “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: the Path to Power,” shaped him in ways that helped form his vast ambitions. Lyndon came of age in a family with a father who had failed in business and in reaction to this shame he sought to succeed at any cost. Yet his resources were meager. It was humiliation and “a sense of fear”, in Caro’s view, that drive him forward. He suffered from terrible depressions and health crises. He attended a local two year teacher’s college not a university. He was known for hard work and discipline as well as having a way in connecting with people in campaigning.

These skills allowed him to rise in the organization of the Texas Democratic Party and eventually in the US House of Representatives in Washington. There he used his people skills and hard work to ingratiate himself with Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House of Representatives. There the times and Johnson met. During that period personal influence was even more important than today and Johnson rose to become one of the democratic leaders of the House and then the Senate finally the Presidency. Johnson became a passionately committed advocate of certain causes, such as civil rights and removal of poverty when they were politically feasible. He was accomplished in arm twisting, horse trading and simply convincing others of his cause. These skills enabled him to pass the landmark Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. Yet Johnson was driven by an desire for recognition that was never satisfied and that had deep roots in a painful past. With Johnson we are surprised at how such a flawed personality could accomplish what he did.

In summary, we tend to enjoy observing how great persons achieve remarkable things despite their handicaps. Through consideration of their triumphs we come to better understand how these personalities overcame those difficulties while remaining flawed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Big Girls Do Cry

Big Girls Do Cry
Carl Weber
Dafina Books, 2010

The ladies of the BGBC--that's the Big Girl Book Club--are back for another round of adventures in Carl Weber's Big Girls Do Cry. The only requirements for membership are a love of reading and being a size 14 or larger. The sequel to Something on the Side, Big Girls Do Cry picks up with the story of Egypt and her crazy (and I don't mean that in a good way) sister Isis. Egypt has relocated to Richmond, Virginia, from New York with her husband Rashad ... the same Rashad that Isis dated for over 10 years before her sister Egypt married him.

Egypt fears that her marriage could be coming to an end because she's not able to have children. Fortunately, Isis, who lives with Egypt and Rashad, steps up to be a surrogate mother. But between her last suicide attempt, which was spurred by her heartache over the married playboy Tony, and losing Rashad to her sister, Isis is struggling to get her life together. And for some reason, she wants Tony back.

New club member Loraine, who is also Egypt's boss, seems to have everything going for herself: She's president of her own public relations firm, and is in the running to be president of her sorority. She just has to keep her sorors from finding out about her cheating husband. Jerome, the only male member of the BGBC, is Loraine's openly gay best friend. He is proud of the way he lives his life--loving and leaving his partners--until the day he leaves the wrong one and all hell breaks loose.

Lots a'drama, but a good read. But hey the drama is not over just yet: Catch up with Loraine and Jerome and the other members of the Big Girl Book Club in part two, Torn Between Two Lovers.

And if you want even more drama, check out other books by Carl Weber, such as Up To Know Good and So You Call Yourself a Man. Or visit his website,

Friday, March 12, 2010

Did you Czech your Liszt?

When I was a kid, during holidays I had to sit at the kids' table. The adults sat at the adults' table. This seemed clear enough, but when I was in my late teens the line started to blur. I was interested in philosophy and politics like the adults, but I also liked humor that was silly and crude. I still liked comic books.

Now I'm an adult and I do adult things. When I'm interested in a local artist I go to an art show, and while I'm there I drink wine. I do my taxes, though not always on time. Being in libraries for all these years, I've always found the biography section intimidating. These are long histories of people who are important. They often attract biographers who are obsessed experts in their field (their field being the person in question), obsessed enough to necessitate seven hundred pages describing early childhood, childhood, family pedigree, young adulthood...zzzz. I wish it weren't so, but I can't deny that I am of a generation raised partly by television shows and, thus, have very short attention spans. This is why I rejoiced when I discovered juvenile biography series, Masters of Music: The World's Greatest Composers.

The first book from this series I picked up was a pleasantly succinct biography of Franz Liszt. The text was sharp and surprisingly well-suited for adults, although it's call number spelled it out clearly: JUV 92 LISZT. This Hungarian virtuoso changed the face of music performance forever. Liszt was the first instrumentalist to play alone on stage without sheet music. He had a violent flourishing style on stage, throwing his head about and letting his long hair fall into his face. He basically created the image we now call the rock star. Who would've known? Not me! Since then I've enjoyed the Masters of Music biographies of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Mozart, and Chopin. I usually have one or two of these little books in my bag to read on the train, despite the strange looks I get from the REAL adults. Please check our catalog or take a spin through your neighborhood library's juvenile biography section.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Side by Side

The other day I took a photo of the front entrance of the new Watha T. Daniel building. Shortly after I took that picture I went to the construction page to see the drawings of the building and how it compared to the reality of the building. I was totally shocked to see how completely similar they were to each other, and I think you will be as well. Check out this side by side photo and drawing array and tell me what you think.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I Am A Historian

Over the last year we've had the wonderful opportunity to work in partnership with some of the brilliant students at Seaton Elementary School. One of the most amazing projects that we did was build a local history page on Wikipedia for the Shiloh Baptist Church. After the students built the page we had them sit down for a Skype teleconference to talk about their experience on the project with teachers around the country.

