Archive for August, 2011

Librarians love lists of books and I’m no exception. In “Hell is Empty” by Craig Johnson, one of Walt’s deputies, Sancho, is making up for a college education spent concentrating on criminal justice by reading more widely in the humanities. His co-workers have helped him out by making him reading lists and he is in the middle of working his way through one of their recommendations, “Dante’s Inferno“, when the story opens. “Dante’s Inferno” also plays a major part in the story itself.

At the end of the book, Craig gives the complete reading lists from Walt and the rest of the main characters in the series. Each list is very reflective of the characters’ personalities and runs the gamut from “The Three Musketeers” (courtesy of Walt) to “Justine” (Vic, Walt’s sassy deputy) to “Pilgrim’s Progress” (Ruby the dispatcher) to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (Henry Standing Bear, bar owner and former political activist).

Naturally, I can’t read a list like that without making a list of my own. My mission (and yours, should you choose to accept it) is to draw up a list of “must-reads” in the humanities. The temptation here is to reel off a list of great books. No dice. These have to be books that you have read, enjoyed, and consider classics or seminal in some way. The list is limited to ten. You can make it shorter, but you can’t make it longer.

Here’s my list:

1.) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Walt and I are both big fans of the Bard and probably for the same reason. Bill Shakespeare talks about the human condition and does so in a way that has rung true for over several hundred years.

2.) Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation)

Every time I read this story-poem, I’m amazed by how modern and anti-heroic it is. In fact, I would recommend listening to this story via CD or audio download rather than reading it. It was a word-of-mouth tale and meant to be enjoyed that way.

3.) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes’ genius is listening–really listening–to the odd and sometimes bizarre stories of the people who come to him for help and then looking beyond those stories for explanations. He foils crimes by taking people seriously.

4.) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

When asked to pick out one of Mark Twain’s works, everyone always suggests “Huckleberry Finn” which is a longer, more picaresque tale. I still stick to and stand by “Tom Sawyer” which is shorter, brighter, and more enjoyable.

5.) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

Okay, a slight cheat as these are three books rather than one, but you can’t really read one without reading the other two. Tolkien was an ex-soldier and his writing is informed by a sense of melancholy for the friends and the innocence he lost during his stint in World War I.  No matter how many times I’ve read this series, I still cry at the end of the third book.

6.) Treasure Island

As a kid, I loved this book for the adventure (treasure! pirates! derring-do!). As an adult, I love this book for its coming of age story. The story is as much about Jim’s path to manhood as it is about Long John’s quest for Flint’s gold.

7.) The Bible

You don’t have to be Christian or believe in God at all to appreciate that the Bible has been at the center of Western history and popular culture. Every time we talk about a tower of babel or turning the other cheek, we are referencing this book.

8.) The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf

In the 12th century, the mighty Abbasid Empire, the greatest superpower of its time, was in shambles. Divided by civil war, the empire was soon beseiged by a new enemy: the Franj (Franks). Maalouf, a journalist by trade, writes a highly enjoyable and informative popular history that draws on Arab primary sources to present the Crusades from a Middle Eastern viewpoint.  Maalouf has achieved something very difficult: writing a non-fiction history that reads like a novel.

9.) Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor

As a radio host, Keillor is most concerned with poems that catch the ear when read out loud so this anthology of poetry is heavily weighted toward those that sound good, not just look good on the page. If you were put off of poetry when you were a kid, try this book.  Be sure to read the poet bios in the back, too. They are very memorable.

10.) Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm

This 19th century collection of German folktales is as central to Western European civilization as the Bible. Get the complete anthology for adults, not the watered version for kids.


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Whenever a fellow citizen of our happy hobbit burg hails me at traffic light, I know that the conversation that follows will be memorable. Once an Alaska Native gentleman in a van offered to sell me some ivory while we were parked at the same overpass. I declined. A tip for consumers: while only Alaska Natives are allowed to sell raw ivory, reputable sellers and artisans do not flog their product from the windows of a moving vehicle.

Last night, I had barely nosed to a stop at the crosswalk when a lady got out of her truck and came up to my window. She told me (nicely) that I needed to move closer to the white line so that the light would change. I have no idea where she was going, but clearly the thought of any delay of any kind was too much for her.

So there I was on my way home a couple of days ago when a woman in a mini-van on my driver’s hand side asked me for directions to the nearest Fred Meyers. I deduced from the mud-splattered condition of the mini-van and the Hobbiton street map clutched in her hand that she wasn’t from around here, visitors not being uncommon in the summer months. I pointed her towards the nearest turnoff, she thanked me, and drove off.

Library reference service@your intersection.

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As archivists, my colleagues and I are accustomed to working closely with researchers and usually this is one of the most rewarding parts of our job. However, occasionally we meet a researcher that seems to have been sent to curse our existence.

Hannah (not her real name) is an older, out-of-state grad student who has been working on the same dissertation for the past seven years. I can’t tell you what it’s about because after an in-depth, hour-long reference interview and another 45 minute hands-on session, I still don’t know. Neither does Hannah. That’s the problem.

My colleagues have all made heroic efforts to help. They have listened intently as she bent their ears for hours. They have diplomatically suggested narrowing her research focus. They have made suggestions for specific topics she might pursue. All in vain. Every attempt to narrow her research to manageable level has simply suggested to her new topics that she wants to pursue. Couple this lack of focus with a sandpaper-like personality and you will get an idea of the albatross hanging around our necks.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s no law against patrons satisfying their idle curiosity in a library. In fact, most librarians actively encourage this. But there should definitely being a law against wasting the time of the librarian.

Hannah has a couple weeks of research left. Pray for us.

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