Observations from the Road: The Vacation Reading Edition

I’ve now been back from vacation for two weeks, and have finally decided that I am not going to find the time to write lengthy posts on each book I checked off my summer reading list.  So I’m resorting to my trusty “Observations from the Road” formula, to give you short takes on the four books I read over those two weeks.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Hallelujah Anyway:  Rediscovering Mercy — Shortly before leaving on vacation, I picked up this book by the popular author Anne Lamott after seeing several short quotes attributed to her work.  Candice’s reaction was, “You’re reading Anne Lamott?” and I understand that sentiment. Yes, she is crafty and crotchety, and she has a “perfectly calibrated NPR appeal” which can grate on some. But yes, I am.  She’s funny and a bit snarky, both traits I enjoy (when I agree) and she’s a very good writer.  She’s also brief (a quality I’m enjoying more as I plow through 500+ page works).

This is a book about mercy.  She wanders a bit in getting there, but in the end there is a good bit to take away from this small collection.

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice….the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”

“Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.  Do you want this, or do you want to be right?  Well, can I get back to you on that?”

It’s the attitude in that last line that led me to respond to Candice, “Yeah, and I’m enjoying it.”

The Only Rule

The Only Rule is It Has to Work

The Only Rule is It Has to Work —You knew there had to be a baseball book in the batch…and you would be right.

This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys—Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller—get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season.  Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life.

This is a fun read, in part because both are good writers and they have a good story to tell.  (They switch back-and-forth in writing chapters, which you get use to.)   For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories.  But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.  There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.  Sean Conroy’s story is just one example of how the authors blend metrics and human interest in this funny and informative book.

Everybody Lies

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Everybody Lies:  Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — This was easily the most interesting book of the four I read over my vacation, and I picked it up after chatting with a seat mate on a recent plane ride who gave it a strong recommendation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who is using new, big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes.  He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously and tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people—in huge data sets—are really thinking.  “In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information.”  And as Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.”  That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex.  People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms.  The recent acknowledgement of the rise of white nationalism in the main stream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president.  There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.

This book has much to recommend it, and much that is disturbing to know about ourselves and our fellow citizens.  There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout.  I could go into so much more here, but suffice it to say that this book will change the way you view the world.

Architecture's Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple

Architecture’s Odd Couple:  Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — Hugh Howard’s 2016 work on the intersection of two of the 20th century’s best-known architects is an interesting read that ultimately falls short of making its central case:  which is that each architect was greatly influenced at a key point in his career development, by the work of the other.  It is a hard argument to make given that Wright was a stunningly original innovator and one of the world’s great designers.  Johnson was more of a shaper of architectural tastes whose work doesn’t reach the breadth or depth of Wright’s.  (Full disclosure:  I work for an organization, the National Trust, that owns houses designed by both men.)

Nonetheless, there is much to like and take away from Howard’s work.  The focus on Johnson’s breakthrough with the MoMA architectural exhibition that helped introduce Modernism to the American public, while alienating Wright in the process, makes for great reading.  The descriptions of Wright’s designing of his masterpieces—Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum—as well as Johnson’s conception of The Glass House, are compelling and showcase Howard’s writing skills.

Fallingwater

Fallingwater (photo credit: DJB)

At the end, Howard’s conclusion gets it right.

“Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important public admirers.  As a man who worshiped the zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy.  As he came to recognize the importance and the value of their odd alliance, he also grasped that Wright’s work transcended style and even time.  Though it rendered his work inimitable, Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”

“Today, more than half a century after his death, Wright remains America’s best-known and most admired architect.  By the time Johnson died, barely a decade ago, he had become what he himself disparagingly called, ‘the famous architect.’ With his death, his fame began to recede; inversely, Wright’s clearly grows.  Yet their connection, in death as in life, enriches our understanding of both grand men of American architecture.”

Once you read this book, you’ll be ready for another field trip to New Canaan, or Bear’s Run, or Spring Green, or New York City to see the works of these two men.  And that’s reason enough to pick this one up.

More to come…

DJB

Emotions Flow Through Places

Root Shock

Root Shock by Mindy Fullilove, M.D.

