On Immunity: An Inoculation, by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press)

onimmunityOn Immunity: An Inoculation was one of the two nonfiction books at this year’s BEA Editors’ Buzz. At just about 200 pages, including the notes and acknowledgements, it is undaunting in length, which I hope will encourage even more people to pick it up.

Disease is defined as “any deviation from or interruption of the normal structure or function of any body part, organ, or system that is manifested by a characteristic set of symptoms and signs and whose etiology, pathology, and prognosis may be known or unknown.” But an obsolete use of the word disease is “lack of ease; trouble,” more like today’s unease. And disease certainly does make people uncomfortable: the idea of it causes mental and emotional discomfort, while its physical effects can range from undetected to uncomfortable to fatal.

Eula Biss wades into this uneasy territory, and finds companions in other writers, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and doctors. During the writing of On Immunity, Biss – already a published author and essayist – became a mother, and she approaches the topic of immunity and vaccination from a mother’s point of view as well as a “citizen thinker’s” perspective. She acknowledges that all parents’ decisions – to vaccinate or not to vaccinate their children – come from the same desire: to keep their children safe. But it is better to make these decisions from a place of knowledge than from a place of fear, and knowledge is what Biss strives for, and shares, in this book.

Fears of vaccines do not seem easily quieted by an abundance of expert risk-benefit analyses assuring us that the good they do is far greater than the harm.

One of the first steps in the process of deciding whether or not to vaccinate is risk assessment, and yet humans are not as good at this as we would like to think. Biss quotes the historian Michael Willrich, who says, “Perceptions of risk…can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.” People engage in dangerous activities (e.g. driving, riding in, or walking near cars) every day, but the familiarity we develop with these activities dulls our fear of the associated risks. “The disregard for statistical risk,” Biss writes, “may be at least partly due to an unwillingness to live lives dictated by danger.”

Risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk so much as it is about immeasurable fear….When we encounter information that contradicts our beliefs…we tend to doubt the information, not ourselves.

Safe and dangerous aren’t as binary as we’d like to think, either; as toxicologists say, “the dose makes the poison.” But, Biss notes, “most people prefer to think of substances as either safe or dangerous, regardless of the dose.” I caught myself in this exact thought pattern a single day after I finished reading On Immunity, while I was reading about the ingredients in a multivitamin; it’s difficult to remember, but any substance, even water, can be toxic in large enough doses, and small doses of “dangerous” substances may be harmless.

If vaccination is a choice people make at the individual level (“allowing oneself to remain vulnerable to disease remains a legal privilege today”), it is also a choice individuals are making on behalf of the larger community in which they live. The author’s father Roger Biss, a doctor, explains, “Vaccination works by enlisting a majority in the protection of a minority.” The more people who are vaccinated and carry immunity, the safer everyone is from disease. Achieving a 100% vaccination rate in any given population is unlikely, but by aiming for that rate, we have a better chance of attaining “herd immunity.” Unfortunately, Biss discovers, “We know the threshold [at which herd immunity is lost], in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it.”

Faced with too much information, or misinformation, some people choose not to vaccinate, threatening the protection that herd immunity confers. Yet refusing to vaccinate “undermines a system…in which both the burdens and the benefits are shared across the entire population.” Or, as the author’s sister notes, “The health of our bodies always depends on choices other people are making.”

Biss includes a wealth of references, both in the text and in the notes; she draws upon such various sources as Susan Sontag, Bram Stoker (Dracula), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others. While I read On Immunity, however, I was often reminded of a book she didn’t mention: Leah Hager Cohen’s I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance and doubt (except when you shouldn’t). In this slim, wise volume, Cohen – also a mother, and also a Hampshire College graduate – explores the question, “How should we make decisions when we can’t know what’s right?”

We have to make the best decision we can, based on the best information we can gather. After a careful examination of research an opinion from many sources, Biss concludes, reasonably, that vaccination is the choice that is best for the individual, and for society at large – of which we are all a part. This works to everyone’s advantage; after all, “No single person…has the genetic material to respond to all diseases, but collectively humans have enough genetic diversity for humankind to survive any disease.”

I received a galley of this book from the publisher at BookExpo America 2014. Quotes in the review above are from the galley, and may differ from the final copy. On Immunity: An Inoculation will be published on September 30, 2014.

 

Reading Roundup: spring, summer, and fall books

Between BEA, Edelweiss, NetGalley, and the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, I’ve gotten a chance to read several books ahead of their official publication dates this year, and they’ve all been excellent. This list is fairly fiction-heavy, but I have a few nonfiction titles coming up as well, so if that’s your thing, stay tuned.

stuckinthemiddleStuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan (paperback: April 22, 2014)

Sometimes, the simplest, most innocent questions that people ask me can demand that I either lie or else have a conversation that’s much more intimate than I want to have, simply in order to tell the truth.

Boylan is the author of two previous memoirs, She’s Not There (2003) and I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted (2008). Born James Boylan, she had a sex change but remained married to her wife Deedie, parent to their two sons, Zach and Sean. Stuck in the Middle With You gives enough background so that readers who are new to Boylan won’t be lost, but focuses mainly on parenthood and family; memoir material is interspersed with interviews with many other people on the topics of gender, family, and motherhood vs. fatherhood. (I was delighted to encounter Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing, in one of the interviews.) In conversation with Christine McGinn, Boylan seems to conclude that “males and females really are two different beings…but motherhood and fatherhood are social constructs.” She also concludes that her family is more similar to other families than different – and, for what it’s worth, she and Deedie are still together while many couples who got together at the same time are now separated. A great read for anyone who’s part of a family…which is pretty much everyone.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub (May 29, 2014)vacationers

Families were nothing more than hope cast out in a wide net, everyone wanting only the best.

