Category Archives: library

an honest man and an honest writer

After my father died, I set myself the goal of reading all the books he’s sent me before this year ends. I started with this biography of E.B. White. I wanted so much to share my thoughts on the book with my father, so I did what I would have done if he were still alive: I wrote him a letter, which I am excited to share with you now.


Dear Dad,

I just finished The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims, which you sent me for my birthday or maybe Christmas (or perhaps no reason at all) last year or the year before that. I have the letter you sent with it in my filebox, I’m sure.  I began to read the book once, making it past the forward and into the first chapter, but I couldn’t overcome my love-hate relationship to nonfiction.  It wasn’t until we moved to Mount Vernon and I could imagine walking down to Summit Avenue past the corner where E.B. White’s boyhood home stood or perhaps still stands, that I felt compelled as if by some giant magnet to finish reading it.  I marked the cross-streets where the house once stood and, as soon as the weather warmed up, I looked for it. There weren’t really any remnants of the barn–just a garage that’s seen better days, but here is a photo of E.B. White’s childhood home as it is today:

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Boyhood home of E.B. White in Mount Vernon, NY

Sims’ style is breezy and rich like good travel writing—he clearly has tried to inhabit White and bring him back to life.  He is an unabashed fan and doesn’t hide behind the mask of professional distance, doesn’t force himself to be critical just for the sake of seeming “fair and balanced” or “provocative.” I imagine Elwyn Brooks White growing up in a Vincent Minelli version of Mount Vernon full of sledding hills in winter and lush lawns and carriages in summer.  There used to be a vaudeville theater on Gramatan Avenue!  Was it next to Maggie Spilane’s? Or on what’s now the “dodgy” end, past the roundabout with the fountain where rundown barbershop polls are frozen next to delis selling lotto tickets and greasy kabobs?  You’d think I would have seen a decayed facade… I did see Lincoln Elementary School, probably on the same grounds where Elwyn went to school in the 1910s—one hundred years ago!—but now as a sterilized 1970s brown brick building.

Equally engaging was Sims’ account of young Elwyn—redubbed Andy by his Cornell frat buddies after a beloved college founder, Andy White (no relation)— entering the literary world.  Andy’s first publications were poems and essays of a nature-writing variety sent to the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. In my History of Reading and Readers class at library school, one of my classmates researched the publication history of Saint Nicholas, the first American magazine for and by children. I felt a twinge of proud librarian expertise at the recognition of the name. (I did learn something at my fancy school.) Sims documents with a historian’s precision but a fan’s devotion the literary culture of New York in the 1920s, detailing the newspapers, satirical rags, and high literary magazines that populated the newsstands in Grand Central station during that golden age of American print. He imagines–apocryphally, but who cares?–Andy picking up the first issue of The New Yorker at the news kiosk next to Grand Central’s globe clock with early morning light streaming in from the high, rounded cathedral windows. Having seen the streaks of light across the marble floors, I could fill in rest: the wooden benches (all removed now to discourage the homeless) that once filled the hall, the train schedules (that still exist) flipping over with mechanical clacking like clockwork dominoes, the newsboys in caps and knickers, the ladies in cloche hats carrying portmanteaux or parasols.  And Andy, who was too skinny to be drafted in World War I, delighting in this cheeky new upstart magazine, The New Yorker, and deciding—to hell with his advertising job!—he would submit something.

Publishing seemed so open back then. Although there were more daily publications, there seemed to be freer reign. Perhaps fewer writers were available than today, since comparatively fewer people were highly educated or went to college?  Perhaps Sims was exercising a bit of biographical determinism by making Andy’s rise to a writing career seem simpler than it was. Or perhaps the 1920s and 1930s really were a scrappier time when an adolescent America was hungry for taste-makers and experimentation, and where print reigned supreme in the media kingdom, despite the oncoming storm of Talking Pictures? I was left feeling both invigorated, as a writer, by E.B. White’s origin story and a little despairing: “if only publishing were still that simple…”

The descriptions of New York bustle, which Sims recreates from historical research and copious close readings of Andy White’s regular “Comments” columns from years of New Yorkers, drew me further into his story.  Again, I saw yesterday’s New York waving behind today’s.  Yet Andy White himself regularly sought refuge from the city, eventually moving to a farm in Maine, near where he’d vacationed as a boy.  This farm and his childhood barn and love for animals of all kinds, particularly birds, cows, and dogs, spawned Charlotte’s Web.  That’s the contention of Michael Sims who quite convincingly uncovers references to animals—especially spiders—in Andy’s early writings dating to childhood and his New Yorker days.  It’s the animal-lover side of E.B. White that I identify with least.  As much as I can appreciate natural beauty when confronted with it and enjoy anthropomorphism in literature, I don’t feel the same connection with animals that lead E.B. White to spend a year researching the life and death of barn spiders.  Nor can I easily put aside my disgust and enmity for the mouse that seems to be living in our stove when I read about young Elwyn taming a mouse who used to visit his childhood bedroom in Mount Vernon, eventually inspiring Stuart Little. The brilliance of Charlotte’s Web and White’s writing is that he made Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton and farm life real for children all over the world.  Reading Charlotte’s Web at age 6 or 7, I did learn–at least morally– to respect and empathize with spiders and pigs.  Recently, my librarian friend Angie’s 9-year-old son explained to me that he has decided to be a vegetarian because of Wilbur.

