Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben

I am a bit late. Here it is 2014 and I am just now reading Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Being late, ironically, is what the first half of McKibben's book on the state of our planet is about. For several decades political and environmental leaders have been talking about actions to take to halt or at least slow the effects of global warming. Then in 2008, unprecedented amounts of polar ice melted, decades ahead of direst predictions. According to McKibben, that was the nail in the coffin of the old planet that we knew before 1970.

What's wrong? Lots! The amount of carbon in the air will not be as low again as it was on the old stable Earth and will keep rising for the foreseeable future on the new Eaarth. Worse still, the planetary systems cycle that has begun will release large amounts of methane. Ocean levels will rise, tropical zones will expand, and food production will drop as the planet grows hotter. It will get even worse if we continue our current energy consumption. We will have to find new ways to live.

The second part of McKibben's book is about making the best of a bad situation. While this sounds dreary, it is not. While we would love to turn back the clock, we can not, he insists, but we can make a livable world if we are smart. The difficulty will be ending our current consumer society and adjusting to an economy of no growth in manufacturing and consumption. The way is heralded by slow and local economies. Our food, sustainable energy production, and work need to be local. We also have to become good neighbors.

Of course, McKibben's ideas are too many to explain in a paragraph. The upshot is that McKibben thinks that we can (and have to) form more equitable and stable communities to survive. As individuals, we can be happier, if we reform before time runs out.

McKibben's book would be a great choice for book discussion groups.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010. 253p. ISBN 9780805090567.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bark: Stories

"A maternal vertigo beset her, the room circled, and the cutting scars on her son's arms sometimes seemed to spell out Pete's name in the thin lines there, the loss of fathers etched primitively in the algebra of skin."

Author Lorrie Moore is noted for her eloquent writing. In the sentence above from the third page of the short story "Referential," she sums up what she has described in the first two pages of the story. A widow's son has become self-destructive and been institutionalized. In her mourning for all that is lost, she had denied herself what she still has.

Leaving the facility, the mother and her fading boyfriend are caught in a surprising springtime snowstorms. The wipers struggle to clear the glass. How can they see a way ahead.

In her recent collection Bark: Stories, Moore portrays many people finding reasons to be unhappy. Some of them are good reasons, most of which seem to radiate from making bad relationship choices. What these characters seem to lack are abilities to extract themselves. It is almost painful to read, but Moore draws us in, tapping out interest that precedes our willingness to help. But these are only characters in a book, so we can only observe. Maybe we can help those who are really around us.

Moore, Lorrie. Bark: Stories. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 192p. ISBN 9780307594136.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild by Lawrence Anthony

South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony is a model for the modern version of the rugged man. He is unconcerned about comfort, brave in the face of danger, smart when he needs to be, and dedicated to a better planet. He is one part pragmatist and another part dreamer. He is all of this as the owner and principal manager of the Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand. He is also a splendid writer, as he demonstrates in his memoir The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild

While the threads of story are many in The Elephant Whisperer, the central action revolves around Anthony's agreeing to accept a "rogue herd" of elephants into his preserve. These elephants had continually escaped from their previous preserve, causing much damage in surrounding villages and farms. Anthony knew that they would prove difficult to manage, but he also knew that they would be killed if he did not adopt them. He had always dreamed of reintroducing elephants to his part of Zululand, an area that had been without them for 100 years. On the first night in Anthony's care, they tipped over an ancient tree to break out of a high voltage enclosure, verifying that his task would be challenging.

Read by Simon Vance, The Elephant Whisperer is a very entertaining audiobook. Told at a lively pace, the book includes comedy, tragedy, romance, suspense and action, as well as many memorable characters, many of them pachyderms. It joins other splendid recent books about conservation work in Africa, including Life, Love, and Elephants by Dame Daphne Sheldrick and Cathedral of the Wild by Boyd Varty.