The term “beach read” connotes something frothy and light, indulgent and not necessarily “literary,” but just because a book is set during a family’s summer vacation doesn’t make it a “beach read.” Straub’s The Vacationers certainly isn’t fluff: it’s a two-week-long snapshot of a family (and friends) whose members are all believably flawed: the husband who had an affair and lost his job over it, the wife who isn’t sure she can forgive him, the gay couple in the midst of a nerve-wracking adoption process, the son with hidden financial troubles, the son’s responsible-but-looked-down-on older girlfriend, and finally the youngest daughter, whose goal for the summer is to get laid so she doesn’t arrive at college a virgin. Straub writes about her characters with empathy and wisdom. I didn’t read her previous novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, but I may add it to my list now.

oneplusoneOne Plus One by Jojo Moyes (July 1, 2014)

Sometimes, she told herself, life was a series of obstacles that just had to be negotiated, possibly through sheer act of will….she could survive this. She could survive most things.

Jess and Ed both live in England, but they come from two different worlds: Ed is fantastically rich, thanks to some software he built with his friend Ronan, and Jess is scraping by, cleaning houses – including Ed’s – and bartending. This setup could easily tip over into cliche, but it doesn’t: Moyes creates fully rounded characters who are lovable but flawed, trying to do their best and making mistakes. Jess is trying to protect her ex-husband’s son Nicky from being bullied, and trying to figure out a way to afford for her daughter Tanzie to go to a nicer school where she can do higher-level maths; Tanzie has won a scholarship but Jess still doesn’t have enough to cover the rest, unless Tanzie also wins a competition. In Aberdeen. And Jess can’t really drive – so Ed ends up chauffeuring the three of them, plus Norman the dog. One Plus One is a satisfying romance that addresses issues of socioeconomic status and inequality.

landlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell (July 8, 2014)

“Lately I’ve been thinking that it’s impossible to know.”
“To know what?” she pushed.
“Whether it’s enough. How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It’s an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you’re that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it’s enough to make you happy?”
“But it happens all the time,” she said. “Love isn’t always enough.”

If you have already read something by Rainbow Rowell (Attachments, Eleanor & Park, Fangirl), then you’re already waiting to get your hands on Landline, in which Rowell returns from YA to adult fiction. As always, she writes with a wonderful sense of humor as well as wisdom about what it’s like to be a person. Review | Additional quotes

secretplaceThe Secret Place by Tana French (September 2, 2014)

Some people are like that: everything comes out like a lie. Not that they’re brilliant liars, just that they’re useless at telling the truth. You get left with no way to tell what’s the real fake and what’s the fake one.

The Secret Place differs from French’s four previous novels in that the narration is split in two, with one half – from the perspective of Detective Stephen Moran – taking place over the course of one long day, and the other half filling in most of the back story. This is largely effective, though there are many threads to keep track of; readers are never too far ahead of Moran and his partner-for-the-day, Antoinette Conway, and there are plenty of leads that lead to dead ends. The case centers around a murder that occurred on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school; the murder went unsolved for a year, but a new clue has surfaced, brought to Moran’s attention by Holly Mackey, a student at the school. Soon, Moran begins to wonder if Holly was involved. As always, French has crafted a psychologically gripping, beautifully written, hard-to-put-down literary mystery.

stationelevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (September 9, 2014)

The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

The world as we know it: Arthur Leander has a heart attack onstage while playing King Lear. Audience member Jeevan, a paparazzo-turned-journalist-turned EMT, jumps onstage to help. Child actress Kirsten Raymonde watches as Jeevan tries to save Arthur, but Arthur dies. Later that evening, Jeevan receives a call from a doctor friend, telling him about a fast-moving, lethal flu that has arrived in Toronto. He stocks up on emergency supplies.

Time had been reset by catastrophe.

The world in Year Twenty: Twenty years after the Georgia Flu has killed 99.99% of the world’s population, Kirsten is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of Shakespearean actors and musicians always on the move between small settlements. She’s also on the lookout for anyone who might know anything about one of her few possessions, copies of the first two volumes of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. When Symphony members begin to go missing, it seems as though Station Eleven might be leaking from the page into real life.

There have been several notable post-apocalyptic novels for adults recently (The Road, The Age of Miracles, The Dog Stars), but in my opinion this is the best. The author pays attention to the logistics of the collapse, but the characters are of primary importance: the way they deal with the post-flu world, the way they are all connected in a looping way that is almost reminiscent of the best time-travel novels. I only finished reading it a few days ago, but I think it will linger with me.

 

BookCon 2014: When they were last seen

Read about BookExpo America (BEA)’s sessions Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (here and here).

BookCon, the Saturday following BEA, was a whole different animal, and not one I’m likely to visit at the conference petting zoo ever again. However, I did get to see David Mitchell in conversation with David Ebershoff, and Cary Elwes talking about his forthcoming book, As You Wish. (“The title meeting was about two minutes. I said, ‘What do you want to call it?’ and they said, ‘Really?'”)