As I wrote two years ago upon seeing the real toys that inspired Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library, the literature of childhood resonates with people in a visceral way that is hard to describe and analyze.  That makes Sims’ biography all the more impressive to me.  He captures the frenzy, excitement, and setbacks of the writing and editing process, and he includes reproductions of White’s manuscripts. As the chapters get closer to the publication and success of Charlotte’s Web, the reader experiences emotional reactions of recognition—“Aha, finally, this is the part I know!”—and revelation—“I didn’t know that! So that’s how it happened.”  When influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore panned Charlotte’s Web as she had panned Stuart Little, I felt professional shame on behalf of all librarians!

I finished the E.B. White biography alongside a visit to the Morgan Library’s exhibit of manuscripts and draft drawings from The Little Prince, which Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1942 as an expat in New York. I was struck by how similar both men were in their writing processes and beliefs about how to write for children, yet how different their personalities seemed to be.  Saint-Exupéry was a daredevil who felt restless in Manhattan and wrote the French military for special permission to reenlist as a pilot in North Africa.  Just as his novel was taking off, he disappeared during a solo recon mission over the Sahara dessert in 1944 at age 44. By contrast, E.B. White suffered from hay fever and sinus problems throughout his life and went through periods of chronic and possibly psychosomatic illnesses, yet he lived into his 80s and died at home in Maine in 1986.  Saint-Exupéry never fully mastered English but was part of the French expat community in New York, which eventually lead him to meet the wives of two American publishers, Reynal & Hitchcock, who ended up publishing Le Petit Prince, first in French then a few months later in English, here in New York.  It wasn’t until 1945 that the novel was reprinted and more widely distributed by a French publisher, Gallimard, in France. By then, Saint-Exupéry was already missing over the Sahara, leaving only his ID bracelet and some plane parts behind. This broken bracelet sat in a display box at the Morgan Library, making me wonder if Antoine had in fact evaporated like his Little Prince and traveled back to his home planet.

The two authors never met, although they could have, in theory. Surely E.B. White was summering in Maine in 1942-43 while Saint-Exupéry was busy sketching elephants inside boa constrictors in a rented house on Long Island.  Michael Sims’ biography mentions that E.B. White’s wife, Katherine Angell White, a long time fiction editor for The New Yorker, where they met, reviewed The Little Prince for the magazine. In her brief review of the novel, Katherine quoted their young son, Joe White, as saying somewhat critically that: “The author seems to be writing about grownup things in a childish way.”  In contrast, E.B. White seems to write about childhood in a grownup way. He peppers Charlotte’s Web with sly vocabulary lessons; Charlotte is always defining words for Wilbur including: aeronaut, humble, salutations, and her last name, taken from the genus and species of her type of barn spider: Charlotte Aranea Cavatica.

Yet, to me, there seem to be more stylistic similarities than differences between Charlotte’s Web and Le Petit Prince.  Neither book shies away from death or making larger points about life and morality; both are deeper than most children’s books appear. Both books were whittled down expertly, mostly by the author-as-editor, to their essence.  According to the Morgan Library exhibit, Sainte-Expuéry’s first manuscripts were nearly double the word count of his final draft.  White struck out entire passages and scenes, reworking Charlotte’s Web for a couple years before sharing it with his editor.

Perhaps the difference lies in the space between the sentences.  The simplicity of language in Le Petit Prince undercuts deep and obscure meanings. It’s airy and metaphorical, a fable fallen from the stars. In contrast, Charlotte’s Web is a masterpiece of concision and clarity, a fable grounded in the earth. E.B. White uses language that’s been refined and revised down to its core to present an unmistakable truth.  The difference could be explained in part by the inherent Frenchness of Le Petit Prince—its roots in LaFontaine fables and the darker fairytales of Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson whose Little Mermaid was one inspiration for the Little Prince. This contrasts with the inherent Americanness of the farm setting and folksy human characters in Charlotte’s Web.  The illustrations, essential to both books, also carry different weight: Saint-Exupéry’s colorful petit bonhomme, playful proportions, and winking stars are ethereal and whimsical, while Garth Williams’ black-and-white ink drawings are grounded, accessible, and realistic.  (According to Sims, Williams agonized over how to make Charlotte a charming but still scientifically accurate spider.)

The main difference, finally, is that in Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry orbits around a mysterious core, searching for those essential things that are invisible to the eye.  In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White serves up the essential on a silver platter. Saint-Exupéry says: “You can see the truth if you look closely enough.”  E.B. White says: “Look, the truth was here all along.”


