Bookstores and Libraries

The Boston Globe ran an article yesterday about bookstores connected with libraries. The Book Store Next Door, run by the Friends of the Wilmington Memorial Library, is cited as an example. TBSND brings in funds for the library, and it’s a great place for community members to pick up cheap used books as well. Plus it’s in a charming little house – definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!

Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Memorial Library.

A longer post about the process of weeding in libraries – i.e. getting rid of books – is in the pipeline.

Best of 2011, Part the Third: Fiction (I)

Here is the first batch of novels I’d recommend from my reading last year. Enjoy, discuss, ask questions! I’ll be posting more soon.

The first three Thursday Next books by Jasper Fforde – The Eyre AffairLost in a Good Book, and The Well of Lost Plots – are highly recommended for English majors or otherwise literary types with senses of humor. Set in a surreal version of England in the 1980s, literature is all-important, and Special Ops literary detective Thursday Next encounters such characters as Jane Eyre, Miss Havisham, and the Cheshire Cat throughout her cases. These books are extremely quirky with a lot of made-up jargon, and they’re fast-paced, but if you’re enough of a word-nerd, you’ll keep up. That said, I felt the quality of the series dropped off after the third book, which is why I only recommend the first three books here.

I’ve already raved about State of Wonder by Ann Patchett on my other blog and on the website of the library where I work, so I’ll just say here that Ann Patchett is absolutely one of my all-time favorite authors for a few reasons, all of which are on display in State of Wonder. First, there’s her complete mastery of setting; in State of Wonder, that includes both the Amazon and Minnesota. Wherever she writes about, it seems like she has lived there her whole life, the description is so rich and real. Second, her characters are real people; she understands them all so well, and there’s a real sense of empathy. Thirdly, the plot generally hinges on a situational conflict, rather than a protagonist-antagonist confrontation; this makes the story more interesting and complicated. Finally, the writing itself is just beautiful.

Geraldine Brooks is another author whose new books I always look forward to (Caleb’s Crossing is on my to-read list). She wrote March and Year of Wonders, both of which I’d recommend, as well as People of the Book, which is about a Hanna Heath, Australian rare book expert who is called in to restore the famous and long-lost Sarajevo Haggadah. Each time Hannah turns up a clue to the book’s past, the story jumps to that point in the book’s history: from Spain to Italy to Austria to Bosnia, each in a different time period, tracing the book’s journey to Hanna’s care in the present day. People of the Book is a great choice for those who enjoy stories-within-stories, those who are interested in history or rare book conservation, or those who just like good storytelling.

The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan was another of my “staff picks” for the library. It is Levithan’s first foray into literature for adults (he has written extensively for teens, including Boy Meets Boy and Love Is The Higher Law, and has collaborated with other YA authors – Rachel Cohn on Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, John Green on Will Grayson, Will Grayson). The Lover’s Dictionary is funny and poetic by turns, showing a genuine understanding of two people in a relationship. “Definitions” – from “aberrant” to “zenith” – tell the whole story of one couple, from meeting and moving in together to fighting and making up. Through these brief snapshots – anywhere from one line to a few pages – a complete story is communicated.

Free Library of Philadelphia

On a recent visit to Philadelphia, I went into the Free Library of Philadelphia (open on Sundays!). Part of it was closed for renovations, but the building itself is beautiful and there was a neat exhibit on Dickens.

On the way out, I saw this quote on a sign:

“Good children’s literature appeals not only to the child in the adult, but to the adult in the child.” -Anonymous

Something to think about.

(The Rodin Museum is just a quick walk from the library. The Thinker (above) is there, as well as The Gates of Hell and The Burghers of Calais. Worth wandering by if you’re in the area!)

Jonathan Franzen quote

Jonathan Franzen, author of novels The Corrections and Freedom and essay collections How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, on e-books and the pace of technological change:

“One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], ‘Well, that won’t have to be my problem.’ Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically.” (Quoted from an article in The Guardian (UK), “Jonathan Franzen warns ebooks are corroding values,” 1/30/12.)

