Monday, August 31, 2015

What libraries have meant, and will mean (perhaps)

The library, like the symphony orchestra, has always seemed to me to be one of the towering accomplishments of civilization. The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, a collection of essays edited by Alice Crawford, is a marvelous survey of Western libraries and books from Greek and Roman times to today. Crawford is digital humanities research librarian at the King James Library at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and the essays were commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the library.

It is a lovely book, handsomely designed with endnotes, author bios, bibliography, index, and an eight-page, four-color insert—illustrations of ancient and medieval book cabinets. The essays consider the social roles libraries have played across the age, as centers for scholarship, mazes, sanctuaries, archives, and repositories for hidden wisdom. As Crawford writes in her introduction, "Although they are arranged to follow the library's development through history, the essays aim to offer simply glimpses of what libraries were like at these times rather than a comprehensive history. They focus on what libraries were used for, why they were needed, why they were meaningful to the various communities from which they emerged, and provide impressions rather than analyses of their value in the changing chronological contexts."

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at Kings College London, opens the book by noting that our first certain literary response to a library is in a raucous comedy by Aristophanes, first performed in 425 B.C. The book closes with an essay by James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who argues that "librarians are becoming more rather than less important in this new age of instant electronic communication; and libraries as places have a key role to play in building and sustaining participatory and accountable democratic societies—the kind that have historically not fought one another." In between these two essays, we read about the growth of community libraries in England and Scotland, the library in fiction from Gilgamesh to Borges, the library in film (think "Ghostbusters"), the library in poetry, and more.

At least two profound shifts have affected the library in history. The first was the invention of printing and movable type. With the spread of printed books—inexpensive compared to hand-copied codexes—a library was no longer a way for Europe's richest to flaunt their wealth and culture.

We're in the middle of the second shift: the rise of the internet and digital copies. This means that something like the HathiTrust, founded only in October 2008 as a consortium of research libraries, now has more than 11 million volumes and is one of the 10 largest research library collections in North America.

As a novelist, I was particularly interested in rise of community libraries in 19th century England. The worthies in charge saw the institution as a tool of edification and moral enlightenment. Novels were a problem. Narrative fiction "seemed to be so constructed by manipulative and morally bankrupt authors as to sensationalize or whitewash bad behavior and encourage emotional incontinence among readers through blatant titillation. The other worry, closely related to the first, was that such literature was also simultaneously much more likely to appeal to and therefore to lead astray those vulnerable readers with the weakest constitutions, specifically women, the young, and—a fascinating Georgian perception—servants, as a consequence threatening not just public morality but also the social and political order." Shades of Seduction of the Innocent.

Clearly The Meaning of the Library is not a book for everyone. But for those of us who love books and have long loved libraries it is a stimulating and fascinating survey of "the library" in Western culture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Science fiction that reads like science

Biogenesis by Tatsuaki Ishiguro is difficult to discuss. I thoroughly enjoyed the book's four stories and am writing this to introduce other people to Ishiguro's work, but I'm afraid I'm not skillful enough convey what makes the book so special.

Because, on the one hand, three of the four stories follow the form of a scientific report, not the most engaging short story format. (And I thought the last story in a more traditional form was not up to the level of the first three.) These could be accounts of research into actual plants and animals. There is very little action and the drama comes almost entirely from scientific discovery, investigations into a winged mouse that weeps blood tears and whose tiny "wings" vibrate and emit a faint glow in the dark...into a woman with pure white hair, no memory, and a body temperature of 75.2 F...into a plant
that seems to need both radioactivity and human blood to thrive...and into a marine creature with miraculous cancer-healing powers. This is science fiction with a focus on science.

What makes the stories so powerful are the very human actions and conflicts of the scientists and others—army officers, doctors, professors, assistants, and observers—as they struggle to understand the mouse, woman, weed, and sea squirt that do not fit into standard categories. But not only to understand, to have consequences from the research. Why, Ishiguro is asking, do some species survive while others become extinct?

He observes, "In and of itself, the natural world admits of no laws or consistent narratives based on hypotheses. Attaching meaning to the natural world's various phenomena and aligning them into convincing narratives merely serves human interests. No matter how quantitatively a law is expressed, it is a human application and nothing more."