Your Daughter

P.S. According to Sims, , E.B. White borrowed the final line of Charlotte’s Web from his wife Katherine: “It’s not often someone comes along that’s a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”  Katherine publicly defended her husband’s essay-writing against a scathing New York Times critic, writing in her reply: “They [the critic’s words] are not words that should be applied to anyone who is an honest man and an honest writer. Andy is both.”  How small his change of “honest man” to “true friend,” yet how it makes all the difference!


Filed under essay, library

i’ll eat you up, i love you so

illustration. baby taken by goblins

“Outside Over There” Image from

I’ve had a strange feeling all day since learning that Maurice Sendak died this morning.  There are many odes to him on the internet and in the traditional press too, not the least interesting of which is his 2 part interview with Colbert from a couple months ago.  But the best one I’ve found was actually an illustrated conversation he had with…who else?… Art Speigelman.

Cartoon Spiegelman and Cartoon Sendak are walking through the woods, which of course are pages from Sendak’s books.  Sendak has just published “We Are All In the Dumps With Jack and Guy,”  a book that we own and that I found fascinating and disturbing as a child, but probably not as disturbing as I would find it now.  It was not as beloved as “Where the Wild Things Are” or “Mickey In the Night Kitchen” nor as visceral a sense-memory as “Outside Over There,”  but I do remember a page where Jack and Guy are running through the rye.  And when I read “Catcher In the Rye” years later, that’s what I imagined that Holden Caulfield was imagining, catching kids in the rye.

In an interview the late Maurice Sendak did with Terry Gross that was recently replayed, he describes responding to a memorable fan letter.  A boy named Jim was so impressed with “Wild Things” that he drew his own and sent it to Maurice Sendak to say it was his favorite book.  Duly touched, Sendak replied to the fan letter by drawing a Wild Thing on a postcard, just for Jim. Soon after, Sendak received a letter from the boy’s mother saying “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.”  To Sendak, this was “one of the highest compliments I ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it.  He loved it.  He ate it.”

To love something so much that you need to eat it, to gobble it up so that it can be part of you, is an idea so perfect (and bizarre and possibly Freudian) that it lives in the land of the Wild Things and the land of Over There.  And who wouldn’t want to eat Mickey’s cookie airplane as it crumbles in the milk?  I felt so strange upon hearing this news today– a sad but sisterly nostalgia to the delight of meeting the real Winnie the Pooh— that it can only mean one thing: that I had eaten Sendak’s books so long ago, in that Wild Thing state of childhood, that they were a part of me.

And I suddenly remembered sitting in a musty library in Clinton, New York.  That tiny library with the creaky floors in the children section.  I was sitting on one of those stools for reaching higher books.  We have the same stools at my library now, in fact.  And I was reading about Ida with her trumpet, saving her baby brother (or maybe sister) from the Goblins.  And there was no difference between me and Ida.  I don’t even know if I knew how to read yet, and I assume my dad must have read me this story before, but I was Ida, and I was brave and also scared of the goblins who replaced the baby with a changeling.  And maybe, in that moment, after living so briefly and so vividly in this book, I became a big sister.  Even if my little brother was not yet born or was just a baby.  Whatever acuity or judgement I turn towards him, I will also hold up my trumpet, take back my evil wish, and save him from the goblins.  And my brother knows that, I think, even though we are no longer children.

Leave a comment

Filed under library

things in the reference desk drawer

Today I cleaned the Reference Desk drawer and found…

  1. A red cup full of pennies
  2. A pair of non-latex surgical gloves
  3. A red sharpie
  4. A black sharpie
  5. Five keys, two of which look like they belong to a bike chain
  6. No locks for the keys in # 5
  7. Red printer paper
  8. Purple printer paper
  9. Manila envelops
  10. A pile of blank CD roms
  11. A jumble of papers that I suspect were once the Reference Handbook
  12. A jumble of papers containing hash marks for every Reference question asked this year
  13. A screwdriver (useful for unjamming staplers)
  14. Our heavy duty stapler (in drawer due to being jammed)
  15. An orange flash drive
  16. An orange flashlight (added to drawer after last year’s campuswide power outage)
  17. An allen wrench
  18. A roll of industrial toilet paper used to wipe up spills
  19. A handful of napkins for the same purpose
  20. Can of compressed air (useful for cleaning dust out of keyboards or the empty reference desk drawer)
  21. Three boxes of staples
  22. Bevy of rogue staples, waiting for blood
  23. A box of bandaids (added to drawer after last semester’s “Help, I stapled my finger!” incident)
  24. Six paper clips
  25. Four pads of post-it notes
  26. Two rubber bands
  27. An empty box for golf pencils
  28. Two dead mice: one roller-ball, one laser
  29. Various cables of the printer, USB, and power cord variety
  30. Three unidentified pieces of plastic too mysterious to throw away
  31. Staple-remover that looks like alligator teeth
  32. Staple-remover that looks like a tool dentists use to examine teeth
  33. A baggie full of pencils, all with nubbed erasers
  34. One pencil that said “Happy Birthday” with balloons
  35. Treasure-trove of “Out-of-Order” signs
  36. A bottle of hand sanitizer in the shape of a # 1

