It’s all about the narrative…
So I have to admit I was a little anxious about reading this. The thing is I love Michelle — Barack is perhaps a tad more relatable, but she’s still a strong second in my heart — and I was really happy that she had written this book and it was so successful and she was having this great book tour and where she could shuck off all the protocol and wear boots like these.
I knew was going to love her book even more than Barack’s because I’d read that she was actually the better stylist.*
But then, this excerpt was released, and well, I did not love it. For one thing, I’m not a fan of proposal narratives. The only justification is if you actually are a character in a Victorian novel, and even then… But also, the prose — it sounded kind of fussy, and Michelle’s charm has always been her ability to sound smart and down to earth at the same time. This sounded neither.
So I really wasn’t sure, but I read the book because I couldn’t not.
Here’s my take. On the sentence level, it is a little disappointing. It’s formulaic at times, and there is evidence of unwise use of a thesaurus. I’m a little suspicious of the section of her acknowledgements where she thanks her “gifted team of collaborators.” It seems that there might have been a bit of minor ghost writing. If that’s the case, they haven’t done Michelle any favours.
When you’re talking about content, though, the book delivers. Michelle’s voice comes through, and it is powerful.
The depiction of the South Side Chicago community is fascinating and extremely well supported. Also, Michelle’s writing on motherhood is extraordinary, in its honesty and lack of ideological self consciousness. You know, when you have all this ambition, but at the same time you’re flooded with the desire to spend time with the little creatures you’ve produced — very few writers can look at that head on.
But the best part of the book — and this is awkward from a feminist perspective — is the part about Barack. Reading it, I relived the excitement of the first presidential campaign. I found myself in tears after the chapter on Sandy Hook, and again when I read about the 2016 election. In many ways, this is a love song to Barack Hussein Obama, the man he was to her, but also the man he was to the American people.
So, it’s not what I thought it would be, but it is something. I value it for Michelle’s candour and clear-sightedness, and for the way it evokes an era that already feels gilded by the past. 4/5
*Apparently, Barack sometimes wrote things like “between Michelle and I” and his staff had to go in and clean up his mistakes.
In which we return to the saga of the mini-library
So it’s a new term and time to start promoting the library again. However, the cart problem persists.
I had had an ingenious plan involving a photocopy paper box being affixed to the top of the cart with duct tape. When I attempted to put this into practice, I realized that the box only held slightly more than the top of the cart.
When you factor in the increased ugliness of the proposed cart and the awkwardness of buying duct tape and box cutters at the the hardware store, the plan seems unfeasible.
I hear about a wonderful place called the Swap Shop, somewhere that redistributes rejected U of T furniture. It appears to be mostly closed for the summer. There is a number to call to arrange for a special appointment, but there is no reply to my message.
I decided to venture out to the Swap Shop, just in case.
I travel through the Earth Sciences forest.
Outside the swapshop I see some very nice armchairs
and quite a bit of broken glass — it appears that someone has unsuccessfully donated some fluorescent lightbulbs —
but no book carts.
I bravely decide to enter the building, which is quite Dickensian with very narrow staircases. The passageways creep around the inner walls of the building, as if the arcitecture were trying to keep me from the structure’s inner sanctum.
It is eerie in here, although the art is interesting, so I leave quickly.
Later that day, though, I do receive a voicemail message from the Recycling Coordinator. We have an appointment at 11.
The next day, I venture back through the forest.
I descend into the Swap Shop,
which is exactly how one would imagine it, but in a cool way. I happen upon … this!
It’s a little battlescarred, but perfect for our purposes.
I am the only person pushing an empty bookcart up Spadina, but it is an eccentric neighbourhood, so I don’t particularly stand out.
So there are all these books and three sections inside the cart. How to divide them? Which hierarchies should I observe?
The top of the cart is a kind of New Releases section. The main criterion is shininess. At one point I belonged to one of those quarterly subscriptions that sent me many beautiful books, books that fell into the category of things-someone-else-would-really-enjoy. As a result, they’re mostly in mint condition, at least the ones that have escaped Colby’s ravages.
