Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Rob Thomas Interviews at TWOP

No, not that Rob Thomas, this Rob Thomas!

Thanks to Liz, TiVo, and reruns on UPN, Veronica Mars is my new favorite show of last year. I caught the last six episodes of the season already (so I know who killed Lilly Kane) and am now watching the show from the beginning. Well, as much as I can, since UPN aired the pilot, then episode 6, then episode 10, and now seems to be settling into the rest of the season without interruption. We can only hope.

For completists, Television Without Pity has a full slate of all of this season's recaps, available here. Better even than the recaps (which are very well written and provide a thorough scene-by-scene summary & analysis of each episode) is the two-part interview with series creator and God of YA Literature Rob Thomas. This is fascinating & fun reading, people. A must, even for casual viewers (or would-be viewers) of the show. Man, I can't wait til this one is released on DVD.


An Interview with Jennifer Blanc

And now for something a little bit different. An interview with Jennifer Blanc.

Jennifer is a working actress, whose credits range from Broadway to film to television shows. Her "Pop Culture" credentials include a recurring role on Party of Five as Kate (Bailey's girlfriend); Kendra the roommate in Dark Angel; Zanne, the "All About Eve" friend in Friends 'til the End. Most recently, she was in CSI, playing Jacinda in the Episode Iced.

Jennifer took some time to speak with me about some of the work she has done, pop culture, and libraries.

What are you most proud of?

Friends 'til the End. The experience of working on the movie was great, plus I am really proud of the finished product: It was a good job and a fun time.

What other favorites do you have?

Party of Five, because of the relationships. Most of the episodes I was in were written by Susannah Grant, who was terrific. She is just an amazing writer. I have a lot of respect for writers.

How do you feel about being part of "pop culture"?

I didn't know I was! It's exciting to think about.

What do you consider your pop culture area of expertise?

TV. My favorites right now are Court TV and Law & Order. I like real court shows and legal dramas, like Without a Trace and CSI. I was so excited to be on CSI; it was a great experience to be on that show. The people were wonderful.

How have your experiences been, working for TV and film?

When I've been warned about something, it ends up being the most terrific working experience; and when I least expect it, I've had problems. But overall, I've been lucky. I've had great experiences. Like James Cameron, who did Dark Angel. It was amazing to be involved in that project, and to work with him in any way.

What things do you like to see in libraries?

I like when there is the same selection as a bookstore. People can't buy all the books they like to read, and I like to go into the library and find what I want. I like a variety, when there is everything from InStyle to movies to books on tape. Every person can be satisfied. I like true crime books and I like when there is broad selection, not just one or two of the popular authors.


Batman Begins, All Over Again

This past weekend, I saw Batman Begins, in a theater that was about half-full. Considering that the theater I was at was showing BB every hour, I took this as a good sign for the movie.

Now, Batman has never been one of my favorite comics characters. In fact, most of the DC Comics characters don't do it for me, with a few exceptions (Nightwing, The Flash, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman). Looking at that list, in fact, it seems I only like the characters that are of more modern origin, or have been kept up-to-date with the times. DC's marquee characters, Superman and Batman, have never really kept my attention. In particular, I don't like Batman. I've found that Bruce Wayne is usually way too arrogant for me, and I just don't like either side of the character--Bruce or Batman. As such, I'm not as up on the Batman chronology as others.

However, Batman Begins did a great job of presenting the origin of Batman, showing how a man can become a legend. I loved the fact that the "bad guys" in this one aren't over-the-top villians, as seen in the past movies. Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow was genuinely slimy and distasteful. Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard was a great choice--he should get a trademark on playing these older mentor-type characters, but this definitely wasn't a rehash of Qui-Gon. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine were fantastic as the support in Bruce/Batman's work and life. And while I didn't care much for Katie Holmes, at least her role wasn't that big in the movie, relatively speaking.

However, it's the work of Christian Bale that really stands out. I can remember watching him in Newsies, waaaaay back in 1992, and I had no idea that he'd come this far. His work in this movie is truly outstanding, and really breathes a lot of life into the Batman franchise.

