Saturday, June 27, 2015

Grief and Freedom

What a Friday for the history books.  In short order, the United States Supreme Court endorsed gay marriage in all fifty states, writing in the majority opinion:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Even as this decision was being celebrated all over America, President Obama was giving the eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, one of nine people gunned down in cold blood by white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof during a Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday evening, June 17th.  According to witnesses, Roof joined the group in study until he suddenly began firing his .45 caliber handgun, killing his victims with multiple shots and a diatribe of racial language.  Allegedly, Roof planned to use his final bullet for himself but miscalculated and realized too late that his gun was empty.  He left the church precipitating a statewide search which ended across the border in North Carolina when he was stopped by law enforcement while driving his black Hyundai Elantra with its distinctive Confederate flag license plate decoration.

Roof purchased his gun legally with money given to him for his birthday last April.  Of course, this set off the usual talking heads on media outlets about the need for gun control or the need to preserve the Second Amendment and the right to own a gun in America.  Is it ironic, ridiculous, or just plain stupid that in this case we have the right to free religious expression embodied in the First Amendment versus the right to own a gun, which could be used to kill people during that religious expression?  According to the shooter’s own statements, he killed the Bible study group because they were black in a historic African-American church, which adds another layer to the travesty that has become American life.  Racism, murder, religious persecution, gun control, and raging ignorance, all rolled into one case.

President Obama gave possibly the best speech of his presidency at the service.  His rage and sorrow bled through his words and in one, heart-rending moment, he broke into song—“Amazing Grace”—and the congregation quickly joined in.  It was a soaring moment in a day of celebration and grief across America.  The service had barely finished when calls went out across the south to remove the Confederate flag from statehouses and government buildings.  Major retailers like Walmart and Sears vowed to remove Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves.  Politicians across party lines stepped up—arguably a little too late—to urge the flag only be displayed in museums of American history.  The people who disagreed claimed the flag represented southern history and heroism as the men who died for the colors did so out of patriotism for a country being torn apart by the issue of slavery.  I would say to those people, those men may have died for patriotic feelings, but keeping a human being in chains and brutalizing him is not a just moral cause.  They died for an aberration in history.  Do we allow the Nazis flag to fly over government buildings in Germany because it was a part of their history?

So here we are on the day after.  Marriage must be a right guaranteed to all people.  We are not talking about religious views, but civil sanctions, and in the shadow of a country founded on the principle that all [people] are created equal, all people have the right to enter into a marriage regardless of sexual orientation, race, or any other categorization.

People—in mosques, churches, temples, and chapels—must be allowed to practice their faith and study their sacred texts without fear of being gunned down in the sanctuary.  Overt symbols of racist, bigoted views, symbols commemorating murder and brutality and enslavement, they must be preserved in museums so we do not forget their divisive and bloody history but beyond that, they should be burned in the furnace of their own ignorance.

And finally, we need to truly take on this issue of guns in America.  They are not necessary, even for sport, and in the end, we must measure the health of our country over the desires of gun enthusiasts.  The days of hunting are over.  Arming ourselves against those who want to harm and victimize us has not proven to lower crime.  Get the guns off the streets and things will change.  And recent events have shown us that arming people on both sides of the law can lead to needless deaths.  If the cops did not have to fear that every person they encounter was armed, we could reduce the number of accidental shootings.  As we have seen in other countries like the U.K., gun control means that law enforcement needs less firepower to do their jobs.  The average street officer in London does not carry a gun.  I remember several years ago watching a street cop in central London handle a drunk man in a situation that could have easily escalated into violence.  The officers handled the situation with poise and control.  The man was subdued, the ambulance was summoned, and everyone lived to see another day.

It was, indeed, a historic Friday, embodying profound grief and merciful joy.  Hopefully, the events will spark discussion, debate, acceptance, and most importantly, unity, across the country.  There will be great struggles ahead, but we must continue to find ways to make America better educated, less violent, and more enlightened as we prepare for our 239th birthday.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


I guess it is my fault that I found John Palfrey’s book, Bibliotech:  Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (Basic Books, 2015) somewhat disappointing.  I was looking for the very thing Palfrey says his book is not:  a paean to the libraries of the past offering a nostalgic, wistful, sepia-toned wish for a time now long gone.  He does admit that there is much to celebrate and love “about the libraries of the past,” but he is administering here what he calls “a dose of tough love.”  How can these institutions survive and even thrive in the burgeoning information age?  That is the question Palfrey seeks to answer.