“For a voyage to begin, another voyage must end…”

boneclocksDavid Mitchell displayed exactly the type of dry British humor and sharp intelligence one would expect from reading his books and articles. He described his forthcoming novel The Bone Clocks as a first-person tale focused on six stages in the life of Holly Sykes, from the 1960s through the 2040s; he followed this description with the admonishment, “No whispering ‘He’s rewritten Twilight’ in the back there.”

As for the inspiration for the book, “Novels have a number of seeds, they don’t really just grow from one.” The Bone Clocks may be a midlife crisis book about facing mortality; “You look in the mirror, and ‘Dad, how did you get there?!'”

Reviews have used the phrase “Mitchell-esque”; what would David Mitchell say they mean by that? “Naive, childlike, a compunction to pack in as much of the world as you can; like a loom, character strands weaving together.” His editor David Ebershoff (himself an author), added that Mitchell was “willing to move through time.”

Characters from one of Mitchell’s novels often show up in his other novels; characters from Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas make appearances in The Bone Clocks, a treat for loyal Mitchell readers.

Some brave Book Riot-ers recounted their adventure/ordeal getting copies of they galley of The Bone Clocks and getting them signed by the author in the exhibit hall after his talk.

Q&A

How do you handle a big cast of characters? In a word, “messily.” In more words, “A little bit like the NSA, I keep files…I know when they were last seen…” Mitchell said he thinks of himself as a writer of novellas, “Novellas full of doors and passageways.” He builds his larger novels out of these novellas, “like a kid with Lego.”

You’re not optimistic about the future – why? Mitchell first answered this question with a question – “Have you seen the news lately?” – but added, “Essentially, it’s oil.” He’s also worried about climate change, dictators, etc. “Though we’re devoting some resources to finding a way around [our dependence on] oil, we’re devoting far more time to convincing ourselves it’s all okay.” His outlook isn’t entirely pessimistic, though: “There’s hope. We’re clever and bright as well as short-sighted and destructive.”

What did you think of the Cloud Atlas movie? Mitchell said he was very happy with the movie. “It’s an unfilmable book. Bearing in mind that caveat, they did a wonderful job…they took it apart and put it back together. Film is a compromise.” (As a side note, he mentioned that entertainment lawyers were “badass scary people.”)

Character inconsistency between books? [Facepalm.] Luisa Rey was mentioned here: is she fictional or real? Mitchell’s novels are a “multiverse” with a fault running down the middle. The novel, Mitchell said, “thrives on inexactitude.” He doesn’t read his novels once they’re published, other than reading from them on book tours; “The only way to stay sane is to plunge into the next book.”

Have you ever considered a serialized format (like Dickens)? “Not really.” The dominant serial format, he said, is the HBO box set, which does it very well. Serialization “changes what books are.” Mitchell believes “you can only serve one form…I hereby choose the novel.” As for the pace of his writing and publishing? “I write one [novel] every World Cup.”

 

asyouwish

Cary Elwes followed David Mitchell in the same room, and I suspect that some people attended Mitchell’s talk just to be sure of a seat in the room when Elwes appeared; while Mitchell merited applause, Elwes walked in to screaming fans. He told several stories that are included in his book; three are recounted in this Vulture piece.

Elwes described himself as a fan of William Goldman’s book, which he read when he was 13. “If you haven’t read the book, read the book, the book is amazing,” he urged. He called The Princess Bride “the most quotable movie/book ever,” which is tough to argue with. “It’s not even our movie anymore, it belongs to all of you,” he said to the audience. “You guys know the lines better than I do.”

Speaking of Andre the Giant (Fezzik in the movie), Elwes said he was “the sweetest guy ever,” truly a “gentle giant.” “He’d give you the shirt off his back – it’d be enough for four people.” When it was cold out during filming – during the first kiss scene, for example – Andre placed his hand on top of Robin Wright’s head and warmed her up enough to stop her teeth from chattering.

For the fencing scene, Elwes and Mandy Patinkin had two months of training on set, though the trainers wouldn’t guarantee “proficiency” by the time they were due to begin shooting. Elwes had studied fencing briefly in acting school, but a teacher had told him not to bother; Patinkin had had two months of training prior to the movie. At the time of the scene, Elwes also had a broken toe (see Vulture article). Neither actor, incidentally, is left-handed.

During the Q&A following the official interview, someone asked about the fake introductions in Goldman’s book (he references a son called Billy and a wife called Helen; in real life he has two daughters). Elwes called Goldman “an inventive writer” and said that while some parts are invented, some – like Mandy Patinkin slapping Andre the Giant – are true. Florin and Guilder, however, are not real countries, and S. Morgenstern is simply a pen name of Goldman’s.

Another question had to do with the fire swamp set. The flame spurts really were “preceded by a popping sound”: “No big deal, just don’t step on it.” (Goldman, who missed Fire Swamp Set 101, got upset when Robin Wright’s dress caught fire, even though “she’s supposed to catch fire!”)

The Princess Bride, Elwes said, was “one of the most joyous experiences of my life,” and it has clearly provided a lot of joy to others as well ever since its release in 1987.

BEA 2014 Part Four: Buzzy and Boozy

BEA14FriBookExpo America, Day Three (continued)

Read about the first two sessions of Day Three here.