For patrons who enjoyed this movie, definitely point them towards the Batman graphic novels in your collection. Frank Miller's work is certainly an ideal launching point, with Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. But I'd also recommend The Long Halloween and Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb. For a look at one of Batman's most famous villians, try Batman: The Killing Joke, focusing on the Joker and his infamous attack on Barbara Gordon, aka the original Batgirl.


Shameless Plug

I was quoted in this article exploring the continuing popularity of Ann Brashares' Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. Cool!


How we see ourselves....

How we see ourselves and how others see us: these can be two very different things.

It's something that happens frequently with the world of childrens and young adult literature: on one side of the fence, those who value "kid lit" and YA Lit. On the other side, those who think that books written for those under the age of 18 are somehow less, so the books are easy to write (see almost every celebrity author) or the books themselves are not as good as adult books.

And then there are those who like to pass judgment books without ever reading it, or reading anything in the genre. It's OK to say you don't read fantasy or you don't like fantasy; but someone with that position should not then write an essay about how fantasy is silly wish fulfillment.

That's equally true of YA literature.

My point? Summer is here: its sunny, humid...and the slamming of YA lit has begun. Last year, it was Welcome to the Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir
by Barbara Feinberg, which was interesting as a memoir but not very informed when it came to YA literature. This year, it's Battle of the Books: The problem with "problem" young-adult fiction
by Ann Hulbert, an article in the online magazine, Slate.

The problem with both book and article: neither are well-informed on YA literature. Feinberg's examination of YA lit centered on "grit lit", and in some cases titles that are so out of date that many libraries weeded them long ago. In Hulbert's case, she only mentions 3 YA books, and she gets the title of one wrong. (On a side note, I guess that those who complain about the lack of editing in blogs should extend their complaint to just a lack of editing, period.)

Both focus on YA as it relates to children: Feinberg talks about the YA reading & listening of her 12 year old son and 7 year old daughter. Hulbert, after discussing a YA book that is being read in an 11th grade classroom, states "that the readers who choose these thin books with catchy covers are generally between 11 and 14 (not exactly "young adults")", offering no support for her allegation that YA books are not being read by a YA audience. (Not to mention the assertion that YA books are thin.)

So there are problems... but its also a problem if you think a certain way and only talk to those who think that way because you only hear what you want to hear. So while I disagree with much in both Lizard Motel and Battle of the Books, and wish that books with strong advertising campaigns and articles in Slate about YA books would be written by people who read and respect YA books -- as a YA librarian and champion, it is very, very valuable for me to read the perspective of the person on the other side.

It's valuable because there may be truth in what is being said. Feinberg had valid points about the types of books that are required reading. Personally, I hate required reading lists because I prefer to match a reader with a book they will like rather than a book they "have" to read. Hulbert has good things to say about how book discussions, done the right way, can get parents and kids excited about reading. Hulbert mentions a recent book Deconstructing Penguins : Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading
by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone that I'll be adding to the summer reading pile.

It is also valuable because the only way to discuss something with someone who has a different POV than yours is to listen to what they are saying, not what you think they are saying. Feinberg and Hulbert tap into a common belief: YA literature is not as good as adult literature. Instead of ranting against them and that belief, what can we do to change that common belief?

Some ideas for your library: publicize to everyone the great books that are in YA, including the diversity of YA. Display YA books outside the YA area; suggest YA titles to your adult book discussion groups; include YA titles in adult reader's advisory; recommend books to friends and neighbors.

Recent YA books that I've been recommending to those over 18 include:

The Fire Eaters by David Almond;

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta;

Dust by Arthur Slade;

Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country
by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede;

No Shame, No Fear by Ann Turnbull;

Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood by Benjamin Alire Saenz;

The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray
by Chris Wooding;

This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen.

What would you add to this list?


