A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘popular literature

[URBAN NOTE] “Freedom to Read and Reconsider at the Toronto Public Library”

Torontoist’s Jamie Bradburn explains how the Toronto Public Library responds to requests that particular books be withdrawn from circulations. (Apparently Canada’s better than the United States, owing to the protection given library collections by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the strong opposition of professional library associations to censorship.)

Since 2000, around 100 requests for reconsideration have been filed—and only nine items have been removed. The most recent title to be pulled, Date Rape: A Violation of Trust, was withdrawn from the video collection in 2012 because it, “while well-intentioned, reinforces stereotypes and lacks diversity and is, therefore, not appropriate as an educational tool in Toronto’s multiracial and multicultural environment.” Other titles have vanished for reasons including libel threats, unreliable accounts of Romanian history, bad advice on passing business accreditation exams, outdated information on dairy farming—and being poorly produced knockoffs of Pixar films made by the highly esteemed Video Brinquedo studio (What’s Up: Balloon to the Rescue).

Other reconsidered titles find new homes within the library system. Tintin in the Congo, for example, which features controversial depictions of Africans, was moved from the children’s collection to the adult graphic novel section in 2010. Not all suggestions from complainants can be acted upon: one 2003 complaint about eye weekly urged the library to provide copies sans escort ads. And in 2006, a patron requested that a rabbi review the content of Sarah Silverman’s film Jesus is Magic.

The most popular requests for consideration between 2000 and 2013? It’s a tie between Maxim magazine (2005 and 2006; one request suggested users be IDed lest it fall into the hands of innocent youth) and Robert Kaplow’s The Cat Who Killed Lilian Jackson Braun, a raunchy parody of The Cat Who… mystery series (2005 and 2007).

Library staff have not noticed trends in the complaints, and are proud of how few requests for reconsideration come in. Vickery Bowles, director of Collections Management and City-Wide Services, feels this reflects Torontonians’ “appreciation for the breadth and depth of our collections and the fact we are living in a large urban setting.” She believes that the public senses that “intellectual freedom in the public library setting is very important” and that the widest variety of available materials should be offered.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 26, 2014 at 12:02 am

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • blogTO comes up with a list of the top 20 novels set in Toronto and presents a few Toronto laneways and their etymologies.
  • Centauri Dreams examines the protoplanetary disc of protostar L1527.
  • The Financial Times‘ World blog suggests that Italy and its new prime minister should look to Mexico for inspiration.
  • Marginal Revolution links to the Economist‘s cover article lamenting Argentina’s relative economic decline.
  • The Planetary Society Blog explains why Pluto’s dust and moons weren’t seen before they were actually discovered, just a few years ago. (Telescope time is key.)
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer notes first-hand experiences of Albanian politics and politicians.
  • Strange Maps shares a map of Kiev’s divisions between protesters and government as of yesterday.
  • Window on Eurasia wonders if Russia post-Ukraine will crack down on its creative classes.
  • Wonkman points out that the entry of women into the workplace has much to do with inescapable economic reasons that aren’t addressed by people who want women to go back.

[LINK] “Legendary Montreal-born writer Mavis Gallant dead at age 91″

I’ve already shared on Facebook Victoria Ahearn’s Canadian Press article announcing the sad news that Mavis Gallant, Canadian expat and great writer, has died.

Montreal-born short story great Mavis Gallant lived in Paris for much of her lauded career and brought a European flair to her writing, but she made a big impact on the literary community in her native country, Canadian authors said Tuesday after word of her death.

“Mavis Gallant was a marvellous short story writer and a constant hopeful influence on my life,” Nobel Prize-winning short story master Alice Munro said in a telephone interview from Victoria.

“I didn’t know her well. I met her at a few conferences, I think here in B.C. But the important thing was that long before that, I knew about her work and the fact that she was a Canadian and she wrote mainly short stories, which you were not really encouraged to do as your main writing.

“So she was important to me in that way.”

Gallant died Tuesday morning in her Paris apartment, said publisher McClelland & Stewart. She was 91.

The article goes on to talk at length about Gallant, her life, and her writing.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 18, 2014 at 9:18 pm

[LINK] On the rise of Goodreads

Svati Kirsten Narula’s interview at The Atlantic with Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, co-founders of Goodreads, makes for interesting reading. As someone who maintains a profile there, I like reading about how this interesting online social network came to be.

Let’s flash back to seven years ago when you launched Goodreads. Can you tell me the founding story?