The Librarians Book Buzz Part II continued in much the same vein as Part I. I’ll use the same format, highlighting just a few titles I found interesting from each publisher:

  • From Random House: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel; Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix (think IKEA meets haunted house)
  • From Penguin: One Plus One by Jojo Moyes (author of Me Before You); The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters; The Secret Place by Tana French; Five Days Left by Julie Lawson Timmer; and If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel
  • From W.W. Norton: An Italian Wife by Ann Hood; The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows); The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig; Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty; The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson; and the graphic novel Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
  • From S&S: Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen; As You Wish by Cary Elwes (about whom more later); We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas; The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
  • From Workman: The High Divide by Lin Enger, and several big beautiful nonfiction books, from dinosaurs to whiskey to molecules and the ocean.
  • From New York Review Books (not to be confused with the New York Review of Books): The Burning of the World by Bela Zombory-Moldovan; Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman; and Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy by Daryl Pinckney

I can definitely recommend One Plus One and The Secret Place, having already read the galleys, and I’m looking forward to several of these others. The to-read list grows! (That’s the only thing it does. Never gets any shorter, only grows.)

Librarian Shout ‘n’ Share

Moderated by Barbara Genco of Library Journal, this panel was both buzzy and boozy (one suggested hashtag was #vodkaatBEA). The panelists:

  • Douglas Lord, LSTA Coordinator, Division of Library Development, CT State Library, longtime Library Journal book reviewer and Books for Dudes Columnist
  • Alene Moroni, Manager, Selection and Order, King County Library System (WA) and a 2013 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker”
  • Charlene Rue, Deputy Director of Collection Management, BookOps: The shared technical services organization of New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library
  • Etta Thornton-Verma, Library Journal Reviews Editor (NY)
  • Jamie Watson, Collection Development Coordinator, Baltimore County Public Library (MD) and a 2008 Library Journal “Mover and Shaker”

My notes from this session are a bit haphazard due to the pace of the panel and people jumping in with suggestions and comments, so I may not have ascribed all the suggestions correctly. I’m just going to list books that I first heard about at the Shout ‘n’ Share, omitting any that I’d already heard about during BEA (from the Editors’ Book Buzz, Librarians’ Book Buzz, giant posters hanging in the exhibit hall, etc.).

Shout ‘n’ Share finds: Fiction

Shout ‘n’ Share finds: Nonfiction

And that was the end of BEA for me. Stay tuned for a (very belated, by now) recap of BookCon.

BEA 2014 Part Three: Publishers, Public Libraries, and the Public

BEA14FriBookExpo America, Day Three

Rebecca Miller, Editorial Director of Library Journal and School Library Journal, moderated a panel discussing “The Untapped Retail Channel: Public Libraries.” Miller wrote an excellent editorial piece before BEA, “Market Powerhouse: A Library Sale is Just the Beginning,” in which she argued, “It’s hard to ignore just how fundamentally important libraries have become to the potential success of a book—that is, if you pay attention to a few simple facts and are willing to question persistent myths.”

The panel included – it must be said – six white guys: George Coe, CEO of Baker & Taylor; Brian Downing, CEO of Library Ideas; Jeff Jankowski, VP and co-owner of Midwest Tape; Steve Potash, CEO of Overdrive; Rich Freese, CEO of Recorded Books; and Matt Tempelis, business manager of 3M. These companies have all already recognized libraries’ ability to reach readers, although libraries remain a “silent market” to publishers. The way Jankowski sees it, “there’s a library in every town in North America,” and the purpose of his company is to get rid of artificial market constraints and give libraries tools to make their jobs easier.

Potash said, “Retail is about creating more readers.” With Overdrive, he aims to provide the best content and most availability for the best value. Freese, whose company provides audiobooks to libraries, said “all books are not the same”; he suggested different models for different books (for example, simultaneous use for debut and backlist titles, 1 copy/1 user for bestsellers). “Librarians want to promote books & authors,” so enable them to do that.

Tempelis agreed that the library market grows the publishing business. There is no “erosion,” i.e. a copy of a book borrowed from a library does not equal a lost sale; rather, people discover books and authors in libraries and go on to purchase them. “We have been listening to libraries and librarians and patrons,” Tempelis said, and their goal is to create a system that is  “intuitive, integrated, synchronized.”

A few more salient points came up during the Q&A. By offering training on e-reading devices, librarians are helping with the physical to digital transition. Libraries loan devices, teach classes, market e-books, and even work with schools. The message to publishers? “Give libraries and readers a better experience. How can publishers let libraries help them reach readers? Stop treating them as adversaries….Libraries are reasonable people willing to pay reasonable money for a better experience.” If publishers make books available in as many formats and models as possible, they will reach more readers. Offer better terms, lower prices, and less friction-creating DRM.

All of this sounded good to the audience, which consisted of many more librarians than publishers, but hopefully the message is getting across.

Unshelved Presents Too Much Information

I missed the very beginning of this talk because I was finishing lunch (say what you will about the Javits, what other conference center has matzah ball soup and knishes on offer?), and when I came in there was a sort of role-play going on, with audience participants earning bottles of beer for imitating patrons in various situations. The presenters then launched into their talk, accompanied by a clear, funny, occasionally depressingly true slideshow. “Too Much Information” had a double meaning: it referred to the amount of information available in the world and the difficulty of sifting the good from the bad that this glut presents, and it also referred to a few brutally honest opinions/truths that have occurred to many librarians, but that we don’t often voice.