Leave a comment

Filed under library

the real winnie

PREAMBLE: A few years ago, the New York Public Library had an exhibition of all the most famous and unusual collectibles in their archives–which was much more than “just” books.  Many of these, including the original Winnie the Pooh and friends), can be seen on a rotating basis at the 5th Avenue flagship library near Bryant Park (the one with the lions).  I always tell people visiting New York to stop by the NYPL Swartzman building because a) it’s free and b) you never know what you might see. You might run into an old friend…

Pooh Bear and Friends

Taken at the New York Public Library. Copyright D.I. Gervasio 2011

As fascinated as I was by Malcolm X’s Koran, Charlotte Brontë’s travel writing desk, an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, and Charles Dickens’ letter opener, and Virginia Woolf’s cane, one curiosity–or family of curiosities– caught me by surprise and left me unexpectedly amazed and aglow.

There was a children’s area of the New York Public Library’s 100 Years exhibit that included large prints from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, playing cards and comic strips.  In the middle of this section was a display case with some very worn stuffed animals from the early 20th century.  I didn’t have to get too close before I recognized them.  It was Winnie the Pooh with his friends Tigger, Kanga, Piglet and Eeyore.  Not the Disney-fied Pooh Bear with his monstrous red tee-shirt or the retro-Pooh made in a softer tan and modeled after the illustrations in Milne’s classic.  The real Winnie the Pooh that belonged to Christopher Robin.

The Library acquired the stuffed animals in the 1940s after a wealthy New Yorker who’d bought them at auction donated them to the Library. Winnie looks like a Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear.  Piglet is impossibly small.  Kanga has a lovely pouch and a slightly crooked neck.  Tigger’s stripes are still plainly visible after all the years but he looks more like a cat than the blaze-orange, slinky-tailed buffoon of the Disney film.  Eeyore is patched with drooping head and–sure enough– a little nail holding his tail on.

I think one of the Pooh video cassettes we had when I was a kid had some footage of the original toys, because they looked familiar to me.  But it wasn’t just the video, which I must have watched over 20 years ago and, truth be told, was not one of my favorites.  I believe these particular stuffed animals felt so familiar to me because it was clear they had been loved and played with (this is the key to the existential merit of a toy, according to the philosophy of Toy Story 3), and in a way, anyone who has read the books has played with them. My mother would call this a “Proustian moment” but the petite madeleine I bit into did not open up a locked-away memory so much as kindle a childlike excitement, a sense of recognition, a kinship with these toys.

Children visiting the Library exhibit took interest in this display but with more puzzlement and curiosity than elation.  The stuffed animals are so old that some of the kids didn’t immediately understand that they were toys, let alone whose toys they were.  I’m sure the Disney images have altered kids’ vision of what Pooh looks like as well. But I was struck by the reverence that parents and older visitors passing by gave to Winnie the Pooh.  In this exhibition were manuscripts from the 1300s, published letters from Christopher Columbus, and a draft of the Declaration of Independence (in which Jefferson condemns slavery–but that part was stricken to appease the Southern Colonies).  There was a Gutenberg Bible and a handwritten Beethoven sonata.  But of all these amazing manuscripts and objects, Winnie the Pooh, little Piglet and the others seemed to be the most fascinating and evocative to people, provoking physical reactions of glee.

Nostalgia plays a part, I’m sure, but I don’t think the way Pooh was commercialized or the pop culture aspect of the Pooh stories (as opposed to classic literature like Brontë, Dickens, Woolf, Borges, etc) are responsible for the tenderness onlookers felt when seeing the inspiration for these fictional characters. I don’t think their appeal lies in pop art or nostalgia.  Rather, these stuffed animals embody the creative process and what literature can be more tangibly than a writer’s personal journal or scribbled notes.

A.A. Milne took inspiration from a bear that his son played with.  He gave that bear a personality, a name, and a story.  He gave the bear life in the imagination.  Now the bear has outlived the boy.  In “Bird by Bird” Anne Lamott describes writing fiction as ‘listening to the dolls talking.” I think that’s what Milne did.  He listened to what the bear had to say to the donkey. He let them talk.  If not for this process–for writing– Pooh would just be any other bear.  But now, he’s the most famous teddy bear in the world. So much so, in fact, that people visiting the New York Public Library of all ages recognize him and smile as if they’d just found something from their childhood in the attic.  So many of the pieces in the exhibit take the viewer back in time– decades and centuries ago–but Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals take us back further, to childhood and to the beginning of what it meant to read.

1 Comment

Filed under essay, library

“He corresponded as Monet”

From a letter from  M.P.G  dated 12/6/11

“You saw for example Dickens’s
letter opener in New York.
He corresponded as Monet

painted, letters in rows,
words chasing the changing
light.  On this wooden dagger,

the claw of his favorite cat.
That’s how he opened things up,
as if they were ghostly already.”

