On this day in 1945, holed up in a bunker under his headquarters in Berlin, Adolf
Hitler committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the head. His mistress, and wife of one day, Eva Braun, poisoned herself and their dogs as well. Just eight days later, Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending Hitler's dreams of a "1,000-year" Reich.
In the Garden of Beasts (Erik Larson: 2011)
Erik Larson writes nonfiction that reads like the best fiction: vivid, atmospheric page-turners that hold the reader in vise grip until the final paragraph. He's done it again in this mesmerizing portrait of Berlin the early years of Hitler's reign of terror. He paints his picture through the eyes of William Dodd, America's ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, who are initially enchanted and then repulsed by what they encounter.
Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (Ian Kershaw: 2000)
Adolf Hitler was a contradiction riddled with self-created myths. Ian Kershaw reveals the character of the bizarre misfit who morphed into a demonic mass murderer over the course of his thirty-year rise from an illegitimate birth in an Austrian village through his early years spent in a Viennese shelter for the indigent to uncontested rule over the German nation that had tried and rejected democracy in the aftermath of World War I. Kershaw brings to life the settings that made Hitler's rise possible: the rabid anti-Semitism of prewar Vienna, the hellish cauldron of World War I, the nationalism that poisoned Bavaria in the 1920s, the extremism that undermined the Weimar Republic, the hysteria that accompanied Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, the shared madness that resulted in brutal attacks on Jews and others condemned as enemies of the Aryan race.
Explaining Hitler: The Search for Origins of His Evil (Ron Rosenbaum: 1999)
How does a Hitler happen? Rosenbaum tackles that question and more in this engrossing book full of conversations with and the viewpoints of historians, philosophers, filmmakers, and others who have attempted to make sense of Hitler's actions and find a root cause for the Holocaust. Rosenbaum sifts through the rumors: Hitler's alleged Jewish ancestry and physical deformity (what biographer Alan Bullock calls "the one-ball business") and the attempts to extract some psychological causation factor. We see a variety of Hitlers laid bare: the con man and gangster; the unspeakable pervert, the ladies' man, even the artist whose medium of choice was destruction. But Rosenbaum also examines the examiners to illuminate what an explanation of Hitler tells us about Hitler, about the scholars who attempt to explain, and about ourselves.
The Lost Life of Eva Braun (Angela Lambert: 2008)
What sort of woman loves a monster? Eva Braun left convent school at the age of seventeen and met Hitler a few months later in a camera store. She became his mistress before she turned twenty and remained so for 13 years until their joint suicides at the end of the war. Hitler humiliated her in public and she was mocked by the wives of his Nazi officials. Albert Speer described her as "very shy, modest. A man’s woman: gay, gentle, and kind; incredibly undemanding . . . a restful sort of girl.” Who was Eva Braun? Lambert's biography, only the second examination of the life of Eva Braun written in English, focuses a spotlight on the young woman who lived her life in the cold heart of the Nazi regime.
Starting a librarian's playlist...
We used to call them mix tapes...and then mix CDs, and then they became playlists on MP3 players, and now we can arrange them on Spotify... whatever... but if you are hanging with your librarian besties and you need some tunes to rock the house, here's another one by Canadian band Moxy Fruvous (from their 1993 album Bargainville). These guys name-drop Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Michael Ondaatje, come up with a clever rhyme for Mario Puzo and find a way to toss in Doris Lessing as well. Turns out they wrote it in honor of a Toronto authors' festival. (Note to Printers Row Lit Fest: check into a theme song for next year!)
@George Michael: if you cover this one and the Julian Smith ditty on your comeback album, I'll guarantee a built-in librarian audience. Maybe write a librarian song of your own and send it in to the Lit Fest committee. And then book a performance at the intimate Chicago Theatre.
Unfortunately, these guys are no longer making satirical, politically-aware music together. But they deserve a place in the Librarians' Music Hall of Fame for another of their songs: a jazz-flavored, hip-hop riff on Green Eggs and Ham.
