We are happy to have reason to return to our love of books, reading, as well as the history and importance of libraries.
Our thanks to Kathryn Hughes at the Guardian for giving us a look into the most recent work of Irene Vallejo:
Papyrus by Irene Vallejo review – how books built the world
From Alexandria to Oxford, a kaleidoscopic history of the written word
Reading between the lines … Tianjin Binhai Library in China.
What do you give the queen who has everything? When Mark Antony was wondering how to impress Cleopatra in the run-up to the battle of Actium in 31BC, he knew that jewellery would hardly cut it. The queen of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt had recently dissolved a giant pearl in vinegar and then proceeded to drink it, just because she could. In the face of such exhausted materialism, the Roman general knew that he would have to pull out the stops if he was to win over the woman with whom he was madly in love. So he arrived bearing 200,000 scrolls for the great library at Alexandria. Continue reading
Das Vogelkonzert (The Bird Concert) by Jan Brueghel the Younger, c. 1640-1645 via Wikimedia Commons
If you have been educated to carry out academic research, JSTOR is familiar to you. And if not, but you have the sort of curiosity demonstrated in our pages, then JSTOR daily might be a good companion, as demonstrated here:
Is birdsong music, speech, or something else altogether? The question has raged for millennia, drawing in everyone from St. Augustine to Virginia Woolf.
To some extent, we all know music when we hear it: a melody, a rhythm, a progression of individual notes that, taken together, elevates the whole into the realm of auditory art. Continue reading
During the Middle Ages, dragons more often figured in accounts about the lives of saints and religious figures than stories of heists and adventures. Photo illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons and British Library under public domain
Dragon flies had a run in our pages, and we have featured some real life reptilian dragons, as well as a fruity dragon, but the mythical type never found its way here until now. As a cultural phenomenon it is as interesting as any other kind of dragon:
The mythical beasts were often cast as agents of the devil or demons in disguise
David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele
Illuminated manuscript featuring Saint Marina and the dragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
The dragon resting on its golden hoard. The gallant knight charging to rescue the maiden from the scaly beast. These are images long associated with the European Middle Ages, yet most (all) medieval people went their whole lives without meeting even a single winged, fire-breathing behemoth. Dragons and other monsters, nights dark and full of terror, lurked largely in the domain of stories—tales, filtered through the intervening centuries and our own interests, that remain with us today.
As Halloween approaches, we’re naturally thinking about scary stories. Continue reading
When The Ministry for the Future came to my attention late last year, it was the first I had heard of this author (I am buried deep under a big rock when it comes to science fiction). Now I wonder how I could have missed such an important thinker on the most important topics of our time (not science fiction):
One of the premier writers of thinky sci-fi, Kim Stanley Robinson opened his book “The Ministry for the Future” with an all too plausible scenario: a lethal heat wave descends on India, with vast, horrifying consequences. It’s a sobering read, especially after July, 2021, was declared the hottest month on record. And yet Robinson tells Bill McKibben that his work is not dystopian; his central concern is how the globe could respond to such a disaster and begin to halt the momentum of global warming. Continue reading
A friend of mine recently posted on social media about beautiful libraries in Halifax, as well as other favorites, including the Boston Public Library. We’ve written about libraries countless times on this site, both due to their clear cultural importance, as well as their impact within our family. It reminded me how libraries have been part of our lives since early toddlerhood for our sons, starting in Ithaca, where they were born, and in Paris, the American Library (the largest English-language lending library on the European continent) where they discovered authors like Philip Pullman and Terry Prachett. There are no limitations for what libraries have meant to our family over the years.
Thanks to sociologist Eric Klinenberg for this opinion piece.
This crucial institution is being neglected just when we need it the most.
Is the public library obsolete?
A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.
Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $20 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.
But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.” Continue reading
Father Time stands sentry at a Little Free Library in the rough-hewn Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul.
We made a decision early on, for reasons I do not recall clearly, to avoid linking out to obituaries–even for heroes whose lives have resonance in our pages. This one made me think twice about that decision.
In part it is because we have paid an enormous amount of attention to libraries over the years. Also, this man’s innovation (did we really never feature it in our pages before?) was clearly in the realm of what we call entrepreneurial conservation. And maybe, just a bit, I like the idea that the first little free library (the last one displayed below) was a tribute to the innovator’s mom.
Thanks to the New York Times for getting this story just right:
This Little Free Library enjoys the open space of Triangle Park in Minneapolis.
Todd Bol’s Little Free Library boxes, which blend the form of folk art with the function of a community water cooler, have popped up in all 50 states and in 88 countries.
By Katharine Q. Seelye Photographs by Ethan Jones
This Minneapolis library is a classic of the genre, with its Plexiglass front and gable roof, supported on a sturdy post.