“The problem is that we are still informed by our culture.”

Library patrons today have unrealistic expectations of immediate results, but the quickest answer isn’t always best; speed devalues reference service. There’s a false belief that “every question has a fast, easy answer.” This belief stems in part from traditional reference books, such as dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, atlases, and factbooks, but the Internet has exacerbated the problem exponentially. Still, librarians are trying to compete with search engines, which return millions of results in seconds (though, as Neil Gaiman has said, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one”). It’s a vicious cycle.

unshelved_bestquickanswer

Historically, librarians have been gatekeepers and curators. “Books looked valuable because they were valuable.” Books represent an author’s labor and a publisher’s belief; they have been “vetted” by publishers, reviewers, and librarians. Much online content, unlike books and other physical library materials (magazines, newspapers, movies, music), has not been vetted, yet “people trust it anyway,” considering all information equal. Librarians and other info-savvy folks know that isn’t the case.  (It may be true that “librarians are better at searching than you,” but it sounds bad.) Today, too, “book” no longer equals “quality” either, because “anyone can publish anything.”

The Internet also presents the problem of the filter bubble; people are naturally inclined to read sources that confirm their views rather than challenge them (e.g., not many liberals watch Fox News). When a search engine tailors its results specifically to you, you are rarely confronted with anything you disagree with. Libraries, on the other hand, support different cultural views, offering different viewpoints on the same subjects. (If you’re browsing the poli-sci section, you’ll come across books by liberals and conservatives; even if you only choose to read the ones that are likely to reinforce your own views, at least you’ll know the others exist.)

As people’s limited attention shifts away from books toward other media, some libraries’ message becomes “Come for the Internet, stay for the books.” We put computers in libraries to attract patrons at a time when home computers weren’t necessarily commonplace. After all, books used to be much more expensive, leading to the library as a place for “shared community resources.” Maybe, the Unshelved guys suggest, that mission is defined too broadly, so that in the end we are spread too thin, and not doing anything well.

“In the old days people needed libraries more than libraries needed patrons,” but now it’s the opposite, leading to a “whatever it takes to keep the building open” mentality. But we must remember that we can’t please all of the people all of the time, and we need to “have some dignity” and “reassert our classic identity” (keywords: authority, community, quality, books). We need to “set a high bar for acceptable behavior.” When librarians went from being stern to being approachable, it was a slippery slope from “approachable” to disrespected. We need to reestablish the value of librarians. Stop trying to compete with search engines: provide context for information, be human, have an opinion (politely), and slow down – remember that the best answers are not the quickest answers. Read nonfiction, and “stop buying crappy books” – the noise-to-signal ratio is getting worse. Make people wait longer; ride out the trends (like 50 Shades of Grey). Set a high bar for readalikes. Buy good books. “In the age of too much information, we really need libraries to be libraries.” Trust/know that people need you; consider the library as the center of the community.

This was a great talk, punctuated by much laughter. I don’t agree with every point made here; I don’t believe librarians should go back to being stern and unapproachable, or that the library should be a place of silence and whispers (though it’s nice to set aside at least some quiet space). However, I do believe in the value of a thorough answer over a quick one. It isn’t always easy to convince patrons at the reference desk to wait a minute for more complete information; as illustrated by the Unshelved strip below, sometimes people walk away mid-answer, which is rude as well as self-defeating. Nevertheless, we should try to take the time at every reference interaction to understand the question and answer as completely as possible.

unshelved_twelve

This is quite long enough, so I’ll get to the Librarians Book Buzz Part II and the Librarian Shout ‘n’ Share in the next post.

BEA 2014 Part Two: LibraryReads and Librarians Book Buzz

BEA14ThursBookExpo America, Day Two

I’ve been a fan of LibraryReads since it first appeared on the scene last September, so while the panel didn’t offer a lot of new information, it was a great reminder that all library staff can (and should!) participate in the nomination process.

Steering committee members Stephanie Anderson from Darien Library, Melissa DeWild from Kent District Library, Robin Nesbitt from Columbus Metropolitan Library, and Kaite Stover from Kansas City Public Library gave an overview of LibraryReads, which was inspired by the question “Where is the IndieNext for libraries?” The monthly LibraryReads lists feature some familiar authors and some new ones. LibraryReads is a volunteer-run, publisher-supported marketing and readers’ advisory tool for libraries and publishers, and should help increase libraries’ relevance with publishers by demonstrating librarians’ power to “hand-sell” titles to readers: “We can help launch great authors and their books.”

The LibraryReads list is also a helpful tool for librarians. “These are ten books you can pretend you’ve read,” or at least tell potential readers, truthfully, “My colleague loved it” – even if your “colleague” is a librarian across the country.  LibraryReads lists can be used for collection development purposes, and lists and books can be used in displays, for book groups, and mentioned on social media.

Anyone who works in a public library is eligible to nominate books for the LibraryReads list; just register through Edelweiss. You can find advance copies of books through Edelweiss, NetGalley, publishers’ newsletters, blogs, social media, or other newsletters like Shelf Awareness or EarlyWord. You can vote for a book without writing a review if you’re pressed for time or not sure what to say, or you can write a quick blurb (final reviews on the list are only 450 words).