If you're a reader, a serious reader, you have probably felt this way at one time or another...or many times, for that matter, depending on how often you get interrupted!
Haven't They Heard of Google?
Organizers of the 2012 London Olympics apparently contacted the manager of legendary rock group The Who to inquire as to whether its former drummer Keith Moon would be willing and available to participate in the closing ceremonies for the Games.
Keith Moon died in 1978 from an overdose of a prescription medication which was supposed to aid his withdrawal from alcohol-addiction.
A Meditation on Perfection
\pər-ˈfek-shən\: 1 the quality or state of being perfect: as a: freedom from fault or defect : flawlessness
2 a: an exemplification of supreme excellence b: an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence
Last Saturday, Philip Humber, pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, threw a perfect game, joining the exclusive ranks of just 20 others who have achieved this feat, including Sandy Koufax, Jim Bunning, former teammate Mark Buehrle and Catfish Hunter. In baseball, everyone knows what "perfection" means -- at least, perfection for a pitcher: no runs, no hits, no walks and no errors, not a single opponent reaches a base.
But how do we judge perfection in other sports, if perfection is indeed possible? Has there ever been a football game in which the opposing team was denied even a single first down? A professional basketball game in which the losing team failed to score even one point?
Celebrating or throwing a tantrum? You be the judge.
What would perfection look like in golf? A hole-in-one on every hole? (Or, if you're Tiger Woods these days, not having a melt-down after every missed shot?)
Perfection in other endeavors is just as elusive to define. What would it take to achieve perfection as a business owner or an attorney? An ever-increasing profit margin and a tidy quarterly return for investors? An uninterrupted string of victories in court? How about for comedians? Would perfection mean a laugh for every joke? For actors, an Academy Award for each performance?
Impossible, you say. Absolutely!
And for writers, fuhgeddaboudit! Seeking perfection in every sentence (or any sentence for that matter) guarantees a yawning empty page or blank screen at the end of the day. Writers' block is the curse of perfectionism.
Flaubert (pondering his imperfect heroine Emma Bovary?)
As Gustave Flaubert so wisely cracked: "Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything."
Many other learned men (women, not so much) have expounded on the topic of perfection, with some overlap, but very little agreement.
J.D. (pondering imperfect hero Holden C.?)
J.D. Salinger, recluse-par-excellence and writer, solved the problem by insisting that perfection was a relative thing: "An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's." Poet/writer James Stephens, on the other hand, rejected the notion of perfection outright with a gruesome logic: "Finality is death. Perfection is finality. Nothing is perfect. There are lumps in it."
Maugham: don't bore me with perfection, babe!
W. Somerset Maugham thought that perfection might actually be a fate worse than death: "Perfection has one grave defect: it is apt to be dull."
However, many great thinkers do encourage the pursuit of perfection in spite of this risk. Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers accepted that "perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence." (Or maybe a Hail Mary pass at that last second to win a crucial game!)
The invincible Vince (a scholar and a gentleman)
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) agrees: "Perfection has to do with the end product, but excellence has to do with the process." (Hmm, if only he could convince his colleagues in Congress...) Of course, according to William Shawn, longtime editor of The New Yorker, "Falling short of perfection is a process that never stops." (Especially in Washington, D.C.)
The only perfect thing about me is my bow-tie!
On the other hand, conservative columnist George Will pooh-poohs the very notion that seeking perfection can lead to heightened performance: "The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement." (Hey, he's a writer, and I don't often agree with him, but as any recovered or recovering perfectionist understands, he's absolutely right!)
Soulful, imperfect Kathy Mattea
Artists who work in all different media are quick to reject the notion of perfection (perhaps due in part to the subjective native of their endeavors). Country singer Kathy Mattea thinks "the more we start to worship perfection, the more soul leaks out of art." Nigerian poet Ben Okri posits that art is, in fact, founded on imperfection:
Ben Okri knows flawed characters.
