Previous month:
November 2007
Next month:
January 2008

"Merry Christmas"

While the thought of Mike Huckabee as president of the United States horrifies me, I tend to side with him on this "merry christmas" thing.  Not that I'm interested in emphasizing it as a religious holiday -- I just don't think there's anything wrong with acknowledging the fact that it comes out of the Christian tradition which is a significant part of our cultural heritage.  One can acknowledge the facts of history without making the leap to proclaiming that this means that we are "a Christian nation."

I was interested to hear a story on NPR in the last day or two about a move in the UK on the part of some government minister to encourage schools to have Christmas programs and Christmas displays.   The move is being opposed, of course, by some who are concerned about offending Muslim sensibilities, but it is being supported by some Islamic leaders who are concerned that the move to ban such things, presumably on behalf of those tender Muslim sensibilities, creates a backlash effect by implying that the newer british are trying to eliminate all vestiges of the older traditions that so many hold dear.

Despite what some evangelicals worry about, you can celebrate Hallowe'en without declaring yourself a devotee of Wicca, and you can take a loved one out for dinner on Valentine's day without invoking the spirit of some early Christian martyr.  It becomes tedious to point out that the roots of the Christmas holiday are many and various and have as many pagan antecedents as Christian.   Or to try to remind people that what we think of as the trappings of the "traditional" Christmas celebration are barely a century and a quarter old.  When people bemoan (at every holiday) that it's not celebrated "the way it used to be" it only means that it's not celebrated the way that it was when they were children -- but when they were children it was not celebrated the way that it was when their parents were children either.  Traditions evolve endlessly.  Nothing is static.

In the early 21st century we are still struggling with the notion of what it means to have a true multicultural society.  When Barbara Martinez-Jitner came to speak a couple of months ago, we had a dinner discussion with a group of students from the lecture series committee.  I suggested that part of the challenge that we, as a nation, face is working through what actually binds us as a nation.  The American experiment is unique in that it was the first attempt to build a nation on an idea, rather than on ethnicity.  It remains an open question as to whether or not such a thing can actually work.  Much of the hostility over immigration (legal or illegal) comes from those who identify the nation with a set of particular traditions and histories which are rooted in particular ethnicities.  But the idea of the United States, the idea of freedom and tolerance and openness clashes with the notion that to "be an American" you must embrace and accept certain traditions and ways of being that are part of the cultural history of what have been the dominant ethnicities.   The principles on which the country was founded can be as vibrantly expressed in Spanish as in English.

The tribal impulse among people is strong.   Whether a devotion to the ideas in the Declaration and the Constitution will be stronger in the long run remains the central challenge that we face.

Those who insist that we must completely secularize the holiday to the point of not even saying the word "Christmas" are as much a threat to the triumph of democracy as those who are determined that the only acceptable way to celebrate the holiday is as a religious festival.   Tolerance and acceptance are more complicated than that.

Whatever path we choose, some sensibilities will be offended.  But if we are true to the idea of America, then our goal needs to be not to attempt to eliminate everything that might offend somebody somewhere sometime, but to grow as a nation and as individuals to be able to embrace and accept all of those differences without feeling that our own individual slant on it all is threatened.

It's a tall order.  I still don't know if we can do it.  In this particularly hysterical political season I'm not as hopeful as I would like to be.  But, Don Quixote that I am, it still seems to me to be well worth trying.


It's Not About Food

In How To Cook A Wolf, MFK Fisher says that she'll be happy to be invited over to your house for dinner "so long as you are self-possessed..., your mind is your own and your heart is another's and therefore in the right place."

It's the kind of perfectly balanced, tart and quick line that shows up on at least every page of every one of her books.  I was telling someone at the Booksmith awhile back, when I picked up another couple of volumes, that although I had been aware of Fisher for years, it was only in the last year or so that I'd started to read her myself, and I was irritated and impatient at discovering what I had missed. 

"It's a great shame," I said,  "that's she's characterized as a food writer, because that's likely to put off some people from reading her.  Food is her central metaphor, but what she writes about is love and relationships and the struggle to be that very self-possessed person that is her ideal.  And she does it with some of the most glistening prose that an American writer ever put to paper."

The version of How To Cook A Wolf that I just finished is the revised edition and one of its particular delights is that Fisher extensively annotated the original volume (published in 1942) nine years later, and those glosses are interpolated throughout the text.  She expands sections, chastises herself for earlier foolishnesses, changes her mind and quarrels with herself, goes off on tangents.  It's great fun.  She is a remarkably unselfconscious writer. 

I've no idea how hard making the craft work was for her or how much revision she ended up doing, but the effect is certainly of someone tossing off brilliant sentence after brilliant sentence as if they've just come into her head.  She never panders to her audience.  Indeed, you get the impression that she doesn't give a damn if anybody reads the stuff at all.  Her first audience is herself, and if she can please that tremendously demanding one, then it's fine if anybody else wants to read along...  or not.