LibraryReadsSome tips on writing reviews:

  • Start strong and get to the point
  • Sum up the action in 1-2 sentences
  • Mention who might like the book
  • What are the appeal elements?
  • End strong
  • Remember, “your audience is someone who is dying to read a book.”

There are more tips on the “For Library Staff” section of the LibraryReads site. This is a great initiative that all library staff can participate in. Right now the list is limited to adult fiction and nonfiction, but there is the potential to expand to include children’s books as well, and teen books that appeal to adults are welcome (E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars was the #1 book on the May list).

BEA14LibraryReads

The Librarians Book Buzz (Part I) was a rapid-fire stream of titles and authors from eight different publishers. Here are a few of the titles that caught my interest, with links to Edelweiss:

These are, of course, just a few of the several titles mentioned; publishers’ websites and their catalogs in Edelweiss offer many many more. And this was only Part I of the Buzz…more to come!

 

BEA 2014, Part One: When we love a book, we can’t stop talking about it

Thanks to Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes (perhaps better known as “the Unshelved guys“), I got to go to BookExpo America (BEA) for free this year. I built a schedule in advance with the BEA show planner, and ended up following the schedule pretty closely.

BEA14WedThe keynote on Wednesday afternoon, “The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retailers,” was focused on booksellers, but much of it could apply to libraries as well. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, noted that there was a “real resurgence in indie bookselling,” and that “localism” was becoming a powerful movement (“Small Business Saturday” being one example). However, it’s still a challenge to convince customers to think of bookstores as places to buy e-books.

Michael Tamblyn, president of Kobo, acknowledged that the virtual browsing experience doesn’t (yet) match the physical, but that booksellers could be strategic about what books they stock in print. Romance novels, for example, sell better in e-book format, so it’s less important to have them on the shelves – just point customers toward the e-bookstore. Cookbooks, gift books, and picture books, however, are much more popular in print.

John Ingram, CEO of Ingram, said of digital and print, “it’s not either/or, it’s either/and.” Many readers buy both print books and e-books; this is supported by research from Library Journal. On the limited (thus far) success of bundling a digital book with the purchase of a print book, Ingram said, “Somewhere in there, there are economics that work for everybody.” Ingram also proposed that “each [bookstore] could be a publisher.”

Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore, had great advice about connecting to the community and attracting customers. Tattered Cover has 500-600 events annually, including storytime, author events, and “Book Happy Hour.” She recommended using media, including public radio and podcasts, to “be part of the story.”

BEA14_tatteredcoverOf course, the keynote wouldn’t have been complete without a dig at the ongoing Amazon/Hachette issue; indie booksellers “make ALL publishers’ books available all the time.”

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Next was the BEA Editors’ Buzz. Robert Sindelar from Third Place Books in Seattle moderated a panel of seven editors, each of whom raved about one book from their list. Sindelar said he initially had a negative reaction to the word “buzz,” but said it connotes activity; “When we really love a book we can’t stop talking about it.” The best editors and salespeople, he said, are “cool, have good taste, and know how to talk about books.” All editors on the panel fit this description, and after the event there was a mob around the tables of galleys that resembled hyenas feasting on a carcass. (Note to the organizers: Spread the galleys out. Use more than two tables for a room of a few hundred people. Have an exit plan. Have signs. Encourage people to form lines. Etc.) Though the print galleys disappeared in a flash, e-galleys should be available through Edelweiss. Here are the titles and authors:

  • Jenny Jackson from Knopf called Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel “a requiem for the world as we know it.” This “plausible and terrifying” book, which she compared to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, is about art and fame, and has already garnered positive word-of-mouth buzz.
  • Marysue Rucci from S&S described Matthew Thomas‘ ten-years-in-the-making We Are Not Ourselves as an “epic” of three generations of an Irish family in New York, a novel that describes “the great unwinding of the middle class” and “resilience in the face of disappointment.”
  • Lee Boudreaux from Ecco mentioned a slew of comp titles for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, including Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Song of Achilles, Slammerkin, and The Signature of All Things. Suspense builds in this “dollhouse mystery” set in 1700s Amsterdam.
  • Jeff Shotts from Graywolf Press was aware of the irony of his last name when introducing On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. This slim work of nonfiction addresses parents’ impulse to protect themselves and their children, as well as issues of race, class, and government, and the “far-reaching ramifications” of the “implications of vaccination.”
  • Amy Einhorn touted My Sunshine Away by M.O. Wilson from her eponymous imprint. Like The Help, My Sunshine Away is set in the South, and the story is inseparable from the setting. A debut novel and a literary mystery, My Sunshine Away is about adolescence, family, memory, and forgiveness.
  • Josh Kendall from Little, Brown admitted that author Laird Hunt was “not the new guy,” but that Neverhome was going to be his breakout novel. Hunt discovered a trove of letters in a family barn in Indiana, and those letters inspired this tale of a woman who goes to war in place of her husband.
  • Colin Harrison from Scribner closed the session with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League But Did Not Survive by Jeff Hobbs, Peace’s roommate for two years at Yale. This is a true tale of poverty, race, education, drugs, murder, discrimination, and fate.

And that was just the first day. Stay tuned for more.

