Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Stephen Baxter's Titan is sitting on my desk like a fat pile of wasted wood pulp because I had a thought about it, and am therefore compelled to say something. Never a good idea.

I think the last 56 pages of the novel were the novel. They were the fun part, the interesting part, the thoughtful part.

The other 620 pages. Not so much.

Why I stuck with it, you see, is because I've enjoyed books by Mr. Baxter before, it's about the moon Titan, which might have life on it, and the back copy suggested a conclusion of great import and subtle wisdom.

It was not great or subtle enough to justify the first 620 pages, was all.

There. I've excreted that thought. I can now donate it to the library book sale.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Last night I had a dream about Ben Stiller and a dwarf starring in a feel-good zombie plague movie. It was an unusual dream for me. I have zombie dreams regularly, a couple of time a year, and they're usually all about anxiety.

This one was sort of charming, actually. It makes me want to write the script. I'd make the dwarf the brains of the operation. Cause dwarves are cool.

I love zombie plague flicks, but the whole premise of them is totally flawed. Or at the very least, the Night of the Living Dead style premise is. Zombies are slow and stupid. They're not that much stronger than living people, as far as I can tell from intensive studies of the source material. Their strength is numbers. Seriously, could there be that many intact corpses that would pose a threat to able bodied humans with acess to long hitty things? Fire pokers, for god sakes, liberally applied, would put a stop to your average Romero-ian zombie. Fire extinguishers. Morgue locker doors would take care of most of the initial outbreak. Organized groups would take care of the rest. Viola, no more zombie mess.

Return of the Living Dead postulates a much more useful scenario, such that there is an initial vector of infection that produces zombies from able bodied living people, which makes for a much more tolerable ratio of menacing dead to able bodied human defenders. Plus, RotLD zombies are smart and quick. More like ghouls than zombies.

Friday, January 05, 2007

In a generally counterintuitive article at the WSJ Opinions, the author, John Miller, decides that:

"If public libraries attempt to compete in this {bookstore} environment, they will increasingly be seen for what Fairfax County apparently envisions them to be: welfare programs for middle-class readers who would rather borrow Nelson DeMille's newest potboiler than spend a few dollars for it at their local Wal-Mart.

Instead of embracing this doomed model, libraries might seek to differentiate themselves among the many options readers now have, using a good dictionary as the model. Such a dictionary doesn't merely describe the words of a language--it provides proper spelling, pronunciation and usage. New words come in and old ones go out, but a reliable lexicon becomes a foundation of linguistic stability and coherence. Likewise, libraries should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends."

The assumptions Mr. Miller makes are idiosyncratic. It sounds like he is proposing two things:

First, he is proposing that libraries are somehow beyond market forces. People generally decide which public services they support by how useful they find them. Mr. Miller is suggesting that by buying fewer books that our patrons want, by becoming less relevant to our community’s interests, libraries will somehow be perceived as more useful.

Second, that we could succeed as arbiters of taste. His first statement hinges on some view that our profession can decide for the general public what they want to read. Perhaps we should hand them a book at the door. "No, no. You don't want to read DeMille. Try Hemingway.”

Never mind that “For Whom The Bell Tolls” apparently wasn't on the local school’s reading lists. And that they might have more to do with “shoring up the culture” thnt we do. Does he really think the public at large pays our millage so that we can tell them what books they want? That looks like a recipe for a “doomed model” to me.

Nineteenth century librarians didn't even think novels should be in library. Mr. Miller is more permissive: he just thinks that we're wasting money on new novels.

In fact, libraries offer all sorts of information, besides those new fangled novels. Full-text periodical databases, newspapers, audio-books, business and investing resources, reader’s advisory, citizenship information, test preparation books, language CDs, meeting space… professionals who might be able to help a stumped patron navigate the many resources available to them. Is Mr. Miller really so unimaginative that he can’t think of any informational resources better afforded by an institution than the general public?

In the near future, I'm betting that many people will be making economic choices about reading material by buying in electronic format, to read on PDAs, portable readers, even cell-phones. That trend will increase over time. Thinking further ahead of Mr. Miller, as the price of computer storage falls, we can envision a time when you can carry a library of public domain classics as a freebee on your PDA. And you still probably won’t read them, much like you browse through most of the cable channels in your package at home.