Take a minute to meet Katherine, Norma, Jackson and Ibrahim, and learn about the work they did for this project. We're all so incredibly proud of them.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Wicked Awesome

by Joe Hill
William Morrow, (c) 2010

Recently I had the misfortune of being terribly sick, layed up in bed and feeling awful. That said, I was incredibly lucky that I had, mere days before, checked out Joe Hill's latest novel Horns. Had I not been in bed for an entire day I would have not had the luxury of reading the entirety of this book in one sitting, and I would have had to steal every spare moment here and there to dive back into the book and find out what happened next.

And let me explain just one other thing, for a librarian, I'm not a terribly fast reader. I read at the speed of spoken conversations, which is amazingly slow compared to many of my colleagues. For me to actually blaze through a novel as quickly as I did, means that it was a relentless onslaught of reading from morning to night.

I could absolutely not put this book down.

Horns follows the life of Ignatius Perrish. He is the son and brother to famous musicians, as well as being the prime suspect in the brutal murder of his former fiance Merrin. It seemed that all those troubles were behind him, until he wakes up one morning with two large knots on the side of his head. It's clear that they are horns, but he has no idea why. What he quickly learns is that under the power of the horns people will reveal their darkest truths to him, beginning with his live-in girlfriend Glenna who immediately confesses that she wants to make herself repulsive to him because she can't bear to tell him to get out of her life. And that's just within the first ten pages.

What follows is an ever deepening look into the differences between the face we show the world and the thousand things we wish we could say to one another save for propriety. Hill asks a lot of intriguing questions about lies, omissions and truth; what we say to people versus what people hear; what we say and what we mean and the blurry lines between good and evil. Not only that, but it's wrapped in the most deeply intertwined writing where every element of the story fits neatly into every other. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Horns is that it doesn't really fit into any easily defined category. While sure, there are elements of fantasy or horror, I wouldn't say that it's either of those things. It's just a great story.

I would strongly encourage anyone who read Joe Hill's short story collection 20th Century Ghosts to get this latest novel. I admit that I wasn't that thrilled with his first novel Heart Shaped Box, but I gave 20th a shot and it was absolutely brilliant work. Horns fits right in with some of those great pieces, particularly You Will Hear the Locust Sing which blends Kafka's Metamorphosis with school violence. In both stories the reason for the transformation is very unclear, but the power that it awakens in the character leads to some of the most intriguing metaphors.

So, check out the book, carve out a day, sit down and read from morning 'til night. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kia DuPree, Tonight!

Author Talk: Kia DuPree
Wednesday, February 24, 6 p.m.

Calling all urban fiction fans! Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Interim Library will host award-winning author Kia DuPree, who will talk about her new book, Damaged.

"Dupree's debut offers readers an unvarnished look at the troubled, violence-filled lives of inner-city youth in Washington, D.C., frequently through the eyes and experiences of Camille Logan. Ten-year-old Camille is placed with the Brinkleys, yet another foster family, where she suffers extreme mental and sexual abuse for years, until she's rescued by Chu, a low-level drug dealer who actually loves and looks after her. But when Chu is murdered in a drug deal gone wrong, Camille makes a desperate choice to join a cruel pimp's stable, where she faces her situation and struggles to change her life."1

DuPree, who now lives in Washington, D.C., was an assistant editor at St. Martin's Press in New York. In 2005 she received the Fiction Honor Book Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for her debut novel, the self-published Robbing Peter. DuPree earned a B.A. in Mass Media Arts from Hampton University, as well as an M.A. in English from Old Dominion University.

Copies of Damaged will be available for purchase and for check out at the reading.

1Review: Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wintry Mix

I've absolutely loved spending the last few days at home staying warm and dry from the snow. I spent the time watching movies with friends, baking, and working on a new quilt. We're open today and if you make it before the next wave of snow hits you can come and pick up some entertainment to help you and your family get through this historic snow storm.

Here are a few wintry suggestions to get you started.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Snow Dogs
Why Did I Get Married
The Shining
30 Days of Night


The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Snow by Uri Shulevitz
The Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Monday, February 1, 2010

Democracy in America

" Democracy in America " by Alexis de Tocqueville, tranlated by George Lawrence, edited by J.P. Mayer, Penguin Press, Selection of Watha T Daniel Book Club

Because of the recent debates about Health Care and Environmental legislation there has been a companion discussion by many about the nature of how the popular will should be expressed in a democracy and consideration of a possible manipulation of the voters by populist organizations. In my group house in Takoma there are skeptics about the validity of these groups and those who really feel their protest is valid. This discussion inspired me to take a new look at the classic work on democracy, “Democracy in America” by the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville. "Democracy in America” is important because it is the first study that attempted to create a portrait of how government and society in a democracy actually worked. It was written during the emerging democracy of the United States during the Jackson Administration in the early Nineteenth Century.

