What book are you reading?

UCLA recently got a new university librarian, Ginny Steel, who had her first day on Monday.  I appreciated that she had an all-staff meeting that very same day to talk to us about her plans and also to get feedback from us on our thoughts and priorities.  Much of the hour and a half meeting was questions from the staff.  I had one of those “yup, I’m totally in the right profession” moments when one of the questions from the staff was “what’s your favorite book?”  Where else but a library would you hear a question like that at an all-staff meeting with a new leader?  She answered the question in the same way I had when posed the same question a week or two earlier: how can you pick just one?  With all the great books I’ve read, there’s no way I could select one above the others.  When she said as much, the staff person asked her what she was currently reading.  She said a book about Chicago – I believe the title was The Third Coast.

I really like hearing what people are reading.  The only problem is that many times the answer turns out to be something very interesting, and then I look it up and it sounds incredible, so naturally I have to get a copy, and then it gets put on top of my ever-expanding pile of to-be-read treasures.  Nonetheless, I’m curious to know what you, the blog readers, are reading.   If there are still any of you left after my long blog absence!

Currently I’m in the middle of three books:

  • The Gold Bug Variations: I was reading this book while sitting alone in a restaurant for lunch, and the waiter asked me what it was about.  I was fairly certain that he probably didn’t want to hear the 10 minute-long microbiology, music, and literature lecture that it would take to explain the book.  So after a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “it’s about DNA, Bach music, and librarians.”  He said it sounded like something he would like, so I guess the was a good enough description.  I won’t bore any of you readers with the lecture either, but encourage you to check it out of you like fairly intellectual novels and any/all of the three aforementioned items.
  • Van Gogh: The Life: I was so fortunate to get to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam recently, and it was quite an incredible experience, especially in how educational it was.  I obviously had seen pictures of many Van Gogh paintings before, but never so many of the real thing in one place.  I also only knew the broad strokes of his life – crazy, cut off his ear, etc.  The information that went along with the pictures revealed a much more nuanced view of his life.  I left feeling awed by the fact that he hadn’t even started painting until he was almost 30, and even more awed that he generally lacked any sort of innate artistic talent, and only achieved such great success as he did by creating prolifically and doggedly persisting at his craft in the face of constant rejection, even from his own family.  As soon as I left the museum, I got right on Amazon and looked for the best biography I could find, and found this one.  It’s a hefty tome – almost 1000 pages – but really an enjoyable read.  I’m not generally a biography person, but I’m really liking this.
  • Dry Tears: I also had a chance to visit the Anne Frank House when I was in Amsterdam, also a moving experience.  Earlier that year I’d read Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who had survived Auschwitz.  As with Van Gogh’s life, I really only had a general sense of the history surrounding the Holocaust.  One of the things I’ve never understood is how the Nazis ever got so many people to go along with such crazy things.  I stumbled upon an online course on Coursera, called The Holocaust, that includes readings on history and Holocaust literature, as well as movies and documentaries.  The course started Monday and I checked out the first few items from the reading list today.  This is the first of the books, and so far I’m finding it very interesting.  I don’t know if there’s really a good answer for why people did what they did at that time, but I’m hoping I’ll at least learn a little more about what life was like at that time.

So that’s my current reading list.  How about all of you?

Reading the Great Books of Science

It’s been ages since I posted here, and I can’t let all the blog readers down, can I?!  I’ve been up to all sorts of fantastically nerdy things lately, which have kept me rather too busy for blogging, and which I will probably report on here in due time.  For now, let’s talk science and books, which as we all know, are two of my favorite things (the other top contenders for my favorite things being dogs, champagne, and Paris).

One of the many perks of working at a major research institution is that really awesome people come speak here.  Case in point: a few weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend a Q&A session with James Watson, as in Watson and Crick, as in discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA.  True story: the Q&A ended at the exact same time as I had to be across campus for the start of a class, so I knew I was going to have to leave early.  When I told this to one of my bosses, who was also attending, she said, “you’re going to get up and walk out while James Watson is talking?”  And indeed, that is exactly what I did. 🙂

However, before I left, one of the things Watson had to say that struck me was regarding what he referred to as “the great books.”  I forget exactly how he put it, but he said that he had appreciated his schooling for exposing him to these great books, which had helped shape his thinking.  This statement reminded me of a blog post I’d recently read about Carl Sagan’s reading list, written in his own hand and excerpted from his papers, now held by the Library of Congress.  As the blog post I’d read eloquently puts it, is it possible to “reverse engineer” a great mind by following in that thinker’s literary footsteps?