Todd Bol was simply paying homage to his mother, a schoolteacher and lover of books. He built a doll-sized schoolhouse, filled it with his mother’s books and put it out for his neighbors in Hudson, Wis., as a book exchange.
Today, just nine years later, more than 75,000 such “Little Free Libraries” dot the globe, from San Diego to Minneapolis, and from Australia to Siberia.
Why did they catch on? For starters, they promote a friendly, sharing economy. No one tracks who took what. There’s no due date. No fines. You might never return a book. You might leave another instead. And, they are inherently cute. As Mr. Bol recalled, his neighbors “talked to it like it was a little puppy.”
This week, many bore a white ribbon in tribute to Mr. Bol, who died Oct. 18, in Minnesota at the age of 62. Here, a photo-essay of some of the little libraries near his hometown.
See all the other photos here.
Just this moment, as I started today’s post, I learned I had missed a 50th birthday party. We tend to like round numbers, even if they do not mean much–why should the 50th be any more important than the 49th or 23rd? For whatever reason, a centenary or half-centenary, or bicentennial all seem to have a bigger ring. So, happy birthday to this book (last year) that I searched for after reading Susan Orlean’s essay on her personal history with libraries and books:
…My family was big on the library. We were very much a reading family, but we were more a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family than a bookshelves-full-of-books family. My parents valued books, but they had grown up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they had learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. Because of that frugality, or perhaps despite it, they also believed that you should read a book for the experience of reading it. You shouldn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs…
I have just recently finished unpacking from storage a lifetime’s worth of books–actually multiple lifetimes because in addition to my own family of four’s lifetimes there are also books from our parents’ and grandparents’ personal collections. And the essay got me thinking about whether I had a personal favorite book, and if so whether I have a “souvenir” of it.
I had taken a moment after emptying a box to leaf through this book that qualifies as a contender. I remember where I was when I purchased it, and where I first read it. But the essay I just read got me thinking about the importance of libraries to my own history with reading, so I focused my thought on the question what was my first favorite book. And the book above was that book, without question, in part because it was what got me to return to the library for more books. Not much more to say on that, but if you are a bibliophile or a libraryphile, if you consider librarians heroes, or any such thing, the essay may be for you.
This book to the left, first published the year I was born, was always on the coffee table in the home I grew up in. I have mentioned a high school exposure to Walden–the writing, the place, the idea–and I have been thinking about that recently as I ponder Chan Chich Lodge’s own little aquatic wonder. Thinking, of course, while walking, frequently encountering living relics of prehistoric wildness on those walks. Douglas Brinkley’s tribute to the legacy of Thoreau–the walker, thinker, writer, conservationist–as we approach the bicentennial of his birth a few days from now, is perfectly timed: Continue reading
There are two dynamic illustrations in this piece by David Samuels that cannot be replicated here, but are worth visiting the website of The Atavist for, so the images above and below are placeholders. Anyway, the words are the thing so I take a paragraph from near the end as an example of why to read this:
…In the 1970s in Brooklyn, where I grew up, pigeons were everywhere, which is probably why I am here. Some of my earliest gray-scale memories include pigeons, which fluttered and occasionally nested on the windowsill of the first place I was aware enough of to call home, a housing project near the Brooklyn Bridge built for working families like mine. There was a bona fide pigeon coop on the roof of a building nearby, like in the famous scene from On the Waterfront. Sometimes I could see a man on the roof waving a flag, which in my imagination was red but in fact could have been any color. The pigeons he guided back to their loft every night were a promise of safety that New York City in the 1970s was obviously unable to keep, which is why my parents moved to the suburbs, where the birds in the trees outside my window twittered and cooed in foreign tongues that signified nothing…
I am not surprised that this is the article on their website that I gravitated to. The author wrote an item in the New Yorker at a time when I was just completing many years of work in Montenegro and Croatia, and I knew the landscape he was describing well, and still he brought the place alive for me in a way that living there had not. He does not need photos, gifs, or other illustrations to make his words dance better. And in this piece he does something even more magical, providing a correction for me.
Seven years in south India had at least one unexpected effect on me, and it is embarrassing. I developed a passionate dislike for pigeons. Pigeons caused continuous problems in one of the properties we developed and managed, an urban location pigeons loved as much as people. And pigeons express their love in messy ways, so they became my bane. At our home, pigeons would coo on the window sill and I remember that at the time I posted this, which was peak pigeon problem, my enthusiasm for conservation was red hot but I had an unwanted, guilty ability to imagine why passenger pigeons disappeared. Reading David Samuels just now, I have snapped out of that.