I am now left with the less shiny offerings. I have separated out serious and non serious reading, the i-1 that extensive reading theorists recommend. as opposed to the let’s -get-educated kind of stuff. I guess it’s all relative, but Eat, Pray, Love and Wild get to go in the fun part
and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions does not.
Then there’s a section for younger readers. This is a tough call for me because I really resist restricting what young people read. I had a protracted argument with the Toronto Public Library over whether Em had a right to read Joanna Trollope. My side was fueled by righteous passion, but seriously weakened by the facts that a) I was actually borrowing the book for myself, but using Em’s card because her overdue fines were lower, and b) (in my dad’s words) nobody should be allowed to read Joanna Trollope.* I basically believe young people should read whatever they want without any authority figure standing over them and guiding them one way or the other. Conversely, these books should be accessible to other readers who do not fit into the target age group:
I’ve marked it with a sign that provides information without passing any kind of judgement.
But hold on, do I really believe that young people should be able to read whatever they want? I wonder whether there are any books that the younger readers absolutely should not read. I am a little concerned about Lovely Bones and Room: the topics are difficult, but they are clearly marketed to young women. The innocuous titles and breezy colourful dust jackets might lure readers in, and they might not realize until they are in the middle of the action what exactly is going on. In fact, Lovely Bones is the only book I can remember telling Em not to read (not that she listened to me). Still, I shall not censor these. I have decided to keep them but relegate them to “Serious Reading,” hidden behind Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
I have similar qualms about Junot Diaz. It’s hard to know what to do with a writer who’s both a #Metoo accuser and a #Metoo accused — then there’s the fact that he wrote that beautiful, powerful essay about the abuse that he suffered. I can’t parse the morality of that right now. He gets to stay in the library, but he’s off the shiny shelf and into “Serious Reading” (also in behind Thomas Kuhn).
*Sorry, JT, I still love you, but you’ve got to admit that it’s not the same as campaigning for the right to read Jane Austen or something.
So the soft launch was a little, well, soft.
It started off ok. I was the library’s first client, snagging this
I’m not sure what it is, but it seems to feature Shakespeare and death, which are two of my favourite things to read about.
Two other staff members also chose books.
One chose The Start-Up of YOU, the Linkedin-wide bestseller that promises to instil “a whole new entrepreneurial mindset and skill set.”
The other was convinced to go with A Complicated Kindness
Sadly, The Startup of YOU was returned unfinished at the end of the day. A Complicated Kindness is still out — I have higher hopes for that one.
After that, though, there was not exactly a flurry of activity, although I did hear that at least one group visited the cart. When I checked it out at 5 pm, some of the books had been rearranged — you can see here that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been moved to the top of the New Releases section — I am not sure how to interpret that.
However, the number of books appears to be the same.
We did receive two pieces of feedback, though.
One is that the students were reluctant to take books because they were worried there would not be any left for others. As someone who has stood behind very greedy people at breakfast buffets, I find this form of conscientiousness rare but laudable. However, in this case, students need to know that a) we have more books in the office and b) it would be really great if we did run out of books — then I would actually be able to sit on my sofa. I shall make a new sign to communicate this.
The other piece of feedback is that the cart is not good because books are not visible enough. While I would argue that a) the official Little Libraries do not offer great visibility either and b) the lack of visibility is an important aspect of the Little Library Experience in that it forces the subject to take a deliberate step to enter the library world by opening the door or drawer* — kind of Narnia-like. Unfortunately, I guess the field of Little Library Theory is not yet sufficiently developed for this argument , although LLT is a hot topic in the Journal of Radical Librarianship.
At any rate, the response to both of these comments might be to abandon the primary-colour library cart 😦 . Maybe I do need a home for the library that can contain more books and display them more effectively.
I am looking at other options, but I am being careful to avoid any item that is too expensive or purpose-built: for one thing, I am still recovering from The Summer I Spent $200 on Plasticine**; also, I feel that the little library should develop organically — it would be heavy-handed to introduce too serious a prop into what is essentially still a social experiment.
