[Surf’s Up, as published in the St. John's Telegram on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.]
A little while ago, my wife got a notification from the library that a book she had wanted was ready for her to read. Instead of driving over to pick it up, though, she made a few taps on a screen and the book was hers to enjoy.
The eLibrary program of our public library system is a great addition to its services, and I’ve really been happy to see (or rather hear) ads that promote it. After all, advertising is really necessary to reach a new audience.
We learned about it first during a library visit, but as any regular patron will tell you, a great many people never set foot on a library floor. That means you need to get their attention through other means.
I’m a great believer in libraries. I love them, I love going there, I love wandering the stacks, and I love finding surprises. I also see them as essential to the meaning of community, and believe that reading stokes our economic engines.
However, I have to be honest and say that Newfoundland and Labrador does not truly value its libraries, and sometimes seems to neglect them. I’d love to see the library system truly transformed, and given the respect that libraries deserve, and that goes far beyond offering e-books.
But first, let’s take a look at what’s on offer with the digital library. That notification my wife got? That will sound familiar to anyone who’s used a library regularly, and used to get a call or a notice in the mail (and more recently an email). Getting the book is simple enough: you need to log in, add the title to your cart and check it out. It’s available for precisely two weeks.
If it’s just a digital copy, why wait at all for it to be become available? That’s because the library pays for digital licences for the books in this program. If it has, say, two licences for one book, only two people can have it on their Kindle or Kobo or tablet at any one time.
I have yet to use the service with my own card, by the way. As digital-minded as I am, I still actually read my books the old-fashioned way. I am planning to get my own tablet soon, in part because reading news headlines on a phone can be a headache-prompter, and in part because I’ve seen how my wife (a nonstop reader, like me) has really enjoyed having an iPad.
What I’ve seen in the eLibrary selection is not bad. A lot of popular fiction, a smattering of material in various other sections, some surprises. And don’t forget, we’re still in early days. I hope that the variety expands continually.
A single patron can have three e-books out on loan at a time, and after two weeks, your licence expires, which means tapping on the icon won’t work. The upside is that there are no late fines! You can renew in a jiffy, though, should there be no one waiting for the book.
This is a convenient system, and I imagine it’s very welcome news for people who don’t live at all close to a library. The geographic gap has been made considerably shorter.
But the eLibrary is not enough to transform our libraries into the institutions they ought to be.
My local library happens to be the A.C. Hunter, the flagship in the province’s system, and a place I’ve been going since I was a little kid. Our family has made a habit lately of “library night,” and every two weeks (sometimes three) we trek over, split up and then regroup with what we’d like to borrow.
Some nights, there are readings and activity. More often, though, the place feels deserted, and it’s such a shame. Compare that to the buzz and the crowd at the same time at Chapter’s, around the corner on Kenmount Road. It says something – quite a lot, actually – that many people prefer to hang out and relax at a place where books cost money than where they are free.
I don’t like the physical space of the Hunter. It’s not nearly big enough, and is constricted by how it’s wedged into the Arts and Culture Centre. The fiction stacks bore me; I see the same old (decades-old, in many cases) hardcovers every time.
We need to rethink all our libraries, top to bottom … with the exception of Memorial University’s library, which has a first-rate and publicly overlooked collection. Very few of the schools in the province have a dedicated, full-time librarian; the threshold for such a position is several hundred more students than the typical school actually has.
As kids grow up, the public libraries are hardly designed to be places where they would want to go.
Simply stated, the public libraries are not particularly welcoming places. The librarians themselves? They’re great, and I always find them helpful. But the spaces are cold and institutional, and feel like they’re meant for storage, not active use. Believe me, it takes more than a couch to get that feeling across.
Nor do we make them as accessible as they could be. They are not funded to be open seven days a week, let alone six. It pains me that the libraries aren’t open on Sundays – and don’t get me started about summer hours.
Yes, the answer involves money (we spend far too little per capita on the knowledge sector of the economy), but it’s more than that. It means some visionary thinking has to come from the owners of the libraries, and that includes politicians and consumers alike. That’s no easy nut to crack.
But think about what libraries could be. As my wife puts it, “libraries should be our city squares,” where people simply want to go, regardless of whether they’re planning to borrow anything or not.
The eLibrary is a great step toward connecting the public with a good resource in our midst. But let’s work at making it a great resource, once that involves bricks and mortar as much as bits and bytes.
Last year, around this time, the three of us started watching the James Bond movies in chronological order. It was fun; this weekend, we dipped into the DVD chest and pulled out a favourite (You Only Live Twice) as we took it easy one night.
I'd like to try something different: reading the original Ian Fleming books. Not necessarily in order, and while I read some when I was younger (my dad was and is a fan of spy fiction, and I tracked a few down at the library and bought at least one on my own), a good number I've never read at all. My impressions stand to be corrected, but I thought that the tack that the movie franchise has taken with Daniel Craig has been in line with Fleming's concept of Bond - apart from the easy sophistication, this guy was not afraid to use his fists. Maybe I'm wrong. We'll see!
"I’m the sort who works very hard on something for years. And then there are years where I do nothing, just a bit of wool-gathering or whatever. I like doing nothing, if I can avoid doing something." - Vikram Seth
[This quote was referenced in Sunday's edition of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, in which Seth was the featured guest. I tracked it down to this 2008 interview. Seth revealed that he has been working on a sequel to A Suitable Boy, to be called A Suitable Girl, for many years. We'll have to wait a bit later to see it.]
A Twitter meme that passed by my eyes last night was called #junkfoodnovels - the challenge being to adjust the name of a book with a not-particularly-respectable food item. Thus, options include The Sound and the McFlurry, Lord of the Fries and Clan of the Gummi Bears.