From the start, Palfrey makes clear he is a “feral,” a “nonlibrarian who ends up working in a library.”  He believes the institutions are at risk “because we have forgotten how essential they are” in this age of Google and Wikipedia.  He calls libraries essential cogs in the wheels of democracy, and believes their presence on the American landscape is just as important now as when Andrew Carnegie was donating the funds to build these secular temples across the land.  Of course, in the information age, what we have lost is the ability to filter the information.  Everything screams at the same volume, so how do we know what is important?  Librarians, Palfrey argues, must perform a most vital task.  They must filter information and make it relevant to the patrons’ lives.

The down side is that most municipal libraries are facing diminishing budgets as cities and counties are squeezed.  Because of exorbitant tuition costs, Palfrey writes that “college presidents are freezing pay in libraries, reducing the rate of new book purchases, and laying off librarians and archivists.”

Palfrey offers a brief history of libraries including the most famous library in history, the historic edifice at Alexandria.  He tells us about how every ship in the port had its cargo of books copied and how scholars traveled the countryside visiting monasteries to copy ancient manuscripts to build the colossal collection that was eventually destroyed by a series of fires leading to a loss of a considerable portion of ancient culture and literature.  In the present, more than a million books are published each year with the fastest growth in the self-publishing area.  Coupling book publication with information published on the internet, and we have a tidal wave of words flooding the digital and actual archives of human thought and endeavor.

I have noticed that when working with college level students, they tend to access material digitally through library platforms and databases.  I am in the minority when I advise students to print out articles and mark them up with annotations.  Most do this on their computers or tablets now, and Palfrey writes that in his research, he, too has seen this phenomenon.  Research has become, in many cases, paperless.  Palfrey makes another point that many of the sources for research are now non-traditional, including things like blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos.  He also points out that the machinations for accessing these digital sources change at a fantastic rate.  He calls this “data rot,” and writes the Library of Congress “holds roughly 150,000 compact discs of audio recordings” of which one to ten percent already have degraded information.  In short, compact discs and DVDs do not last forever.  In addition, some fairly recent information has been recorded on outdated mediums like computer tapes.  This is his argument for the importance of armies of archivists with expertise in preserving these materials before they are lost forever.  It turns out that books are probably more stable as a repository of culture and ideas than a polycarbonate and aluminum CD.

His solution to the fading funding and the diminished centralized power of the library is to expand digitally.  Already, many patrons use the library for computer access.  Palfrey claims parking lots are full of patrons using the free Wi-Fi even after closing time.  He proposes that libraries develop platforms that would allow a patron to utilize materials from several institutions without having to actually go to the bricks-and-mortar edifice.  Once every library’s holdings are digitized and available over the internet, reference librarians could step in to guide patrons to the best sources from a plethora of possibilities without concern for time or distance.  This would solve space and budget issues because no single library can house, or even afford to purchase, all the materials published each year.  Only by combining resources and making them available in a kind of universal digital library could we move to the next step in the information age.  Palfrey writes, “Libraries need to recast themselves as platforms rather than as storehouses…The crucial elements of the library as platform are the access to information that libraries offer, the expert advice in navigating through the information environment, and the connections to larger networks.”  Libraries could still contain stacks of books and traditional library materials like magazines and journals but these would also have digital copies for day-to-day circulation and patron usage.

One such project now underway is the Digital Public Library of America.  Palfrey writes that its goal is “to establish a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects for the whole world—in the digital age.”  He quotes from their mission statement that the organizers wish to create “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.”  It is quite a lofty mission.

Palfrey suggests observing the way universities are opening themselves up to the world by offering online courses that people from any location with internet access can take for free.  By broadening out into digital platforms, we break down walls and open up archives so that the information is easy to access and available to any scholar anywhere in the world.  Palfrey calls this “hacking the library”; the word hacking normally has a negative connotation, but in this case, it is a positive.  It is an opening up of information, democratically, to the world.  This would have the added benefit that digital access would preserve the physical copies of art, maps, books, and other materials.  They would remain safe in controlled environments while digital copies could be utilized by patrons.  However, for these kinds of platforms to be built would require collaboration “far beyond what happens today,” says Palfrey.

