A Nottinghamian, and On Being a Web Mule

A Nottinghamian

A man approached me on the floor, and asked me if the library had anything by Stan Barstow. He was a stout, older man, in his sixties, perhaps, with a weathered face, a hooked nose like John Lennon, and a "Notts" football team patch on his sweater. He had heard that Barstow's writing was similar to that of Alan Sillitoe, though he guessed no one read Sillitoe anymore. I said that I, for one, had enjoyed Sillitoe very much.

We had only Barstow's Just You Wait and See, in large print. He wanted, if I recall, A Kind of Loving, Barstow's first novel in what would become his Vic Brown Trilogy. I took an ILL request for it, and then showed him John Harvey's DI Charlie Resnick novels, set, like many of Sillitoe's novels, in Nottingham. I handed him the first one, Lonely Hearts.

Barstow wrote mostly about West Yorkshire, rather than Nottingham, but he was associated with Sillitoe and John Braine as a leader of the Realism movement of the early sixties in Britain. Like Sillitoe's gritty Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Barstow's A Kind of Loving was made into a film, starring Alan Bates. I must see if I can get it.

On Being a Web Mule

I don't know what else to call it, so I have made up a name for it. I am talking about people who, unwilling to learn to use a computer, and having neither an e-mail address nor a credit card, want to use librarians to do business for them online, especially by telephone. Dealing with these people is about the most uncomfortable and frustrating experience that I encounter in my work.

I had a couple of them on Tuesday, each one taking about twenty minutes, during which my co-worker had to handle all other desk traffic by herself.

One woman was trying to enroll in a test preparation course for the Certified Nursing Assistant exam. She hoped that I could supply her with a list of nearby providers with toll-free numbers. She wanted me to try web addresses that she made up, a common strategy with the computer illiterate: what they're looking for, with ".com" on the end, cnatesting.com, cnaclasses.com. We descended into a hell of clueless forums and crap search engines. I could feel her anguish over the phone, as I failed to retrieve the imaginary list. She sounded so desperate. I tried to imagine what she must be doing for a living, if she aspired to be a CNA.

I tried it my own way, going to the Florida Department of Health, which administers the test. But the FDOH, other than strongly recommending that candidates take such a course before attempting the exam, offered no help in selecting a test prep provider. I finally said that I had to close the call, that other people were waiting for assistance. She said that she would call back in five minutes.

I continued to look, hoping to have something ready if she called back. The more I looked, the more depressing it got. It seemed to me that CNA test prep might be something of a scam, as I have come to regard the test prep industry in general. The courses were not offered by vocational schools or community colleges, but by "schools" in strip-mall storefronts. One poster to a forum, having taken such a course, wondered why, if there was such a demand for CNA's, she could not find a job. I was unable to find any training in Tallahassee, but I found a place in Jacksonville, and printed out the information to leave at the desk. The woman never did call back.

Another woman called, excited about an episode of Mystery Diagnosis, a Discovery Network program that she had watched that morning. The episode had been about Lyme disease, from which she suffered, and she wanted to purchase it on DVD for her Lyme disease support group. My initial search got nowhere, and we had to drill down through the DISH Network site to find the local TV schedule and determine the correct title of the episode she had seen, The Stabbing Sensation. The Discovery site directed customers to iTunes. I explained that she would have to download and install iTunes to purchase the episode, not realizing that she didn't even have a computer.

After lunch I got a message that she had called back. I returned her call. She confessed that she did not have a computer, and that she had spoken to the leader of her support group, who had not been able to order the episode on DVD. I explained that it was only available as a video download, and was not available on DVD. She asked me to send the details to her group leader, which I did, after I found that it was more easily available from Amazon as on-demand video. But it was still not burnable to a CD, being one of those confounded DRM-protected Windows Media videos. It could, however, be loaded into a compatible portable video device.

It takes my breath away when I realize how fast recorded sound and video delivery is changing. DVD's seem to be going the way of CD's. How will this affect library media collections, which have been the public library "growth sector" for the last twenty years? Will they wither away? I expect that CD's and DVD's will survive as "boutique" formats, for works that do not have enough of an audience to merit distribution by the media giants.