I'm happy to say that her reprint publisher (North Point Press) seems to get it.  The bio blurb on the back cover says, simply, "MFK Fisher (1908-1992) is the author of numerous books of essays and reminiscences, many of which have become American classics."

The blurb that most impressed me, however, is on the back of The Gastronomical Me.  "I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose."  The author of that line is W.H. Auden -- who knew a thing or two about how to put down words, one after another, without wasting anything.

I suppose that part of the reason I take such delight in a writer like Fisher is that we are surrounded by so much flabby prose.  Blogs, by their very nature, are generally terrible, of course -- they're intended to convey ideas quickly and few bloggers pay much attention to the construction and balance of their sentences (at least I hope that's the case, given the results).  But most published prose suffers from the general decline in good editing.  Along with everything else in our hyperculture, writers write too fast, too eager to get their ideas expressed, than to be bothered with making the prose as tough and sharp as it ought to be.

When I was teaching my intellectual property on the internet seminar some years ago, I would bring to one of the first classes a replica of Thomas Jefferson's favorite pen -- a slender silver tube with a large nib.  I'd send it around the table with a bottle of ink so that each of the students could try it.  I'd hold up the Library of America volume of his collected letters and remind them, "And he wrote all of this -- and so much more -- with that kind of technology."  It would have required taking much more time thinking about each sentence before committing it to paper, given the work involved in revising.

My own blog posts are primarily experiments in sentence construction.   The game has rules.  Thirty minutes (more or less) for the initial draft, and then another thirty or so to cut and shift and push and listen.  Alas, there's not a one that doesn't suffer from the same faults that I complain about in other's.  But every once in awhile, I come up with a sentence or paragraph that marginally pleases me.  That's enough to keep me going after it.

Pushing Back at Cognitive Overload

The best session at the recent Wiley-Blackwell executive seminar was not the panel on institutional repositories that I shared with Ann Okerson and Ellen Finnie Duranceau.    Oh, I think we did a fine job, and I was pleased at how we reinforced each other's messages while still presenting our own individual slants on the topic.  I think it was good for the assembled publishers to hear, from three librarians, that while IRs are definitely playing a role in the transformation of the scholarly publishing landscape, there is no evidence that they present some sort of open access panacea and challenge to traditional journals.  (This is not to say that traditional journals aren't at great risk, just that IRs are not the silver bullet that's going to do them in).

All of the presentations were good, but the one that made the biggest impact on me was David M. Levy's talk on Information Overload.    He presented a brief historical tour of the information overload problem, going back to Vannevar Bush's seminal 1945 article.  Levy suggests that what we've witnessed since then are several peaks of information overload, each accompanied by technological solutions that promised to provide us with a greater ability to manage that overload, but which inevitably ended up exacerbating it.  And he thinks that we're at that point again, as we suffer under the vast weight of email (which we allow to interrupt us continuously, as if the most important thing at any moment is the random email message that has just landed in our inbox), and the overwhelming variety of information sources that flow over us continuously.

What we have lost in all of this is time for contemplation, time to think.  And he believes that turning to technology to provide us a solution is the wrong strategy.  We need to correct the balance by changing the way that we do things and the way that we respond to the world around us.  To the assembled publishers he said we need to publish less -- which requires changing the academic reward structure to privilege quality over quantity. 

We were talking a bit between sessions and I mentioned the importance to me of my own morning routine -- the hour or so that I take at the start of every day to write, which is my way of having some protected time to think, to let my thoughts roam.  When the travel schedule or work pressures deny me that time, I feel it in the added stress of the day.

Coincidentally, as I was flying home from DC, I was finishing Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel.  In the penultimate chapter, de Botton invokes Ruskin and his years spent as a drawing teacher.  Ruskin taught drawing not because he hoped to turn every student into a master draftsman, but because he believed that drawing helped one to see and to find the beauty that is inherent in all things.  It requires patience, it requires one to slow down, it requires one to really look into things and not just past them.  It seemed to me that de Botton's message and Levy's were addressing the same need.

It's been a particularly hectic and intense fall, so it's a message that I need to hear.  Levy's got a couple of recent articles on the topic that I want to look up -- and read slowly.  Things are winding down at the library -- I've got a few meetings this week, but nothing too pressing.  And then I'm taking two weeks off.  And I'm not making any plans.

Magic Kingdom

About four in the afternoon, Josie drifted off to sleep in her stroller as we walked from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland.   We'd started that day (our 2nd) early, arriving at the Magic Kingdom a little before 9:00 for our breakfast with the princesses in Cinderella's castle.  We'd been anticipating that there'd be some kind of a meltdown at some point, Josie feeling overwhelmed with it all, but that hadn't happened.  We'd been at the park until 10:00 the previous evening and throughout it all, she'd been happy and at ease and delighted with everything that she saw.  By now she had her little autograph book nearly filled, and she still didn't know anything about the lunch we'd be having with the Little Einsteins the next day.