Where I think Palfrey’s writing is less successful is when he discusses classroom usage of these resources to meet the needs of Common Core curriculum.  In this area, the writing is already dated; many states are jettisoning Common Core and as an educational fad, its luster is fading.  He also drops names incessantly—teachers, librarians, and other people he believes are at the forefront of the movement.  His discussion of these individuals is, in some cases, so brief that the name drop serves only as a distraction.

In fact, my one major complaint with the book is that there is a lot of redundant writing, a lot of repeated ideas that should be stated and explicated once.  Palfrey includes in his last chapter a summary of the ten steps to keep libraries alive now and in the future culled from the book.  It is a summation that is not necessary.  I felt as if the book, in a trimmed down version, might have worked better as a long magazine article in The New Yorker or Harper’s.

Undoubtedly, though, the prospect for library survival is one crucial to our society and culture.  Of course, it seems like a no-brainer that digital platforms will be the way to go.  Already we can borrow from libraries across the country and have the materials delivered to our local branches and universities.  There is an abundance of sharing going on, and I trust that librarians are savvy enough to know that the way forward is a collaborative one.  In that, John Palfrey is astute and on target.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Scott Stossel's Age of Anxiety

We’ve all been there:  the tightening of the throat, the shallow breathing, the twinge of pain around the heart, the dry mouth, the inability to focus.  It is anxiety.  We live in anxious times.  But when haven’t we lived in anxious times, and before we get too far into our own neuroses, are there not times in history when things might have been more precarious, more dangerous, more downright scary?  I am thinking now of the height of the Second World War when victory was not imminent, or in the late 60s when one had a reasonably good chance of being drafted, handed a weapon, and told to go fight in the jungles of Vietnam.  What about the Dust Bowl, the Plague, the Great Flu, the Great Depression?  Surely every age is one where anxiety might be the right and proper response to the circumstances that threaten the very existence of us.

Scott Stossel, in his book My Age of Anxiety:  Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (Vintage Books, 2013), gives readers a well-researched, crystalline picture of what anxiety means in our culture today, and what he has suffered his entire life.  His book is the perfect marriage of the scientific and the personal.  To be human is to be afflicted with anxiety.  Increasingly, according to Stossel’s research, we are in need of greater medication and treatment to deal with the surge of adrenaline coursing through our veins each day, or is it that we are less able than our ancestors at managing our stress levels?  Life is life with all of its trials and tribulations; we cling to the apocryphal Chinese curse:  may you live in interesting times.  That might make life exciting, but we must be able to handle those times without being reduced to a quivering pile of gelatin.

Stossel is an editor at The Atlantic, and he comes off here in this book as a competent, intelligent man not given to fits of hysteria without reason or inciting incident, but when faced with one of those incidents, he indeed becomes hysterical (a word, interestingly enough coming from a condition of a “disturbed uterus” in its Greek origins).  His is a life-long struggle against near crippling anxiety, even when his intelligence evaluates the circumstances of his agitation and finds them lacking the necessity of such a dramatic response.  Yet, he still loses control—of his bowels, his bladder, his equilibrium.  He does not projectile vomit only because he has a pathological fear of vomiting known in professional terms as emetophobia.  The book, however, is not just stories of Stossel’s battles, although that is some of the most interesting material.  There is ample science and psychological insight, but one cannot read this book without feeling sympathy for Stossel’s predicament.  He describes his situation:  “I am buffeted by worry:  about my health and my family members’ health; about finances; about work; about the rattle in my car and the dripping in my basement; about the encroachment of old age and the inevitability of death; about everything and nothing.  Sometimes this worry gets transmuted into low-grade physical discomfort—stomachaches, headaches, dizziness, pains in my arms and legs—or a general malaise, as though I have mononucleosis or the flu.  At various times, I have developed anxiety-inducing difficulties breathing, swallowing, even walking; these difficulties then become obsessions, consuming all of my thinking.”  His troubles may seem rooted in narcissism, but that does not entirely explain them away.

In an effort to defeat this mental enemy, Stossel has tried all manner of pharmaceuticals as well as “self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes…ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.”  In all the Ativan, Xanax and Klonipin, the psychotherapy, all kinds of other therapies, something called “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, nothing has worked.  A stiff drink and a host of other drugs wash through his system.  The anxiety remains potent and debilitating.

