Friday, June 25, 2010

The Very Best Answers

A little while ago I received a book in the mail. I had been told about the work by the person who had read it and she had given me a taste. So my interest was peaked and I was looking forward to reading the book.

I do need to say right up front that I don’t want to ruin the read for anyone. So, I’ll only give the stingiest of a story outline here.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot in two long pulls. The story is one of those where life is stranger then fiction. No one could ever make any of this up. And if someone did we would immediately classify the book as fiction. It isn’t. The book chronicles the real life events to real flesh and blood individuals. The work centers around the recovery of live cells from an African-American woman shortly before her death in early 1950’s Maryland and how those cells became the first human cells to be prorogated outside of a live person. The live cells, know as HeLa, provided the ground work required for almost every medical advance in the last 50 years. The propagated cells also made it possible for progress to occur in not only the medical fields but also in technological, industrial and military applications.

But the book goes well beyond a retelling or documenting of cell recovery and propagation. Ms. Skloot brings us face to face with an incredible array of individuals. We do meet researchers, doctors, technicians, scientists, administrators and lawyers. We also meet Ms Lacks’ husband, children, cousins and other neighbors and assorted relatives from Clover, VA and Baltimore, MD. Each has an individual perception and very human reaction to the harvesting of Ms Lacks cells.

Ms. Skloot uses the visual cue of a timeline to help the reader along their journey. And it is a good Idea that she does. The different chapters do move around in time a bit and the visual cue helps to center the reader. Along the way Ms. Skloot also becomes a character in her work and is no longer a dispassionate, third person observer. We read her emotional reactions to events as they unfold. And when she does enter into the work, it is completely appropriate that she do. It provides the reader with another perception of events and individuals.

Along with the very human stories that unfold we are also given a window into the ethical and legal ramifications of what took place and what continues to occur in the world of medical research today. These sections of the book provide the reader ample ground for continuing discussions that range from bioethics to personal moral obligations; to the role of corporate responsibilities to perceptions of individuals towards institutions and the need for historical accuracy in the documentation of research to the right to an individuals’ privacy. None of these discussions have any easy answers and all could continue long after the book is closed. And that is what leads to the title of this post because the very best of answers always leads to many, more questions.

See you at the Library,

Monday, June 21, 2010

I Reader, By Myself With Others

I recently read an article in the Sunday electronic edition of the New York Times ( ) that talked about something called “social reading”. The article began with the discussion of a feature found on a number of different ereaders. It’s called “popular highlights”. It is a terrible name for a rather interesting feature. This feature makes it possible for the readers of the book to share what they would highlight with other readers. This feature can, of course, be turned off. I didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. I have borrowed books from individuals who have underlined or highlighted sections that they found insightful; but as a rule no one does that with a library book or with a new book except the author.

I then realized I was missing the point.

Popular highlights allow for individuals to see what dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of previous readers have determined as being worthwhile. It could take some of the joy of individual discovery out of the reading process; but most of us want to talk to others about books or passages in books that we found to be insightful or luminary. We do that with book groups and we do it over the circ desk. We read reviews and we talk with others about what we have found to be unusual, controversial or an astute understanding of the human condition.

Often times those are some of the attributes we equate with a good read.

In this case, by using this feature we are allowed access to what others have thought as significant. We can choose to agree or we can choose to disagree. But by being aware that others have found this part of the book as being important we get a virtual heads-up. I suspect that many would choose to disable the feature. I am sure I would only utilize it on a subject by subject or author by author basis. And I could always disagree with what others had deemed as significant.

But here are two of the many cruxes of the article: the day of the solitary reader quietly bringing knowledge to him/herself may be over and we learn differently and make greater headway when we learn (read) in a social setting. I have simplified the arguments here and the author of the article did a much better job of explaining these major points.

I had never thought of the reading experience as a social activity before.

There are many types of reading that are very good in a social condition. Poetry is an easy example. What is interesting here is that we could use the social give and take of highlighting as a cue. It is not a discussion per se, because we don’t know why someone has highlighted the point. You still have to work out the why for yourself. What we do know is that someone saw some bit of insight in that section, so we might want to give it a bit more thought. Another interesting aspect of the feature is that sections and what is highlighted might change over time. Highlighted sections may come and go and different sections may have more significance after a second reading.