I took Victorian Literature with my favorite English professor in college.  We read the Brontës, Thackary and Dickens.  One thing I loved about Professor John Olmsted was how he told stories.  This was an “old fashioned” class. We sat in a room in a building shaped like a radiator, read poems or novels, and discussed them.  Our discussions could be fierce, timid, or eye-opening.  But they were usually prefaced or interrupted by snippets of history and literature that guided us in a more interesting if not necessarily more scholarly or more “correct” direction.  He knew perhaps that most students would be willing to wrestle with “Jane Eyre” or “David Copperfield” but probably not a full biography of Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, and so he spent part of each class dispensing biographical stories.

In high school, we would have called these stories “tangents” and my classmates would have strategically attempted to delay a test or unpleasant assignment by saying a buzzword (for one of my history teachers it was “Ronald Reagan” but for a math teacher it was “Ireland”) that would derail the class from our programmed work.  Not so in college.  I was lucky enough to go to a college where tangents were neither irrelevant nor used as a tool for classroom insubordination.   Olmsted’s tangents were like those lengthy footnotes that you often are inclined to skip, but once you’ve read it have a hard time forgetting.  He would recount stories about Dickens not as if he knew the man well but as if he had visited with him for a while.  As a consequence, while humanizing the authors, he gave us enough context to keep us from sounding like complete anachronistic idiots when analyzing a particular chapter or theme.

I was always impressed with how much Professor Olmsted must have read to learn these things, and yet he respected and made use of an oral storytelling tradition to bring a past world to life.  We read literary criticism and other articles, but those authors and hypotheses don’t stick with me.  What I do remember is that Dickens had too many children, lived paycheck to paycheck and was in debt at times, was a celebrity in his lifetime, and had such a large amount of correspondence in addition to his serial- and novel-writing that he spent hours each morning answering letters.  He would have several going at a time, writing a line here, finishing a sentence there, just like Monet with a row of canvases.  In hindsight, I feel Professor Olmsted must have told us about Bob (“Never was there a finer cat”) and possibly even the letter opener.  But maybe that’s a conflated memory.

Dicken’s Cat Paw Letter Opener @ NYPL.  Image from

I was so viscerally appalled and intrigued upon visiting the ivory letter opener with poor Bob’s paw on the handle at the New York Public Library’s centennial exhibit, that my reaction could not have been presaged.  And yet, now that I’ve accepted the existence of this improbable object, it seems like something I had heard of before.  Something just to the left of unbelievable.  I don’t know whether this letter opener– resembling an off-white machete — makes Charles Dickens seem more of a man or more of a monster to my 21st century eyes.  But I could see Dickens wielding the instrument in a creaky Victorian house with the soot and smoke of London coming in the morning-streaked windows.  I could see him slicing seals and envelops with relish, then heaving a little sigh for his poor dead Bob.  He would dip his quill and sign the first letter of the day.

I took Victorian Literature the semester before I went to study abroad in Europe.  When I visited London, I remember standing on the Millennium Bridge midway across the Thames, looking back at Saint Paul’s Cathedral and ahead towards the South Bank where the Globe Theater awaited us, decked out for Shakespeare’s birthday on April 24th.  I saw the soot marks winding up Saint Paul’s Cathedral  like rings on a sequoia, and I thought of sitting in class a couple months before and listening to Olmsted tell us how the smokestacks in London on the south bank of the Thames were dangerously low during Dickensian times because nothing was allowed to be built taller than Saint Paul’s.  As a consequence, black soot wafted over the river, coating the city in pollution and dirt, defacing the whiteness of the Cathedral.  The Tate Modern on the South Bank stood in for these Dickensian coal factories on the skyline in my mind. London had recently undergone a cleaning and restoration project.  They weren’t quite done with Saint Paul’s, whose columns looked like a graying, dirtied version of the Washington D.C. capitol building.

And standing there in the middle of the steel-colored river, it dawned on me that a lot of the soot still on that cathedral had been around since Charles Dickens was alive. It was a long bridge, and these were short thoughts, but now, as a librarian and a traveler, I am realizing that Olmsted’s stories came as much from his travel as from reading. There are many ways to cross a new bridge, and even more ways to cross an older one.

Millennium Bridge. London. 2005. By D.I.G

Millennium Bridge. London. By D.I. Gervasio April 2005

Leave a comment

Filed under essay, library, poem, travel

Travel Song

Travel Song from Jack Kerouac's journal on display at NYPL

The day after Thanksgiving, I went to the New York Public Library’s Celebrating 100 Years Exhibit.  As a librarian, reader, and writer, I took away many morsels of inspiration and awe from the exhibit.  Literature and writing felt both very tangible and yet also remote as I perused objects that traced the history of the written word from Sanskrit stones to a Gutenberg bible to e.e. cumming’s typewriter.  I peeked in journals and notebooks of figures including Virginia Woolf,  Malcolm X, Nijinsky, Mary Shelley, and more.  I saw Hemmingway’s Noble Prize speech drafted in the end paper of another book. There were odd artifacts as well: a lock of Shelley’s hair, Charles Dickens’ letter opener, Kerouac’s glasses, Charlotte Bronte’s travel writing desk.