The book is laced with quotes, many from Sigmund Freud, regarding anxiety in history, science and culture.  There are also copious footnotes and explanations that function as a sort of parallel text, a Talmudic commentary on the science of the anxiety experience.  He traces human history and anxiety as well as his own history:  his great-grandfather Chester Hanford was suicidal and suffered from “feelings of anxiety and tension” as well as “fears as to the future.”  He writes of one therapist he encountered, a Dr. W., who boiled anxiety down to a single sentence:  “Anxiety…is apprehension about future suffering—the fearful anticipation of an unbearable catastrophe one is hopeless to prevent.”  Other animals seem immune to anxious thoughts, mainly because they cannot get lost in the past, worry about the future, or contemplate events other than the ones in the present.  They need food, water and shelter.  In the animal kingdom, everyone but us lives in the present.  Dr. W. makes an important distinction:  “while fear is produced by ‘real’ threats from the world, anxiety is produced from within ourselves.”  In other words, we seem to make ourselves anxious.  If only we could let go and stop, but Stossel’s argument is that our anxiety is as much a result of genetics and biology as a product of our over-active imaginations.  Many of us are predisposed to being anxious, and once rolling down that slippery slope, there is very little, pharmacologically or therapeutically, that we can do to stop ourselves.

Along the way in the book, Stossel gives the reader a complete history of drug treatments as well as a discussion of the genetics of anxiety.  The latter is a fear Stossel has:  he might pass his phobias onto his children, and in fact, that is already in evidence as his kids begin to exhibit some of the same concerns and fears.  He discusses the different eras and evaluates how anxiety might be instigated by world events.  It turns out that every age has the potential for anxiety.  In fact, it is our response to those events that causes anxiety.  Times were not necessarily worse in some previous era, nor are things necessarily bad now.  Nuclear war may occur in the future, but potential does not indicate certainty.  It turns out we are the architects of our own anxious feelings, and genetics play more of a role than world cataclysms.  Stossel holds out the hope that by writing a book about anxiety and his own phobias, he might somehow defeat them and find some peace.  But the jury is still out on whether or not he is successful.

Could it be that we are more aware of the dangers out there?  Could it be that anxiety is communicated more effectively in our time through the 24 hours news cycle, the ever-present eye of the media?  We have actual news and then we have the talking heads to walk us through every potential possibility of catastrophe.  With so much information out there, zipping back and forth and around the world on our digital devices, maybe we are anxious because we simply know too much?  We suffer from catastrophic information overload.  There is too much coming at us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The world may be no more dangerous than it was five hundred years ago.  It may have the seeds of potential cataclysm in its future.  But arguably, whatever happens, we will know about it sooner than our ancestors did.  Bad news travels much faster in the digital age.  For those of us inherently disposed to feelings of anxiety as Stossel is, medication and psychology might be the only refuge and even they may be somewhat less than effective.  In the end, the tools we have to control the mind on fire with fear might only be courage and resilience.  In the case of Scott Stossel, he has tried nearly everything else, but the anxiety remains.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Lost World of Joseph Mitchell

In times past, people like Joseph Mitchell and Alfred Kazin, young men in an exciting city, could walk the streets and probe the neighborhoods of their fair metropolis discovering the characters, the disparate worlds of 20th century New York and not get mugged, stabbed or beaten, but return with stories to beguile readers even in this new century in this very different world.  Those were the days.

Kazin was a critic, an intellectual American force.  His forays were side trips, alternate excursions between essays about literature and writers and art in America.  He walked because he had to think; one act precipitated another.  His feet kept moving because he had somewhere to be (the public library, where he wrote some of his early work), all the while pondering the words and texts he wrote about inside out and back again.

Joseph Mitchell came to writing and walking from the direction of journalism on a beeline into Manhattan.  A product of the farming life in North Carolina, Mitchell arrived in New York on the eve of the Great Depression and found work at the New York Herald Tribune and later, the New York World-Telegram before landing at The New Yorker under legendary editor Harold Ross.  He received some sage advice from one of his editors that “To really learn a city quickly…a reporter should live close to the areas he’s covering.  And he should walk, constantly…it’s vital to walk and take in as much as you can.”  The story is recounted in Thomas Kunkel’s excellent new biography of Mitchell, Man In Profile:  Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (Random House, 2015).  Mitchell took that advice to the fullest, and although the world and the man are mostly gone now, we revel in the stories and use them as evidence of what journalism once was in this American life.

