Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Giving Thanks For...

When economic woes are increasing and worrisome, it may seem hard to find things that we are thankful for. But much like Pollyanna, I like to find the good in everything. And so this year I am thankful to my Mom. She passed along her love of books to me and I am reminded of her every time I pick up a mystery. I am thankful for excellent friends, a supportive boyfriend, and fun co-workers. Potbelly's because they make delicious sandwiches and cookies. Our library's Teen Advisory Board because they are awesome. Squirrels just because. 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother because they are the funniest shows on television.

And books! I'm thankful for The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, everything Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, the Wayside School books by Louis Sachar. One of the most amazing things about the library is I get access to all of these books by just having my library card. So even though money may be tight, books are free (as long as I return them on time).

Bob Blanchard wrote a post a couple of weeks ago asking what books have made a difference in your life. While giving thanks for particular books sounds similar, it is completely different. The books I am thankful for have not changed me or made me a better person. They are simply there for me when I need them. I know each time I pick them up I will be as thoroughly entertained and enchanted as I was the first time I read them. What in your life or on your bookshelf are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Skim or Whole?

Surprise! This is about reading, not milk preferences but the analogy generally works. Skimming for main thoughts and just getting the gist of material is similar to the no fat milk product - just the basic nutrients with none of the richness. Without consciously trying to diet, I have found myself a consummate skimmer.

I’m not proud of this, but I noticed this trait a few years ago. It doesn't matter if it's a book, a magazine, or an article on the Internet. Engaging in the material completely, wholly takes special effort. I brought up this weakness in conversation with a fellow baby boomer and he agreed. He just assumed his lack of concentration was due to his age and aging. Younger than him, I have flatly dismissed this excuse. I think it is something else. Perhaps, it is the quantity of items available to digest, to read, to engage, and the desire to absorb as much as possible and stay current. That’s what I’ve been blaming.

While skimming the Chicago Tribune one day, I caught an article by Leonard Pitts. He had the same lament. He wasn't reading deeply. Turns out there have been studies of this phenomenon in academic circles and the Internet is to blame, not aging brains or the multitude of words in print. The design of the Internet with its hyperlinks, search engines, pop-ups, and advertising is having an affect on how we read. Pitts references author Nicholas Carr, and his article for the Atlantic monthly, Is Google Making Us Stupid? Ironically, this is a complex article, to be read wholly, that discusses how the Internet not only provides information but shapes the process of thought. He adds interesting examples of how older technologies like the clock and the typewriter have also influenced cognitive function. I can't recount everything Nicholas Carr wrote but generally, he's afraid that if we lose deep reading, we may lose deep thinking.

Here's what I'm skimming at the moment.

National Book Foundation

A Case of Exploding Mangoes

The Witches of Eastwick


The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google

Monday, November 17, 2008

David McCullough: thanks for the history lesson

It's a good time to be a sponge.

On November 4, one of my U.S. senators, Barack Obama, blazed a trail into history. This biracial man -- part black, part white -- will be our 44th president as a result of his solid victory over GOP candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona. For Obama -- and our country -- this was no less than a monumental achievement. I am proud to bear witness. I am grateful to be an American living at a time when I can take all of this in, to absorb the historical significance to its utmost.

The Sunday before the presidential election, writer/historian David McCullough addressed a filled-to-the-brim house at symphony center in Chicago. McCullough was in town as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, to accept the 2008 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement.

McCullough spoke of Obama in an admiring, respectful tone, predicting the junior U.S. senator from Illinois would win in a landslide. "Oh, no," I thought, "Don't say that. You'll jinx him." I don't know that the final tally, in terms of both the Electoral College and the popular vote, could really be termed a landslide. However, the Obama victory margin was substantial, and the win, indeed, big -- in ever so many ways.

It was my first opportunity to hear McCullough in person. White-haired, tall and articulate, he was a towering presence. I also was surprised and impressed that he chose to forego the lectern, standing to face the audience from the stage. I was looking for inspiration, and McCullough delivered.

If, as McCullough said, history is a study of human nature, then he has been a more-than-apt pupil.

Even if you have never liked (or given much thought to) history, hearing David McCullough will convert you. I'd almost bet money on it. It strikes me that for McCullough, reading, writing, teaching, history, U.S. presidents -- and more -- must be inextricably linked. His excitement about history, about America, was infectious. His delivery was eloquent and thoughtful. Without a doubt, McCullough commands a vast range with respect to our nation's historical and literary landscape.