It will surprise no one that I read a couple of baseball books and watched several games while on vacation.  But it may surprise you to know that the best piece of writing I read which included baseball as its subject came from the opening pages of psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove’s 2004 book Root Shock:  How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About ItShe begins chapter one with several powerful paragraphs.  I’m going to quote extensively from those two pages.

“Every once in a while, in a particular location and at a particular time, people spin the wheel of routine, and they make magic.  One such location was Ebbets Field in the heart of Brooklyn, where, through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar struggles for equality in America, hard-working people enjoyed baseball.  That small, unpredictable, and intimate ballpark was a gallery for characters to strut their stuff, and the characters in the stands took as much advantage of the opportunity as did the characters on the field.  It was there that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and there that ‘Shorty’s Sym-Phony Band’ tortured the opposition.  Words like ‘raucous’ and ‘zany’ are invoked to help those of us who were never present imagine the intensity, and the uniqueness of what went on.

In 1957, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers, moved them to Los Angeles.  The horror of that act is undiminished in the voices of the fans. ‘I felt like a jilted lover,’ recalls a sixty-year-old physician of the catastrophe that darkened his young life.  Forty-six years after the Dodgers played their last game there, it remains important to people to tell the story of Ebbets Fields and in particular, to try to take us into its magic.  This is the real essence of ‘nostalgia,’ an emotion that is in one second bitter and in another sweet, as the remembrance vacillates between the joy of what was and the grief of the loss.  Enduring sorrow and untampered anger are hallmarks of the stories related by fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers. ‘I never rooted for them again,’ says my doctor friend, and he is not alone in the implacable anger that still seems the only reasonable response to that kind of pain.

Three years after the Dodgers left, Ebbets Field was destroyed, and apartment buildings were erected on the site.  People have to get the address and specific directions to find the small plaque that is all that remains of the cathedral of baseball which once stood there.  And so the team is gone, the fans dispersed, the stadium demolished.  Of deeper importance for people who had lots of work and not much hope, a place of magic was ripped from their daily lives, leaving them dull and gray.  The loss of Ebbets Field was a tragedy that could not be repaired: it changed Brooklyn forever.

But how could the loss of a baseball stadium undermine what would be the fourth largest city in the United States (were Brooklyn independent of New York City)?

The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding that places—buildings, neighborhoods, cities, nations—are not simply bricks and mortar that provide us shelter.  Because we dance in a ballroom, have a parade in a street, make love in a bedroom, and prepare a feast in a kitchen, each of these places becomes imbued with sounds, smells, noises, and feelings of those moments and how we lived them.  When we enter an old classroom, the smell of chalk on the boards can bring back a swarm of memories of classmates and lessons, boredom and dreams.  Walking toward a favorite bar awakens expectations of friends and drinks, good times, good food.  The breeze on a certain hillside reminds us of a class trip, while the sun in the garden brings thoughts of Dad.  Try to find the shortcut you use to take to your best friend’s house and it is your feet that will carry you there.  The cues from place dive under conscious thought and awakens our sinews and bones, where days of our lives have been recorded.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them.  We are more like Siamese twins, conjoined to the locations of our daily life, such that our emotions flow through places, just as blood flows through two interdependent people.  We can indeed separate from our places, but it is an operation that is best done with care.  When a part is ripped away, as happened in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, root shock (the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem) occurs.”

Ebbets Field

Ebbets Field (photo credit: A Slice of Brooklyn)

People and places are intertwined.  It is why, when discussing preservation’s future, so many people we spoke with over the past two years focused on the stories attached to places and less on the intricate architectural details of the buildings.  In these six paragraphs, Dr. Fullilove captures that connection in an eloquent and personal way. I began my preservation career in August of 1977, and coming out of a vacation four decades later I’m still excited to have the opportunity to help people see, understand, and honor the places that awaken our “sinews and bones, where the days of our lives have been recorded.”

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

Virtually every reviewer of this 2016 work about the race to save some of the world’s most precious ancient manuscripts calls out the “unfortunate” or “inappropriate” title. And they are right.

But then, in the comments section, reader after reader says something to the effect of “I wouldn’t have read this book (or your review) except for the title.” And they are right.