"The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell."
George Orwell weighed in on that as well: "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection." Saint Augustine (himself a recovered very flawed sinner) wanted to have it both ways: "This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections."
A sinner... and I know it.
Painter, sculptor, graphic artist and designer Salvador Dali (he of the melting clocks and louche mustache) may have said it best: "Have no fear of perfection-- you'll never reach it."
But perhaps my favorite quote about perfection comes from another man who knew something about imperfection (particularly in the use of the English language, since he was a renowned mangler of nouns, verbs and adjectives),
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley (Richard the
"Look at our Lord's disciples. One denied Him; one doubted Him; one betrayed Him. If our Lord couldn't have perfection, how are you going to have it in city government?"
Best estimate of the date of Shakespeare's birth: April 23, 1564. Celebrate the Bard by talking like Shakespeare; listening to a hip-hop summary of MacBeth; finding the just-right, highfalutin insult to the driver who cuts you off in traffic!
The first "Earth Day," April 22, 1970, was marked by massive demonstrations as over 20 million Americans rallied on the streets, in parks, on campus quadrangles and in urban auditoriums across the country for a healthier, more sustainable environment. The brainchild of Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was determined to push environmental protection to the top of the national agenda, achieved a rare political alignment amidst the bitterness of the Vietnam War era: conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans (Representative Pete McCloskey (R-Cal.) served as co-chair), urbanites and residents of rural communities, rich and poor all came together to support the need to protect our most precious asset and our collective home. The first Earth Day also led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean
Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts (all signed by that most unlikely of environmental heroes, Richard Nixon).
But there are many heroes in the movement to raise environmental awareness and promote conservation; some blazed the trail, others continue to pioneer the path:
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America (Douglas Brinkley, 2009)
What made Theodore Roosevelt an environmental hero was his conviction that 2,000-year-old redwood trees, ancient rock formations and pelicans belonged to future generations of Americans as well as to the past. Well, in the face of a commitment to eternity, what were the arguments of mining tycoons, hunters, local businessmen and not-so-visionary congressmen? From the time he became president, in 1901, until he left office in 1909, Roosevelt saved over 234 million acres of the American wilderness. Brinkley captures the sights, smells and sounds of the era and takes us into the rough-and-ready world of the President who was willing to use his "big stick" when necessary and didn't talk softly about his determination to set aside lands with the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge System. In a simpler era, Roosevelt made conservation a vital, manly, patriotic pursuit.
The Camping Trip That Changed America (Barb Rosenstock, 2012)
For younger readers, here's a new picture book that relates the story of Roosevelt's tour of the Yosemite Valley area and the camping trip he took with preservationist John Muir. The men rode into the wilds on horseback, camped together with a minimum entourage, and got caught up in the beauty of sequoias and a spring snowstorm. Muir (and the wonders of the Sierras) convinced Roosevelt that the park needed federal control and management and in 1905, Congress designated it a National Park. Rosenstock captures Roosevelt's exuberance and Muir's ardent dedication. as does illustrator Mordecai Gerstein.
A Sand County Almanac (Aldo Leopold, 1949)
Aldo Leopold, often considered to be the father of wildlife ecology, was one of America's first professional foresters. He helped found the National Wildlife Federation, the Wilderness Society and wrote a little book which fostered a greater interest in ecology, conservation and, later, the environmental movement. Part essay, memoir and polemic, A Sand County Almanac explores the wondrous diversity of our natural world and celebrates its beauty in elegant, evocative prose. Read it as the seasons progress to enhance your own observations and appreciation of nature's perfection.