So I am exploring the wilds of Kijiji, an element of social media that was previously unknown to me. I now see that the world is full of things that are not quite exactly what I want at prices slightly lower than what I would pay in a store with the added benefit of doing business with a possibly homicidal stranger. However I realize that I must also exercise caution here, especially when it comes to geography. I remind myself that a $20 bookshelf bargain is no longer a bargain when it entails a trip to North Bay.
This next installment in the story may yield some unexpected adventures…
*Like vampires, except the other way round
** Admittedly, the Hypothetical Urban Prototype Models were beautiful, and the wire-clippers purchased in the same shopping frenzy come in handy surprisingly frequently.
What happens when the planning from Part 1 is put into practice.
Behold the Summer Program Little Free Library!
It cleans up nice– book capacity and visibility could be better, but it serves.
There were some initial misunderstandings about the function of the cart, but they were quickly resolved
There were more substantial obstacles to my original plan. I had wanted to wheel the cart from classroom to classroom, arriving at the exact moment when the instructor needed support for their extensive reading module. However, rolling from classroom to classroom doesn’t work when your building looks like this
The frequent flights of stairs do make the space more interesting and human-scale, but they are not well suited to anyone trying to manoeuvre a wheeled object.
Also, this is the third week of a four-week program. Not everyone can finish reading a book in one week, especially in one’s second language, and especially when one has to keep on going on boat cruises and things like that. The original plan could make for undue stress on program students and perhaps some very overdue library books.
So here’s the Plan B — the Soft Launch.
The Little Library will be placed in the shared student area tomorrow with the following sign on the wall above it
We will observe and record what happens, perhaps videotape it if things get interesting. It’s action research! It’s street theatre! It’ll be like the O Canada Beer Fridge Experiment!
We still have next month to figure out how to get the cart up those stairs.
I think the seed was sown about 5 years ago in a Youth Toefl class. A student asked for a book to read in her spare time. I was a little surprised at this: this request was probably the first time she had addressed me directly. In fact, I had hardly heard her voice at all. She was young for the class (only 14) and not particularly interested in the social dramas that were taking place around her. All in all, she seemed a little lost.
I thought , “Why not — even if the book doesn’t help, the action of bringing it in will show that someone’s paying attention,” went home and realized that I had shelves of YA novels that my kids had recently outgrown. Rather than impose my own choice on her, I shoved them all into an Ikea bag (librarians wince!) and brought them in. I left them lying around the classroom and the student quietly worked her way through them.
At the end of the session, this apparently disengaged student wrote a note about how much she had enjoyed her time in Toronto. She specifically mentioned the books (I think the word “wonderland” featured somewhere in that sentence.)
This got me thinking. The summer program is very much geared to extroverts — every minute of the students’ days is planned for interactive and communicative language learning. I get it: immersive language programs don’t work if the participants just sit in their rooms reading fantasy novels. However, many writers on introversion have pointed out that introverts do better if they can have time alone to recharge. Having English language books available would give them a way of doing that without completely disconnecting from the program.
I let that sit for a while, but I’m back at the Summer Program this year and I’ve been thinking about ways to enrich the student experience.
Driving to work through the Annex, seeing all the Little Free Libraries in their charming library houses
I sent round an email to the instructors asking for books, attempting to present this as an opportunity for a KonMari experience. Books have been trickling in
and it’s been quite a revelation to see who produces what.
I’m still working on the actual structure. It turns out that the little bookhouses people set up on street corners cost $350 if you order them ready-made. While I think that building one would be an excellent class project for the more hyperkinetic 12 year-olds, no teacher has volunteered. I think we’re going to resort to this: it’s bright and jolly; it will provide good book visibility, and it’s on wheels.
Next step: clean up the structure, find a new home for the toys, and somehow transport it to school.
About a week ago, I wrote a letter to Kathleen Wynne. At first I had intended to send it only to her, but I eventually decided to post it as an open letter as well. Here’s part of the reason why:
So I’m a huge Kathleen Wynne fan — let’s get that out of the way right now. When I first encountered her, she was my enemy, the management rep in a TDSB strike. Even then, though, I wondered to myself, “Who is that whippet-bodied woman in the tight fitting jacket?” After that, I got to know and like her through her involvement with Overland Learning Centre. It was a strange feeling watching her ascent, to MPP, to Party Leader, to premier, to majority election winner. We rejoiced at each step, but we were never really surprised. It just seemed the logical outcome, given her obvious drive, strength of character, and political acumen — that was just who Kathleen was.