Otis Chandler: In 2006, I moved to Los Angeles to be closer to Elizabeth. The company I was working at before had launched an early social network called Tickle, and I had also worked on online dating sites. So I had a good understanding of online social dynamics.

The interesting thing with dating sites was that they really splintered—every niche, genre, ethnicity, and sport has a dating site! But for as long as I worked on dating sites, I didn’t use them—I was not single. I wanted to build a social network around something that I loved. Elizabeth and I are both big bookworms, and my freshman project at Stanford was building a digital e-reader—so I guess I’ve always had an itch to scratch there.

Elizabeth Chandler: I was working as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times, and I’m a words person. I like writing, [and I was] an English major – probably the typical Goodreads user, especially in the beginning! So I got really excited when he built it, like “This is for me! Now I’m going to catalogue every book I have in my house.”

OC: We found that Elizabeth and all her English major friends were our power users, and we thought, “There’s something here.”

But if there was an epiphany moment, it was when I was in my friend’s room, and he had a bookshelf of all the books he’d ever read, and I just kind of grilled him: “Well, what did you think of this book, what did you think of that book?” And I came away with a long list of five or 10 books I was excited to read.

Putting my social networking hat [on], I thought, if I could only get my all friends to put their bookshelves online and say what they thought of them. That seemed like it would just be a really good way to find good books. And I think that’s been proven true.

EC: People of all types who read all sorts of books really gravitated to the product and loved it. People started making connections over their shared love of, you know, sci-fi or paranormal romance or steampunk.

OC: I think between all our friends and friends of friends, it got up to maybe 800 people. And then it got a little bit of press, Mashable picked it up, and then the blogosphere found it. It turned out there was a massive community of people who had book blogs, and were blogging [as they read books and writing reviews after they finished them], and they each had 10 friends on their blogroll who did the same thing. Goodreads was just a better way of doing what they already wanted to do, and they adopted us in droves.

As noted in April of last year by Jordan Weissman, also at The Atlantic, Goodreads’ purchase by Amazon provided the latter book retailer with a huge amount of potential data.

According to Codex’s quarterly survey (in 2012, the company interviewed some 30,000 readers total), far fewer people are finding their reading material at brick-and-mortar bookstores than two years ago. Instead, they’re relying more on online media (including social networks and author websites) and personal recommendations from people they know (which tend to happen in person, but can also include some social network chatting). What they’re not relying on much more heavily are recommendation engines from online booksellers, like Amazon.

In short, Barnes and Noble’s in-store displays don’t rule the book business like they used to, but they haven’t been usurped by Amazon’s algorithms either. Instead, the business model is moving further towards word of mouth. And, much as a very small portion of Americans do most of the book reading in this country, so too are they responsible for a vast majority of book recommending. Codex estimates that 11 percent of book buyers make about 46 percent of recommendations.

The sorts of lit lovers who like to evangelize their favorite new novel are the same sorts of folks who tend to show up on Goodreads. And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the site is a great platform for convincing people to buy books. Roughly 29 percent of Goodreads users told Codex they’d learned about the last book they bought either on the site, or at another book-focused social network.* At traditional social networks, the number is 2.4 percent. When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.

In the interview, the co-founders say that Amazon hasn’t tried to interfere with the rich social ecology of Goodreads, particularly by stacking reviews. I only hope this keeps on.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 15, 2014 at 4:21 am

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • The Big Picture features 28 photos from the South after the recent heavy storm. Wow.</li<
  • BlogTO reviewed the Steak Queen, the diner that gained global renown via the now-infamous Ford video. The restaurant doesn’t do well.</li
  • Centauri Dreams and The Dragon’s Gaze both link to the astonishing news that the cloud patterns of nearby brown dwarf Luhman 16B have been imaged.
  • Eastern Approaches explores the turbulent political scene in Serbia as it approaches elections.
  • Language Hat provides a first translation of the recently discovered poems by Sappho.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money has at Rod Dreyer for his racist assumptions insofar as evolution is concerned.
  • Torontoist observes that Ontario’s minimum wage is going up to $C11 an hour. Is it enough?
  • Towleroad notes the apology of Republican Congressman from New York Michael Grimm, who threatened a journalist who was asking him questions, on tape.

[URBAN NOTE] “Book City memoir”

NOW Toronto‘s Sarah Greene has a nice piece talking about how The Annex’s Book City was a hub for Torontonian writers for quite a while.

Book City alumna Alana Wilcox, now editorial director at nearby Coach House Books, worked at various locations including the Annex store for seven years, and still drops off boxes of Coach House books by bike.