Best of 2011, Part the Second: Humor and Baking

To break the general nonfiction category down to a manageable size , here are my picks for humor and baking:


Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern
This was funnier and had more depth than I expected it to be, considering it was spawned from a Twitter account. The quotes of the dad in question are organized thematically into categories and separated by short essays. This book really is laugh-out-loud funny (e.g., On Accidentally Eating Dog Treats: “Snausages? I’ve been eating dog treats? Why the f**k would you put them on the counter where the rest of the food is? F**ck it, they’re delicious. I will not be shamed by this.”)

Bossypants, by Tina Fey, and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling
I wrote about these together on the library’s “staff picks” book review section. They are both in short essay format, easy to read a little at a time or straight through; but more importantly, they are smart and funny. If you like 30 Rock (Fey) or The Office (Kaling), chances are you will like these books. (Also, I found out that Mindy wrote my all-time favorite episode of The Office, “The Injury,” wherein Michael grills his foot on a George Foreman, Dwight gets a concussion, and Jim sprays him in the face with a squirt bottle. But that is neither here nor there.)


Good to the Grain, by Kim Boyce
This was one of my staff picks, too. Boyce is a pastry chef and a mother, so her goal is to make healthy recipes without sacrificing any of the deliciousness – and by and large, she succeeds. Every recipe (especially the whole wheat chocolate chip cookies) I’ve made from this book has been a success. The sections are organized around the type of flour the recipes require, so you can try out one type at a time.

Best of 2011, Part the First: Young Adult

Saving the two major categories – adult fiction and nonfiction – for later, here are a few of the best young adult (YA) books that I read in 2011 (not necessarily published in 2011).

Looking for Alaska, by John Green
I was utterly blown away by this book. It is set at a boarding school in Alabama, where the main character Miles Halter (a.k.a. Pudge) comes seeking a “great perhaps.” What he finds is a teacher who makes him think, a friend who makes him laugh, and a girl who makes him dream – and breaks his heart. The structure of the book is unique: it is divided into two parts, Before and After, and instead of chapter headings there are countdowns (e.g. 121 days before; 29 days after). Looking for Alaska is a classic, tragic coming-of-age story, along the lines of Bridge to Terabithia and A Separate Peace. (I highly recommend John Green’s other books as well, including his newest, The Fault in Our Stars.)

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
Warning: This book will make you paranoid, for at least as long as it takes to read it and several days after. It features Marcus, a high school hacker who uses his intelligence primarily to evade the school’s efforts to invade his privacy. Marcus and his friends get drawn into a much bigger battle against a much more powerful enemy when the Department of Homeland Security picks them up after the Golden Gate Bridge is blown up. Part thought experiment, part meditation on privacy, security, and freedom (though meditation is too quiet a word to describe this book), Little Brother is thought-provoking, action-packed, and a little bit frightening – it’s our world, once-removed.

The Body of Christopher Creed, by Carol Plum-Ucci
Simply one of the best YA mysteries I have read in ages. Social outcast Christopher Creed goes missing after leaving an ambiguous note, and his classmate Torey Adams cannot let the disappearance rest – especially when rumors that Chris was murdered begin swirling, and fingers are pointed at people that Torey is sure are innocent. Torey is often introspective, musing on the nature of popularity and friendship, but this intensifies the suspense of the story rather than slowing it down. (There is also a sequel, Following Christopher Creed, which does not disappoint.)

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld
A dystopian novel in a sea of dystopian novels, Uglies exceeded my expectations. In Tally Youngblood’s world, everyone is surgically transformed from an Ugly to a Pretty when they turn 16, and Tally can’t wait – but her transformation depends on betraying her friends, who ran away to escape being turned Pretty. When Tally goes after them, her journey and the people she meets open her eyes to what being Pretty really means. (This series continues through Pretties, Specials, and Extras. I read Pretties, and enjoyed it, but did not feel compelled to continue after that.)

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly
Fans of historical fiction: stop whatever you’re doing, go find this book, and read it. Set in the Adirondacks in 1906, A Northern Light is 16-year-old Mattie Gokey’s story. Mattie’s mother is dead, and Mattie has shouldered her duties on the farm, including taking care of her younger siblings. Mattie dreams of being a writer, and has a teacher who believes in her and encourages her; but a future as a writer is incompatible with the deathbed promise she made to her mother. Will Mattie put her family first, or her own dreams? Her decision hinges on a bundle of letters that a visitor leaves in her care, with instructions to destroy them – but Mattie reads them, and it changes the course of her life. (Inspired by the same case that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.)