I’m sure it’s not so simple as that, but in any case, I decided that I would like to add to my already completely ridiculous collection of to-read books by creating my own “great books of science” library.  Based on my research into what one might currently consider the important books in science (at least for the non-scientist), I’ve started my library with the following titles:

  1. Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species
  2. Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene
  3. Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time
  4. Matt Ridley – Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
  5. Carl Sagan – Cosmos

So far, I’m about 1/3 of the way into Genome, which I really enjoy (but I did also just start Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the reading of which has become a near-obsession that currently occupies almost all of my free time).  It’s a nice overview of evolution and genetics, though perhaps a little bit less technical than I would have liked, but certainly an enjoyable read.

So, dear blog readers, as you can see, my list is at present by no means comprehensive.  What would you add to a library of the “great books” of science?  Let me know in the comments so I can add to my Amazon wish list. 🙂

Books to Take to the End of the World

Ridiculous librarian/nerd confession: Last night I added three books to my earthquake kit.  (In Los Angeles, you’re supposed to have things prepared and easy to get to in the event of an earthquake, like food, extra medication, rope, other survival-y kinds of things.)  These additions mean that my earthquake kit now contains a grand total of four items: the three books, and one box of Trader Joe’s “fiberful” chocolate chip granola bars.  I should probably work on this kit. 🙂  But in all honesty, I think my surviving a catastrophic event would hinge just as much on having good books to keep me going mentally as it would on having food to sustain me physically.

The inspiration for adding books to my earthquake kit came from two very interesting things I watched over the last couple days: the Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom and the AMC series Walking Dead.  The two couldn’t be more different – Moonrise Kingdom is a sweet and strange little romance and Walking Dead is like Lost except with zombies and more gore than I thought was possible to show on television.  However, both made me think about what books I’d want to take with me if I really thought I might lose everything else.  In Moonrise Kingdom, the girl brings books with her when she runs away with the boy.  In Walking Dead, a couple times they talk about how they would have brought more interesting books if they knew they were planning for the end of the world.  So in the spirit of being prepared for whatever eventuality, I’ve added to my very meager earthquake kit the three books I would take with me to the end of the world:

  1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: I read this novel during the same summer I was training for the marathon (2008), and finishing it felt like the book equivalent of running a marathon.  I spent longer reading this book than I’d ever spent reading any other book, yet I feel like I could read it a million more times and still not fully notice every little thing.  Honestly, I don’t feel like I could even explain the plot of the book without writing a short essay, and no one wants to read that.  David Foster Wallace is not for everybody, but I never get tired of reading him.  Such a shame about his death.
  2. The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks: I stumbled upon this book when I was somewhere between 13 and 15.  I’ve come back to it on and off very often over the years, and there is always a poem that perfectly expresses the very thing I’m feeling, and I better understand the poems the more I experience of life.  Rumi was a Sufi mystic in the 13th century, and his poetry explores such an interesting emotional range.  You can find many of his poems freely available online if you Google him, but this book also offers really good commentary from the translator, who is a scholar specializing in Rumi.
  3. Gray’s Anatomy: I know this is a very odd book to choose, but hear me out, as I do actually have some practical reasons for it.  I got it from the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble for $6.98 when I was in my early teens. I was really interested in working in medicine at the time (and I kind of have turned out doing that, in a way), so I thought this was something I ought to have.  Plus, $6.98!  I find anatomy so interesting, though I never exactly got around to just sitting and reading Gray’s cover to cover.  However, there’d be plenty of time for that in a catastrophic end-times scenario!  Also, I know this is sort of weird, but I love historical anatomical art.  For example, I’d love to own a phrenology head.  So to me this book is sort of a work of art in addition to a textbook.  Finally, practically speaking, it might be useful to have an anatomy book around during some apocalyptic event so that I can be the nerdy librarian hero character who is able to safely pull the arrow out of the leader character’s arm without nicking an artery or something.  (Failing that, I’ll be the eccentric librarian character who wears totally impractical shoes but has a kickass dog protecting her.)