“It was a real community space,” she says of working there in the mid- to late 90s. “People would go to the bar, have a drink and on the way home stop at Book City and have long neighbourhood conversations. They’d stay for hours just chatting with their friends.”

Nathalie Atkinson, now a culture columnist and editor at the National Post, concurs. “I loved working the Friday-night shift because it was festive,” she says. “You could tell who was on a date.”

[. . .]

“I was there 74 years,” jokes author Derek McCormack, who was at Book City for about a dozen years and whose first book, Dark Rides, was published in that period, during what he calls the “CanLit boom.” (He now works at Type Books.)

“There was a moment there with Ondaatje and Atwood and Rohinton Mistry when Canadians seemed really proud that we were suddenly stepping onto the world stage, and there was also a boom in young writers and in presses starting up.”

As a young writer/bookseller, he knew he was brushing shoulders with publishers, editors and journalists as well as writers like Margaret Atwood, Graham Gibson and Barbara Gowdy.

“Half of literary Toronto has worked at Book City,” says Wilcox. And I’m not sure that’s much of an exaggeration: André Alexis, John Lorinc, Howard Akler, Chris Chambers, Paul Vermeersch and Jason McBride all did.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2014 at 4:59 am

[LINK] “Kristen Stewart Is Right: 1984 Is Kind of an Epic Love Story”

The Atlantic‘s Noah Berlatsky has convinced me that Kirsten Stewart was right to claim that George Orwell’s 1984 was a love story. (She’d be wrong to say that it was only a love story, but I don’t think she said that.)

Orwell is, of course, famous for linking totalitarianism to the denial of history and objective reality: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four.” But, as Stewart suggests, the bulk of the novel, and the main content of Winston’s betrayal, is not an exercise in mathematics, but rather the romance plot.

It is when Julia first passes Winston a note saying, “I love you” that his half-formed rebellion takes concrete shape and form. The couple’s first sexual encounter is specifically described as “a blow struck against the Party … a political act.” It isn’t math or history that strikes that blow, but love. “If they could make me stop loving you, that would be the real betrayal,” Winston says. To which Julia replies, “They can’t do that … It’s the one thing they can’t do.” Even if you read that as doomed, it’s still a fairly romantic bit of dialogue, insisting as it does on the existence of love “in a world where,” as Stewart says, “love really doesn’t exist anymore.”

It turns out, alas, that Julia is wrong; “they” can get inside you.

[. . .]

Orwell is able to imagine Big Brother with great power, but when he comes to portraying Julia, he flails. She’s just a stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

[. . .]

Orwell is able to imagine newspeak and Big Brother and the chief torturer O’Brien with great power, but when he comes to portraying Julia, he flails. She’s thoughtless, primitive, interested only in things of the body rather than the mind — “only a rebel from the waist downwards,” as Winston calls her. We never really learn why, or feel why, she loves the older, not particularly attractive Winston. We merely know she does because she says so and because, as soon as they meet in private, she starts calling him “dear.” She’s just a stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl who’s part of Winston’s story, not the other way around. So it’s not exactly a surprise that she betrays Winston immediately, or that, as O’Brien says, just about licking his lips, “All her rebelliousness, her deceit, her folly, her dirty-mindedness—everything has been burned out of her.” None of it was ever really there to begin with.

[. . .]

I prefer to think, though, that whatever Eric Blair’s limitations as a writer of female characters, he did, in fact, believe in love. Winston, at the end, abandons Julia for big Brother. But does that mean that the relationship with Julia never existed? O’Brien would say it didn’t. Memory, history, love; for the Party, none of them are real. It seems to me that Kristen Stewart is on the side of the resistance, and of Orwell, when she says that O’Brien is wrong, and that 1984 is a romance.

The Eurythmics’ song “Julia”, written for a movie version of 1984, could be taken as a sort of secondary proof. If nothing else, it’s an elegant song.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 25, 2014 at 4:37 am

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • BlogTO highlights a new photography exhibition at Ryerson University that I really should see.
  • Centauri Dreams takes a look at the idea of subsurface biospheres on exoplanets.
  • Crooked Timber’s Belle Waring shares pictures from the ongoing protests in Ukraine and starts a debate.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes a new model of the evolutions of the Sun and the Earth’s atmosphere that suggests Earth will face a runaway greenhouse in 1.5 billion years, rather later than previously expected.
  • Far Outliers highlights the ongoing Berber awakening in north Africa.
  • Language Log tackles the Jamaican-sounding remarks of Rob Ford and finds them credible.
  • The Map Room’s Jonathan Crowe links to a wonderful New Yorker article on maps in literature.
  • Marginal Revolution notes a new paper arguing that coal power was essential for urban growth.
  • Supernova Condensate quotes Karl Popper about inductive reasoning.
  • Torontoist notes the plans for a new proposed park to be built at Ontario Place.
  • Towleroad remarks on the recent suicide of an Azerbaijani gay rights activist and notes the doubling of a bounty offered by Hong Kong billionaire to any man who would marry his lesbian–and coupled–daughter.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the new reading list for Kremlin officials.