This feature should not be viewed as another indicator of the end of the world of reading; or as another cobblestone on the road of good intentions. It is not. Nor is it another conspiracy to turn our local library into a downloadable venue without any physical books left in the stacks. I see both the ereader and the popular highlight feature are extensions of the reading experience. And as with using any ereader it is not the same as using a book. It is a different experience. They are not the same; but that is as it should be because you do not want the same experience from reading both a physical book and an ereader.

See you at the Library,

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

OJT or Expanding my eHorizons

A little while ago I decided to investigate the downloadable audio books available via the SLFL and CEF’s websites. What brought this about was that a patron came in one evening and ambled over to the books on cd collection. Sometimes when you go to the library no matter what is available nothing strikes you. Our patron had this experience. I went over and we talked about different authors, narrators and books available. Still, no dice. Now I’m thinking, “Hmmm, what to do?” Luckily our patron likes both fiction and non-fiction offerings so we were able to locate an appropriate item. As we returned to the Cric Desk the question of the downloadable books available from our website came up. So we quickly went online to see what the deal was. After a few frustrating minutes I discovered that this was going to take some focus and vowed to learn how to do it before our patron returned to the library. When I got home that evening I sallied forth to download something, anything. I’ll cut to the quick. I did successfully download an audio book.

Here is what I did.

First off don’t be in a rush. In fact, if you like watching baseball you might want to combine the two activities. Don’t worry, if something really good happens on the diamond you’ll see it again on the replay. And as in downloading any software or files, read all the available information on the screen first and then click “okay” or “next”. You might also want to check out the FAQs before you begin.

The first thing you’ll have to do is set up an account with NetLibrary. I went through the CEF webpage to do this. You will need your local library card. Actually what you need is your library card number. That fourteen digit bar code number that lets you take out books etc from the SLFL. So, unless you’ve memorized your library number, you’ll need your library card. You need an account from NetLibrary so that you can download the necessary management software to then download and run the audio books. It is not hard, just follow the prompts. You set up a user name and password, you know the drill. Then you can download the management software. Just to let you know, you are now about half way to actually getting a downloadable book on your computer or device.

Once you have the account and have the management software you can begin to browse the offerings. When I first saw the search mechanism for browsing I was a little suspicious. It appeared to be kind of clunky. Being the person that I am I scrolled to the bottom of the webpage to see who owned / managed the website. There it was: EBSCO. EBSCO is a well know aggregator of both print and on-line databases for journal, newspaper and magazine articles. That was why the search tools looked both vaguely familiar and not so user friendlily. But that was okay. Now I knew what I was dealing with and so forged ahead. I choose to download an audio book of poems and letters by Emily Dickinson.

The actual downloading took a bit of time. If a major league pitcher was really struggling on the mound the opposing team could have sent all nine players to the plate. But I did get the entire work. I now had two hours and eight minutes of narration on my computer. So I listened. The listening quality was very good and the controls are very easy to use. The bad parts are that there is no way to bookmark where you are if you decide to stop for a while. The FAQs suggest you write down the track number or time stamp to find your place again. Like with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper. That is so 1980s. The audio book is actually checked out by you, just like any lending library material, and so it is available to you for a limited amount of time. After three weeks your access to the file expires. That’s all okay. Here is the other bad part: the file does not automatically delete from your computer. If you want the file removed from your machine you need to do that yourself. Alright, I can find the file and do that. Oh, and just in case you where thinking of downloading the audio book to your computer and then burning a cd of the audio book and listening to it in the car, don’t bother. The file is encrypted. I choose to download to my laptop. You can choose to download to a more portable device. Since I didn’t do that yet I can’t report back as to how easy or difficult that process might be. But I will be sure to let you know. Right now, I’m going to go listen to some of Ms. Dickinson’s work.

See you at the Library,

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Blue Boat

As most of you know I recently read The Healing Woods by Martha Reben. A little bit ago my wife and I visited Weller Pond. We wanted to make sure that we got to Weller in the month of May, just as Ms. Reben did 79 years ago.