But now we’re in 2018.
I guess I had been distracted, but suddenly there was an election coming and Kathleen’s unpopularity had become axiomatic. Even though each interview and press conference showed the old Kathleen that I knew, the press seemed to have endowed her with a new persona, often associated with the collocation “deeply unpopular.”
It was like with Hillary, but worse in a way. Nobody I actually knew uttered the words “But her emails.. ” at least in my presence. Now, however, I have to contend daily with people sharing their conviction that Kathleen is a) corrupt or b) ruinously extravagant, or c) some paradoxical combination of the two. It’s become a commonplace of daily discourse, second only to the opinion that it’s pretty fucking cold out for June, eh?
I just felt miserable. Intellectually, I was convinced this was wrong, but how could it be when so many people “knew” it was true? Had I missed something? But I went over the details of Ontario government actions under Kathleen, and nothing really stood out, nothing that would have indicated a change in her character or style of governance. The cognitive dissonance was so painful. Not just intellectually: it generated a feeling of shame. How did I end up in the unpopular crowd? If so many people, many of whom I respected, held these views, maybe there was something wrong with me. But I did nothing to resolve this. I felt immobile – swaddled.
And then support came from the most unlikely of sources: Christie Blatchford published Smarter more Capable Kathleen Wynne Makes it Difficult to-see her Lose in the National Post (!). This was followed by John Barber’s Kathleen Wynne was the Premier we didn’t Deserve in the Toronto Star, and then a steady stream of too-little-too-late apologies. I felt a little stronger — not so alone. By election night, I was ready to say something. “Don’t engage with the vitriol,” I told myself, “Just focus on what you know to be true. And for god’s sake, keep it short. You know that nobody reads wordy updates.” So I posted it, right after Kathleen’s fabulous good-bye speech.
I received a few comments and likes, but not necessarily from the people I hear from most often. The responders were all women and all around my age. A few messaged me privately, and it was clear from the ensuing conversations that their perception of Kathleen was very similar to my own. But where had their voices been? How had the press come to the conclusion that Kathleen was universally unpopular when most of the people I was talking to still liked and respected her? Why had none of them spoken up? Maybe they had felt lost and ashamed the way I did.
This is not about me, and it’s not even really about Kathleen. I know she’ll be fine — eventually. She’s a smart woman with a great family and a loyal base (Did you hear the love in the room during that last speech?) , and I’m sure that she has some money in the bank (although probably not as much as Doug will have at the end of his term!).
It’s about that feeling, the paralysis that comes with cognitive dissonance and the stigma of unpopularity. It does not feel comfortable to hold an opinion that differs from those of the people around you. It takes not just courage, but a supreme effort of will to speak against the popular wisdom (and for that, Christie, I salute you, however much I may disagree with other positions you have taken). It is so tempting to not push against the tide, to stifle your feeling that something is unfair or just wrong.
In this case, I lacked the courage to act until others had broken a trail, but even when I did speak out, I felt awkward and exposed. The mere act of thinking differently from the people around me felt painful. I had no concrete fear for my safety, or even for my reputation among my peers; but on a different level I felt deeply unsafe. The action of severing oneself from one’s group — even in thought — must violate some atavistic taboo.
I pushed back as much as I did because I know and like Kathleen. If I am being honest with myself I have to admit that I might not have done it for someone else. I might have just accepted the common opinion, even if it felt a little off base, because doing that was so much easier than pushing back against a tide of opinion.
So clearly we’re not just talking about a provincial election anymore. It’s about the need to belong, and how it can be so much stronger than the need to do what’s right. About a year ago, people began sharing the following meme:
I remember retweeting it, feeling excited and brave. I would be that person. I would fight back against injustice. I would make a difference.
Now, I realize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. The problem might not be having the courage to do the right thing, but having the courage to know what that right thing is.