[NEWS] Some Monday links

  • From Google Plus, Brian Koberlein notes that an examination of IRAS infrared astronomical data suggests that our solar system has no very large companions.
  • The Globe and Mail notes that Russian may close down inter-country adoptions with Canada because of our recognition of same-sex marriages and adoption.
  • Business Week observes that China is going to introduce an economic census to try to come up with reliable statistics.
  • The Star is one paper carrying the report that Gary Shteyngart said subsidy-using Canadian writers aren’t risk-taking.
  • In a sad coda, David Pickton–brother of serial killer Robert Pickton–denies knowledge of the crimes, which occurred on the family property both brothers lived on.
  • These pictures of cat armour are amazing.
  • Der Spiegel‘s English-language edition notes the continuing recovery of Iceland from its economic crash.
  • Gothamist reports that New York City’s MTA will be killing its Metrocard in favour of better technologies. Oh, TTC!
  • Open Democracy reports on how residents of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, surrounded by European Union member-states Poland and Lithuania, are starting to Europeanize.

[FORUM] How should we imagine our futures, in science fiction and otherwise?

Jo Walton‘s recently reposted essay for Tor.com, “Have We Lost the Future?”, makes for interesting reading. This isn’t only me speaking, recovering from my own unhappy experience with Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. Walton makes some very interesting points about the futures imagined by science fiction writers, the ways they just don’t work with our actual realities and the ways in which futures have developed unexpectedly to observers in past generations, and the need–and ability–for science fiction to adopt new paradigms to continue to be relevant.

I think there used to be a science fiction consensus future in which we’d expand slowly out from Earth and colonize the moon and Mars and the Belt, which would be full of independent-minded asteroid miners, and outward to the stars, at first slower and then faster than light, meeting aliens and ending with galactic empires. The Cold War, naturally, would still be going on in the twenty-sixth century, and if not there would be some Cold War analog dividing humanity into big ideological blocs. Lots of the SF written between 1930 and 1989 fit into this rough future outline. It didn’t belong to anyone. Everyone could set things within this rough future and make their own specific corner of it shine. Details differed, but this was The Future we were headed for, this was almost destiny. [. . .]

I remember reading Bruce Sterling’s short story “We See Things Differently” in 1991 in a Dozois’s Best SF, and having the same feeling I had when the Berlin Wall came down. This wasn’t the future I expected to be living in. We were off track for that SF consensus future. And we sent robots out to explore the solar system for us, and there weren’t any Martians, and it seemed as if maybe space wasn’t the U.S. frontier with a different atmosphere.

When I’m writing here about older SF, I often laugh at their hilarious huge clunky computers and add “But where is my moonbase?”

During the panel I mentioned Arthur C. Clarke’s examplary little boy who would read SF and say “When I grow up, I’m going to the moon.” I was that little boy, I said, and of course everyone laughed. There are ways in which this future, the one we’re living in, is a whole lot better than what we imagined. It has women in it, and it has women who are not just trophies and are not manipulating their way around because they have no power. This future has women with agency. It has men and women who aren’t white and who aren’t sitting at the back of the bus or busy passing. It has gay people out of the closet, it has transgender people, and all over the place, not only in the worlds of Samuel Delany. Beyond that, unimaginably shaping the future we couldn’t imagine getting, it has the internet.

So this is my question. If, when you were twelve, somebody had given you a straight choice for 2012, which would you have chosen, moonbase or internet? (Let’s assume they could have explained fully what the internet was and how it would affect your life.) Moonbase, or internet? It really isn’t easy.

[. . .]

As for SF—I don’t think it has run out of ideas. I do think it’s a betrayal of the future to write things set in futures we can’t get to. And I always want more books with spaceships and aliens. But I recently read M.J. Locke’s Up Against It, which is set in space in our future and is wonderful and just the sort of thing to give me faith that there’s a lot of juice in the genre yet. And there’s plenty of future coming for it to work out.

What say you? (I think she’s basically right, for whatever it’s worth.)

Written by Randy McDonald

January 5, 2014 at 4:58 am


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