Summer Reading: A Pop List

I like to make lists. I don't always accomplish everything on the list, but there's something so satisfying in the accomplishment of making out the list in the first place that I don't really mind. As I surveyed my bookcases last night, trying to wedge new treasures from my library's recent booksale onto already-packed shelves, I realized that the shelves' ratio of books I'm intending to read to books I've actually read is alarmingly high. It's probably always been this way, and I've just never paid attention to it.

Still, the books I'm intending to read are books I'm excited about, so I decided to make a list of the Top 5 I want to read this summer, before my daughter arrives. These will be my parenting manuals -- after all, how can I expect to educate my kid properly on the subtleties of the early 80s hardcore & indie rock scenes, the ways in which popular culture can make her smarter, her English musical heritage, and the direct lineage from Iceberg Slim to Ice-T without having read...

Our Band Could Be Your Life, by Michael Azzerrad -- Though I was (and still am) very fond of the larger alt-rock acts of the late 80s & 90s, my knowledge of the bands that inspired them is pretty spotty. My husband, Marcus, was given a copy of this book for his birthday a few years ago by a friend who made an accompanying mix CD featuring songs by all the bands featured in the book -- so I can listen & read at the same time.

Pimp, by Iceberg Slim -- I picked this up in a yellowing paperback edition for the lordly sum of $0.50 (okay, I just noticed that my keyboard lacks a cents symbol. How long has this been going on?) at last week's Friends of the Library booksale. Widely regarded as the progenitor of Street Literature now made so popular by authors like Nikki Turner, Carl Weber, Sister Souljah, Sapphire, and Triple Crown Press, Iceberg Slim is also the namesake of at least two famous rappers, Ice Cube and Ice-T. (Extra Credit: The Ice Opinion, the memoir of Ice-T, author of the controversial song "Cop Killer", who now plays a cop on TV. Oh, the irony is thick! I hope a new edition, with an updated epilogue, is forthcoming, because I really, really want to know how he arrived at point B from point A.)

Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson -- I've been fascinated by this book's premise -- that today's popular culture is so complex that it's actually making us smarter, more critical thinkers -- since I read an excerpt of it in the NY Times Magazine in April. I pre-ordered a copy, and it's been sitting on my bookshelf since it arrived.

Britpop!, by John Harris -- Marcus is English, and I'm an Anglophile, so naturally, we listen to a ton of music from this era (roughly 1995-1999 -- acts like Blur, Elastica, Pulp, Oasis, et al.) at our house, and based on the explosions of laughter and incredulity coming from Marcus's side of the bed as he read this book a few months ago, it's a meticulously researched trashy, debauched, fascinating portrait of a particular time & place. Ergo, a must-read. (Extra credit, related only in the sense of it being trashy, debauched, and un-put-down-able -- finish reading The Dirt, Neil Strauss's oral history of Motley Crue.) Marcus reports that it was particularly fun to read about a period he lived through; it's a more personal experience than, say, reading a Neil Young biography, because he remembers buying all the singles as they came out, and following the Damon Albarn-Noel Gallagher feud in NME as it progressed to cartoonishly absurd rhetorical heights.

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling -- no explanatory annotation necessary, I think.

What are your Summer of Pop must-reads?

100 Hours to Guinness Glory

This is just too wonderful not to mention. Six staff members from the Henderson District (NV) Public Libraries are just a few hours away from breaking (shattering to smithereens, is more like it) the current read-aloud record of 81 minutes, 15 seconds -- they're nearly at 100 hours of straight reading aloud from the works of a minor children's fantasy author. Jessamyn reports that they've "recently purchased a bookmobile. We have gotten local corporate sponsors, and the money from that will go to our nascent outreach program. We are also highlighting literacy as well."

What a wonderful public relations event! What a great way to piggy-back on the popularity of Harry Potter and the wave of giddy anticipation attending the release of The Half-Blood Prince, all in the service of drawing attention to your new bookmobile & outreach service! We should do something like this at my library!

Jessamyn also points to the readers' blog, which documents their increasing punchiness and unbridled enthusiasm for the project, their flickr photo albums, and their general info page, which includes a count-down clock and a pledge form. Just 27.5 hours left!


