I recently read the book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand. Rather than write a typical review of it, I want to share a letter that I sent the author.
(TL;DR version: This book is wonderful and every public librarian and public library user should read it. I think it’s important.)
Dear Dr. Wiegand,
I’d like to thank you for writing Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library. Before I proceed to explain why I want to thank you, I need to spend some time voicing a complaint about something you wrote in your introduction. Bear with me—the extent of my gratitude for your work won’t be clear without this context.
Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton is an essential challenge to the “virgin soil” thesis that has governed the standard historical narrative of the European colonization of the New World. Dr. Kelton argues that this narrative is too simplistic, and largely fails to comprehend or address the complexity of Native cultures during that period. Moreover, the “virgin soil” thesis is based entirely on the testaments left behind by European colonialists—who misunderstood Native actions and behaviors more often than not—and incorporates no significant input from Native Americans’ own historical knowledge.
Worse yet, the “virgin soil” thesis whitewashes the effects of the violence and oppression inherent in the colonization of the New World.
Dr. Kelton uses the Cherokee as an example of how the traditional narrative of colonization falls apart when asked to answer to the historical resources of a Native people. Moreover, he points out that even the reliable documentary evidence we have from the European colonists themselves doesn’t support the “virgin soil” thesis.
If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book will make you see things in a very different light. This is exactly what good history is supposed to do.
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t the most comprehensive biography of Lewis Carroll out there. That’s not the author’s intention. Rather, he seeks to explore the available material on Carroll and Alice Liddell—much of which has never been published—as well as their historical context, to trace these elements to the genesis, content, and legacy of Carroll’s most famous works.
This is the biography of a literary creation more than a biography of its author or his Muse.
The book is structured in three main chronological sections, beginning with Carroll’s childhood and ending with Alice Liddell’s death, along with a prologue and epilogue:
Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow is, as one would expect, an incisive and lively exploration of the issues surrounding copyright and enforcement in the Internet Age.
Dr. Doctorow is established as an outspoken critic of the various methods that media corporations use to try and enforce their interpretation of copyright laws on the Internet: digital locks, DRM efforts, automated “Notice and Takedown” practices, etc. He takes on each of these methods and explains clearly what they’re intended to accomplish, why they fail, and the damage they do to creative workers and Internet users in general.
I believe that Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari is one of the most important books currently on our shelves. I think most people are aware that the war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. What this book reveals about the origins and history of that war goes a long way towards explaining why.
Essentially, Mr. Hari argues that the approach we’ve taken to drugs for the past 100 years is worse than merely a failure—the war on drugs has been just about the worst possible approach we could have taken. It’s doing tremendous damage to our society. It’s the opposite of what we should be doing. Moreover, it’s a hugely hypocritical policy that ensconces deeply racist attitudes. He backs up these claims with numerous examples from the history of the drug war.
Far more important, however, is Mr. Hari’s exploration of alternatives. There are better options available to us to deal with the problem of drug use and the violence that accompanies drug culture. We already have compelling data to show that some of these alternative options actually work—options that are based on compassion, rather than vilification; healing, rather than criminalizing.
I love Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter more than I’ve loved any book in a long time.
I first became fascinated by cosmology in third grade (no kidding, in third grade I wrote an essay for school titled, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cosmologist.” You can ask my mom—she still has it.) While I didn’t dedicate my life to pursuing the subject the way that Ms. Gefter has, her delight and fascination with the theories of cosmology perfectly captures my own. I know the thrill of them the same way she does.
More than any other, this book reminds me why I love this field of study.
The central thesis of Everything Is Miscellaneous is one with which I completely agree: digital information environments allow us to organize, access, and interact with information in new and previously undreamt ways. It allows us to transcend the limitations of physical storage and communication media, to free information to be everywhere and anywhere all at the same time.
It allows information to be whatever we need, whenever we need it. There exists more potential now to add more value, not just to information itself, but to the ways we access and interact with it. Mr. Weinberger offers us a powerful and compelling vision for our digital information world.
These three quotes perfectly sum up what this book is about:
From p. 212:
The difference in the digital order is the difference between the annoying interactions you have on a product support line… and the conversations you have with real people. … The potential for connections from the trivial to the urgent is characteristic of the new miscellany. We are busily creating as many of these meaningful connections as we can.