An American Dictionary of the English Language

A man wanted to see where we kept our dictionaries. I showed him the 423's in the reference collection. Did we have Webster's original dictionary? I pointed to Merriam Webster's Third Unabridged, the current edition. No, he protested, he wanted Noah Webster's original dictionary, the 1828 edition. We didn't have that one. Why not? He thought it was as significant a cultural treasure as the King James Bible.

Why, indeed? I didn't have a good answer. I love dictionaries, and I prize my massive Webster's New International Dictionary: Second Edition, Unabridged, which I found in an antique shop for thirty dollars. It is still considered the authority by hardcore librarians, including many words left out as archaic by the third edition, and advising the reader whether a word is "proper English" or slang, a distinction that has fallen out of favor, to say the least. I admired his sentiment, and I was ashamed that we did not have Noah Webster's 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language. I took an interlibrary loan request from him.

When I was in military school, at the Sanford Naval Academy, we had a teacher who impressed upon us the preeminence of the Merriam Webster dictionary. We must accept no other. He required us all to submit drawings of the Merriam Webster logo. It was Noah Webster who endeavored to save English from the English. Because of him, we write color instead of colour, and theater instead of theatre.

There is a sort of "back-to-intellectual-basics" trend in publishing now. Simon Winchester has written about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, and others have written about Roget's Thesaurus, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and The Harvard Classics. I suppose a similar impulse is moving me to want to read Gibbon. (No, I'm not going to spoon-feed you the links. Look them up!)


Visions of Gerard

I've just reread Visions of Gerard, the only novel by Jack Kerouac that I have ever read. I read it the first time only because it happened to be on a bookshelf in a bedroom in Burlington, Vermont, on a cold, wet day in early spring, 1973.

It's about the short life of Kerouac's saintly older brother, who died of heart disease at the age of nine. It is set in Lowell, Massachusetts, a New England mill town, among the French Canadian population, working class and Catholic.

Not so different from 1973 Burlington. A friend from high school had invited me to go with him there, to "God's Country", from which his parents had retired to Winter Park. They were also Catholic. His father was of French Canadian descent, had been a hair dresser in Burlington. His mother was of Polish descent.

We stayed with the family of his childhood friend. I had never seen a place like Burlington before: an old New England town with stone buildings, a town square, a World War I memorial and an ancient cemetery. I was a child of rootless sunbelt subdivisions, bedroom communities.

We crossed the river, where the silent red brick textile mills sat forlorn by the falls, into the town of Winooski to visit family. His cousin was an authentic greaser, like the Fonz, with pomaded hair, leather jacket, and motorcycle. I had never seen a real greaser, and I haven't seen one since. An endangered species, to check off one's life list.

Our host family was also of French Canadian descent, and very Catholic. So Catholic, in fact, that they didn't even have to go to church. A priest and friend of the family said a homely Mass around the dining room table. I watched them, a wild boy from the pagan future that was Modern America. I wanted to warm myself at that fire.

It was March: chill, sodden, and misty from the thaw. I don't remember why I was alone in that upstairs bedroom for an afternoon. And my eye fell upon Visions of Gerard. It was so easy, in that old house, to picture this tale of 1920's Lowell, Massachusetts; this sweet, sad memory of tragedy visited upon a family bound together by love, faith, and community.

Maybe it was God's Country. When I returned to the Southland, I carried with me a little black and silver crucifix.


Hippie Lessons

It must have been in my junior year of high school, 1969-70, that I bought this book. Budding bookman that I was, I spent my Saturdays riding my bicycle to the Colonial Plaza and the new Winter Park Mall to hit the bookstores and news stands.

There is a lot of curiosity now about life before the "revolution", as evidenced by TV shows like Mad Men and the film, Revolutionary Road. In 1969, in Orlando, Florida, hippies and anti-war demonstrators were only seen in the media: on television, in newspapers, and in the news weeklys like Time and Newsweek. Many larger cities had underground newspapers, like Atlanta's Great Speckled Bird, or the Berkeley Barb, to which several of the articles in this collection are attributed. In Orlando, we had to make do with two national publications, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone, for sympathetic coverage of this "new underground".

