April, 2005

Apr 05

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

This is, I think, the first work of fiction that I’ve read that is firmly rooted in a post-9/11 world. Also the first book that I’ve read by the extremely accomplished Ian McEwan.

As the title suggests, this story all takes place on a single Saturday — it’s told from the point of view of an English neurosurgeon. Some of the things that happen on this particular Saturday are mundane, some are exceptional, but it’s really just the story of this man and his relationships, at a particular point in time.

I think it’s an okay book, but not super-compelling. It is interesting to consider the huge variety of things that each and every one of us do and think about — from whether to make your own coffee, to what to have for dinner, to our place in the world, to our relationships.

He also explores pacing of fiction a little bit, in relationship to poetry (the main character’s daughter is a poet, and as a scientific type, he struggles to understand her). Here’s a quote that I particularly liked:

Novels and movies, being relentlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like dry-stone walling or trout tickling.

Not that I really know what “trout tickling” is, but a nice thought, nonetheless. I’ve been thinking a fair amount about what novels are lately — will post some of that in a post soon about Jonathan Safran Foer — so this is interesting.

Apr 05

Libraries, Take 2

Mom & Adam both posted excellent comments on my Libraries as Endangered Species post, and I’ve been thinking about it enough over the past couple of days that instead of putting in my own comment on that thread, I wanted to start a new post.

One of the things that both mentioned is interesting, and something that (almost) everyone agrees is a baseline for the function of a library: to insure some level of information access to every resident (citizen?) of the US with some level of privacy. Adam correctly notes that most of the substitute goods that are taking the place of the library (broadband, Amazon, etc.) are generally expensive.

So I’m on board with this: a basic, non-negotiable function of public libraries in America should be to provide free & private information access to anyone.

But I think that isn’t enough.

I feel like that boils public libraries down into something that is functional, but not inspirational, not liberating, not empowering, not community-building. I feel like information access — through a rack of magazines, or a set of books, or the screen of an Internet terminal — only delivers on maybe 10% of the promise of libraries. Libraries can be more, and I think that in previous years they have been more. They’ve been places where people gather — community groups, author lectures, your city council, school groups. They’ve been places where people reach out to others in the community — the Bookmobile, for instance. They’ve been places where people are entertained — story time for kids, reading individually, etc.

So here’s what I’m struggling with. It seems to me that we live in an extremely utilitarian time. We only tally up measurable outcomes; we only use tax dollars or electoral leverage to implement things that are strictly legislated. I think that public libraries can & should be more than devolving into physical access terminals for information — but I guess that I’m not quite sure how to describe that or how to head towards there in today’s climate.

Here’s what Tom Friedman said in his most recent book The World is Flat that’s his message to his daughter who’s just gone off to college:

“While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [when the Berlin Wall fell] — the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.

I think that maybe imagination should be one of the organizing principles for public libraries. Helping everyone to build their imaginations and to act on them. That’s what I’m going to start thinking about for my Board of Trustees application — let me know what you think…

Apr 05

Are Libraries an Endangered Species?

I got a library card for the Sunnyvale Public Library yesterday, after 6 years of living here. Cynically, I got it because I’m in the process of writing up an application to be on the Board of Trustees of the library here, and it seemed like I should probably be a member of the library first. (Although I’ve given literally hundreds of books to SPL over the past few years, I haven’t actually gotten a card.) More optimistically, I wanted to spend some time thinking about the role of libraries in general, and this one specifically, in our lives. And of course, with a new baby on the way, I wanted to think some about what the world will look like as s/he grows up with respect to public libraries.

I think most everyone who reads this knows that my mom is a Professional Librarian, and lately works for Ingram Books helping libraries develop their collections. Add to that I live in a family that basically reveres books. My grandmother ran her own bookstore for about the whole time I was growing up (I used to love visiting) and works in a bookstore even now, in her eighties. My mom & dad always have had books in their hands and shelves full of them. And I read a little bit compulsively — it’s almost a nervous tic for me. (That’s the subject of another post that I want to do.)

Having said that, I don’t actually think that libraries are really in the book business — I think they haven’t been for a long time. With newspapers, magazines, audio, video, DVDs, software, and lately the Internet, it seems to me that they’re in the information access business. But that misses the point, too, I think — because as I was there this week, there were lots of different things going on — kids reading together, parents showing their kids how to look up information, lots of things.

But I have to be honest. I don’t use the library very much at all. For my information needs, I pretty much use my setup at home. For books, I buy an obscene number of them from Amazon or Borders (and get a huge amount from Mom as well). And when I walk around the library — any library — I just get the sense that they’re behind the rest of the world and struggling to keep up. When I see things in the library that I think are especially current, I always think to myself, “I’m surprised they have that here.” Like the new Tom Friedman book. Or the new Alias season on DVD. I wish I didn’t have that reaction, but I do.

I think there are a lot of things conspiring to make the role of the library a tricky one to figure out. The emergence of the Internet. The incredible volume of media sharing happening online. Broadband to the home. Starbucks as a “third space” to meet & hang out. Tapped out local & state budgets. The Patriot Act.

I don’t think that libraries should just be places where folks without access get access. I don’t think that they should just be places where people can get books or DVDs without buying them. But I’m having some trouble figuring out exactly what they should be. What they can be.

I believe that, along with public education, public libraries stand as one of the great & startling legacies of the founders of our country (not just the founding fathers, but a broader set than that). I think there is a place for community-based (as opposed to school-based) centers for learning & communication. I hope that libraries, as they continue to respond to pressure from every side, can figure out how to be all that they can be.

If you’ve got any ideas, give a holler. I’ve got to put something smart into my application in the next couple of weeks. 🙂

Apr 05

The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

This is an important book for folks in the software industry — it’s the first comprehensive, academic account of what’s happened in open source software over the last decade and half (and actually back to the AT&T Unix days). Steven Weber is a political scientist at Cal, and generally takes that type of analysis on the phenomenon (occassionally views it through economics, too).

The book has an introductory section, which should be accessible to everyone, then a relatively meaty history of open source — my favorite part of the book, because it ties a lot of things together (for example, why the BSD license looks the way it does) that was happening just at the beginning of my Silicon Valley consciousness. Most of the middle fo the book talks about how it works (pretty remedial for someone who’s in the industry), leading up to micro & macro foundations about why it works. I found that part of the book clearly the most academic and tough to get through, but probably the most useful in the long term. I don’t really feel like Weber quite captures the emotional reasons for why people engage, but it isn’t bad. One thing that he misses entirely is the differentiation between server/headless components like operating systems & libraries versus applications like Firefox — and I think we’re finding already that the differences are significant.

The book was a little longer than I think it needs to be — just gets more esoteric towards the end — but I think it’s organized in a way that you can pick & choose what you want to read and it’ll be very worth your time.

Apr 05

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

The most current of the series, Book 5 is also the longest & most complex of the Harry Potter books, really emphasizing relationships outside of Hogwarts almost more than inside the school itself. I re-read this book very quickly (maybe 3 or 4 days, which I know is not as fast as some of the 10-year-olds I know read it when it came out) — I find that the books get a healthy momentum going and you really just want to see how things turn out.

I don’t think that I like this book as much as the 4th book — and I think it’s probably a little too long, really, but still really enjoyable, and you can start to see the outlines of what’s going to happen in the final two books in the series. Definitely looking forward to the new installment in July.