I chipped in my own .. not being able to resist this kind of a challenge.
Horton Hears a Yoo-Hoo To Have and Have Nacho Mrs. DalloMilkyWay À la recherche du temps perMountain Dew The (After) Eight Oryx and Cake (although I nod my head to the smarter brain who came up with Oreos and Cake) The Man With the Cooked to a Golden Perfection Arm The Adventures of Kavalier and KFC The Lord of the Ring-o-Los
We started something this summer: putting one night aside every few weeks, and heading over to the library. It sounds simple enough, but it's a bit of a change for us; Martha and I had been frequent borrowers when we were younger, but had fallen out of the habit. I knew we needed to get back into the habit when Nick remarked that he had not taken out a book in months. As it turns out, his reading interests have expanded continually, and is now wanting to comb the stacks in the adult library. I have to say I'm always curious to see what he'll pick out.
OK, the section headers on top do give it away, but have you ever noticed just how many gardening books have green covers and/or spines? Altogether, they kind of blur together, and I found myself drawn to the books that didn't have green plastered all over.
A bookmark that features the legs of the WIcked Witch of the East (had to look that up to confirm it; ol' greenface was the west) from the Wizard of Oz. This made my wife laugh out loud when I showed her.
As I've mentioned, we were in San Diego in June for a family vacation. A bit of a working one for Martha, as she had a conference to attend. Our home base was the hotel where the conference was held, just few dozen metres from San Diego's harbour. Nearby was a place called Seaport Village, a cluster of shops, restaurants, boutiques and atractions that seemed to cater largely to visitors, although I imagine a lot of the business also comes from the southern California area.
Tucked in the area was a bookstore that became a hangout for us, partly because of the excellent coffee, partly because of the free wifi ... and definitely partly because it just felt comfortable.
It's very much the kind of bookstore I'd love to see in St. John's.
The Upstart Crow is in a building that seems like a cottage; if you didn't look at the surrounding buildings, you'd think you were in an English village.
It's what's inside, though, that mattered. The Upstart Crow has a fair bit of room. It has two levels, although the upper one is more of a partial attic, holding some of the books. It serves a variety of foods to go along with the coffee, with a cafe inside. The seating area is obscured in the shot below by a section of the bookshelves.
The selection of books wasn't particularly unusual; the pastries were not exemplary; the novelties and cards (a real profit centre of an independent bookstore, I'm guessing) can be found in other places.
But it all came together. The store had a vibe. We wanted to go there, just to relax and unwind. Nick and I played checkers on a table while Martha browsed the books; we stretched our legs and read quietly at the end of the day; we stopped in for a caffeine hit before we set out on the day's adventure. We never once felt rushed when we tapped into the complimentary wifi to catch up on the news. And, yes, we spent a fair bit there over the week.
It's something that's missing in the local retail scene.
Paul Weller has been a figure in my life for more than three decades, which isn't bad, given that I haven't clocked out five yet. He's an incredible songwriter, a durable performer and a music-business survivor. And he must have one hell of a liver.
He also has a notorious temper, which is no secret at all, but now there's a book out from Paolo Hewitt, who used to interview Weller for NME back at the start, and went on to become one of Weller's best friends. No more.
In the way that only the Daily Mail can, here's the headline on the book that Hewitt has produced on what Weller can be like, all too often:
Why, after 30 years of endless tantrums, I’ve had enough of Paul Weller’s ever changing moods, says a former close friend
My bedtime reading lately was Life, the Keith Richards autobiography that I had received as a birthday present from Ivan and Helene. It's a very entertaining read, and while it's not wonderfully written - I suspect the voice of Richards we hear comes only from the multiple interviews he gave to his collaborator, James Fox - there is a wonderful sense of storytelling. There are plenty of yarns and anecdotes (e.g., of how Charlie Watts dressed himself to the nines after being awoken by a drunken Mick Jagger, and then punched him square in the face for calling him "my drummer") but some of the most astonishing involve Richards's son, Marlon, who grew up in an astonishingly dysfunctional manner.
His mother, after all, is Anita Pallenberg, who was more of a junkie than Richards himself (think about that for a moment), and considerably more self-destructive. Eventually, young Marlon was a buffer on tours, and the only person, for instance, who could wake Richards in time for a Rolling Stones gig. He was still a kid when he saw his mother's teenage lover shoot himself in a game of Russian roulette. He was barely at school when he was left pretty much alone in a series of Long Island mansions, a decrepit twist on the Great Gatsby.
You have to be surprised, and impressed, when Marlon reveals - he speaks for himself at key passages of the book - that he wanted to go back to England, go to school, and do something ... and that he scored some A-levels, to boot. Today, he's in his 40s, and is, of all things, pretty normal.
Instead, and quite extraordinarily, this child of two heroin-addicted parents was raised on the road as a Rolling Stone. He learned to count by pushing the buttons in hotel elevators; his first words, famously, were ‘room service’.
To Pallenberg tell it, Marlon Richards turned out that way by - get this - rebelling against his parents.
It won't be available until October 2012, but a collection of John Lennon's letters is in the works. I think it should be interesting; Lennon, after all, was at his best when he had to write just a little, and he certainly had quite a bit of fun with the words he chose to use. A teaser is here.
Dot Dot Dot is Morse code for the letter 'S,' the full message Guglielmo Marconi claimed to have received atop Signal Hill in St. John's in 1901. It ushered in the age of telecommunications. My maternal grandfather worked as a telegraph operator for Canadian Marconi on Signal Hill for many years.
As well, I have a habit of overusing the ellipsis when I write ... as frequent readers might notice.