AM radio did not play most of the music we wanted to hear, as bands like the Jefferson Airplane, the Cream, Steppenwolf, Hendrix's Experience, broke from the short AM format and explored controversial material. The appearance of non-commercial FM stations provided a lifeline for alternative rock fans. In Orlando we had FM 107.

Looking at it now, I think Kornbluth's anthology has stood the test of time. It is a fine snapshot of the Counterculture at the end of the sixties, before Theodore Roszak so named it. It is worth noting that it is almost entirely the work of men. Liza Williams rails against freeloading "hippiebums", but there is not a whiff of feminism.

Jesse Kornbluth is still around, having gone on to a successful career as a print journalist.

Forty years after, I confess I am conflicted about it all. At the time, it seemed pretty clear cut. Either you wanted to keep the nigger down and nuke Hanoi, or you didn't. But in retrospect, I have felt like I was dragged into an argument among my elders. Beats and Squares. I am a Catholic now, but that would not have saved me at the time, as religious orders and seminaries hemorrhaged in the confused aftermath of Vatican II.

It is a part of who I am. The other day, my wife said to me, "I'm into fruit!". And I replied, "Well, don't get all yinned out". And yes, (as she comments), hearing ourselves, we laughed.


Brave New World

I promise not to make a habit of this. Others have devoted themselves to posting vintage paperback covers, Pop Sensation, for example.

This is one of my favorite covers, by Charles Binger. I have a framed blow-up of it on the wall here in my office at home, done for a "classics" display at the library. Binger has used the "keyhole" technique popular in paperback covers of the '40's. I had cherished this cover as a find, but I see that it is all over the 'Net, even roundly mocked at BoingBoing.

I don't care, I like it. It says, "stop the world, I want to get off!" We see a new Adam and Eve, sans fig leaves, escaping, not cast out from, the "soulless Eden". Will they be missed?

I don't suppose the word dystopia had yet been coined. It is a potent and ancient image. Escape or exile? From Ur of the Chaldees, The Old World, the Concrete Jungle, Suburbia, Cyberspace?

And return, to what? To a naked, undistracted, painful, ethical, courageous existence in the sight of an inscrutable God.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.


The Bible and the Liturgy

I've actually been reading The Bible and the Liturgy, by biblical theologian Jean Danielou, S.J., for several months, and finished it tonight. It has been my reading for my weekly hour at Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Tuesday nights.

Readers of the works of Scott Hahn, a biblical scholar and a convert to the Catholic Church who has brought many into the fullness of the faith, may not know that this work is something of a touchstone for him, being about typologies of the Tanakh, (which Christians call the Old Testament), and how they are woven into the accounts of the New Testament and the major feast-days of the Church, particularly Easter and Pentecost. Hahn has amplified Danielou's insights to produce a number of books on subjects like the Book of Revelation and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Before this I had worked my way through Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth, another brilliant work of biblical theology. I have found over the years that this is my preferred method of Bible study: not to work my way doggedly through a book of the Bible, but rather to read a scholarly work about the Bible with references all through the Bible, keeping my Bible close at hand.


Red Alert

1958. "SAC ATTACK! Every minute of every hour of every day, there are American bombers in the air, loaded with H-bombs, ready to fly into action at the mere spark of the right radio signal. These are the planes and men of the Strategic Air Command."


Three Harbours

Sea stories have always been a very minor sub-genre of men's adventure fiction in the United States, where the cowboy, the soldier, the private detective, and even the policeman are much more popular as pulp heroes than the sea captain. Think of the great sea novels by American authors: Moby Dick, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Caine Mutiny, Mister Roberts. Think of the popular affection for pirates. We, (native American white folks), are essentially a nation of mutineers.

Nautical fiction is only really popular in the Northeast, with its historical links to England, to whaling, to merchant shipping, and to that sport of the rich, yachting. The recent enthusiasm for pirates has not been accompanied by the appearance of pirate fiction, (with the notable exception of Neal Stephenson's massive Baroque Cycle), being apparently only cinema, video game and festival based.