Over the next few blog posts, I’d like to unpack them and share the manuscripts and artifacts that spoke to me– starting with this one from Jack Kerouac’s journal.  This is a photo of the end paper in a notebook Kerouac kept during his cross-country travels from New York to San Francisco.  Opposite this page was his account of his travels on lined paper.  His writing was very legible and fairly neat.  I noticed he started writing smaller as he neared the end of the lined page, even though he had many blank pages following it to fill. (Maybe that’s why he preferred the “original scroll…”)  It’s encouraging to know that great writers– great writing– starts out in pencil in a simple notebook.

I really should read On the Road.  Can’t call myself an American Nomad, really, until I’ve read it.

Leave a comment

Filed under library, poem, travel

ode to underwood

Golden Touch Typewriter

Underwood Ad

Earlier this week, the last typewriter (manual one that is) was made at a factory in Mumbai, India before it closes its doors for good.  Some typewriters are still being manufactured by other companies.  Headquartered in the U.S., Brother and Swintec still make electric typewriters and ribbons. But Godrej and Boyce, was the last company to make desktop, stand-alone manual typewriters.  There’s still a couple companies in China and Taiwan, according to NPR, that make portable manual typewriters, but their numbers are dwindling.

Surprised that this didn’t happen sooner?  Consider some advantages of the manual typewriter:

No electricity required. The manual typewriter doesn’t need to be plugged in.

No need for a printer.  It’s a self-printing laptop.

You don’t need to worry about identity theft.

You can’t  hit “reply all” by accident.

If you live in a country where the climate and the power grid are not reliable enough to sustain a modern computer, no worries.

The last 200 machines manufactured by Godrej and Boyce were Arabic language typewriters, targeted at developing nations.  Defense contractors and intelligence personal were among the last customers of the Indian typewriter company. They would buy typewriters so that their correspondence was untraceable and unhackable.

On the ether-web, nothing ever really disappears, and yet computer-generated information is also very unstable. The Internet is like the planet Jupiter. Gaseous bursts of seemingly infinite information erupt and cause a stir, but the state of any given file is fluid, subject to sudden death and rebirth.

Take this typewriter story for example.  A UK web masher reported that the “last typewriter factory left in the world” had closed.  Within minutes, list servs, twitterers, and even major news outlets ran postmortems, pronouncing the typewriter dead.  A few hours later, after everyone had thoroughly made  fools of themselves, the traditional press as well as 0nline watchdog groups, stepped in to point out (a bit too smugly) that no, in fact, the typewriter isn’t really dead. There are still many companies making electric typewriters or portable manual typewriters.  All this nostalgia is hypocritical and premature, they cautioned.

To that I say, the frontier was mourned long before the last Native American died. See what I’m getting at?  Native American people and culture are very much alive today, one hundred years after the Wild West turned into Hollywood. The point is not whether it’s technically true that the last typewriter factory in the world has gone out of business, the point is that people were ready to accept that truth. This is a clear case of truthiness. It seemed plausible to us, that this day must inevitably arise– Oh look! Here it is!  Of course this news would be announced on the Internet; that’s how we know it’s truthy.  To me, the fact that we lament the loss of the typewriter is more interesting than the technicalities of whether or not this fading technology has in fact ceased to be.

Did we lament the last horse and buggy?  The last amputation without anesthetic? The last delivery of the pony express?  The last wooden outhouse?  There were probably some late adopters to toilet technology; some people may have mistrusted them or saw no reason to upgrade.  But in general, once towns in the U.S. had adequate plumbing to support them, porcelain toilets were implemented and heralded as an improvement. Collectors and historians will always be fascinated by technology from an older time, but this typewriter nostalgia seems more widespread. Lamenting the death of the typewriter highlights underlying misgivings about where our technology–and the written word– is headed.

Today, the image of a computer is almost inseparable from people’s conception of the word “technology.”  And yet, this news about typewriter, a hundred-year-old technology, was shared and retweeted all across cyberspace. “Really? The last typewriter? No, it can’t be true! That makes me sad. An end of an era.”  Meanwhile, other online mavens quibbled with the details, entirely missing the point that the melancholy, bittersweet reactions to the news of the typewriter’s demise indicate some sense of loss amid our “progress.”

People so often lapse into technological determinism that it’s refreshing to see outpourings of young, old, and middle aged commentators giving the typewriter it’s final defense.  I’ve done my research and know that while the typewriter has changed shape, it is not strictly speaking dead, but I’d still like to add my voice to the mourners with one final plug for going unplugged:

The manual typewriter controls your speed of thought.

Typewriters slow down your thought process to a reflective level perfect for serious writing.  You can’t go back and delete the inaccurate, sexist, stereotypical comment you just made on someone else’s work. You have to think before you type.  In the early 20th century typewriters made communication easier, but they didn’t foster a culture of self-absorbed blogging (Don’t look now, I’m getting meta again!). Typewriters make you sigh into your words. The heavy, satisfying clicks of the keys sound like strokes of a precise hammer. You feel more deliberate when you write on a typewriter, more important. You can record what you have to say faster and more legibly than by handwriting, and yet you also benefit from anticipating the weight and finality of your words.