Three of the stories are set in Hokkaido and in the recent past when the northernmost Japanese island was even more wild and uncivilized than it is today. Ishiguro was born in Hokkaido in 1961, has served as a lecturer at Tokyo University and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, so he is writing from inside knowledge. For example: "Adjusting the type and length of the primer as I went, I repeated the same steps nearly thirty times until finally, through trial and error, a single instance of synthetic reaction occurred. Using the automated DNA analyzer, I fed the resultant base strand into the computer. The results showed a perfect match for human (Homo sapiens) DNA."

The translations by Brian Watson and James Balzer, as the quotes above suggest, are fluent and clear. And Ishiguro studs the stories with interesting observations: "A progressive endeavor is rarely understood and when it comes to reporting on a rare illness, it is basically impossible if the messenger is not trusted. Were Yuki [the woman with abnormally low body temperature] to be transferred to some research facility, it is clear that she would be treated like a lab animal." In another story, the military allows the research to continue only because the army believes it will help the war effort.

Had an acquaintance recommended Biogenesis to me, I'm not sure I would have bothered. Now that I've read these unusual and powerful stories, all I can do is say I'm glad I have read them and to recommend them to others.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Hot and trending again! What fun!

This morning I posted another request that people nominate Death in a Family Business for the Kindle Press program on LinkedIn where, to my surprise, I am linked to something like 270 people. Some of the must have responded because a minute ago, I was "Hot and Trending," and the book's cover was one of the first site visitors see.
If somehow you haven't been to the site or been able to nominate my book, here's a link to the site:

Kindle Scout asks people who nominate a book to sign in to Amazon, a way I suspect to keep authors from stuffing the ballot box.

For those who have nominated my book, many thanks. For those who haven't (and have an Amazon account), I will be eternally grateful if you do.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

How two young New Yorkers find themselves on a Norwegian island

Rebecca Dinerstein has an MFA in fiction from New York University. The Sunlit Night is her first novel. I tend to approach first novels by MFA graduates with a certain amount of mistrust. The writing may be stunning—such descriptions! such metaphors! such similes!—while the characters and stories are juvenile and banal. Unhappy first love. College angst. Dysfunctional family. Each of these subjects of course can be literature, but a 24-year-old MFA graduate usually does not have enough life experience, skillfully expressed as it may be, to bring interesting depths to her work. That apparently is not Dinerstein's problem.

The Sunlit Night has two protagonists, Frances and Yasha. Frances is 21, a recent art school graduate, at loose ends when in the first pages of the book she breaks up with her wealthy boyfriend. She narrates her own story.

Yasha is 17, the son of a Russian immigrant baker with a shop in Brighton Beach, and a mother who apparently remained in Russia ten years earlier. Dinerstein tells Yasha's side of the story in third person. The shift from first to third person point of view is seamless and gives the novel a depth and richness it would not have otherwise had.

While the story begins in New York City—Frances, her sister Sarah, and her parents share a two-room Manhattan apartment; Yasha and his father live above the bakery in Brooklyn—the action shifts to Lofoten, an archipelego of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle and warmed by the Gulf Stream. The scene is both exotic and convincing; Dinerstein is the author of a bilingual English-Norwegian collection of poems, so she sounds as if she is writing from lived experience. For example, picked almost at random:

"The world was perpetually visible, so I looked at it... I saw the landscape in colorblock. The midnight sun came in shades of pink. The fjords rushed up onto white-sand beaches and the sand made the water Bermuda-green. The houses were always red. They appeared in clusters, villages, wherever there lay flat land. Mountains rose steeply behind each village—menaces and guardians. Each red house was a lighthouse, marking the boundary between one terrain and another, preventing crashes, somehow, providing solace."

How and why the American girl and the Russian-American boy end up on the same small island in northernmost Norway is both moving and plausible. Neither are characters dropped from Mars (individuals with no parents, siblings, or friends). Both have parents and lives beyond the island; both have challenges with which they must cope. Frances's parents, disapproving of Sarah's fiancee, refuse to go to her wedding and decide themselves to separate. Yasha's father dies and his mother shows up on the island with her lover.

Because there is no evil to overcome, no malevolent menace to be defeated, the thread running through The Sunlit Night is a profound question: How can one live in this world of other people? I thoroughly enjoyed and was rewarded by living in Rebecca Dinerstein's world, a world in which during a certain time of the year the sun never sets.