The Little Things Librarians Do That Can Have Big Impact

See the source imageReading this op-ed reminded me of a book that I read in my mid-teens. I remember reading it cover to cover in one sitting and it sparked a kind of book-reading that had not been part of my life previously.  I was a plot-driven reader and April Morning got me more interested in character. So my belated thanks to one of the librarians, circa 1978, at the amazing library down the street from our home, who recommended this book to me. When I came back to see what other books by the same author were available, I saw that he had a very long list of titles in the card catalog.

So I asked for help from another librarian, and soon I was reading this other historical novel. Reading The Hessian may account for my becoming an English major in college a few years later. I did not like this book nearly as much. And this led to a conversation with the librarian who had recommended it to me. Literary criticism it was not, but having something to say about the difference between the two books, and hearing someone else’s opinion on the same, was interesting. Belated thanks to that librarian for that conversation, and for the next gift.

She told me that Howard Fast would be giving a lecture in the library’s auditorium the following week. That too would be a first. I had never attended an author’s lecture before. He was talking about a book, The Immigrants, that had just been published. I do not remember much about the lecture, but at the end of it I went to the front of the auditorium and handed the author an envelope. In it was a short letter thanking him for writing the two books I had read, and sharing a few thoughts I had exchanged with the librarian. Days later I received a letter in the mail. It was from the author, replying to the letter this kid had handed him in the auditorium. Thank you, Howard Fast.  And thank you, librarians.

Libraries As Palaces For The People

9781524761165We have had more stories in seven years about libraries, and librarians and books than most other topics, so we are pleased to pass along this reference to a book about libraries (among other essential elements of social infrastructure). In 20 minutes on this podcast the ideas in this book are discussed by the author:

Eric Klinenbergprofessor of sociology and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University and the author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Crown, 2018), argues that the future of democracy lies in shared spaces, like libraries and parks.

An Alternate Model For Books


When Samantha Haskell took over a bookstore in Maine, she looked to local farms, and “community-supported agriculture,” for commercial inspiration.ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY DENG

Combining some of our favorite topics, including agriculture and books and transferable models of agriculture, our thanks to Adrea Piazza for A C.S.A. FOR BOOKS:

Mariah Hughs and her husband, Nick Sichterman, founded Blue Hill Books in 1986. It sits on Pleasant Street, in Blue Hill, Maine, a coastal town with a population that swells during the warmer months and thins out again each winter, reduced to its cast of fewer than three thousand year-round residents. This past winter, in the midst of that slow season, Hughs and Sichterman retired, leaving the bookstore in the hands of Samantha Haskell, who had been their full-time employee since 2010. Haskell had working capital to survive the first year, but, in order to maintain the breadth of the store’s inventory, she needed to raise additional funds. Rather than compromise the shelves, she looked to local farms for inspiration, devising a plan modelled after “community-supported agriculture,” commonly referred to by its initials, C.S.A. Blue Hill Books would become a community-supported bookseller: a C.S.B. Continue reading

Keeping Shakespeare in Mind

Illustration by Mathew McFarren

Illustration by Mathew McFarren

Quite a few of our team can attest to the power of a liberal arts education, especially when put in such a joyful context.

Scott L. Newstok’s convocation speech to the Rhodes College class of 2020 embraces this joy, adding the cheeky tweak of asking the incoming class to approach their college experience in the “spirit of the 16th century”.

Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. Could there be a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education?

Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these “4Cs,” I would add “curiosity.”) Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.

“Take advantage of the autonomy and opportunities that college permits by approaching it in the spirit of the 16th century. You’ll become capable of a level of precision, inventiveness, and empathy worthy to be called Shakespearean.”
So how can you think like Shakespeare?

Continue reading

Iceland, History, Moving Forward

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 A scholar of the Icelandic Presidency swiftly became a Presidential front-runner. ILLUSTRATION BY JASU HU

This article had me in the first sentence, naming Iceland and mentioning historian together. Seth educated himself, with the help of a great university and its incredible historical archives on Iceland, to be a historian of the bachelor variety.  What he learned from those archives and some well structured thinking have served him well since then in Costa Rica.

In his next posting, in Baja California Sur (Mexico), I expect the foundation in history, combined with these last two years of applied practice, will be even more valuable. You will hopefully start hearing about that this week, but meanwhile have a read about current events in Iceland:


How a scholar of the nation’s Presidency swiftly became its Presidential front-runner.