What I found when I looked into this work was a surprise. This is a profound book that sheds light on the causes and conditions for real democratic expression in the United States, even in our own day. De Tocqueville came up the idea of the reality of society, society was apart from the state, politically significant. It was an idea that revolutionized the understanding of political science and has great import for us today. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that there were two distinct realities: the patterns or habits of social life and the governmental structures of the state. They influenced each other but were separate.

In de Tocqueville’s view, democracy was not so much a government as a way of life, as a set of patterns of political participation and expression that were connected to how relationships within families, among neighbors and life in larger communities were conducted. American society itself, then, established habits of political activism that were part of the personality and associations of each citizen. They were patterns established by the mores of the early settlers and shaped the town meeting and other institutions of early American democracy.

Now with regard to the controversies today about health care and other issues, one can conclude that every kind of expression of opinion, even the rancorous ones, may have some value, because it is an expression of the people’s habitual expression of concern. This may be true even if the message is not well thought-out or articulate. It is still an expression of a determination to have one’s say. Democracy is nourished by these movements even if they come in the form of strident statements. It seems one has to take a larger view regarding the import of these events and view them as part of a continual back and forth movement of ideas that is part of our political culture. Even though there was strong expression of dislike for a specific health care program in those town meetings and this was expressed in a rude and strident way that expression may not be by itself destructive.

These movements can be seen as part of the pattern of direct expression of the passions of a particular group in society that feels threatened. Overall, it is an expression that is healthy for both the body of society and the government that represents it. As de Tocqueville found in his tour of America in the 1830s, the expression of popular sentiment in politics causes disorder and disturbs governance. Democratic debate is a messy business that often offended the sensibility of Alexis de Tocqueville as an aristocrat. But he saw how those habits of political participation were deeply ingrained in American social life. It was those long held patterns that are the foundation for a well functioning republican government. We can take heart today to find that our political life is just as disorderly and disturbing as it was in the times of the early republic when de Tocqueville observed it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Literary Mashup

I have to admit, that when I read in today's New York Times that Electronic Arts is releasing a video game loosely based on Dante's Inferno, I had to both laugh out loud and then consider whether or not I would actually buy this game for myself. Having a PlayStation 3 at home, and having read Inferno for a medieval history class it is quite tempting to see the, um, differences. Dante as a sword wielding, body-building crusader, clad in armor and trailing shredded ribbons of clothes... Far from the casual observer of the epic poem.

But that got me thinking. With all of these mashups of classical literature like Inferno the video game, Beowulf the animated adventure starring Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, the Manga Shakespeare series, the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which also has ninjas), and the forthcoming Android Karenina, what could possibly be next? What other classics could they turn into action packed thrill rides?

Here's a few of my thoughts.

Sid Meier's War and Peace the video game. Civilization Revolution is already half-way there, it's just a quick jump to focusing solely on Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

Don Quixote where his delusions are actually a result of the aliens who implanted a device controlling his mind.

The Sun Also Rises MMORPG where you gain experience points by drinking your way across Europe and going to bull fights in Pamplona.

Moby Dick the fishing simulator where you work your way up from catching little minnows and guppies to going after the great white whale.

What do you think the next great classic novel mashup will be?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Halflings, Half-Nerds, Worms...

A lot of my friends are half-nerds. What I mean is they've seen and read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and agree the books are better. They love Blade Runner, but they've probably never actually read a book by Philip K. Dick. They've never been serious about Dungeons & Dragons or those Dragon Lance books, but they can recite more than one popular Star Wars quote. Some of us listened to Rush, a band who wrote concept albums about fantastical planets. While these all rest comfortably in fantasy worlds, their prevalence in modern pop-culture allows non-nerds do nerdy things without being labeled. Err...

This bit of labeling tomfoolery is partly to make fun of the labeling process that, like it or not, still exists in high schools, colleges and only slightly seriously into adulthood. Then we get to Dune. The book was given to me by an artsy friend in college, and after a few pages (on several occasions) I decided that there was no better treatment for insomnia than reading Dune.

However, after being successfully seduced by the books-on-iPod reading method, I had to revisit the books I'd wanted to read but never could. The only annoying part about reading Dune on iPod was importing the eighteen discs into iTunes. Since then, I've waded into a fantasy world that, secretly, I prefer to Tolkien's. The idea of humans cultivating their own natural potential into a sort of half-magic is much easier for me to get into. As a half-nerd. Ahem...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Great Coffee, Great Books

Starting in February the Watha T. Daniel Library will be partnering with the Starbucks Coffee shop in Logan Circle to bring you an all new book club program outside of our library walls. Join us for Great Coffee, Great Books, a monthly book discussion group held at 7:00 p.m. on the final Wednesday of the month at Starbucks Coffee, 1429 P St NW.

Our book for February 24 will be The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems. Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does - Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.

Great Coffee, Great Books
Final Wednesdays
7:00 p.m.

Held at Starbucks Coffee in Logan Circle
1429 P St NW
Washington, DC

To RSVP please contact the Watha T. Daniel Library at 202-671-0265 or email librarian Paul Sweeney: