Reader's Exchange

January 2013 - Posts

Try our 2 percent solution

Could have been the caffeine:  twenty ounces of home-brewed latte consumed in a brief commute produces an adequate jolt.  But I suspect that NPR's "2 percent" story (thank you, Neda Ulaby) was the real morning brightener.Audience laughter

Pop culture blogger Linda Holmes cited "an axiom of television comedy writing", the expectation that certain jokes and references will likely be understood by about 2 percent of the audience.  Terms like "dislocation", "fragmentation", and "polarization" abound in similar discussions of contemporary American culture.

Nice to know that I'm not alone in sometimes missing references to the latest reality show phenom, YouTube record-breaker, or music industry sensation du jour.  So long as I don't expect everyone else to fret about the trajectory of e-book vs. print circulation forecasts or discuss relative merits of Emilio's and Anthony Ryan's runway collections, I should get a pass for not tracking the saga of Manti Te'o's girlfriend, right?

In a world of proliferating sensations, social channels, and apps (have you tried the Chihuly digital glass-blowing one?), we run the risk of limiting personal growth by spending too much time--especially online--ensconced with others sharing the same priorities and skill set.

Granted, once you venture beyond your comfort zone, you face a daunting array of opportunities competing for your time and loyalty. To address the learning curve for cultural literacy, you need a staff of assistants to monitor all those fronts for you--or at least a toolkit of go-to resources.

Here at the library, we have a nifty, instantly accessible solution to this very problem: library staff.

I find that American Dialect Society's Words of the Year offers an insightful rundown of recent invention in language usage that also encapsulates significant trends.  But of course that (along with Atlantic Wire's Books We Loved in 2012) is squarely in my English-major bailiwick.

To diversify my informational portfolio, I rely on co-workers like fellow reference staffers Geeta and Chris.  Their recommendations: tech sector sites Ars Technica and Engadget and social news sites Reddit and Alternet(Reddit's alien icon perfectly captures that "stranger in a strange land" feeling that most of us experience with increasing frequency.)

Add to that expertise my daughter's favorite daily update: AppsGoneFree, the app that alerts you which apps can be downloaded for free that day.

And you can still count on live, in-person advice on what to read at the Reference Desk.  Titles on my mind this morning include not shiny-new bestsellers but books read last year and still recalled fondly this year:  Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles, William Landay's Defending Jacob, Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist, Lance Weller's Wilderness.

Finally, no mention of popular culture is complete without a nod to Angry Birds, Honey Boo Boo, or the Dos Equis guy. I don't always reference commercials, but when I do, I plug my favorites.

Do you really want to be timeless?
Topic for the day:  Time Travel.  It’s due to Round Rock Antique Mall and the vintage necklace I bought there.  A 1950’s European accessory in an unusual color, it features beads cleverly made of Lucite; they look like glass but weigh almost nothing.

Admiring it, colleague Carolyn discerned its most salient attribute.  She observed that antiques markets and their wares “take you back in time.”  Who doesn’t occasionally speculate how your particular personality or capabilities might have fared in another epoch?

Like the Arts & Crafts table or 1880s trunk in my house, stories imagined in different periods offer the best of both worlds:  connecting to an adventurous past or even future with one foot planted in the age of central heating and Skype.   We aren’t the first culture to appreciate the empowering aura bestowed by artifacts or experiences from an alternate lifetime.

Time spiralI’m not particularly drawn to science fiction, but, like so many others, I still crave time travel accounts.  Authors who first come to mind—H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Eric Flint, Harry Turtledove—don’t have a lock on that theme, and neither does the science fiction genre.

Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol features time travel.  Romance fans have flocked to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the first two volumes of Deborah Harkness’ All Souls trilogy.   (I wish their publishers would discover a production-enhancing time warp and get the books out faster.)  Beatriz Williams’ recent Overseas would also appeal to this audience.

Scanning the internet, you’ll see certain titles earning frequent mentions:  Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand; Selden Edward’s The Little Book  and The Lost Prince; Jack Finney’s Time and Again and From Time to Time; Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth  and Sepulchre; Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog; H.G. Wells’ The Chronic Argonauts (published before The Time Machine); Michael Crichton’s Timeline;  Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five.

Those who’ve enjoyed modern film/TV hits like Doctor Who, Groundhog Day, or Field of Dreams (from W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe) should check out Eight Best Time-Travel Flicks  for a more intense focus on that element.  Public libraries—Hennepin County; Douglas County; Multnomah County—suggest some wonderful reads in the perfect quantity:  more than a couple, fewer than Goodreads.

In Round Rock Public Library’s catalog, you can input “time travel fiction” for Subject and select “Books”, “Video—DVD”, etc.  for Type of Material to discover many titles, including new ones like Katie MacAlister’s aptly title Steamed: A Steampunk Romance and Jason Heller’s Taft 2012.  Some excellent titles might not strictly qualify as time travel but come close with “split stories” paralleling two eras:  I heartily recommend Amy Sackville’s The Still Point and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

I wonder if H.G. Wells would approve of my latest time-bending maneuver:  DVR’ing Downton Abbey, then re-viewing to see if, this round, Sir Anthony would behave differently and not break Edith’s heart (and mine).

Moonlight in old Austin

Moonlight tower sketchResolution someone should make for 2013:  solve the question of acceptable vs. inconsiderate digital multitasking.

Before the term came into being, we felt virtuous when accomplishing things simultaneously.  Haven't we heard the stories about pioneer women sitting fireside, stirring the soup with one hand and quilting with the other--and rocking the baby's cradle with one foot?  The other foot was presumably also doing something worthy--perhaps treadling the spinning wheel while someone else spun, sewed, and shelled peas.

More options exist for offending others now.  More of an Appliance Multitasker than a Gadget Multitasker, I'll start up breadmaker, washer, and dryer and head out for some gardening while listening to a Playaway book.  But the minute I witness someone popping out a cell phone and texting during a live conversation, I become The Judgmental Multitasker.  It's easy to scroll for information and disapprove at the same time.

However, multitasking books (and/or books that prompt the reader to do so) deserve gold stars--unless the reader was hoping for a restful, non-stimulating literary interlude...

Consider Steven Saylor's A Twist at the End, the choice for a January book group.  It blends history, politics, true crime, mystery, and easily inferred social commentary.

Saylor's protagonist is William Sydney Porter AKA O. Henry, famed author of classic short stories ("The Last Leaf", "The Gift of the Magi", etc.).  Prior to achieving literary fame, sometime Austin resident Porter was a ranch hand, pharmacist, quartet singer,  illustrator and cartoonist, editor of The Rolling Stone weekly, bank teller--and convicted embezzler.   (Trivia buffs take note: he's also credited with coining the term "banana republic").  Set in 1885 Austin, A Twist centers on the sensational Servant Girl Annihilator murders, still unsolved and credited to America's first serial killer.  Sculptor Elisabet Ney, numerous colorful figures from the Texas legislature and the then-new Capitol building's "Goddess of Liberty" statue also figure in.

Be warned.  You'll be torn between turning pages and pausing to seek more historical background.  I found the framed 1895 panoramic map of Austin in my living room to be both a benefit and a distraction.  I kept trotting over to pinpoint whichever intersection or location had just been mentioned.  And, with the internet and Handbook of Texas Online so handy, why not treat myself to more details about moonlight towers, the Texas Capitol, and so forth?

You can order your own historic maps from the General Land Office (where O. Henry was employed for a time).

Note (pg. 221) the reference to Richard Harding Davis as certain to be widely read "a century from now, in 2006".  Davis, premier correspondent of the Spanish American War, writer of fiction and Broadway plays, magazine editor, and literary influence for Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway (among others) was so dashingly handsome as to have inspired the image of the Gibson Girl's escort.  His clean-shaven look influenced a generation of men to forego formerly stylish facial hair.  He's even alleged to have brought the first avocado back to the States. 

Had texting-while-chatting been an option back then, he'd have made it look charming.