F. Van Wyck Mason is good example. A Boston blue blood and Harvard educated, he wrote serial pulp "intrigue" fiction before breaking out with Three Harbours, a sprawling historical novel, in 1938. A sequel to Three Harbours, The Stars on the Sea, was a top-ten bestseller in 1940. This cover is from a 1952 paperback edition, and it promises more than the book actually delivers in the way of "good parts".

I can't make out what is going on here. The tankards and counter in the background suggest that they are in a tavern, he holding her possessively aloft, to her obvious delight. But what is that brown, striped cloth at the bottom? And where are her legs? Are they, in fact, in bed, fully clothed?


Hardworking Library

A little over two weeks into the new school year, I have a couple of impressions to offer.

Gone, mostly, are the rambunctious, disrespectful teens after school that we have gotten used to in previous years. We've always prepared ourselves for battle to protect the atmosphere of the library for those who come to actually use the library, but the really rotten apples, the gangster wannabes with their grilles and their sagging pants, have become scarce. The sheriff's deputy has especially remarked upon it. He offered today that it might be because of the change in school hours. I wonder whether there is more to it. I think that our President has provided an example for everyone to see, that not only is success more than the selfish pursuit of luxury and wealth, but that it is cool to be smart. That to refuse to learn, for fear of "acting white", is for losers. "Brothers should pull up their pants", says the man.

With the job market what it is, I am also seeing signs of increasing numbers of people studying harder in school and returning to school to qualify for better jobs. The demand for test preparation guides for high school advanced placement courses, for college entrance exams, for professional certification, and for post-graduate studies is at a high. I've never, until now, I think, seen every single book for the GRE checked out. The library offers online test preparation for most of these examinations through Learning Express. I always follow up a test prep book request, whether we have it on the shelf or not, with a demo of Learning Express, and often they will choose it instead.

There is a serious, focused mood among our users, and among the staff as well. Reduced staff due to budget cuts has all of us working harder, sharing tasks that were not ours a couple of years ago, and, unfortunately, letting important but less critical aspects of librarianship slide for now. All of us who remain are rowing together for all we are worth, keeping the ship afloat. The need for library services has never been greater.


Atlas Shrugged

Having levered 1300 leased copies, mostly bestsellers, out of the library and back to Baker & Taylor, (UPS showed up on Wednesday as I was leaving), I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention to clearing my desk.

Digging down through layers of sediment, I found articles on Port Leon and St. Marks from The Florida Historical Quarterly, which I had retrieved for SE's husband, who led an expedition last spring on the coast. I gave them to SE for our vertical files.

There were problem volumes from two sets of collected works, one by Washington Irving and one by Henry James, both sets dating from the 1920's, and with title records so rudimentary that titles within them could not be found. A search for The Golden Bowl, for example, would not reveal that The Novels and Works of Henry James included that work. Our head of acquisitions, LB, had directed my attention to these two sets.

Irving is a cheap edition, with several volumes in poor condition. We have every title in the set in newer editions with the exception of The Life of Oliver Goldsmith. The only title by Irving I ever get requests for is Tales of the Alhambra. So I discarded it.

James, on the other hand, is a nice edition, on rag paper, though the spines are faded. Spoke to C. in Collection Management, and he will see about overlaying the record with more complete information, so that patrons can find titles in the set.

There are other sets of collected works in the 800's that merit similar treatment, Thackery and The Great Books come to mind, Harvard Classics too.

Will I actually clear my desk, down to the wood? Stay tuned.


Huddled Masses, Wretched Refuse

It is shocking to me, when I see the parade of humanity that streams through our doors when we open in the morning: a legion of the unwashed and unemployed, wanting only to connect online. They might be kings in cyberspace, Napoleons in rags.

I had seen them, a family of four country folk, mother, father, son and wife, (edit: or maybe daughter, I think now, 2nd edit: fiancé, says the son), passing the time at the tables, as though they had nowhere else to go. Modern Okies fetched up at the library. Yesterday the younger woman complained of stomach pains, slumped on the carpet near the reference desk. We called for an ambulance. They were back today, she sleeping on the concrete bench on the second floor landing.