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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Parisian haiku

Led by Maddy, my wonderfully multilingual daughter, the family has now been to the Louvre, the Pompidou Centre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, le Marais, and other points about town. We bought week-long passes to public transportation, which whisks us underground to pop us up at our desired destinations with marvelous efficiency.

Along the way, I've written lots of haiku. They're all new enough that it's hard to know if they're any good. But they arise fully formed as we walk the streets. So here are a few of them.

----
chalices of stars display
along the Champs Elysée:
Christmas in Paris


These "chalices" are some six lines of white lights per tree, rising from the bottom of the branches, and terminating in parallel lines at the top. (These are "plane" trees -- all uniform in size and height on both sides of the street.) Every now and then, one light seems to drip down the line -- falling stars, sliding stars. But the effect of the display is of chalices, goblets of light.

----
the Eiffel Tower
pulses blue in heavy mist
intermittent rain


It is blue at night, now.

----
waiting for the lift
dark-haired woman suddenly
has tears in her eyes


This was at the Eiffel Tower, too. As we snaked around the lines to the elevators, I noticed that in an instant her eyes were brimming. She seemed Italian, and was there with a man about her age, two small and beautiful children, and an older woman. Was she remembering something? Longing for something?

----
chilly Paris street --
walking with his grandfather
boy with red pull toy


It was cold and damp this morning on the Rue Tolbiac - minus 4 Celsius (about 25 degrees Fahrenheit). Grandfather was proud to be walking along, grandson in tow. And grandson was proud to be towing what was no doubt a new Christmas toy.

----
as the blind black man
comes up the escalator
he raises his toes


Paris has over two million people. The metro and RER stations are often intensely crowded, with many winding lines intersecting at each stop. I saw an elegant looking man, with cane, step confidently off the train, calmly navigate to the escalator, smoothly ride up, and glide off onto the landing. I watched the trick: raise your foot. When your heel hits the floor, step forward. I've been doing it since then, too.

----
la nuit de Noel
le vin est chaud
et moi aussi


This is a haiku parody by my daughter. I was attempting to write a haiku in French. I had just bought some hot wine as we walked along at night toward the big Ferris wheel, and despite the cold, the drink immediately warmed me. But you don't say you are hot in French, you say you have hot. Otherwise, you get this, which translates:
Christmas Eve/the wine is hot/and I am horny.

But hey, it's Paris. It could happen.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Branching universes

I'm in Paris, about which I'll have much more to write later. But along the way I've read two science fiction books, both older, both brought along from our used book sale.

The first I believe I read years ago: "Time-Scape," by Gregory Benford (1980). But it holds up, a complex book that predates Orson Scott Card's "Pastwatch" by many years: in the future (1998) the world is on the edge of ecological collapse. A desperate experiment ensues to communicate via tachyon beams with the past, the 1970s. The book is fascinating on many levels. It talks about the intersection between politics and science -- meaning the pursuit of funding. It illuminates the politics within academic institutions despite what is nominally supposed to be the pursuit of truth. And finally, the book is about the open-endedness of the universe. If the message is successfully communicated, the present ceases to be. And by the end of the book, at least three endings are presented: all "real."

The second book was "Guardian" by Joe Haldeman (2002). It's a fast read, about a woman who marries a twisted but not very realized character, has a son by him, then, when the son is 14, flees the husband when he sexually abuses the son. It's a period piece: Dodge City in the late 1800s, a brief look at the Alaskan gold rush -- and abruptly, an encounter with the Tlingit myth of the Raven. The woman, with Raven, experiences multidimensional travel, and then is returned to a moment before a tragedy. This time, it plays out differently.

So I picked up two books at random, written over twenty years apart, to discover that both are about alternative timelines, about redoing the past with the knowledge of the future. Or as Heinlein once wrote, a paradox can be paradoctored.