I found a bench in the Tomorrowland plaza and took out my journal to write for a bit and keep an eye on Josie while Lynn & Marian went off to ride Space Mountain.  It's a little ironic that of all of the lands in Magic Kingdom, it's Tomorrowland that looks most dated -- such a quaint and optimistic vision of what the world would be like now, seen through the rosy glasses of someone fascinated with the potential of technology back in the fifties.  Lynn and I were particularly amused at the news robot -- up to the minute news, printed out while you wait.  But it's that veneer of foolish optimism that I love about Disneyworld -- as long as we can imagine such things, perhaps all is not lost.

Josie's good spirits would continue through the rest of the trip.  That afternoon, she slept about ninety minutes and then was ready to go again.  We had tickets for Mickey's special Christmas party, so we didn't leave the park until midnight.  The only thing that gave her trouble on the entire trip was the fireworks -- she does NOT like fireworks.  It's the noise.  She seems to have sensitive hearing to begin with (I noticed her covering her ears during the Christmas parade when some of the loudest floats came by, and she seemed to be the only small kid doing that).    She's been through fireworks a few times and knows what they're about, so I don't think it actually frightens her as much as it hurts her.  Her message to Mommy is, "Make it stop or get me outta here!!"  But she did tell me, later on, "When I'm big, I'll listen to fireworks okay."

She showed none of the shyness that small children sometimes do around the costumed characters, and she knew all of their names.  She'd stand in line patiently, her autograph book under her arm, opened to a blank page, her pen clutched in her hand, and when it was her turn she'd trot up, hand them to the character, and then give them a big hug and pose for the pictures.  (When Lynn & Marian downloaded the shots from their cameras, there were a total of 317.  Lynn says she's whittled them down to about 250).

Of the princesses, it is clear that Snow White is her favorite.  At breakfast, when they made their rounds of the tables, she was happy to see them all, but not the least intimidated.  But when Snow White came up, she was awed.  She had a similar reaction when she saw Woody (from Toy Story) that night.  She came walking back to me after getting her autograph and hug and the look on her face was bliss -- as if she was a thirteen year old who'd just been kissed by her favorite popstar.

The carousel, the teacups (which she called "coffee!" of course), Buzz Lightyear, the Transit Authority, and the Peter Pan flying boats seemed to be her favorite rides, although she was quite proud of herself at the end of Haunted Mansion.  Her mom had been prepping her for dealing with the witches and ghosts for weeks (since Hallowe'en).   "What do you do when you see a ghost?" Marian would say, swaying and making a whoo-whoo sound.  "Roarrrr!" Josie would say, going into her tiger crouch.  She rode with me through Haunted Mansion, doing a lot of roaring as we went through the graveyard, and hopped out of the gondola at the end jumping up and down and crowing, "I did it!  I did it!"

She's two months shy of three years old which might be a little young for Disney.  But she's very verbal, and by last spring, she knew all the character names and Marian thought she might be able to manage a short trip.  It was tremendous fun for all of us.  We're already talking about next time.

Virtual Sunshine

KGS has some comments and recommendations for encouraging virtual participation in ALA committees that the MLA Taskforce on Social Networking Software should pay heed to.  She points out that

online committee work is potentially far more open than a meeting that requires all the hurdles of face-to-face participation. But it’s not open if you don’t know about it. Time, place, manner: these are the facts our members are entitled to.

But it would be easy to solve this, she goes on:

Give each committee a wiki page, tell them to advise members how to follow their discussions and to announce incipient actions, advise ALA members to subscribe to the feeds, and we’re done. Take note of the ten-day notice for final votes; it’s fair and reasonable.

I would add just one thing -- it needs to be made explicit, then, to the committee chairs and members that business is not to be conducted except via the wiki, or at the regular, open, announced F2F meetings. 

As soon as I read FRL's post, I was thinking about how our local newspaper is continually haranguing the local city councils for violating the state's sunshine laws.   Too many of the legislators don't seem to understand that once a few of you get together and start making decisions, you're having a meeting.  Having a wiki for doing committee business is fine, but only if the committee members understand that you have to use it, and that making decisions and then using the wiki just to document what's already been decided isn't sufficient.

I've never been active in ALA (although I've been a member for over a decade), but I've been active in enough other organizations to know that people need more guidance than they typically get in how to be effective committee members and leaders.  (That's why we have Robert's Rules of Order -- gnarly as they can be, it's an objective reference that we can rely on to figure out how to do decision-making).  One of the ongoing topics at MLA Board of Directors meetings is how to provide better guidance and training for committee & section leaders in the ways of the organization.

It's not a trivial issue and you can't count on people -- even people with the best will in the world -- to naturally gravitate towards using these tools in the most open of ways.  KGS is quite right that the online venues can be double-edged -- they have the potential to create much more openness, but they can also, paradoxically it would seem, serve to make it easier to make the actual decision-making opaque.   Giving the committees a wiki isn't quite enough -- chairs need some explicit guidance in how to use them well.

And it makes me wonder -- what about those conference calls that we're fond of having in order to keep the work moving forward in between meetings?