Best of 2011: Prequel

[Yes, most people were more timely with their “best of 2011” lists. Better late than never, right?]

I’m not as statistics-happy as some, but I realized recently that Goodreads keeps some stats for you, and puts them into pretty little bar charts and scatter-plots. I’ve been using Goodreads pretty religiously since I discovered it mid-2007, and here’s what it had to tell me:

That’s 139 books in 2008 (the first full year I kept track), 133 books in 2009, 115 in 2010, and 124 last year, in 2011; it’s an average of 9.5-11.6 books per month.

Here’s another cool thing Goodreads calculates for you: page count! In 2008, I read 45,921 pages, or about 3,827 pages per month; last year, I read a total of 37,469 pages, an average of 3,122 pages per month. (This is just books, not articles online or for classes.)

Finally, it creates a scatter plot of the publication dates of books you’ve read, with the pub date on the y-axis and the date you read the book on the x-axis. There’s a pretty dense cluster around the late ’90s and early 2000s, which makes sense as I read a lot of contemporary fiction, but there are some older books too, back as far as the early 1800s.

What statistics don’t tell you, of course, is anything about content. Which books did I love, which would I read again, which would I recommend? I’m glad you asked! I read a number of books I loved in 2011, and I’ll share those here soon. Meanwhile, here are some favorites from 2009 (I seem to have skipped a write-up for 2010): nonfiction, poetry, plays, and young adult fiction; short stories, classics, and “re-reads”; and fiction.


Rules for Writing Fiction

This two-part article from The Guardian (UK) isn’t new, but it’s worth another read even if you saw it when it was first published. Writers including Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Philip Pullman, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Enright, Hillary Mantel, Zadie Smith, and many more offer their personal rules for writing fiction. A few that are repeated throughout many lists include “take long walks,” “avoid adverbs,” and (seems obvious, but…) “write.” Many encourage habit and routine; many also admit it’s fine to break the rules sometimes. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, the lists are fascinating.

Read Part One

Read Part Two

Research and Publication

Two recent pieces in the New York Times – an article and an op-ed – address the issue of the publication of scientific research, and access to that research. The op-ed, “Research Bought, Then Paid For” by Michael Eisen, the founder of the non-profit, open-access Public Library of Science (PLoS), argues that research that was funded or subsidized by taxpayers ought to be available to those taxpayers free of charge. In a nutshell, “if taxpayers paid for it, they own it.” Eisen encourages scientists to publish their work in open-access journals instead of journals like Science, Nature, and Cell, which charge steep subscription fees – often to the same universities whose researchers submitted the papers and provided peer-review services for free.

The January 16 article “Cracking Open the Scientific Process” explains the issue in a slightly more balanced way (and reveals that some open-access journals, PLoS included, charge authors publication fees to authors). However, though of course the issue is more complicated than it appears at first glance, Eisen has a point about the principle of the thing: publicly funded research should be available to the public. Additionally, as the Jan. 16 article illustrates, many sites allow and encourage collaboration and networking, enhancing the scientific community and helping solve research questions more quickly.

I am reminded of the TED Talk on Open-source cancer research, wherein researcher Jay Bradner published and shared research instead of patenting it – the opposite, he pointed out, of what a pharmaceutical company would do – based on the principles of open-source and crowdsourcing.

A January 20 article in The Atlantic (“Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR imprisons academic research”) also addresses the issue of the “broken economics of academic publishing.” The author summarizes, “Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. The public – which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system – has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs.” She suggests circumventing the publishers, eliminating the print journal, and putting the content online.

Whether or not that’s the solution that enough people, organizations, and institutions eventually coalesce around, it’s clear that something must be done about the current state of academic research and publication – and it will probably happen sooner rather than later.

Edited to add (2/4/12): Some researchers, inspired by open-access champion Peter Suber and British mathematician and Fields medalist Tim Gowers, are boycotting the journal publisher Elsevier.