My family had a great conversation last night about the feeling of deja vu. I experienced that often as a young teen, although rarely since then. Both of my children report experiencing it, too, as well as dreams of buildings they've never seen -- only to come across them months later.

Current physics suggests that the flow of time is not necessarily in one direction only, and that perhaps our decisions branch into whole new universes, all existing at the same time. So maybe those moments of deja vu and "precognitive" dreams are nothing more than moments when our perceptions jump track.

Or maybe it's just a trick of the temporal lobe, tuning itself through adolescence. There are many universes in our brains, too.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Organizations of Colorado blog

This from Bonnie McCune at the State Library.

"The Book Organizations of Colorado now uses a blog to post book events in Colorado. The process to post events is the same, just email them to BOOC@yahoogroups.com and BOOC willl post them and categorize them (month, event type etc). Using the blog gets your events posted more quickly than the web updates, and provides complete information. In addition, old events are not deleted, so folks can learn about past programs as well as future.

"The "events" page on the web site (www.coloradobook.org) now has a link to the blog, which is
booc.wordpress.com/

"Please help spread the word about the blog and keep posting your events to the BOOC list so people can blog them."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Powerful stroke of insight

My wife sent me this amazing link: "Jill Bolte Taylor's Powerful Stroke of Insight", about a brain scientist who has a stroke in her left hemisphere, and describes, with radiant expressiveness, exactly what that was like. This is one of the most astonishing speeches I've ever witnessed.

The source for this is www.ted.com, which reveals just how potent the web can be: an educational tool on demand, free lectures on a host of fascinating topics.

I also saw in the paper this morning an article about how some college students, stuck on a math problem, turn to Youtube math tutorials, and thereby save their academic careers.

The Internet is like a library. We have books that capture profound insights; we have a lot of commercial pap and frivolous diversions. There's a place for both -- just as Jill Bolte Taylor describes not just two different hemispheres of the brain, but two different modes of being that are united in a single body.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

More challenges ... music and suicide

Not long ago, I had a visit from the father of a 15 year old young man. The son is the friend of a recent suicide, also 15. Shortly after that death, the father found about a dozen CDs in his son's possession, all checked out from the library, and many marked with "parental discretion advised."

And the father lost it. He broke many of the CDs, demanded from library staff a list of everything his son had ever checked out, and had many confrontations with his son. He also tried to call me, and I returned the calls, but we never connected.

By the time he came to see me, though (the day of the suicide's funeral), the father was in a very different mood. He presented all the CDs to me, admitted that he was the one who destroyed them, and very respectfully said that he understood that the library, and that I personally, do a lot to help the youth of our county to be healthy. But he could not square that with the availability of these CDs, many of which, he said, had themes of suicide in many songs.

And this encounter goes to the heart of libraries and challenges. The father was not a wild-eyed censor, seeking the destruction of all library materials. He was a father who was deeply afraid for the well-being of his son. We had a very frank talk. I understand his fear. I've lost friends to suicide, and I well remember the anger, often misdirected, that results from it.

I have thought about these issues for years, and shared some of my thinking with him: first, that although many people, particularly when they're afraid, think the job of the library is to protect children, that isn't so, at least not through the suppression of access to knowledge. Our job is access. We don't direct our culture; we reflect it. That includes a lot of stuff that makes non-fans squirm. Second, removing such materials from libraries doesn't suddenly make them unavailable to youth; we buy them because youth have already heard them, because they are in demand. Third, emotional expression, even of very dark moods and feelings, is the meaning of music. It's how youth work through the complex feelings of adolescence. Fourth, young people often have no idea what the singers are going on about. The man admitted that he loved hard rock as a youth, and often, didn't know the lyrics at all, or attach much significance to them when he did.

But we also discussed another truth: there are waves of teen suicide, with one setting off another. And at such times, there is a terrible fear that your own children might be next. Faced with that, you think, why would any public institution want to have anything that might contribute to the next death?