When I heard that the historian Guðni Jóhannesson was running for President of Iceland—not only running but entering the final weeks of the campaign as the clear favorite—I was intently curious to be present when and if he won. Continue reading

The Emily Dickinson Museum


During a father-son road trip in 2009 to visit prospective colleges, we spent time in Amherst (MA, USA). The most important outcome of that visit was time spent with Michael Muller, who two years later would spend time as an intern with us in India during the summer before his final year at Amherst College.

Michael brought a literary quality to the startup of this communication platform where I continue to write. Which is why I thought of him when my attention was drawn to this museum in Amherst. For me it was valuable to take a moment to read about the relationship between this home’s history and the college where Michael was educated:

THE HOMESTEAD, probably the first brick house in Amherst, was built around 1813 for Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, Emily’s grandparents. Fowler Dickinson, a lawyer, was one of the principal founders of Amherst College. In 1830, his eldest son Edward, also a lawyer, and Edward’s wife, Emily Norcross Dickinson, together with their young son Austin, moved into the western half of the Homestead. Later that year, on December 10, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, a second daughter, Lavinia, was born. Continue reading

Everybody Wants To Rule The World

rexfeatures_4272778a_web-487x800Logic, even if it seems to be missing much of the time, provides a set of rules by which the world can at least make more sense. It may not always help one rule the world, but it helps understand some of the rules of the world. Mr du Sautoy’s idea here is akin to the one we make, and link out to from time to time, about the value of liberal arts education for the sake of learning how to think and communicate clearly:

Can A University Course Change Your Life?


It took graduate school for me to have a life-changing experience with a course. As a literature-focused liberal arts undergraduate I had an entire curriculum of life-forming courses, but not one course that stood out as life-changing. Ironically, the Philosophy of Science course I took in graduate school, the one that set me off in a new direction, was also the one that convinced me to reconsider my commitment to an academic life. And so, while I completed my Ph.D. in part thanks to that course, my life veered toward an applied, practical use of my dissertation, which I comment on from time to time in these pages.

The Atlantic has a story about a course that reminded me of the possibility, and the value, of a life-changing course, and this is worth a few minutes’ read in the interest of continuous learning:

…Puett’s course Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory has become the third most popular course at the university. The only classes with higher enrollment are Intro to Economics and Intro to Computer Science. The second time Puett offered it, in 2007, so many students crowded into the assigned room that they were sitting on the stairs and stage and spilling out into the hallway. Harvard moved the class to Sanders Theater, the biggest venue on campus.

Why are so many undergraduates spending a semester poring over abstruse Chinese philosophy by scholars who lived thousands of years ago? For one thing, the class fulfills one of Harvard’s more challenging core requirements, Ethical Reasoning. It’s clear, though, that students are also lured in by Puett’s bold promise: “This course will change your life.” Continue reading

Preservation Of Language

We have posted on the topic of intangible patrimony and include it in our explanation of entrepreneurial conservation; the topic extends to our interest in reading and the liberal arts. Below is a link to an op-ed piece published today, penned by a savvy academic whose primary focus is language, that we consider worthy of the brief reading time, even if you are not a language fanatic:

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Why Save a Language?


PRIVATE COLLECTION/KEN WELSH/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY. Fourteenth-century Florentine poet Petrarch so loved the classical authors that he imagined conversations with them.

PRIVATE COLLECTION/KEN WELSH/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY. Fourteenth-century Florentine poet Petrarch so loved the classical authors that he imagined conversations with them.

Among all the topics we survey, link to and write about on this site, the classics are if anything underrepresented relative to their importance in matters of community, collaboration and conservation. History is probably the most visible, thanks to Seth’s recent series on Iceland. Book reviews and shout outs to great professors are also visible with some frequency. Maybe enough, maybe not. Anyway, once more to the trenches, on the side of the humanities but not against practical considerations; the liberal arts matter to our future, not just to our past as this essay reaffirms, so let’s not lose them:

In 2011, the University of California at Los Angeles decimated its English major. Such a development may seem insignificant, compared with, say, the federal takeover of health care. It is not. What happened at UCLA is part of a momentous shift in our culture that bears on our relationship to the past—and to civilization itself. Continue reading

More Liberal Arts In India

Courtesy of Ashoka University. An artist’s impression of Ashoka University, currently under construction in Kundli, Haryana.