A Passion for Nature: the Life of John Muir (Donald Worster, 2008)
Here is a scholarly yet engrossing account of the great conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club. Worster shows us the man behind the legend, through extensive use of Muir's correspondence. Born in Scotland and raised in rural Wisconsin under the harsh rule of his abusive father, Muir lit out for California after the Civil War. What he saw and did there made history. Worster paints a loving portrait of an eternal wanderer who was also a doting husband and father, a talented scientist, friend to the famous and the humble, and a man who wielded his political influence for good.
John Muir: Nature Writings (Library of America, 1997)
If you want to read the original, try this volume, which contains all of Muir's seminal writings. It includes The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, My First Summer in the Sierra, The Mountains of California, Stickteen, and many essays along with illustrations, a chronology of his life, and scholarly notes.
And then there's this classic.
All of these books remind us of a key point in environmentalism and conservation: we cannot save what we do not love.
You can't shake your booty at Wikipedia!
It seems you can't have a conversation with anyone in the information business (librarians, writers, editors, software engineers, etc., etc., etc.,) without someone bringing up the question of whether print is dead (or soon to be dead). Here's a little antidote in the spirit of "don't worry, be happy." Noelle Skodzinski, former editor of Publishing Executive and Book Business magazines used this video to open the recent Publishing Business Conference with a few snicks and grins, proving that humor beats gloom any day. Or is it whistling past the graveyard?
How to Lie with Infographics
In 1954, Darrell Huff published a witty, informative exposé of the use of statistics by advertisers, the government and the media to mislead their audiences, called How to Lie With Statistics. Over the course of an entertaining 142 pages, Huff explained how the statistically challenged reader can see through the smoke and mirrors to get to the real meaning, if any, of what is being presented. I happened to stumble across a tattered copy of this book as an impressionable ten-year-old and remember enjoying it primarily for its cartoon illustrations. However, I like to think that it also started me down the path of being a keen observer of charts, graphs, and numbers, especially when they are being used to try to convince me of something.
The original cover!
So it was with some amusement that I read an e-article that came over the transom. It's a reposting of a blog by fellow librarian Joyce Valenza which deconstructed an argument that Wikipedia was superseding libraries in the public's endless quest for information. Deconstructed? Nay! She sliced and diced the argument to shreds with the critical thinking skills of a true teacher-librarian born to the profession. The article's focus was an infographic that Open Site, the self-proclaimed "free Internet Encyclopedia" (wait, I though that was Wikipedia--- never mind) posted, which stated that Wikipedia had forced the print-version of Encyclopedia Britannica out of business. Here it is, for your amusement:
I know what you are saying: "Whoa, those are a lot of statistics!"
And I am replying: "Oh yes, a lot of unsupported and distorted statistics."
And you are saying: "But look at all those sources!"
And I am replying: "Oh yes, but remember, in the immortal words of Darrell Huff, that 'the secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse and oversimplify.'"
Cooking up the "big lie?"
As Ms. Valenza notes, comparing library visits to Wikipedia visits, as the infographic purports to do, is a bit of an apples vs. oranges comparison, since one is achieved with the click of a mouse and one person can click repeatedly throughout the day (or night, if that person is an insomniac). Ms. Valenza goes on to ask some very pertinent questions about the research methods of the infographic creators, the types of questions that teacher-librarians need to instruct their students to ask, the types of questions that Darrell Huff was writing about in 1954:
Which libraries are these people measuring? What students? And students are generally required to use multiple sources, so which do they consult after Wikipedia? How does YouTube factor into the equation?
And where did they get the figure that books have declined by 12%? And after the Great Recession hit, library use increased! As Ms. Valenza notes, the authors of this infographic seem to need a lesson in improving their own research skills.
And are we supposed to be impressed that there's an increase in students who are plagiarizing Wikipedia? Or more impressed that teachers are becoming more savvy in catching it?
But don't take my rehash as the final word. Check out the original blog post by Ms. Valenza at School Library Journal: the Never Ending Search.
But I did learn that Wikipedia is looking for female editors...maybe I'll apply!
To find out more about me, click on the Not Your Average Jo tab.