A type-written word on a page feels like beautiful graffiti; once it’s there, it can’t be moved.  It speaks with authority and long breaths. It exists in a very real, physical way that our tactile nature responds to.  How easily I can change my mind, writing on this blog!  I could post something today, reverse it completely tomorrow, and you my dear readers would have no idea.  I could snooker you all.  Integrity is at a much higher premium in the digital world.

It’s nice to have your own little tesseract across cyberspace to vent and pontificate, but a computer doesn’t keep you honest.  Sometimes it’s better to type your words slowly, one by one,  on paper, leaving time to breathe.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay, library


Digital ConvergenceTransliteracyAugmented Reality.

As near as I can tell, these trendy IT terms essentially mean that our online world is eating our offline world.  The fact that we even need to call the physical world “offline” is some kind of assbackwards preemptive anachronism like saying “analog” as opposed to “digital.”

Analog means “with a face”–like a clock-face watch with two arms instead of a digital alarm clock with red robot numbers.  The only reason we had to rename the centuries-old clock as an analog clock is because of the advent of digital clocks.  I suppose when mechanical clocks came about, they supplanted sundials.  Maybe “sundial” is a retrofitted term as well? Maybe before the wind-up clock, sundials were referred to as clocks?”  In any case, it’s beyond ironic that the things that exist in a spacial, synchronous, physical sense are now being renamed and reclassified, retroactively, as if in deference to their virtual counterparts.

Imagine if we did this with every new invention!  It would be absurd:

“Here is an automobile.  There is an anautomobile, or as some people say an equinemobile.”

“Horseless carriage” may be quaint, but it made sense at the time.  Horses were how people got around for centuries, millennia even.  Obviously an invention that allowed for transportation without means of a horse would be novel for precisely this reason: it was horseless.  In fact we still refer to a car’s “horsepower” in order to describe it’s oomph. Similarly, the wireless radio was novel because, theretofore, radios and telegraphs required wires.  Today if someone says “wireless” we think of wifi, wireless internet or wireless phones, all previously wired things.  But when did this reverse definitioning begin?  When did the advent of a new technology start making us relabel not only our prior technologies but aspects of the physical environment that surround us to this day?

We still have horses but “horseless carriages”– not so much.  Yet, as I said earlier, we don’t call horses “uncars” or “anautomobiles.”  We don’t call airplanes “subspacial atmospheric aircraft” even though billionaires can now be tourists, beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, on commercial space shuttles.

There is a movement in other social sciences towards retroactive re-labeling of vocabulary as well.  For example, in Psychology, people who study Autism Spectrum Disorders have started to call people with normal or typical brain function (i.e. people without autism) “neurotypicals.”  It’s an attempt to label everyone in a way that doesn’t make people with autism out to be “abnormal.”  Likewise, in Gender Studies, the opposite of transgendered is cisgendered. (If you don’t know what cisgendered means, then you are probably cisgendered or haven’t taken a Gender & Women’s Studies class.)   The goal is to eliminate heteronormativity by taking away the idea that one gender identity is normal and another is abnormal.  For some, these labels seek to achieve a sort of scientific equality of terms.

From the standpoint of academic discourse, I appreciate why and how these terms are used.  From the standpoint of having a real conversation about and within my real reality, I find the whole cadre of retroactive relabeling to be confusing and overwrought.  Offline only exists because “online” was invented.  Yet offline will continue to exist long after online becomes something else entirely.  Even if the whole of civilization was obliterated, there would still be a world, with immutable physical attributes (barring a Matrix-like dystopic future where the computer imagines a reality for us pod people while feasting on our life force, of course).  There would be no “offline” if humanity went off the grid completely in a post-nuclear apocalypse, but there would still be The World.  There might not be cisgendered or transgendered people if all our academies, libraries and Interwebs burned down, but there would still be People.  There would be no “analog” but there would be mechanically engineered solutions to the challenges presented by the physical environment– just as cavemen invented the wheel and orangutans eat ants with straws made of bamboo.  There would be no term “analog” but “analog” would still exist all around us, despite the absence of VHS and vinyl records and Rolex watches.

So I guess our reality is augmented now by the online world, through our smartphones and GPSes and ebook readers.  We can look around and get reviews on everything from restaurants to shoes from  1,000 people we’ve never met.  We can crowdsource and twitter and hack our lives until we fool ourselves into thinking we CAN’T LIVE without our iPhone or Android at our side.  We can work ourselves into panic attacks if we leave home without our phones or if the Internet mysteriously goes down.  How will we find the nearest subway stop?  How will we know what architect designed that building?  How will we know where we can buy cheaper gas? How can we find our friend in a crowded park or department store, or know they’re running late, without texting them?

This is called “augmented reality.”  And what it really means is that we’ll be spending more time looking at our devices and less time looking around us.  With our phones, our schools, and the Internet, we can label the whole world, but we still don’t have any clue who the fuck we are.