MLA Conference 2014, Day Two (Thursday)

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 8.53.24 PMHarvard Library Innovation Lab: Pop-Ups, Prototypes, and Awesome Boxes

Annie Cain, Matt Phillips, and Jeff Goldenson from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab  presented some of their recent projects. Cain started off by introducing Awesome Box: the Awesome Box gives library users the opportunity to declare a library item (book, audiobook, movie, TV show, magazine, etc.) “awesome” by returning it to an Awesome Box instead of putting it into the book drop. Library staff can then scan the “awesome” items and send them to a custom website (e.g. arlington.awesomebox.io), where anyone can see the “recently awesome” and “most awesome” items. Instead of librarian-to-patron readers’ advisory, it’s patron-to-patron/librarian. Cool, fun, and easy to use! “Awesome” books can also be put on display in the library.

Phillips talked about the idea of “hovermarks,” bringing favicon-style images to the stacks by placing special bookmarks in books. Patrons or librarians could place a hovermark in a book to draw attention to local authors, Dewey Decimal areas, beach reads, favorites, Awesome Box picks, or anything else. It’s a “no-tech” way to “annotate the stacks.”

Goldenson floated the idea of a Library Community Catalog, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog. The Library Community Catalog could contain real things, ideas, speculations, interviews, or other articles. It could be “hyper-local,” in print and/or online.

Of the three ideas presented, Awesome Box is definitely the most developed, and Harvard, which “isn’t necessarily known for sharing,” is eager to get it into public libraries. Contact them if you’re interested in setting it up at your library!

Libraries are Keeping Readers First: An Update on the National Initiative and How You Can Participate

Readers First is “a movement to improve e-book access and services for public library users.” Kelvin Watson from Queens Library and Michael Santangelo from BookOps presented an update on this initiative, explaining the work that’s been done thus far and how far we have to go. The more people (and libraries) sign on, the stronger the team, the better ability to effect change. Already, said Santangelo, Readers First represents over 20 million readers.

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It’s worth going to the Readers First site (link in the previous paragraph) to read their principles. The two main challenges regarding e-books in libraries are availability and discoverability/access. Availability is an issue with the publishers; the issues of discoverability and access can be taken up with the vendors. Because libraries are only indirectly connected to publishers, but directly connected to vendors, Readers First decided to focus its efforts on the discoverability/access challenge.

Santangelo said that Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science applied to e-books also (save the time of the reader, (e)books are for use, etc.) and that libraries have a responsibility to ensure open, easy, and free access to e-books the same as we do for print books. However, the e-book experience now is fragmented, disjointed, and cumbersome, creating a poor user experience. This is where the four Readers First principles come in: readers should be able to discover content in one comprehensive catalog; access a variety of content from multiple sources; interact with the library in the library’s own context; and read e-books compatible with all e-reading devices.

A Readers First Working Group sent a survey to vendors in order to create a guide to library e-book vendors. This guide will help librarians who are choosing an e-book vendor for the first time, or moving from one to another; it will also help vendors design their systems and decide what to prioritize.

Watson said that libraries should see vendors as partners, and challenge them to “do the right thing.” Librarians should hold all vendors accountable to the Readers First principles, with the end goal of a seamless experience for the user. The long-term objective, said Michael Colford of the Boston Public Library, is to “have the discovery layer be the platform.” Until then, we’re relying on APIs. “We can make things less complicated, but we can’t make it easier,” said Santangelo.

Readers First is working with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to develop standards for e-books, but according to Watson, the perfect format hasn’t been invented yet. (Other than PDFs, most e-book files are proprietary formats, wrapped in DRM and not usable across devices.)

MA E-Book Project

Deb Hoadley presented an update on the Massachusetts E-Book Project on behalf of the Massachusetts Library System. I was already familiar with the project because Robbins is one of the pilot libraries, but it was good to review the history, see where the project had hit snags, and hear from other librarians at pilot libraries (Jason Homer from Wellesley and Jackie Mushinsky from WPI) about how they had introduced the project to patrons.

150x71-MA-EbooksYou can read about the project’s history, the RFP, and see updates on the website, so I want to use this space to draw a parallel between the MA E-Book Project and Readers First. Although the pilot consists of three different vendors (BiblioBoard, Baker & Taylor (Axis 360), and EBL) with three different models, the end goal is a single e-book platform that offers integrated and seamless discovery. Any Massachusetts resident would have access through this user-friendly platform to e-content that is owned – not licensed – by Massachusetts libraries; local content would also be hosted and discoverable.

Although we are far from this goal right now, “Our vendors are listening to us,” said Homer. He said that participating in the pilot project has enabled him to start conversations with patrons about how much we spend on e-books now and why we need a new model. Mushinsky, who added local content through BiblioBoard, said that we need to ask, “Will this resource be of value to us? Can we add value to it?”

I came away from these two sessions (Readers First and the MA E-Book Project) convinced that we have the right goals, and dedicated people working toward them, but a little depressed at how far we have to go. Slowly but surely…


Teaching the Tools: Technology Education in Public Libraries

Clayton Cheever live-blogged this session; his notes are posted on the Teaching the Tools site.

Anna Litten from Wellesley did an excellent job moderating this informative panel. Litten and the other panelists (Michael Wick, Theresa Maturevitch, Jason Homer, and Sharani Robins) built a website called Teaching the Tools: Libraries and Technology Education, which they hope will serve as a resource going forward. To borrow from the site: “All reference librarians are technology trainers, educators and instructors these days.  But what does it really mean to teach technology topics in public libraries?  What can and should we teach?  How does technology instruction fit into our broader mission and core responsibilities?  What resources are available to use and to our clients?  How do we become better presenters and instructors?”