 

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu” by Joshua Hammer

So there you have it.  Don’t let the title turn you off of this marvelous little book.  But also, don’t go into the work thinking that the librarians of Timbuktu are a modern-day version of Indiana Jones.  The tale is good enough on its own, but I suspect the author (and his publishers) thought that “The Very Persistent and Dedicated Librarians of Timbuktu” simply wasn’t going to set books flying off the shelf.

Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek who now serves as contributing editor to Smithsonian, is a talented writer who combines a strong journalism sense, travel writing sensibilities, a grasp of the culture and disputes of a far-away section of the world, and a story-teller’s skill.  Over the years he has covered Mali in general and Timbuktu in particular from the perspectives of political journalist and travel writer, and those perspectives led him to this particular story while visiting the area on other assignments.

This is a true story that shows the swings in Mali, over the centuries, between an open, inclusive, and intellectually  curious Islam and a fundamentalist strain that tries to eradicate the area of all vestiges of this history to take the country back to a dark age of repression.  The enlightenment of the scholars and savants of Timbuktu, who created some of the world’s most amazing manuscripts about all manner of topics as seen through an Islamic and Arabic prism, is contrasted with the terrorism that comes from the fundamentalists.  That terror was seen most recently through the takeover of the city and much of the country by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  Throw in some French colonial history, a separatist movement that has been in place for centuries, and the recent French response to put down AQIM, and you have all the makings of disaster for the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that have been hidden by collectors in and around Timbuktu through the centuries.

The hero of the story is Abdel Kader Haidara, who as a young archivist in the 1980s began to track down tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts across the sub-Sahara desert and along the Niger River. He is successful in convincing families to give up their manuscripts so they can be cared for in professional facilities in Timbuktu.  Hammer makes the long intellectual and cultural history of this fascinating city come to life as Haidara goes about his work.

The story shifts into high tension mode when AQIM arrives on the scene around 2011 and begins to threaten the stability (such as it is) and openness of Mali.  The now middle-aged and successful Haidara realizes—with some reluctance—that he must orchestrate the movement of more than 350,000 manuscripts out of Timbuktu without AQIM discovering his mission.  I won’t give away the story, but suffice it to say that he succeeds by calling on every contact he has both locally and internationally, and by putting together an analog response in a digital age.  In the end there are many heroes to this wonderful story.

There is much to recommend this book, but one of the best comments came from Scott Anderson, who wrote the important Lawrence in Arabia work that I highlighted several years ago.  Anderson’s take on The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu rings true to me when he said,  “Hammer has pulled off the truly remarkable here—a book that is both important and a delight to read….A superb rendering of a story that needs to be told.”

There is also an unexplored story here about the corrosive and damaging impacts of fundamentalism, no matter the religious tradition, but that’s another post.  So for now, take it from the son and brother of librarians:  Joshua Hammer’s new book (bass-ass librarians and all) is recommended.

More to come…

DJB

Joy is a Fine Initial Act of Insurrection

Hope in the Dark

“Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit

Over the past 15 years, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit has written three collections of essays that have recently been published (or republished) by Haymarket Books as a trilogy for our times.

This inexplicable week we’ve just experienced seems as good a time as any to consider Solnit’s thoughts on hope in the face of despair, and to take the long view which she favors.

In the first of the series, Hope in the Dark (originally published in 2004), Solnit talks about the demands of hope and then notes that joy is a way to support the work which hope demands.

“Joy doesn’t betray but sustains activism.  And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.”

Though initially written during the Iraq war of 2004, I thought of how much more our politics in 2017 aspire to make us fearful, alienated, and isolated — seen most recently with Donald Trump’s Long Island speech about cities as “bloodstained killing fields.”  Hope and joy are definitely needed in response.

Solnit begins the foreword to the third edition of this collection with the following observation:

“Your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win.  Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t just enough reason to hope.  But there are good reasons.”

Hope, as Solnit makes clear, is not naive optimism.  Instead, it “locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act….Hope is an embrace of the unknown.”  In twenty-one wonderful essays, she touches on topics as wide-ranging as “False Hope and Easy Despair,” the “Indirectness of Direct Action,” and “Getting the Hell out of Paradise.”  This last one is a call to let go of perfection and to look instead to the possible.  And it contains the wonderful quote from Eduardo Galeano,

“Utopia is on the horizon.  When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back. I walk ten steps and it is ten steps further away. What is utopia for? It is for this, for walking.”

