I am becoming increasingly convinced that M. John Harrison’s Ambiente Hotel is the best blog around right now. It is full of succinct, poignant, lyrical writings of both fiction and reflection, the weird and the mundane. He eschews the current curated fashion of Tumblr/Twitter (not a bad fashion, but sometimes tiring) for something with a much different feel and writing style than exists on most blogs. You can’t skim the Ambiente Hotel; it takes time to read and digest. Though not necessarily strung together there is a distinct cumulative effect when given daily careful reading over weeks/months.
And the tools you develop operate only at the scale for which you develop them–though they have just enough sensitivity to alert you, as you push towards each outside edge, to the possiblility of the need for another, yet more subtle, toolset. -m. john harrison
Philosophy, in the final analysis, is the art of thinking clearly. And even if we are all amateurs when it comes to our own lives, this does not preclude thinking clearly about those lives and what is important in them. – Mark Rowlands
Last month I wrote a post highlighting some of the topics I was thinking about during March. It was an endeavor inspired by Claire Creffield and her blog post discussing the important reflective properties of blog written with the “imagined eyes of another” in mind. Adhering to the notion of blogs as public journals with powerful self-reflective properties, I am writing a post at the end of each month to summarize a few of the main ideas that were important or interesting to me.
These posts are for my future self; however, since I keep this as an open and public space, I hope that anyone else who stumbles in here will find some of what I record interesting and edifying.
On The Philosopher and the Wolf, Animal Rights, and Eating Meat: Three years ago, in April of 2009, I unexpectedly happened across Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf while browsing in B&N just a few weeks after its release date. After reading the first few pages, I decided to break my rule about purchasing hardcover books from chain stores. Since then The Philosopher and the Wolf has made a perennial appearance on my reading list. Rowlands combines many of my interests in this philosophical memoir and he does it with style and moving prose, which is not always easy to find among philosophers.
When I returned from Mongolia the previous summer (2008), I drastically reduced my meat consumption in an effort to work towards a more ethical and healthier diet. Before that I had been an on and off again vegetarian at several different times in my life but was never able to fully commit. Then came my fortuitous discovery of Rowlands’ book. It was exactly what I needed to read, the final catalyst required, to push me into full acceptance of and commitment to the ethical principles I was dancing around for years.
What is interesting is that Rowlands’ book is not about animal rights or vegetarian/veganism, per se. But, as he says in his 3:AM interview from earlier this month, his book approaches the way we differentiate ourselves from animals and the “stories we tell to convince ourselves of our superiority.”
Each story, I argued, has a dark side – each story casts a shadow. And in each case, what is most revealing is not the story itself, but the fact that we believe it and think it important. I focused on three common stories. The first is that we are better other animals because we are more intelligent. The second is that we are better because we have morality – we can understand right and wrong – and they do not. The third is that we are superior because we, and we alone, understand that we are going to die. Intelligence, morality and our sense of our own mortality were the three major themes of the book. I am far from convinced that to any of these stories can establish or underwrite a critical gulf between us and other animals.
This was the first time I looked at animal rights from a justice perspective. I immediately picked up his more rigorous and philosophical work on the topic, Animals Like Us. The lucid and carefully constructed arguments in this book impressed me a lot. Here was Rowlands taking the philosophical arguments (Justice as Fairness) I had most closely studied and adhered to as an undergrad and applying them to animal rights. How had I missed this? Finally I had a deep and convincing philosophical perspective from which to approach the issue.
Motivated by Rowlands’ latest interview (linked above), I spent many nights this month rereading Animals Like Us and revisiting the arguments. Now, as we are nearing the second half of 2012, I am getting more and more excited for the release of his newest book, Running with the Pack.
On the Future of Libraries: My post about library e-books sparked some excellent conversation on my Facebook page. What started out as a discussion about lending e-books morphed into a debate about the future of libraries and why many people no longer find them relevant. The entire thread is too long to share here but I was able to engage with several of my friends – all young, educated, and articulate people – who are not library users.
One of my ongoing frustrations is that we, as librarians, are struggling to offer services that this demographic wants. This is where we need to explore new models of service – content creation, maker space, &tc. Not only should librarians be doing user surveys, but they should also be talking to non-users too. As I said in the Facebook discussion, this is a very interesting time for librarians who are willing to test the boundaries of the traditional model. We need more experimentation and less standardization, more proactivity and less reactivity.