Noting, "We tend to characterize our presidents," McCullough imparted an array of fascinating tidbits (or, what some people may call factoids). For example, did you know:

-- President John Adams's first job was as a teacher
-- John Adams and his wife Abigail alone exchanged more than a thousand letters
-- John Adams read Cervantes over and over again
-- President Harry Truman read Latin for pleasure

These are but a small portion of the incredible fount of knowledge that is David McCullough.

If adults want youngsters to appreciate history, they must talk to children about it, take them to historic places, "Show them how much it means to you," McCullough advised. He also called for greater appreciation of the members of the teaching profession, not only in terms of pay, but of recognition. Parents should be talking to the instructors of their children, and not just at parent-teacher conferences. "We should be asking (teachers), 'What can we do to help you?'" Additionally, he advocated better training of our country's educators. "There is no more important group in society than our teachers."

McCullough covered a massive amount of ground. Unfortunately, I don't have the time or space here to present it all. Hopefully I have whetted your appetite to read one or more of his books, or to look up a bit of history. We don't all have the insight of a David McCullough. However, we don't have to. We can start to value history from wherever we are, right now.

In the space of a week, I had the opportunity to observe two remarkable Americans, one in person, and one on television. We can learn much from published authors David McCullough and Barack Obama.

I intend to be a human sponge for quite a while.

Posted by Gwen LaCosse

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Music Goes Into Your Ears

Remember the word "album"? In today's age of downloadable music, the album as an entity unto itself has become somewhat under-appreciated. I feel that while a single song by itself may be a smash hit, its lasting effect is often less than that of a great album. A certain Chicago radio station uses the following phrase as their slogan, "the soundtrack of our lives". My own soundtrack is not measured so much in individual great songs, but more in terrific albums.

First and foremost is Achtung Baby by U2. I remember sitting in the open side door of the family van in the late spring of 1993, my hands clutching a boom box and my ears riveted to the amazing intro of the album's first song, "Zoo Station". The Edge was eliciting sounds from his guitar that I never imagined. When Bono's electronically distorted voice followed with the beginning of the first verse "I'm ready, ready for laughing gas / I'm ready, I'm ready for what's next", I embarked on a journey of exploration that has landed Achtung Baby at the center of my musical universe today. From the grinding buzz saw chords that shimmer from the Edge's guitar in "the Fly" to the melodious yet melancholy tones of "One", this album is a poster child for contrast, a microcosm of everyday life. It is full of hurt, discovery, betrayal, and hope, among other themes.

Another good friend of mine is Led Zeppelin's "IV (Zoso)" This album was a constant companion during the endless summer hours spent mowing grass and other maintenance tasks at the 55-acre camp I worked at during the turn of the 21st century. From the deliberate ferocity of "Black Dog", during which the weed trimmer I'd be holding became my air guitar, to ending many of my days at that camp sitting alone on the Pennsylvania mountainside as the velvety acoustic strummings of "Going to California" faded into the sunset, this record spoke to me. "When the Levee Breaks" sparked my fascination for the blues and Chicago itself, foreshadowing my later move to the Windy City area.

The third album I'll mention as having an impact on my life is indeed a blues album: The Big Come Up by the Black Keys, though they are not from Chicago but from Akron, Ohio. I purchased this album late last spring and experienced the heady combination of the thrill of discovering a new great-sounding band with the satisfaction of money well-spent. The songs on this album bring to mind a lollipop dropped in gravel: earthy guitars accompanied by gritty vocals. Despite this, however, or possibly because of this, the album is beautiful in its simplicity and honesty. Whenever I listen to this album, I think of my vacation to Key West that I undertook soon after I bought this CD, and that, my friends, is a good thing. Passionate, heartfelt blues and palm tree memories are a terrific combination, especially during a Chicagoland winter. Unfortunately, our library does not have this specific album yet, but check our catalog soon, it's on order! In the meantime, you can check on the Black Keys' latest record: Attack and Release.