Anthony, Lawrence. The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild. Thomas Dunne Books, 2009. 368p. ISBN 9780312565787.

audiobook. Tantor Audio, 2012. 9 compact discs. ISBN 9781452610894.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott

We have an emergency and are doing little about it, according to computational scientist Stephen Emmott in his book Ten Billion. Everyone talks about global warming, but our troubles are much greater than climate change. As the world population grows, demand for food and water grows, but our resources are limited. Serious planning for the future needs to be done now, but Emmott believes little has been accomplished so far and there are few signs of any action in the near future. By the time enough people notice our situation, it may be too late to avoid catastrophe.

Take the subject of food production. The reason there are so many of us is that humans have succeeded in greatly increasing agricultural production three times in the history. We seem to assume that we can do it again, but Emmott says that it will not be so easy. Most of the land good for agriculture is already being used, and some of it is in bad shape because of soil depletion and erosion. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is not a good model for the future as it required great amounts of water (a declining resource) and steady use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which have polluted water.

Next take water. Many aquifers are being rapidly depleted. People who believe we can invent our way out of every problem say there is plenty of ocean water to desalinate. The problem is that it takes a lot of energy to remove salt out of water to produce quantities needed by large communities or for agriculture. Desalination produces waste and pollution, and ways to delivery great quantities of water inland has not been planned.

With more people, there will be more demand for many consumer items, increasing the demand for water, energy, and metals for manufacturing. Every aspect of life on earth will be stressed. What can we do? Emmott thinks we either have to 1) technologize our way out of the situation (possible but unlikely) or 2) radically change our behaviors of consumption and procreation (again possible but unlikely). Seeing that there will soon be ten billion of us, he thinks that there are bad days ahead.

Ten Billion is a very scary book. As a rule, people do not like to read very scary books without zombies. In Emmott's book, we are the zombies. Passionate and eloquent throughout, the author tries to wake us from our sleep. Ten Billion is a slim volume with much to report and would be a great book discussion choice.

Emmott, Stephen. Ten Billion. Vintage Books, 2013. 216p. ISBN 9780345806475.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Shape of the Reference Desk, a Panel Discussion

So much is changing at libraries, and the reference desk is part of the evolution to more client friendly service. Libraries are ripping out old desks to replace them with designer service stations to help staff help their clients. Thinking it was a good time to assess the change and spot some trends, 43 librarians attended our July 9 The Shape of the Reference Desk program, sponsored by the Adult Reference Librarians Network and held at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library.

Our three panelists - Blaise Dierks of the River Forest Public Library, Nancy Kim Phillips of the Arlington Heights Public Library, and Nicole Wilhelms of the Downers Grove Public Library - have all participated in the redesign of their libraries' desks. Coming from three different communities, each showed and explained how their new desks are designed to improve their public services. I added a brief report on our local survey of librarians' thoughts about their reference desks. (See the pie chart summary by clicking here. There is also a link to all the individual comments.)

Reference desk trends that I noticed from the presentation:

  • Many new desks are removing the barriers between the librarian and the client. A new goal is to get the two side by side for the interview. This might be both standing or both sitting, and often a computer is involved. Having librarian and client side by side can let the librarian bring the client into the search. The client might notice something the librarian has not and redirect the request. The client might also learn self-help skills as a by-product. 
  • New reference desks are getting closer to where clients enter the building and closer to the checkout desks. Having reference desks in the back in no longer ideal. Clients will ask other staff before ever getting back to a remote reference desk. 
  • Reference desks are getting smaller. 
  • Several reference managers vowed to get clutter off of their reference desks, to make them more inviting and not give the impression that the librarians are too busy to help. It was noted that sometimes too many signs and handouts around a desk seem to suggest "Do it yourself" when what a librarian really wants is to offer assistance. 
  • Reference departments, especially those with call centers, are taking some tasks more usually performed by circulation clerks or receptionists. Reference and readers' advisory departments are merging. Libraries are reorganizing to have fewer departments. 
  • Reference desks go by many names, including Information, Questions, Answers, Ask Us, and many variations including the word "service." A slight majority are still known as Reference according to our survey.