Here’s a key quote from one of the comments made by my friend Mark in that discussion:
…without innovation, patronage will shrink and with shrinking patronage comes shrinking budgets. The last time I used a library for anything was the basement of the one you work in for opening day of blood bowl league 2 years ago, because the game store hadn’t expanded their playing space yet. I can’t remember when I needed a library before that. When I was a kid, I used the library constantly, daily in the summer. I used it all the way through college. For me the change is partly caused by the changes in my life, I don’t write papers anymore, although I still do research, but more because of changing technology. Most of the time I spent in libraries was leisure time or a mix of leisure and work. Now I can accomplish all the same things from home and I have no compelling reason for a library. I would love to have a reason to hang out there again. I really think the reality is change or die.
On My New Job: I am a month and a half into my new job at the GFJ Library and I LOVE it a lot more than I expected. It is so satisfying to see the help I give someone make a measurable difference. Even something as little as teaching a patron how to attach a résumé to an email – a task most of us take for granted – has a big impact on them. When living in a world of constant connectivity, playing with all my different devices and gadgets, it is easy to forget that the digital divide is real and that a whole group of people are being left behind (even in this fairly affluent area) because of it. I am glad I play a part, no matter how small, of ameliorating this problem.
On Reading (Comics and Kindle Singles): I spent much of April catching up on comics. The standout is Mike Carey’s The Unwritten. It is some of the smartest writing being done now. Anyone who admires the powers of storytelling needs to follow along. I find myself in awe at least once or twice every TPB and getting genuinely excited about the start of a new issue.
This month I also read a few Kindle Singles on my iPad. I enjoy this publishing model because it offers a way to pay for quality content that is not quite book length but longer than an essay or article. I am not sure that writing like this would have much of an outlet otherwise – unless, perhaps, as collected in books or anthologies. It certainly would not gain the same audience.
In addition to Kindle Singles, I started to check out some stuff published by The Atavist. The first book I read from them was Mother, Stranger. It is an oddly compelling story about the author, Cris Beam’s, relationship with her mentally ill mother. A soundtrack that strums softly in the background and in-text additions of map locations, notes, noises, and photos enhances the e-books.
On Gardening: April brings garden prep and unpredictable weather. I started some tomatoes and cucumbers by the window under my makeshift growing lamp (2 bulbs and a cut furnace shield). The first few weeks of May will be for starting herbs, squash, zucchini, and beans. I usually buy one or two pepper plants and sow greens and radishes right into the ground towards the end of the month.
On My Favorite Reads From Around the Web This Month:
- Infinite Reading – an interesting blog post by Sarah Werner about reading DFW’s Infinite Jest on the iPad
- The Rise of e-books – fascinating results of a survey from Pew Internet about e-reading
- Libraries as software: dematerializing, platforms and returning to first principles – important and thoughtful blog post about ways for libraries to move forward
- The Crisis in American Walking – the first essay in a series about walking and pedestrianism in the US
- Tree of Life: The missing link discovered – an answer to the CGI dinosaurs in Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life
- How tiny Estonia stepped out of USSR’s shadow to become an internet titan - Internet done right
- The Maniac in Me - a NYT’s Magazine essay about living with anxiety
- The Jig Is Up: Time to Get Past Facebook and Invent a New Future - The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal urges entrepreneurs to look beyond the Facebook model
- Why I break DRM on e-books - a publishing exec explains why DRM is a bad model
- Services More Meaningful than Ebooks - a call from Aaron Schmidt for librarians to focus their energy on places besides the already-lost e-book fight
- Craig Mod’s three satellite posts on the digital-physical divide (note: that link is to the first of three)
On Living Meaningfully: Last August I read David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. It was the most influential and disturbing book I read that month (year, actually) because it dealt with a feeling that has lurked around the edges of my thoughts for the last three or four years. A quote from that book has gone around the Internet lately.
True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.
For a long time I felt that living a meaningful and ethical life meant you had to do something big, make an impact in a large way. But over the years I have come grasp the obvious fact that there is no one path to a meaningful life. An accumulation of the little things matter too. How you approach your days, treating your friends and family with generosity and kindness, learning new things, and cultivating empathy and understanding on a day-to-day basis are where a solid foundation to a good life begins.
Sometimes I fear that the pervasive cynicism, irony, and self-absorption that our culture (and especially my generation and those younger) is so steeped in obfuscates such a simple fact’s verity. We often can’t talk seriously about any of this and it makes me sad.
So, I listen to this:
Which brings me to…
On The Cheese of Accomplishment:
Ze Frank is back! Here’s his Invocation for Beginnings:
Next month I am teaching a few classes on blogging at the George F. Johnson Library’s Public Computing Center. In preparation for this, I’ve been reviewing articles and (blog) posts on the topic and reflecting on the nature of blogging and what it has meant for me in the past. This is part of my effort to determine whether “blogging” is really an important skill that people should learn (or, at least, be aware of). Contemplating this, I find myself returning, over and over, to this excellent blog post by Claire Creffield: Know thyself, blog thyself: Socrates and the Internet.