So there you go.  In the event of a zombie apocalypse, major earthquake, giant meteor crash, or other catastrophe, now you know what I’ll be reading while I await rescue and/or the end of the world.

A Book Review: The Confidant

I read a lot (as you may have surmised from last night’s post), and I’m also trying to blog more, so perhaps now I will inflict a book review upon you, my dear readers!  After all, I’m a librarian, so I’m supposed to talk about books, right? 🙂 My latest read was a novel called The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, which I guess I might describe as a sort of insane World War II-era romance set in France.  I bought this book at the Tattered Cover, a very cool bookstore in downtown Denver, when I was in town for the Digital Library Federation conference.  I wandered in with no particular book or even genre in mind and just looked around at what was new and recommended.  This book was one of the four I walked out with.

The story itself does veer perhaps a bit into soap opera territory in its drama, but I liked the mystery it built.  For toting around when you’re running from one flight to the next, it’s quite nice.  It starts when Camille, a French woman whose mother has just died, starts receiving strange letters addressed to her from a man she’s never heard of.  The letters tell the story of a young couple right before World War II and all the really crazy stuff that happens to them, and Camille has to figure out who these people are,  why this guy is sending her letters, and how she’s connected to all of this.  At a certain point it becomes a little predictable, but it’s a well-told, and interesting, story.

The main reason this book won my heart is that it’s got unreliable narrators all over the place.  I wrote my master’s thesis on unreliable narrators, so I always love when I stumble upon a piece that manages to use them well.  If you’ve never heard this term before, it refers to first-person narrators whose story cannot be trusted for some reason – mental illness, youth or age, drug or alcohol impairment, or just the fact that they’re lying.  I wouldn’t call this particular book serious literature, but at least in the sense of making the story surprising, I find the author’s use of her various narrators to be very well done.  Each of them tells their different stories, and every one sounds true and sincere, though in the end the narrators are all revealed to be bending the story for their own reasons.  What I love about unreliable narrators is that I think that life really is like that – you could take two people and ask them the story of their relationship, and they would probably say very different things.  Even without meaning to, people just notice different things and have a different viewpoint, so no two people would tell the same story.

So there you go!  The Confidant gets the librarian’s endorsement!

The Librarian’s Strange Bedfellows

Strange bedfellows

When it comes to books, I’m afraid I must confess to be non-monogamous.  I usually like to be reading some combination of a variety of types of books: fiction, non-fiction, some sort of self-improvement (yoga or philosophy or something), and some sort of textbook.  And now that I have a nice queen size bed as a result of a very nice Christmas gift from my parents last year, the side I don’t sleep on is often full of books (and dog!)  Especially since I’d been sick recently and spent essentially two days in bed, a lot of books piled up there.  So in case you’ve ever wondered who a librarian shares her bed with, they are:

1. Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich: despite its salacious title, this is actually the true tale of the theft of moon rocks, evidently “the most audacious heist in history.”  Haven’t started this one yet.

2.  When She Woke by Hillary Jordan: only just started this one too, but it takes place in a dystopian future in which people’s skin is dyed a color to match the crime they’ve committed.  Bought this one at the Tattered Cover when I was in Denver – love that place!

3.  The third book in the stack is actually my journal, but it was in the bed so I tossed it in the stack so it wouldn’t feel left out. 😉

4.  Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche: a good friend is always quoting Nietzsche to me so I decided to give it a try, and so far I love it.  Going all former-English major and highlighting my favorite passages.  This is why I can’t generally check out library books!

5.  Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters by Gordon M. Shepherd: this is very science-y and probably wouldn’t appeal to your average foodie, but for the nerdiest of foodies, it is quite fascinating.  It’s very complicated, but the way I’d very briefly summarize it is to say that flavor is actually mostly neurologically occurring in the nose, though we perceive taste as being in the mouth.  It’s complicated but very interesting.