You Read About It Where?

"I just read about this great book in Kirkus and was wondering if you have it?"

When was the last time a patron asked that question? Probably the same time someone asked about for the Editor's Choice from Booklist.

Professional review journals are great and are a wonderful source of information for books, whether you are the one selecting for your library or doing reader's advisory. But your patrons don't read them.

Back in the day, in my prior life as a lawyer, I had never heard of Booklist or Publisher's Weekly or the other journals used in the profession. Vanity Fair was my source for finding out about cool books, both from their Fanfair : Hot Type section and from author interviews. It's how I discovered The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

This month's Fanfair highlights The Geneticist Who Played Hoops with My DNA by David Ewing; it "turns a scarily bright light on the exploding frontiers of biotechnology and genetic engineering, from stem-cell research to cloning to finding cures for deadly diseases." Vanity Fair also highlights fiction: "After packing her two kids off to summer camp, the heroine of Lisa Grunwald's Whatever Makes You Happy embarks on a quest to discover joy."

Vanity Fair also has author interviews and book excerpts. This month's excerpt is from the fascinating new book from Michael Finkel, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, about how just as Finkel was fired from the New York Times for fabricating part of a story, a suspected murderer was using Finkel's name and life story to escape detection in Mexico. After the suspect's arrest, Finkel began to correspond with the suspect.

Entertainment Weekly is about all entertainment, including books. Make Love* The Bruce Campbell Way by Bruce Campbell is fiction, with Campbell casting himself in a a movie starring Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger. Any one who knows Campbell's work on films like Evil Dead and series like Xena knows they are in for a trip like no other; I was laughing out loud reading the description, and I'm hoping both Gere and Zellweger have a sense of humor and say "we must make this into a movie!"

Magazines like these are not only helpful for purchasing; they are also valuable for displays and Reader's Advisory. Why not make a display, "As Seen In Entertainment Weekly" Or Vanity Fair or any other popular magazine that reviews books? It's not like you have to read the whole issue -- just the section reviewing books, or CDs, or DVDS. When a patron walks through the door and says, "I was just reading about something in a magazine, it's about Byron's daughter but set in the present day," you can say, Lord Byron's Novel by John Crowley.

And for the record, it looks like my library doesn't own either Lord Byron's Novel or Make Love; tomorrow I'll be filling out a couple Requests for Material slips.


Chicago PL Opens Its Door To Hip-Hop

Can I get an amen to this article about the First Annual Windy City Hip-Hop and R&B Music Industry Seminar, held at the auditorium in the Woodson Regional Library of the Chicago Public Library? A great quote from the article: "Public libraries open windows to the world in fields as diverse as Persian poetry and how to be a carpenter. So why not rap and hip-hop?" Yeah! Why not? Via the PLA Blog (whose new daily featured round-up of library news is a true must-read).

Registration required to read the article, or you can gank a login from bugmenot.com


Steven Johnson on Radio Times Right Now!

If you can, go here and listen to Marty Moss-Coane's interview with Steven Berlin Johnson, the author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, and the keeper of this newly-discovered (by me, anyway -- kudos if you've been reading it all along!) blog. If it's after 11 AM, go here and search the archives for June 7, 2005. The interview is the first one of the day.

Marty & Steven are talking about the cognitive value of today's popular culture -- the kind of thinking pop culture consumers have to do in order to understand and enjoy and learn from TV, movies, and video games.

Fascinating! And Johnson is addressing critiques of his thesis (many of these are "values"-based, which I think largely misses the point), too. Go, listen!

Postlude: Gah! I called in too late to get my question on the air. My comment, folllowed by my question, is: I work really hard (and with some success) to be an advocate for popular culture in materials & programming in public libraries, largely because I view it as the best way for us to provide the "balanced media diet" that Johnson endorses. Obviously, I approach this problem from a librarian's perspective. How would Johnson, with his background in neuroscience & sociology, approach it?