I’ve blogged at several different places over the last five or six years. This site is only my most recent – and most infrequently updated – blogging platform. Of all the hours I have spent writing blog posts, the aspect of blogging that is the most meaningful to me is the same point that Creffield ultimately concludes with:
Perhaps my blog might have a reader, but more than likely it will not. Either way, the imagined eyes of another, sympathetic but critical, intimate but distanced, are an aid to careful reflection.
There is an old cliché about teaching that I think can apply to blogging as well. It goes something like, “the teacher learns more than the students.” Similarly, the blogger learns more than the reader. The greatest awareness my blogging raises is my own self-awareness. It provides an outlet for where I am at – mentally, emotionally, intellectually – at a certain point in my life. Blogging is public journal-keeping – even if it’s not always recognized as such. It’s the most democratic form of personal storytelling. Readership is not as important as imagined readership.
“Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final” - ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann
March was a good month.
On Jonathan Franzen: The month began with a reading and Q&A session with Jonathan Franzen at Binghamton University. Franzen has received a lot of attention, both positive and negative, since the release of Freedom in 2010. Lately, after he took some pot shots at Twitter, I can’t seem to look at the Internet without seeing an essay, blog post, tweet, or online article about how “out of touch” he is with the ways in which the world really works or what today’s writers have to face (e.g. increasing distraction by TV, Internet, etc., the decline of “readers”). For a while I followed this discussion, but have come to the conclusion that I just do not care. So much of the debate feels manufactured. It has become the very distraction it laments.
Franzen’s work is an important and instructive influence in my life. His long and complex novels are expertly crafted and his non-fiction is some of the most honest I have read. I do not want to let any of the noise surrounding him to obfuscate that.
In the Q&A at Binghamton, which my friend John recorded and has made available on Soundcloud, Franzen says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he writes not to put across a particular position, but to complicate and confuse things for his readers. I think that when he makes statements about Twitter, or anything else related to, for lack of a better term, “popular culture,” he is doing it for similar reasons.
I admire this sentiment and I enjoy reading challenging works. When pushed wider and deeper, and forced to consider and accommodate for things I never imagined or knew existed, is when I grow the most.
Franzen Q&A at BU:
On Libraries and My New Job: A week after I attended the Franzen reading, I started a new job that promises both rewards and challenges. My hope is that I can put into practice many of the ideas I have about what libraries CAN and SHOULD offer to their patrons. The biggest hurdle will be funding. I suspect I will get very good at writing grants and begging for money over the next several months. If any other librarians have suggestions for funding, or creative ideas for a Public Computing Center, please let me know.
Also, fellow librarians should really check out the webinar on Content Creation for Teens that Justin Hoenke gave on Wednesday. He is doing some really cool stuff up there in Portland.
On Michael Ondaatje: Ondaatje’s writing was nothing short of a revelation for me in March. I began with Divisadero and then proceeded to Anil’s Ghost, The Cat’s Table, and The English Patient. His books are trance-like. They seem to live on the edge of dreaming and waking life where memory and time flow in all directions. Hauntingly beautiful one minute, stunningly vivid the next, Ondaatje puts me in a different place. It is a place where others exist as completely different yet wholly the same as myself.
“‘Everything is biographical,’ Lucien Freud says. Why we make, why it is made, how we draw a dog, who it is we are drawn to, why we cannot forget. Everything is collage, even genetics. There is the hidden presence of others in us, even those we have known briefly. We contain them for the rest of our lives, at every border that we cross.” – ‘Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje
I feel about Ondaatje the same way that Colum McCann once said he felt about John Berger: I’ve been over-served in a good way. I am so full of his writing right now, it influences everything I do and everything I see. (*Video* of John Berger in conversation with Michael Ondaatje)
On Reading & Female Writers: Michael Ondaatje novels are not the only books that I read in March. I also read two books not worth talking about (The Road and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) and two books by young female writers. They were: Follow Me Down by Kio Stark and The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg. In terms of plots and prose, both are good though very different from one another. While Attenberg’s is a straight-forward novel about a young woman running away from, well, everything, and subsequently finding herself, Stark’s novel is an airy mediation on city life – part mystery, part contemporary and literary fiction.
What kept striking me while I was reading these novels is how much they say about female sexuality. They don’t do this overtly, but the differences between how these two authors introduce sexuality in their characters and how a lot of the other (re: white, male) authors I read do it is so apparent. Not since I first read Aimee Bender have I seen it as starkly.
I guess my only conclusion is that I should try to read more female authors. But then, of course, I have to wonder about whether I should be thinking of Attenberg and Stark as “writers” as opposed to “women writers.” Shouldn’t the art and not the gender come first?
