Book Review: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King by Lev Grossman
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
Viking, 2011
Cover art: “La Grotte (The Grotto),” 2003 © Didier Massard

The Magician King by Lev Grossman is as good as I wanted the first book in this series to be.

The big flaw with The Magicians was that toying with the genre sometimes overshadowed telling the story. That’s not the case with this second book. The parameters of Mr. Grossman’s magical world are already defined and the genre gimmicks are already established. There’s no need to rehash them and so he doesn’t.

Which means that The Magician King can focus on simply telling a good story. The storytelling in this novel is more cohesive and coherent than its predecessor, and as a result it’s much more powerful and effective.

The Magician King has the substance that the premise of the first book promised but mostly failed to deliver.

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The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions

People love to ask the question, “Why go to the library when you can just Google everything?” In answer, we tend to fall back on some version of Neil Gaiman’s famous quote:

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

We talk about the authority of librarians, our ability to sift through the vast oceans of data with a far better eye toward quality than any search engine can match. We talk about the personalization of the interaction—librarians can recognize not just the right answer, but the answer that’s right for you.

Often, people don’t know how to ask their question. Google is stuck with whatever you enter—if you ask your question the wrong way then you only get results that aren’t what you need, and you’re left to your own devices to try and figure out what went wrong. A librarian can figure out what you really meant and guide your search, to bring you information that’s actually useful in a much more intuitive and rewarding way.

I agree with all of the above. Librarians can serve people’s information needs in ways that Google, or any other online search engine, simply can’t.

Which is why it especially pains me every time I have a bad reference interaction.

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Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Viking, 2009
Cover art: “Arbre en Automne (Autumn Tree),” 2001 © Didier Massard

Honestly, I had hoped to like The Magicians by Lev Grossman more than I do. I like it a lot and I greatly enjoyed reading it. But I’d heard so many wonderful things from people who adore this book (and the trilogy) that I expected to be blown away by it.

I wasn’t.

I really like Mr. Grossman’s take on the “young magician” fantasy trope. I appreciate that he makes it much darker, a whole lot messier, and that he recasts this genre through the lens of cynical realism. It’s very effective. His riffs on Harry Potter and his criticisms of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series are delightful and on point.

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Education in America: An Expanded Argument

I keep thinking about my latest posts on education and the need I see for a three-legged balance between STEM, liberal arts, and vocational training. It occurs to me that this is incomplete. There needs to be a fourth leg:

Arts education.

Music, visual arts, performing arts—these are different from liberal arts (philosophy, history, literature study, rhetoric, etc.), just as liberal arts are different from STEM. But just like liberal arts and STEM, arts education also seeks to develop critical thinking skills, along its own lines and according to its own standards.

When I critiqued the STEAM concept, I did so in terms of liberal arts but that’s incorrect. The “A” in STEAM stands for “Arts”—as in arts education, not liberal.

I think my critique still stands: integrating arts education with STEM is a mistake. I believe that conflating them makes it virtually impossible to avoid subordinating the arts aspect to the STEM aspect. They’re both best served when they’re allowed to stand on their own.

A four-legged educational system: STEM—Liberal arts—Arts—Vocational training.

That should be our goal.

The Relevance of Libraries

On April 10, 2015, KCUR’s “Up to Date” program interviewed Prof. John Palfrey about the future of libraries in the Digital Age, the day after he gave a talk on the subject at the Kansas City Public Library. During the interview, KCUR tweeted a question meant to provoke discussion about the future of libraries:

Prof. Palfrey offers an optimistic and robust vision for the future of libraries, but even he frames the discussion in a way that implicitly fuels the fire for those who question their relevance.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the data and I have to say—I can’t understand how the relevance of libraries has come into question in the first place. It bothers me that we’ve allowed this question to define the discussion about their future. I can’t think of any other public or civic institution or service that can boast the kind of numbers that libraries do. I tweet-stormed some of the most powerful:

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The Role of Fiction in the Democratic Process

I talk a lot about the democratic mission of public libraries. I believe in it deeply.

However, if we believe that the core purpose of a library is to promote a well-informed democracy, it leads to an essential—and rather uncomfortable—question:

Why do we spend so much time and money maintaining popular entertainment collections if our duty is to provide materials that support our patrons’ involvement in our processes of governance?

What exactly does a library’s popular fiction collection have to do with promoting informed democratic elections? How does easy access to movies and TV shows serve to educate voters? *

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Good News – Gov. Nixon Agrees to Release Library Funds

Gov. Nixon’s office posted this press release this morning:

Following revenue increase, $43 million now available for priorities, Gov. Nixon announces (posted on April 3, 2015)

The now-available fund include $6 million of the funds he was withholding from libraries throughout the state.

Now to await the outcome of the Senate Appropriations Committee meeting for next year’s budget…