Men Explain Things

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

The second book in the trilogy, Men Explain Things to Me, came out in 2015. I wrote about this collection of essays earlier this year when I focused on the essays around gender wars and male privilege, the use of violence as a way of silencing speech, abuse of power, a new twist on marriage equality, and more.  It is an impressive and thoughtful collection of writings that extend beyond the well-known title essay.

Finally, Solnit’s most recent collection of essays, The Mother of All Questions, provides commentary around feminism and silence that is as fresh as today’s headlines and yet built upon our full history as a nation (if not all of human history).  The introductory essay touches on the question that all women face about families, babies, and motherhood. It is a question that assumes that there is only one proper way for a woman to live, which is – of course – absurd.  But it is often asked (or affirmed, in other instances, such as online comment boards) because it is based on logic “that refuses to recognize the limits to men’s rights or the existence of women’s.”

These are questions to which the questioner only sees one possible answer, and whose aim is “enforcement or punishment.” In this and other essays in the book, Solnit notes that perhaps “part of the problem is that we have learned to ask the wrong thing of ourselves.”  This is not truly a commentary on motherhood but, instead, on happiness.

“Our culture is steeped in a kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is  Are you happy?…Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like.  Happiness is often described as the result of having a great many ducks lined up in a row—spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences—even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.”

The Mother of All Questions

“The Mother of All Questions” by Rebecca Solnit

The longest essay in the collection is on silence, a topic Solnit has addressed in earlier works.  As with the two earlier works, it is chock-full of wisdom and perspective that needs a wider audience.

I love her ending to the first essay, because it touches on so much of what Solnit’s writing has brought to my thinking (and hopefully, my actions).  The story is told about a time when she was speaking as part of a tour around her book Wanderlust.

“I did finally have my rabbinical moment in Britain.  After the jet lag was over, I was interviewed onstage by a woman with a plummy, fluting accent. ‘So,’ she trilled, ‘you’ve been wounded by humanity and fled to the landscape for refuge.’ The implication was clear: I was an exceptionally sorry specimen on display, an outlier in the herd. I turned to the audience and asked, ‘Have any of you ever been wounded by humanity?’ They laughed with me; in that moment, we knew that we were all weird, all in this together, and that addressing our own suffering while learning not to inflict it on others is part of the work we’re all here to do.  So is love, which comes in so many forms and can be directed at so many things.  There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we’re wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer.” (Emphasis mine)

This is a perspective we all need to grasp to live together successfully.  At a time when so many in our political world are trying to push us apart, this trilogy of almost two decades of writing is worth our time.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

Lamenting the Lost Card Catalog

The Card Catalog

The Card Catalog

Earlier today, my brother and sisters and I received an email from our older brother Steve.  He had just read a book review in the Washington Post concerning a new Library of Congress book entitled The Card Catalog:  Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures.

It brought back memories, and I’ll let Steve’s note to the four of us take it from here.

This story took me back to all those days in libraries…Cookeville and Murfreesboro public, at Tennessee Tech & Western Michigan (where I almost lived while doing my thesis– I even had a private cubicle!), and the 2 church libraries. I spent lots of time at the one in Cookeville where Mom was a one-woman staff for a long time. I would help bind books, glue return card pockets, and watch her type cards for the ubiquitous card catalog. I loved all that. Now I read on my pad and search online, rarely going to an actual library except to find a book old enough to not be available digitally. This article reminded me of how much I’ve lost, and how much I miss Mom.

Being just three years younger than Steve, I have many of the same memories (although the colleges are different).  Our mother was a librarian and a lover of books, and she imparted that love to all of us.

Helen portrait

Helen Roberts Brown – Mom – as a young woman. She began her career as a librarian after my parents married and moved to Cookeville, Tennessee

Writing the review in the Post, Michael Lindgren captures it well:

“This book about card catalogues, written and published in cooperation with the Library of Congress, is beautifully produced, intelligently written and lavishly illustrated. It also sent me into a week-long depression. If you are a book lover of a certain age, it might do the same to you.