So what happens in the future if we follow in Mr. Miller's thinking and advice? The library becomes not only irrelevant, but redundant.

There may be alternatives to the library's resources. Some of them may prove to be more effective, especially in the long run, than public libraries. But I'll bet that the 90% of our patron base we have registered as users, on an average day, get more use out of the 1.3 mils they pay us yearly, than they do out of the police force or fire department. This is in no way an indictment of basic services, but does point up that we compare favorably to them.

My biggest complaint with Mr. Millar’s thoughtless essay is that it rarely comes down to a choice of “Hemingway or DeMille.” His leading opening suggests that revered classics “may” be removed entirely from the library system. In fact, the greater disservice is to mid-list or small press authors, like himself, who get cut from the catalog due to disinterest.

I would be surprised if any largish library system doesn’t have access to “Charlotte Brontë, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn” I bet if he bothered to look in the Fairfax County Public Library system’s catalog, they would be available yet. At the very least, we can inter-library loan them.

Librarians are doing their best to navigate the waters of utility in the age of Google: spending tax dollars wisely while still making sure that we are a service, not a warehouse. We will make sure that resources are available to you: If For Whom the Bell Tolls isn’t right there for you, we’ll Inter Library Loan it. But if your suggestions are fulminating about “them new fangled popular reading novels,” don’t be surprised that our profession doesn’t find it constructive criticism.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Poppy enjoyed her holiday immensely. She got a lot of dinosaur books, which made her very happy and kept her occupied in the otherwise toy-dry environs of her grandparent’s home. Some dinosaur toys as well, and the usual assortments. Parcheesi  which she decided to make new rules for the second time she played, and which she plays ferociously. I was rather put out that the first time we played she beat me handily.

I had a good time a Christmas, despite my own innate surliness, largely because of my sister’s now in-laws, who threw a very nice party. Every body was very kind to me, and especially to Poppy, who charmed my brother in law (to be’s) sisters by reading brown bear brown bear upside down.

Yes, she is a terrible show off.

Monday, January 01, 2007

My daughter fights dragons

She keeps invisible tigers for pets, too.

I started this post a long time ago, but had a hard time finishing it. Talking about my daughter is hard. There are so many cool stories. I am so completely entertained by her that I don't know which stories would entertain other people. Plus, I have a memory like a sieve.

Poppy is four. She is kind of like a landscape. I'll be walking along with her and realize, huh, that was a sophisticated turn of phrase. Or, she didn't know that word before. Or sitting in the living room, I will be watching her play with hotwheels tracks (wearing Mardi Gras beads) and realize that I've never seen her put quite that much energy into puzzling the pieces of something together. She's like a landscape: I am always encountering something new. A sort of ambulatory Paracosm.

Paracosm is a fancy word for: A place that I made up. There is some technical literature, which all seems to focus on the complexity of children's made up worlds. I dabble in paracosms as an adult, with a game called Dungeons and Dragons, which is sort of like dollhouse with vicious, amoral, sword toting dolls in trap and monster filled dungeons.

Over the summer, my daughter started writing maps. She would take them with us whenever we went on walks, to direct our travels. She would lead me through landscapes: that's the dinosaur forest. There are tigers in those woods. Where do we go next? I threw in the icy river of Thurskgaard. We waded through that.

One of the things that entertains and interest me the most is what kind of things my daughter becomes interested in:

Tigers, Sharks, Dinosaurs.

Not princesses or baby dolls (although she seems interested in this new "Baby Alive" thing that excretes. Excretion is pretty interesting).

But: Music, and dancing, and sparkley clothes.

Not really money, yet. Not really drawing. Though I've tried to coax her.

She loves polyhedral dice.

Bones. "Dad, don't forget to bring me a bone book from the library."

When she draws pictures of herself, she includes her insides.

See? That scribble over her head. "What's that, Poppy?"

"It's my brain."

Well. Brains are important parts of us.

So, we had this conversation a couple of month's ago:

"Dad, what’s this?" picking up a Dungeon map. A Dungeon is the kind of violent dollhouse that you play "Dungeons and Dragons" in.
"It’s a map."
"Where do we live?"
"We don’t live on it. It’s a map of someplace in my imagination."
"Where’s your imagination?"
I pointed at my temple.
"That’s a cool map, then."