From today’s India Ink some good news related to India’s changing education system (we consider more liberal arts anywhere, any time, a positive development):

NEW DELHI – For decades, India’s institutes of technology and management, the famed I.I.T.’s and I.I.M.’s, have been seen as the pinnacle of this country’s higher education, offering world-class courses and above all, employability to its graduates. Continue reading

Learning, Thinking, Doing

Cornell University President David Skorton, and his renaissance man colleague Glenn Altschuler co-write a blog called College Pros(e) and today they make an argument about college majors, and what matters in choosing them–a perspective we happen to share in its entirety.  Click their image to go to the post, which is worth more than the three minutes it takes to read it:

…Liberal arts majors actually do just fine, with incomes far in excess of the median in the United States. And many of them, like the Cornell graduates surveyed in 2009 (download here), are as satisfied or more satisfied with their lives as their classmates in other disciplines. For them, to quote an English proverb, enough is as good as a feast.

The liberal arts, moreover, also serves as a preferred pathway to rewarding and remunerative careers…

Read the whole post here.

The Swerve, Prized Again

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

I have already said how surprising I found it that writing about the influence of classical literature on modern thought can be so effectively illuminated; in fact I could not help but say it a couple of times.  On this site we like to celebrate the success of our favored visionaries, writers, producers, educators, artists, thinkers, doers.  One of the publications at the university where he teaches had special reason today to put his name in visible circulation (click the image above to go to the story) with the announcement mentioned here:

Greenblatt’s book, which describes how an ancient Roman philosophical epic helped pave the way for modern thought, was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

In its citation, the Pulitzer board described “The Swerve” as “a provocative book arguing that an obscure work of philosophy, discovered nearly 600 years ago, changed the course of history by anticipating the science and sensibilities of today.”

Continue reading

You Value The Books You Turn To In Need

Click the image to the left for a trip to Jaipur via The Guardian and the fertile mind of Amitava Kumar:

When I was younger books were fetish objects. They sat in a small group on a bare shelf or a window sill, depending on whether I was at home or staying in my room at the college hostel. Now, with more money, I’m able to acquire the books more easily, and they have lost their ancient magic as objects. Now, they are treasured as friends. Or, more likely, as guilty reminders of money wasted — because I hardly have the time to read one-tenth of the books I buy.

Mr. Kumar is quoted here in a series called “Of Writers & Reading” in honor of the Jaipur Literature Fest. Continue reading

Just So

First Edition 1864

Now Rann the Kite brings home the night

That Mang the Bat sets free–

The herds are shut in byre and hut

For loosed till dawn are we.

This is the hour of pride and power,

Talon and tusk and claw.

Oh, hear the call!–Good hunting all

That keep the Jungle Law!

“Night-Song in Jungle” by Rudyard Kipling

In the world of literature we associate Rudyard Kipling first and foremost with India, although in reality he only spent about 12 years of his life here.  Born December 30th 1865 in Bombay to English parents, he spent his very early childhood there before returning to England at the age of 5.  In his mid-teens he returned to India and spent an additional 6 and half years working as an editor in Punjab.  Despite living the majority of his life elsewhere (England and the United States), India and his self-identification as an “Anglo-Indian” defines much of Kipling’s work.

The Jungle Book  first appeared in serialized versions but was eventually published in  1894 under one cover, with illustrations by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling.  The Jungle Book and the Just So Stories still remain among Kipling’s most beloved works. Continue reading

Arts & Science

Every year, some percentage of undergraduate students majoring in an academic discipline within the liberal arts, often aka Arts and Science, wonder: what’s next?  As in, what will I do when I complete my degree?  Many do not need to wonder because they are on a clear path–pre-med or pre-law for example.  But for those wondering, we hope our site sheds some light on the variety of possibilities.  For one example (click the image above for the source) we like the idea of literally combining art and science (so did da Vinci):

…a mysterious, nearly universal growth pattern first observed by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago: a simple yet startling relationship that always holds between the size of a tree’s trunk and sizes of its branches.  A new paper has reignited the debate over why trees grow this way, asserting that they may be protecting themselves from wind damage.

Continue reading

Saving Rhyme and Reason

For me, reading has always been a route out of a chaotic world.  That doesn’t mean that I read “fluff”. Far from it.  (Anyone familiar with The Iliad  or Beowulf, knows that neither Sam Peckinpah nor Akira Kurosawa invented the specificity or depiction of violence.)  But whether sitting with my children and reading aloud, or better still, sitting with my children while we all read individually, books bring an intangible into our lives by opening doors that remain available to us indefinitely.

Frequently the educational systems in many parts of the world pressure students into making choices that seem almost binary; the “science track” or “business track” for example, setting them on an educational road that is fundamentally an express lane highway, with little chance of turn offs and detours.  These systems produce very smart people in their fields, but it doesn’t easily provide opportunities for reaching full potential. Continue reading