There was much interest in the public service point at the Arlington Heights Public Library, which Nancy Kim Phillips said is hard to call a desk. Librarians stand in the area of the structure to offer help and bring clients to open positions on the counter if necessary. Staff rove and use tablets in many of the reference interviews. One of the Arlington Heights librarians said that she has gotten in healthier shape working the reference shifts of her library. When off the floor, the librarian may be working the call center.

What I did NOT hear at this program was the idea that reference librarians should be pulled from public service desks because their time is too valuable to be assigned walk-up clients with easy questions. I heard this expressed by a manager of a small college library at the ALA Conference in Chicago in 2013. This group still seemed to be committed to reference librarians being on the front lines.

The Adult Reference Librarians Network's next meeting will be held on October 8 at the Indian Prairie Public Library.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

This is Dali by Catherine Ingram

A graphic novel treatment is a most appropriate approach to the life of the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. He is remembered for wildly strange art, much of which had elements of humor. Most was oil on canvas, but he also strove to express his own brand of art with his clothing and the design and furnishing of his home. Using a mixture of the most famous Dali images and comic drawings from illustrator Andrew Rae, author Catherine Ingram recounts Dali's strange life in her concise biography This is Dali.

"Outrageous" might be the most appropriate one word to describe Dali. He seems to have enjoyed shocking the public and have no true purpose in life other than self-promotion. About the kindest thing Ingram has to say about Dali, other than he was an artistic genius, was that he was lonely. She points to poor parenting as one reason for his seeming lack of care for others.

Whosoever understands Dali, the author suggests can also understand his art. In This is Dali, she explains the joke behind the melting clocks and suggests that Dali influenced many artists to come, including Alfred Hitchcock and Andy Warhol. I would add that John Pasche probably knew Dali's lips logo when he made a tongue and lips logo for the Rolling Stones. Maybe you'll recognize other ways Dali shaped our world if you give this odd little book a try.

Ingram, Catherine and illustrations by Andrew Rae. This is Dali. Laurence King Publishing, 2014. 80p. ISBN 9781780671093.

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Light in High Places: A Naturalist Looks at Wyoming Wildness, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Cowboys, and Other Rare Species by Joe Hutto

Add Joe Hutto to my list of favorite authors. After finishing Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman's Gulch, I had to read his previous book The Light in High Places: A Naturalist Looks at Wyoming Wildness, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Cowboys, and Other Rare Species. The subtitle well describes the wide-ranging subject matter, except it does not indicate how autobiographical a book it is. Anyone who has been charmed by Hutto in Touching the Wild or his early book Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey will want to read what Hutto tells about himself. He is a most interesting character.

Reading The Light in High Places reminds me how great it was that Bonnie and I went to Wyoming last year and makes me want to go again. Hutto probably does not want the place overrun with tourists, but he sees that well-run, eco-friendly tourism can help with the protection of the places and wildlife that he loves. A reader will see that as a hunter Hutto also sees a place for hunting, but he is greatly troubled by the idea of hunting as sport and big business. The aims of traditional rural life and wildlife conservation are not served by such sport, which caters to people who pay to kill threatened species.

Hutto does not consider himself a cowboy, coming from Florida and trained as a naturalist, but he is very respectful of men and women who grew up with traditional cowboy skills. He has learned many of those skills and managed ranches, but he still seeks advice and assistance from the experts. He sees himself as a dedicated scientist and enjoys spending months alone in species studies on the tops of mountains. He tells us how hard such studies are, but I bet many of us would like to join him for a day or two. Imagine the vistas!

If Worldcat is to be trusted, there are just about 150 copies of The Light in High Places in U.S. libraries, only about three per state. Illinois has eight. I think there should be more copies available. I am afraid Hutto and his eloquent books are among the rare species in need of attention. They should not be allowed to disappear unnoticed.

Hutto, Joe. The Light in High Places: A Naturalist Looks at Wyoming Wildness, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Cowboys, and Other Rare Species. Skyhorse Publishing, 2009. 281p. ISBN 9781602397033.