We didn’t travel by the same route. Nor did we travel in the same type of craft. But both of those aspects didn’t really matter to us. Our most important reasons for going are another set of whys. Ms. Reben traveled to Weller Pond to cure. And in a sense we did too. Neither BethStar nor I are ill, as Ms. Reben was. But we were looking for a quiet place, with blue skies and clean water; a spot that could renew our sense of why we continue to travel on lakes, ponds and rivers, up mountains and deep into the woods. In that we were successful.

Both of us had been to Weller before. But this time we saw everything a little differently. This time, we had read about this spot and time spent there prior to our traveling to it. To be fair I’m only going to write about my thoughts. When I read about a place I get the benefit of the writers’ impressions, thoughts and emotions. I also get their reactions and perceptions to any and all events that take place, no matter how significant or mundane. By the writer sharing these events and thoughts I now get to see the area in a completely different light. It doesn’t matter that my trip was this last May and that the one I read about was taken in 1931. What matters is that we both went to the same places. And by following I am able to fold in the thoughts, emotions and perceptions of the previous traveler into and with my own experiences. My trip is greatly enhanced because an earlier person had taken the time to share what they had discovered. When we went to Weller it was almost as if we were also traveling with another person. We could appreciate what she had seen and thought and add those items to our trip. In addition, by traveling to this place we were able to personally connect with the book in a very physical way.

A lot has changed since 1931. Ms. Reben saw virtually no other travelers besides Mr. Rice during the months she stayed at Weller. We did see a couple of folks on the creek, lake and pond; a number of whom we know. We were able, to our own satisfaction, to identify the spot where Ms. Reben and Mr. Rice camped. And here is just one of the pleasant surprises we discovered on our trip: the view is virtually the same as it was almost 80 years ago. You can still see the pond, islands, peninsula and wild forests as they saw them. The sky cleared off to a pale blue and the clouds reflected with a wispy white on the surface of the water. Butterflies flitted around and fish jumped from the lake. You can also still see Ampersand rising in the background over a few layers of hills. The camping spot is now well overgrown. But many of the older trees are still the same ones that they saw and she wrote about all those years ago. How fortunate for all of us.

See you at the Library,

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Scout, Jem & Atticus Turn 50

Somehow I had never gotten around to reading To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. When I read that there were a number of celebrations this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of the work I decided it was time to find a copy and read it. When I casually mentioned to others that I hadn’t read the book, or even seen the movie, they all looked at me in sort of a stunned disbelief. I’m not exactly sure how I had gotten to this point in my life without ever reading the work. But I did know how to remedy the situation. The copy I read I found in the oversized paperback collection just to the right of the paperback carousels and just to the left of the VHS collection at the SLFL.

I’m not going to review the work from the storyline standpoint. There is no need. The book won a Pulitzer Prize; it is considered an American classic and has been in print continuously for fifty years. If it wasn’t good on a number of different levels it never would have lasted this long. What I do want to talk about is my personal experience to the crafting of the work and the development of the reader that the characters and the events written about provide.

Ms. Lee leaves nothing to chance. The work is crafted in the most wonderful of ways. Part way through the work the reader realizes that when Ms. Lee brings in a new character, encounter or setting you can be sure that this character or event will reverberant forward and add to the unfolding of the story. As a reader I found that nothing was wasted and that, if I choose too, I could delve into what might be coming round the bend. I didn’t. And the reason I did not was because I was happy to leave my imagination and intellect in the good hands of Ms. Lee. She did not disappoint me and like all good reads, she did at times surprise me. She also caused me to wonder. I thought about the characters, time and setting. I also thought about when the work was published and about life in America right now. The story takes place in 1935. The work was first published in 1960. It is now 2010. A lot has happened in the past 75 years but the story still has power. The moral and ethical questions examined and pursued in the work continue to be wrestled with even today. I would not doubt that human beings will continue to raise and think about the issues surrounding human dignity and the frailty of human institutions for many centuries to come. At least, I would like to think so.

I am still confused as to why I had never read the book prior to this week. I must have been in the wrong English or American Literature classes. What I will say is that I’m glad to have met the characters in To Kill A Mocking Bird. I’ll also say that I personally believe that when you read you only get out of the book whatever you are ready to take in from that work. Now, because of my age, education and experiences I can appreciate the Ms. Lee’s efforts on a number of different levels. It is rich writing and rich reading. You can also be sure that I won’t wait another fifty years to reread the book.

See you at the Library,