1 Comment

Filed under essay, library

the tunnels

Always a tunnel or a cage
or a storage elevator
with clanging metal parts
hides in a secret spot.
Part relic, part omen.
All libraries- if they are real ones-
contain such mysteries
of a dystopic future-past.

I am not making metaphors for books, for armchair travelers and pocket Einsteins.  Libraries– if they are real ones, which is to say physical– have secret corners, hidden depths, halls of shame and smorgasbord.

My current library has a Valley of Dead Chairs housing defunct equipment: a morgue of murdered upholstery, vagrant tables slashed and scarred in a bloody pen/knife fight, a graveyard of computers done in by a deadly viral epidemic or, in the case of some poor saps, by the great coffee spill of 2003.

My former library had a basement where newspapers yellowed themselves into dust, stacked in floor-to-ceiling cages.  Student workers packed inter-library loan books into recycled padded envelops then filled gunny sacks emblazoned with the logo of the All-Mighty Cooperative.  A radio was always on, playing the campus station, but oddly this basement workroom was even quieter than the library stacks.

There were rumors the Old Library (the Carnegie building of course) where the new library stored older unused volumes off-site, had glass floors.  Supposedly these floors were illuminated at night.  Student workers charged with fetching requested items out of storage were unanimously tight-lipped about their forays into the hallowed Old Carnegie Library. They toted mothballed books across campus in red radio flyers, pretended to be listening to music when you asked where they had been.  Legends formed of fornication in the stacks, steamy glass floors turning slippery.  Little was known about this magical archive, thus its magic was preserved.

These secret underworlds of libraries are rarely hidden completely or rendered inaccessible. The storage closets, back hallways, tunnel entrances, police-taped staff-only shelves are right there. But Most patrons pass by without the vaguest inclination to explore. They go where they were meant to: the lab, the café, the information desk, the multipurpose convertible learning commons. Some venture into the stacks where, as aforementioned, they can find curiosities galore to distract their imaginings from the darker psyches of the physical library.

The Valley of Dead Chairs is not far from a rowdy computer commons and would seem ripe for grave-robbers looking to concoct a Frankenstein P.C. from scratch.  Likewise, my current library is connected through a series of underground tunnels to the social science building, mail room, bookstore, and backstage of the performing arts center.  These tunnels apparently have not yet been discovered by students. A few names of trespassers and pioneers mark the cement walls, but so far there has been no Christopher Columbus of the Library Tunnel, sailing in with horses and ne’er-do-wells from Europe.

The only real difference between librarians and patrons is that a life-long library user will contentedly avail themselves of every library resources, book, DVD, database and reading chair and yet still never plumb the depths of the library crevasse.  The patron simply does not go where he or she is forbidden.

Librarians, on the other hand, live like spelunkers, for the moments of peeking down into the secret caves in the backs and bottoms of library buildings.  Some librarians are developers, donning their hardhats and scouring every forgotten corner for space that can be refurbished, repurposed, reclaimed.

But I would guess there are more spelunkers like myself who take the journey for a different reason: We like to know about hidden places that others do not.  We relish the trip to the storage vault and will sneak off on our lunch break to read– oh let’s say Jules Verne– on a leather sofa that despite having been relegated to the Valley of Dead Chairs seems very much alive, so comfortable, and so unrediscovered.

Leave a comment

Filed under essay, library, poem

mezzanine reading room

There is a spot in the library
where you can see down four levels:
From the artsy balcony above the mezzanine reading room,
past the foyer and down to the main floor,
all the way to the basement where the books are stored
and the carpet unravels, betrayed by watermarks.

Up here you get peeks into other campus spaces:
Out the windows, across a silent quad,
down the obligatory hill on which
the university is perched
less a bird about to take flight
and more like Sisyphus balancing
for just a moment between
two inevitable worlds.

An empty library is an unquiet place
full of pops and clicks– the heater
turning on after long absence.
The maintenance men, a janitor,
moving noisier than usual.
A jetliner flies overhead, visible
in blinding blue sunlight
from the same high perch
on the hill at the end of the quad.

Chairs seem to move by themselves.
Somebody sneezes somewhere
when you thought you were alone.
And although you were paid to be here,
although you got here early
the first day after vacation–
what the French poetically dub “la rentree”–
you have the distinct impression
you are doing something clandestine.

You have snuck into the library in the midst
of an architectural ritual unfit for human supervision.
What ritual is this? A winter thaw?
A sunning-out? A daily dance of shadows
as chairs cast their skeletons in streaks
across the warming carpet?

Or perhaps your secrecy, your
petite insurrection, is stemming from the fact
that you are using the library
as it was meant to be used.

No name badges or mouseclicks or meetings or questions.
You are sitting on a brown leather couch
on the upper balcony of the mezzanine reading room.
A novel by your side, you are listening
to the breathing books, and you are writing.
And this is what you are not supposed to be doing:
enjoying your library rather than improving it.

As in so many things the poet
William Stafford is right:
Even the most oppressed person
can find a few moments of rebellion
if he just wakes up a little earlier
than the rest of the world.

*written 1/5/11 8:00 a.m.

Leave a comment

Filed under library, poem