On the iPad, Instapaer, and Long-form Non-fiction: Since I got an iPad and downloaded the Instapaper app, I have read A LOT more long-form non-fiction. Some of my recent favorites are:
- Logically Speaking – This 3:AM Magazine interview with philosopher Graham Priest is fantastic. I wrote my capstone philosophy paper at BU on dialetheism (true contradictions) and have kept up a bit with the debate since then. It has been really interesting to see Priest gain more recognition both inside and outside of academia. This interview is a good introduction to Priest’s thoughts but will also be engaging to those familiar with the concepts as well.
- Late Bloomers – Malcom Gladwell gives me hope that I might still make something of myself later in life. He dispels the myth that creativity always has to be associated with precocity.
- White Savior Industrial Complex // Jimmy McNulty Gambit - I consider these two essays by Teju Cole and Aaron Bady companion pieces. They are shrewd examinations of our current culture and the issues surrounding charity, sensationalism and, as Cole defines it, the White Savior Industrial Complex. Both of these pieces need more readers.
On Writing and Future Blog Posts: I write almost every day, but I don’t blog much anymore. I am of the opinion that writing isn’t worth anything unless it pulls from inside and contains forms of your deepest secrets, desires, fears, and dreams. Writing like that take time. It takes care and polishing and cannot be done in an hour the way a blog post can. At least, it can’t be done well in an hour. Like I said at the beginning, blogging is public journal writing. It has it’s own benefits, one of which is the quickness and ease that comes from the informality of the platform. That said, my plan is to reignite my interest in blogging as a medium for reflection.
On Idea Incomes: In Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon says:
There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income.
I think the same thing is true of idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
I think that this is true both online and off.
On Happiness and the Horizon: “A clear horizon” is how Alfred Hitchcock defines happiness. That seems about as good a definition as any in the concluding days of March.
In less than one week, on June 8th, I will have turned in the last of my school assignments. On June 11th, even though I’m not attending the commencement, I will officially be a MLIS graduate. Working on this degree over the last year and a half has, at times, been inspiring, frustrating, boring, emotional, difficult, fun and challenging.
My last semester at Binghamton University, where I double-majored in Philosophy and Pre-Law (PPL), I wrote a meta-philosophy paper as part of an independent study. I wanted to know exactly what I had just spent four years of my life thinking about and studying. Was it really important? What, if anything, did I learn from the experience?
My paper was really not that impressive and essentially said that philosophy is important even if it does not provide concrete answers because it still asks questions, advances the dialogue, blah, blah, blah. It was very abstract and, looking back, relied on a lot of weird rhetorical and creative flourishes that did not necessarily make sense and that I would never have attempted in a class assignment as it would have been a sure way to receive a poor grade in a department full of ethical philosophers.
So, the paper kind of failed on a philosophical level. However, it still is one of the most important tasks that I undertook while at BU. It was only a semester long but it was mostly self-directed. I got reading suggestions from my advisor and was allowed to write and explore in whatever way I chose. I gained a lot personally from this paper and it made me really think critically about the degree I was receiving and what it meant – and would mean – in my life. Those were the things I could not write about – yet they may be the most important.
Now that I am at the end of my MLIS I find myself wishing that I was given a chance to explore the degree in the same way. What would a meta-MLIS paper look like? It is difficult to really think critically about the MLIS degree from inside of it. Drexel is on the quarter system. So, I took five 10-week quarters starting in March 2010 and ending June 2011. The breaks between quarters I spent catching up on things that would get pushed aside during the busy 10 weeks before it. There was not much time to look inward and assess what I was learning.
But now that I am graduating and facing an unsure job market I suspect that I will have some free time for just such an endeavor and I plan to document it here. More than just writing about LIS education, I really want to figure out what I gained from it on a different level. Sure, I learned about metadata and information architecture and web design. But what else? What did I learn that is not specifically taught? How has the last five quarters changed me?
I think that a blog (specifically, this one) is a good way for me to start exploring the thoughts I touched on above. I am not necessarily saying this because I think that what I have to say is profound or even important to anyone but me. But blogs allow for conversation – even if that conversation is only perceived. They are dialectal in nature. Lacking any sort of advisor or professor as I had during my undergrad, a blog is a decent substitution.
Claire Creffield recently said this much more eloquently:
Blogging might seem (has always seemed to me) like a hideously public way of conducting personal reflection, but its saving grace is its joyful acknowledgement of the inescapably communicative nature of thought. Blogging puts into practice a recognition that, if a private language is an impossibility, so, too, it is impossible to pursue self-knowledge by means of a wholly private use of language.
In addition to blogging about my MLIS experience, I also hope to write more about education in general and comment on some of the ideas that Michael Stephens brought up in his recent LJ column.