His stories and characters are legendary:

Joe Gould and his mythical An Oral History of Our Time; the denizens of Old McSorley’s Saloon; his tales of the old Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan; and the assorted circus performers, gypsies and other street characters that made their way into print through Mitchell’s typewriter.

Kunkel takes us through the streets in Mitchell’s shadow, and we learn the behind-the-scenes stories of stories, a treasure trove of insight into the life of New York through wars and peace and world events.  Mitchell’s portrait of that world was in miniature and found on the street, and as Kunkel recounts, his profiles and stories were the result of hard work with Mitchell sometimes filing several pieces a day when he worked for the newspapers.  Mitchell even made the weather a story, writing an impressive set of descriptive pieces about a “particularly oppressive heat wave that had the city in its grip.”

Mitchell’s writing has a nostalgic tone, a kind of melancholy strain that permeates the most effective evocation of a time past.  His work has a lyrical sadness that Kunkel says is simply part of who Mitchell was, an observer, a celebrator of street life and people.  One of the more revealing aspects of this biography is not the well-known writer’s block Mitchell suffered from 1964 until his death, but his penchant for utilizing fictional elements within his journalism.  Any student of The New Yorker lore knows of Mitchell’s daily routine after 1964 of going to the office, closing the door, and typing away only to emerge in the afternoon with nothing to show for his efforts, at least nothing to publish.  Kunkel addresses this.  He tells us that Mitchell, always a meticulous perfectionist, simply was never satisfied with anything to consider it finished and publishable.  There were fragments left behind:  at least three major chunks of a memoir have been published in The New Yorker in recent years, and they are well worth the reading, but they also leave a reader desperately wishing he had finished.  One section in particular just ends, almost in mid-sentence, leaving the reader hanging.

What Kunkel does in his biography, though, is fully air out and discuss the fictional elements in Mitchell’s work, the composite characters, the imagined dialogue and scenes.  Joseph Mitchell was doing so-called New Journalism before practitioners of the craft, like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson arrived on the scene.  Kunkel says that Mitchell was too much of a perfectionist to simply make things up.  He grounded “his stories in authoritative research, and lots of it.”  He goes on to say that “Mitchell’s main tools were the reporter’s classic ones—strong legs, acute observation, and unparalleled listening skills, not to mention the patience to engage in serial interview conversations with his subjects.”  Harold Ross encouraged Mitchell in his shaping of the story using fictional techniques, and knew full well when his writer was compositing characters or recounting long paragraphs of monologue from several conversations.  Undoubtedly, Kunkel asserts, this kind of fudging would not go on in journalism now, but in the dry, camera-captured stories of today, something is missing, some human truth that Mitchell managed to capture with his innovative technique.  The camera does not lie, but it also tells us a sterile story.  Mitchell’s work brims with life and grit and real world color.

Kunkel cites a letter from editor Don Frank to Mitchell as they wrestled with publishing an anthology of his writing.  In it, Frank quotes Eudora Welty on Walker Percy:  “only a judicious portion of this truth is the factual kind; much of it is truth about human nature, and more of it is spiritual.”  More than anything, this sums up Mitchell’s work.  He captured the truth even when using fictional tools to get there.

When his beloved wife, Therese passed before him, Mitchell’s later years were difficult as he battled depression and cancer.  Kunkel writes that in his final days, Mitchell told his family “There was so much I still wanted to do.”  He died on May 24, 1996, and with him, an era of journalism came to a close.  In the waning pages of his biography, Kunkel provides a melancholy image of his subject at the end of his life.  “Then Mitchell, who throughout his life had found so much beauty and comfort in graveyards, was laid to rest in the Floyd Memorial Cemetery, next to Therese.  As he once wrote in his journal:  ‘An old man walking alone down a cemetery path, [you] can tell by the way he walks that he knows exactly where he is going:  among all these graves, he has a certain one in mind.’”

Thomas Kunkel writes eloquently about Joseph Mitchell throughout the book.  As with his previous, connected biography of Harold Ross, he brings to Mitchell’s life story a clear-eyed yet elegiac tone that suits his subject’s writing style and oeuvre.  For students of journalism and American life in the 20th century, this is an excellent snapshot of an era long gone, but still mourned.

For Joseph Mitchell’s work, check out the following books:

Up In The Old Hotel (Vintage, 1993)
My Ears Are Bent (Vintage, 2008)