So, you've learned a few of the albums that have helped write my story. Dear readers, which albums have been part of your life's soundtrack?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Books That Make A Difference

When I was in library school, my favorite teacher asked our class, “What’s the one book that has made the most impact on your life?” The book that immediately came to mind was The Bible. But, thinking that choice would not be cool to a group of graduate students, the seemingly safe lie that feebly came out of my mouth was “Tom Sawyer.”

Just about every person has a book that has touched them deeply and made a difference in their lives. People of all ages and from all walks of life have their favorites. For example, in 2007 the Los Angeles Daily News asked basically the same question to its young readers. It elicited some very well-thought-out answers, including this one from an 8-year-old who liked Holes by Louis Sachar: “The things that I learned from the book is to never give up and always keep going no matter what happens.” The entire article can be found at http://www.dailynews.com/family/ci_5748869.

The library, as you might guess, has books about books that made a difference. Two books with identical titles, The Book that Changed My Life, include interviews with celebrated contemporary authors. Another, Books that Shaped Successful People, includes a wide variety of people. It’s interesting that presidents Thomas Jefferson and James K. Polk listed books about gardening as their number one choice. Humorist Dave Barry includes books by famous cartoonists and, no surprise, humorists, plus “Various dirty books I discovered when I was 13.”

What books have made a difference in your life?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Walking in the Shoes of Others through Literature: The Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view--until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." That's Atticus Finch, talking to his young daughter, Scout, at the beginning of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

I love that quote. We live in a world in which people are quick to pass judgment on others, especially on people who are different. But through literature we can better understand others as well as ourselves: reading allows us to walk in the shoes of others and empathize with people whose lives and experiences differ greatly from our own.

For five years now, the Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year program has allowed readers to walk in the shoes of others including a teenager attempting to enter the United States illegally (Enrique’s Journey) and an Afghan boy who flees Afghanistan with his father in the 1970s but remains haunted by his friendship with the son of his father’s servant (The Kite Runner). Both books are past selections of the Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year program, a community reading program founded in 2004 to foster cultural understanding in the northwest suburbs through literature, book discussions and other programs. Like several other libraries and schools in the area, The Des Plaines Public Library is pleased to present several Suburban Mosaic programs, all of which occur in November, so there's still time to register!

Unlike other community reading programs, Suburban Mosaic selects five books, each at a different reading level, so community members of all ages can participate. The adult selection this year is Digging to America by Anne Tyler, which illuminates the experiences and friendship of two couples, one of which is Iranian-American. The library will host a discussion of Digging to America on Thursday, November 13th at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday, November 15th at 1 p.m. is a teen book discussion for 7th through 12th graders on American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. This graphic novel, a National Book Award finalist, presents three interrelated stories about the problems of young Chinese-Americans trying to participate in popular culture.

We're also excited to present the animated film Persepolis on Sunday, November 16th at 2 p.m., which will be followed by a discussion. Based on the Suburban Mosaic book selection of the same name, Persepolis is the story of a precocious and outspoken young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The film won a Jury Prize and was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Do you have a young person in your life between 3rd and 5th grade? Register him or her for Story Explorers on Thursday, November 13th at 4 p.m., which will include the Suburban Mosaic selection The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin. If your young person is between kindergarten and 2nd grade, register your young person for Stories and More on Thursday, November 20th at 4 p.m. Stories and More will include the Mosaic selection The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson.

You can register for any of these events at: http://calendar.dppl.org/evanced/lib/eventcalendar.asp

For more information about Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year, go to: http://www.suburbanmosaicbooks.org

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Thanks, Des Plaines, For Speaking Up

Thanks, Des Plaines, for speaking up.

A librarian can tie pretty much any event back to the library. Arbor Day? Check out our hundreds of books on gardening. Coldest winter on record? Try a steamy romance to melt the frost.

But this Election Day, I just want to thank the people of Des Plaines for speaking up. I’m glad I work in a community that cares deeply about a lot of issues; from immigration to parking, from TIFs to year-round school. And judging by the lines for early voting at City Hall, you care about this election.

Thanks for watching the debates (or The Daily Show), for visiting voterinfonet.com, for putting a sign in your yard, for taking the time to answer pollster questions. Thanks for standing in line for an hour or more to vote. While I’m at it, thanks for putting the little notes in the DVDs when they won’t play properly for you, thanks for pointing out the loose wall outlet, thanks for telling us you loved the Lincoln-Douglas display.

Thank you all, for making your voice heard.