The panelists addressed these questions during the session. They all teach in their libraries, but the teaching takes different forms. “I teach to whatever question comes to the door, in whatever way the learner can understand it,” said Wick. Maturevich talked about printed brochures, online resources, and videos; Robins talked about beginner classes, one-on-one sessions, and “Wired Wednesday,” when patrons can drop in for tech help. Robins has also had reps from Barnes & Noble and Best Buy come in to help people with e-reading devices, and she often uses the resources at GCF LearnFree.org. Homer teaches intermediate classes in the Wellesley computer lab, and other Wellesley staff teach beginner classes. Clearly, there are many approaches, and flexibility is key.

Litten suggested taking the time to read instructional design blogs; most librarians don’t have a background in instructional design, but the field does exist and there’s a lot we can learn. “We have to focus on what’s going to work,” she said. “If it’s not working, abandon! Abandon!”

What to do when you offer a class and no one shows up? Wick and Litten talked about forming partnerships in the community. “We can be really useful to you in ways you didn’t even realize,” said Litten. “Listen,” Wick encouraged. Ask people, “What do you want? We’ll give it to you.” As for whether teaching technology is part of the library’s mission, Wick said, why wouldn’t it be? “We help everybody with everything else. Why aren’t we helping them as much as we can, more than they’re asking?” Find your audience first, said Wick, then design your classes.

Some library staff are reluctant to teach classes, but that isn’t the only kind of teaching. Nor do tech teachers have to be experts; in fact, said Wick, good teachers can be just one step ahead of their students. Knowing the librarian/teacher is not an expert but a fellow learner can put patrons/students at ease. Confronted with a question she doesn’t know the answer to, Maturevich often uses the line, “I don’t know either, but this is how we find out.”

“Good instruction depends on having good goals,” said Litten. “We’re already doing these things, we just need to do them a little bit better.”

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That’s all, folks! If you missed it, you can read about Wednesday’s sessions here (part 1) and here (part 2).

See the whole MLA conference program here [PDF]

 

We interrupt this broadcast…

Another post or three about MLA still to come, but first: May 6 was International Day Against DRM. Please go read what Sarah (a.k.a. the Librarian In Black) has to say about this, and follow all her links (especially check out Defective By Design).

librariansagainstDRM“Consumers, and libraries by extension, should have the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software we choose.” -Sarah Houghton

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

World Book Night 2014: Experience of a First-time Giver

World Book Night was last week, and I had twenty copies of Code Name Verity to give away. It was April 23, a perfect spring evening…no, scratch that, it was cold and windy, because it is Massachusetts and Spring is being especially coy this year. But I went ahead with my original plan to hand out the books near a subway stop and shopping center. I was a little nervous, because although I have spent my life talking to people about books, and do so daily at my job, I do not habitually approach strangers on the street and try to foist books upon them, even really excellent, free books.

WBNGiverSticker_wbn2014It turns out, as I suspected, that it’s pretty tricky to convince people that you want to give them a good book for free. Even though I wasn’t sporting any of the red flags that pedestrians typically try to avoid (a clipboard, a windbreaker with a logo on it, a handful of pamphlets about Our Lord and Savior), people were hesitant to slow down or make eye contact. Everyone expects to be asked for things; no one expects to be given something (something they might want) for free.

Also, about half the people walking by were wearing headphones or had their eyes glued to a mobile device (or both); I let these people pass by. My most successful pitch to draw people in was “Would you like a free book for World Book Night?”

Once they’d stopped, I still felt rushed; I had more short transactions than long conversations. No one had heard of World Book Night, except for one woman who had encountered another WBN giver earlier in the day. I explained to those who stopped that it was a night where volunteers gave out free copies of books that authors and publishers had donated to spread the love of reading, and then I told them a little about the book I was giving out. Of the people who stopped, most were happy to take a copy of the book. One woman considered it for her daughter, but thought it might scare her (fair enough), so she didn’t take it. More men than women stopped, and they seemed really pleased to get a book – they’re not exactly the target demographic, and I wonder what they’ll make of Code Name Verity, but I do think anyone can enjoy it.

Although I picked up my box of books the week before World Book Night, I didn’t open the box till that day, and was a little dismayed to see that the special WBN cover had a white border that made the book look self-published; more than one person asked if I was the author. As much as I would love to have written Code Name Verity, I tried to clear up the misconception; it helped that it said “New York Times Bestseller” on the front, but the initial impression wasn’t that of a traditionally published book.

So, what would I do differently next time? I’d follow my librarian blogger friend Anna’s lead: she joined up with two other givers on World Book Night. This has a couple advantages: (1) it gives potential recipients a choice of books, and (2) it allows the givers to lend each other moral support. Anna and her team also set up in a local Starbucks (with the management’s permission, of course), so they could set up signs and people could choose to approach them and engage in conversation or not – much more comfortable for everyone than the hawking-on-the-sidewalk method.

I still think WBN is a fantastic initiative, and I want to thank the authors and publishers that donated their books, and the WBN organization itself for making this happen year after year. Here are all the WBN 2014 titles:

Books_wbn2014