If you already read this, you likely treated yourself to the poem the author referenced. I continue to lean on Kazantzakis but perhaps the best outcome for me of reading what Daniel Mendelsohn published in the current issue of the New Yorker was a direction to his translation of Cavafy:
An extraordinary literary event: Daniel Mendelsohn’s acclaimed two-volume translation of the complete poems of C. P. Cavafy—including the first English translation of the poet’s final Unfinished Poems—now published in one handsome edition and featuring the fullest literary commentaries available in English, by the renowned critic, scholar, and international best-selling author of The Lost. Continue reading
Illustration by Golden Cosmos
The title had me at Father, and again at Odyssey (Final, not so much). My first encounter with Homer was in an advanced literature course in my last year of high school. As a father now, with a son who found his way back home to another Ithaca, after his own odyssey, I could not resist jumping right into this story. But half way through, I stopped reading it. I will not say why I stopped, but I mentioned it to Amie, who I consult on matters of an aesthetic nature, especially when they intersect with matters of a familial nature, and she had already read it to the end. She said it was important to read it all the way through. I now understand why, and must recommend the same now, whether or not you have read the Odyssey:
My octogenarian dad wanted to study Homer’s epic and learn its lessons about life’s journeys. First he took my class. Then we sailed for Ithaca. Continue reading
The true élite of modern societies is composed of engineers, mechanics, and artisans—masters of reality, not big thinkers. Illustration by Leigh Guldig
One of our favorite essayists (for exemplary reasons, see here, and here, and here) makes a compelling case for our taking a good look at the foundation of our assumptions, in this age of model mad.
His several essays in the months preceding and following the 2016 Brexit referendum and the USA election were impassioned, but this one in the form of a triple-book-review hits the mark the best, reminding us of the basic premises of the Enlightenment and how that matters now more than ever:
Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald’s opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand. Thomas Friedman is concerned. Continue reading
On January 31st, 2017 New Directions Publishing is bringing this masterpiece, published originally in Brazil in 1984, to an English-reading audience for the first time:
For André, a young man growing up on a farm in Brazil, life consists of “the earth, the wheat, the bread, our table, and our family.” He loves the land, fears his austere, pious father, who preaches from the head of the table as if from a pulpit, and loathes himself as he begins to harbor shameful feelings for his sister Ana. Lyrical and sensual, written with biblical intensity, this classic Brazilian coming-of-age novel follows André’s tormented path. He falls into the comforting embrace of liquor as—in his psychological and sexual awakening—he must choose between body and soul, obligation and freedom.
I was completing a degree in literature the year this was first published, but Portuguese was not an option for my reading, nor was Brazil really on my map at that time. As a result, or for whatever other reasons, I never heard of this book before.
Work assignments took me to Brazil several times in the intervening decades, and Latin America has been home base for most of the last two decades. I know I must read this, and soon, so it has just moved to the top of my next-book list. But for a very different reason the author has my attention, thanks to this:
In 1984, at the height of his literary fame, Raduan Nassar announced his retirement, to become a farmer. Continue reading
We were led to this by a news/feature story, but the background material is even more interesting than the feature in the news. Here is a note worth a moment of your time:
Dr. Seuss was a storyteller in the grandest sense of the word. Not only did he tell fantastical tales of far-away places but he also gave us a unique visual language that carried his stories to new heights of artistic expression. Surrealism provided the foundation from which he built his career, but like a launch pad sitting idle just before liftoff, surrealism was soon to be engulfed in the flames of ridiculous fun and its launch tower thrown to the ground with each new editorial cartoon, magazine cover, painting, or children’s book. Continue reading
Saint Barbara, attributed to the “Ghent Associates” of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, from a book of hours-missal, c. 1485-1490. Courtesy of Houghton Library/Harvard University
We check in from time to time at magazines published by universities where we have recruited. This article, which we appreciate topically because of the conservation of cultural heritage described, makes us wish we could visit the venues described in “Illuminations.” Lily Scherlis provides a good example of why we keep coming back to this magazine–crisp, clear writing and a compelling argument in favor of looking back into history for an enriching perspective on crowdsourcing versus individual authorship (read to the end of the quoted section):
…These works were born into a world where literacy was scarce and almost universally affiliated with religion: the exhibition description refers to monasticism as, at its heart, a “cult of the book.” I imagine how compelling written religious text would have been to early readers: the words echo off the page, as if read by an invisible voice heard only by you, but are available to other readers as well. Continue reading
During my morning walk today, while taking in the Onam visuals, I was at the same time absorbing sound, in the form of conversation, from the same phone that was snapping pictures. I use the time of my walks to listen to podcasts, one of the easiest ways for me to stay attuned to happenings and ideas from the USA, my onetime home, and home to many of the people who visit properties we manage.
The central idea of today’s podcast, at once frank about the perils of the “Age” we are in now but also optimistic about how to harness modern tools to navigate these times, took me by surprise:
Some 500 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg, Nicolaus Copernicus, Michelangelo and others were part of the Renaissance, a time of significant cultural change. Now, authors Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna say we are in the midst of a second Renaissance.