The man was most careful to articulate that he did not blame the library for the suicides. As we discussed, the "trigger" could be anything or nothing. Finally, he just respectfully disagreed with the stand of the libraries about purchasing and providing such material to teenagers, and asked me to review the items and think through our policies again. That's a perfectly reasonable request.

And I will.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Society without God

I just finished reading a book called "Society without God: what the least religious nations can tell us about contentment," by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman, associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College. The book recounts his ethnographic research into an interesting puzzle. The societies of Scandinavia (particularly Sweden and Denmark) are by all measures secure and successful: low infant mortality rate, long life, among the lowest disparities between rich and poor, well educated, cared for in old age, and by their own account, quite happy. Their countries are prosperous, peaceful, and stable. They have among the lowest rates of crime, illiteracy, political corruption, and poverty in the world. They also pay high taxes. Yet the average Scandinavian is irreligious -- despite the pronouncements of Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and others that the absence of God can only lead to tyranny and evil.

Zuckerman divides the irreligion of Danes (based on many interviews) into three broad categories: people who are reluctant/reticent to even talk about religion (talkative about anything with everybody -- until it comes to this topic), people who have benign indifference to the topic (churches are "nice" but irrelevant to their lives), and utter obliviousness (a surprising number have just never even thought about God, not once, in their whole lives).

This is not to say that there are no religious people in Scandinavia. There are. But they mostly keep it to themselves, for fear of the kind of ridicule and suspicion that is reserved in the United States for people who proclaim themselves to be atheists.

Zuckerman advances several theories to explain the secular nature of Scandinavian society:

* lazy monopolies. Counter-intuitively, the state monopoly on religion (Lutheran) means that most people ignore it. Pastors make a comfortable living poking around religious treatises, giving an occasional sermon, presiding over weddings, baptisms and confirmations. Moreover, pastors are generally well-liked (and many of them are women). But they don't have to advertise. They are just part of the cultural backdrop. In America, of course, religion is relentlessly and aggressively marketed, from postcard invitations to bumper stickers.

* Secure societies. Statistically, religion thrives where there is unrest, poverty, and ignorance. The Scandinavian countries all offer a remarkably secure environment. Rationality seems to work quite well; no supernatural comfort is required. And again, this has not resulted in lawlessness or tyranny. The Danes are sociable, helpful, and quite moral. They're not in the least worried about the afterlife.

* Working women. The idea here is that religion is mostly transmitted and reinforced by women. "Women are more religious than men, on all measures." But women in paid employment are less religious than those who work from home -- and so church attendance, rituals, etc., decline.

* "Lack of need for a cultural defense." Danes see themselves as Dane -- a mostly homogeneous group. They don't need a religious affiliation for their own identity.

* Education. Here in America, a Gallup poll found that "of Americans with no college education, 44 percent consider the Bible to be the actual word of God to be taken literally, but of Americans with graduate degrees, only 11 percent maintained this view of the Bible."

* The influence of the Social Democrats (a longstanding political party with a tradition of secularism).

* Christianity imposed from above, versus Christianity brought by immigrants. It's hard to say if the Danes were heartily religious back in the days of Odin and Thor. But Christianity was more or less established by fiat by chieftains and kings. In America, it was a deeply felt individual matter. Perhaps this leads to a cooler religious feeling in Denmark than here, just as a matter of historical precedent.

Zuckerman makes a good case that most Scandinavians are like many Jews today: their religion is cultural, not a matter of strong belief in the supernatural. That is, even when many Danes describe themselves as Christians, they're a kind of Christian that wouldn't pass muster in the United States: they don't believe Jesus was the Son of God, they don't believe he was born of a virgin, they don't believe he was raised from the dead. But they baptize their children, get confirmed, get married, and pay taxes to support the state church, because it's kind of a nice place to celebrate some of life's milestones.

I found the book lively, interesting, and quite readable. It has me pondering still about how it is that cultures and attitudes truly get established. Short answer: it's complicated.