6.  Basic Neurochemistry by Siegel et al: well, you know, a girl needs a little light reading too. 🙂  In my work as a medical librarian I’ve become very interested in neurotransmitters and am learning all sorts of interesting things about research going on in this area, so I figured why not see what I can find out for myself.  So far some of it is over my head and I skip it, but I’ve learned some interesting things about how neurotransmitters work.

So that’s what I’m reading!  What are you Internet folks enjoying these days?  I’m always looking for a good book to add to the list!

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

I took this picture on the bus in Denver when I was there for a conference.
I’m not sure why, but the steps in the title made me think of these girls with their
matching shoes.  For the record, they were wearing matching shirts, too,
but it was too difficult to take that picture surreptitiously.

The Lao-Tzu quote in my title is perhaps trite, but it’s true.  I have a lot of ideas, but a lot of them never really make it into reality.  I have good intentions, but translating that to the real world is often impractical or just more time-consuming than this working, single girl can commit to.  So it is with great pleasure that I can report back that I have been sticking to my challenge thus far.  Not only that, I am loving it.

Now, I admittedly got a slow start, although through no fault of my own.  I played host to some unexpected company this weekend, and I had to invoke exception number five: watching TV in a social setting is permitted. In other words, I can watch if I get invited to go to a movie, have a friend over and he or she would like to watch TV, or go to someone else’s house and he or she suggests we watch TV.  In those situations, I wouldn’t be reading a book anyway (I think the person I’m with might find that a bit rude).  It only makes sense to cut the TV when reading is the alternative activity.

So it really wasn’t until yesterday that I got a chance to begin my challenge.  As it happened, I was home sick yesterday, so it was both an opportunity and a test.  Sure, I wasn’t feeling so great, obviously, and there was my TV and my Netflix account and my DVD collection and whatnot, all right there and within easy reach.  However, to my credit, I did not give in.

Instead, I picked up the book I was reading at the time – The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience – and ended up finishing it before too long (I’ll report back on this later).  I did the crossword I still had left from Sunday’s paper.  Then I started another book I have checked out from the library – What a Blessing She Had Chloroform: The Medical and Social Response to the Pain of Childbirth from 1800 to the Present.  I got a little less than halfway through.  I kept thinking to myself, oh man, can I do it?  Can I finish this whole book today?  Ultimately I got too tired and realized I’d have to call it a night, but I felt the day had gone well.  I’d stuck to my plan.

As I was compulsively adding more books to my list of the books I want to check out, it occurred to me that I could probably get through them all in a not-unreasonable amount of time if I were to continue this challenge even after I finish all the books I have in my house.  I’ll never run out of books I want to read – I’m a librarian and a knowledge junkie.  There are probably a few movies I want to see now and then, a show I’d like to follow, but on the whole, I don’t have much use for TV.  It’s obviously very premature to say this, but maybe I’ll make this a permanent thing.  At the very least, I would like to commit to not wasting time on TV anymore, such as by watching stuff I’ve already seen.  Sorry, Arrested Development, but I’m looking at you, among others.  It’s time I spend a little more of my energy on something I consider actually worthwhile.

So, because some of you have asked, I’ve compiled a list of the books that are on my to-read list.  Again, these are the books that I have here in my home that I haven’t read yet.  There are a couple that I didn’t manage to put on there because I couldn’t find the link or I skimmed over them on the shelf by accident.  As it stands, there are now 45 on the list, but I think there are at least 5 more I don’t have on here.  So it’s a somewhat daunting task, but one I’m up for.

Fun fact: I didn’t put it on this list, because I’m not sure if I’m up for it, but one of the books I have in my collection that I haven’t read yet is the complete, unabridged edition of Les Miserables.  At least I’m not totally insane, and I got the English translation as opposed to the original French.  Even so, that puppy runs 1,222 pages.  And let me tell you, from what I’ve read so far, some of those pages include long, pointless, minute details about extremely minor characters.  When I started reading it the first time, I think I got about 80 pages in and all I’d read so far were details of the life of the priest who helps Jean Valjean the first time around.  If you know anything about the story, you will know that the childhood of this extremely minor character could not be less relevant to the plot on the whole.  So, what I’m trying to say here is, if I somehow manage to finish this tome in addition to the other 50-some odd books on my list, I think I deserve a cookie, at the very least. 🙂