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?
Reading the review, and the museum’s description of this show, I immediately thought of a museum that Amie and I had the chance to visit in Istanbul, which had been on our to-do list for some time; and the next click through the museum’s website led me to this:
THURSDAY 09/29 /16 7PM
Which just seemed right because the museum in Istanbul was create by Orhan Pamuk. I will do my best to find a recording of this conversation, if they make a recording or transcript available and but for now the best I can do is direct you to the website of the museum in Istanbul which, hopefully, will lead you to the actual museum, easily the most moving museum experience of my life:
The Museum of Innocence is both a novel by Orhan Pamuk and a museum he has set up. From the very beginnings of the project, since the 1990s, Pamuk has conceived of novel and museum together. The novel, which is about love, is set between 1974 and the early ’00s, and describes life in Istanbul between 1950 and 2000 through memories and flashbacks centred around two families – one wealthy, the other lower middle class. The museum presents what the novel’s characters used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets. It is not essential to have read the book in order to enjoy the museum, just as it is not necessary to have visited the museum in order to fully enjoy the book. But those who have read the novel will better grasp the many connotations of the museum, and those who have visited the museum will discover many nuances they had missed when reading the book. The novel was published in 2008, the museum opened in Spring 2012.
Be sure that you read the explanation for this floor motif.
What Annie Proulx says about places she has lived–through her fiction especially but also in this interview below–rings a bell for us, considering the number of places we have chosen to live to do what we do. What the interview echoes specifically for me is the inherent improbability of accomplishing one of our key objectives: we want travelers to become as attached to places as we are, so that they will care about the conservation mission of our initiatives in each location as much as we do. It occurs to me that our guests spend about as much time with us in any given location as a reader spends on any given book by Proulx; also, books and our locations share in common the fact that they can be revisited an indefinite number of times.
That said, we want our guests to care more about these locations than even the most devoted reader cares about a Proulx character; not because we think less of her characters but because our conservation mission is about places in need of constant support. Improbability in this context refers to the question: how can our guests become intensely attached–as happens when a reader is gripped by a compelling character in a deeply human situation in an exquisitely described location–in a limited amount of time and continue to care intensely after they depart? That is our challenge, and we are constantly finding new ways of answering that question.
Another echo from reading what Annie Proulx says about the places she has lived, about belonging, feels strongly relevant. If we are a fraction as good at what we do as she is at what she does, belonging becomes irrelevant. What matters is how much sense we make of the place, and how much sensibility we harness in showcasing it to our guests. If you have read any of her books, you know how evocative place can be–like an additional character–and if that captures your attention you should read the interview that follows the introductory section excerpted below.
JOHN FREEMAN INTERVIEWS THE PULITZER PRIZE WINNER IN HER SNOQUALMIE VALLEY HOME
Annie Proulx is 80 years old and still not sure where she belongs. Standing in the atrium of her home in the Snoqualmie Valley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist eyes a photograph of the cottage she once occupied in Newfoundland, the setting of her 1993 novel, The Shipping News. “I fell in love with that landscape,” Proulx says, speaking in the tone of a woman describing an ex-lover. Continue reading
As a teen-ager, Marcel Proust filled out a questionnaire as part of a parlor game. His responses have experienced a startling afterlife. PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGNO / GETTY
Seth’s post, followed by Jocelyn’s post, both reach me just after reading this fascinating short history on the so-called Proust questionnaire, which I first encountered in the back pages of Vanity Fair magazine when I had nothing better to do. I am reminded of two things: guilty pleasure reading, and actual reading of something other than news, news analysis, or long-form non-fiction–which are a mainstay of my contributions on this site.
I am reminded of a third thing: Amie’s marathon reading of Proust, and the view of this 3-volume set around our home for a long stretch of time. Those books that she would lug around were the sign of an unreformed, unrepentant student of literature, whose career started as a book editor in New York City, when she had nothing better to do.
I say that mainly to contrast what I did with my guilty pleasure reading time back then, and what she did with hers. I say that because in more recent times, especially the past six years in India, she has had something much better to do, and plenty of it to do, and I think we are all better for that. Which has me thinking: if I had the time, what would I read if I could just leave it all behind right now and land at Villa del Faro with nothing but books (and at least a couple changes of clothes, of course)? Would I find that Proust set Amie has in storage? As an amateur nostalgist with limited writing talent, I might choose those volumes as a self-help guide.
I write on this site partly to share about events, people and places that I believe are worthy of others’ attention; but also for the sake of further reflection and sense-making of those. Patterns repeat; some people and places important once come back to be important again. For example, nearly five years ago I was on my third of five extended periods of work in Baja California Sur. It was on an earlier visit in 2008 that I had met Andy Murphy, then with WWF, with whom I became friends and then eventually more with our project in Ghana. Continue reading