“The Card Catalog” is many things: a lucid overview of the history of bibliographic practices, a paean to the Library of Congress, a memento of the cherished card catalogues of yore and an illustrated collection of bookish trivia. The text provides a concise history of literary compendiums from the Pinakes of the fabled Library of Alexandria to the advent of computerized book inventory databases, which began to appear as early as 1976. The illustrations are amazing: luscious reproductions of dozens of cards, lists, covers, title pages and other images guaranteed to bring a wistful gleam to the book nerd’s eye.

For someone who grew up in and around libraries, it is also a poignant reminder of a vanished world.”

I haven’t read this book (heck, I don’t even own it yet), but you can bet I’ll buy it soon (and not the digital version…I still like the tactile feel of the book cover and paper in my hand when I read on my train ride to work every day.)  But just the fact that someone would lament the late, great card catalog is reason enough to put this book on the recommended list.

When you see me seriously depressed for a week, you’ll know I’ve finished The Card Catalog.

More to come…

DJB

Let’s Start It Up and See Why It Doesn’t Work

Last week I referenced historian David McCullough’s most recent book The American Spirit, a compilation of speeches over the past three decades. There’s a great deal of wisdom in these talks, including this gem from a speech in 1994 to the graduating class at Union College in Schenectady, New York:

“Once, in the last century, in the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after working for months to build an unorthodox new machine for steel production, the engineer in charge, John Fritz, said at last, ‘All right boys, let’s start it up and see why it doesn’t work.’ It is with that very American approach to problems (McCullough adds) that I think we will find our course.”

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

I love the sense of experimentation that’s at the core of this story. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing a program where our metrics were not (yet) reaching our goals.  We both saw the challenge as a way to push us to dig deep.  To understand that failure can lead to the unpacking of assumptions, new ways of looking at things, the acquisition of knowledge, and finding new paths to success.

When we look up to find that programs (or our ways of working) are static, we may need to build some unorthodox new machine and then “start it up and see why it doesn’t work.”  In this land where the whole idea of our country is an ongoing experiment, what could be more American?

Have a great week.

More to come…

DJB

An Aid to Navigation in Troubled, Uncertain Times

The American Spirit

David McCullough’s “The American Spirit”

The July 4th weekend turned out to be the perfect time to read historian David McCullough’s newest book The American Spirit:  Who We Are and What We Stand ForThis compilation of 15 speeches spanning the years 1989 through 2016 brought renewed appreciation for the wisdom of the elder statesman of America’s historians (and honorary trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).  The fact that it includes McCullough’s October 20, 2001, speech at the National Trust conference in Providence, Rhode Island—the most memorable of several David McCullough speeches I’ve been privileged to hear in person—is an added bonus.

Some would note that optimism is in short supply in today’s world. That was certainly the case just six weeks after 9/11.  Yet in 2001, McCullough used the setting of the First Baptist Church in Providence—one of the nation’s most historic houses of worship—and the scholarship from his recently published biography of John Adams to make the case for “the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times,” as he says in this book’s introduction.  He spoke then to the importance of authentic places in helping to make a “physical, tactile contact with distant human beings. To “feel their mortality.” To “feel a common bond” with all humanity.

We think we live in difficult uncertain times (McCullough said in 2001 in Providence).  We think we have worries.  We think our leaders face difficult decisions.  But so it has nearly always been….It is said that everything has changed.  But everything has not changed….We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength.  And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.

The First Baptist Church

The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI

Speaking in 1994 at Union College, McCullough touched on this same theme when he said,

I think what most of us want—as most people everywhere want more than anything—is to be useful.  This and to feel we belong to something larger than ourselves.  What is needed now…is a common understanding of what that larger something can be.  What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition….Beware the purists, the doctrinaires.  It has been by the empirical method largely, by way of trial and error, that we have come so far.  America itself is an experiment and we must bear that always in mind.

This is a good time to remember the power of history.  The power of story.  And it is an especially good time to work to ensure that the story of who we are and all that we have been through to reach our achievements as people and as a nation is not lost in the uncertainty of the present.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB