Libraries are Underrated

burton barr
Burton Barr Reading Room

Burton Barr, the downtown Phoenix library, recently suffered extensive damage after a monsoon storm broke through the roof, drenching books and equipment. It has now been closed for over a week.

Upon hearing the news, I’m sure most people got sentimental. Poor library. Too bad. The news probably served as a reminder, for many, that libraries still exist.

With the world at our fingertips, who needs a physically-housed information center? These archaic institutions where people talk in whispered conversations.

But what more sacred a space exists today than a library, where people of all ages and backgrounds voluntarily show up to work and learn and socialize?

There are 225 public libraries in Arizona.

There’s even a library in Wickenburg. The Wickenburg Public Library has a livelier atmosphere — people talking on the phone, setting up job interviews, pouring over bills on the table. People clicking and tapping on desktop computers. There’s a youth section, where over the summer I saw one room of teenagers playing video games, another room of younger kids quietly studying books.

The Phoenix library system has coding classes, summer reading programs, discussion groups, and genealogy classes to help adults trace their family histories.   

Each library holds local characteristics. Burton Barr houses unique documents of Arizona’s history. I browsed the Flagstaff Public Library earlier this summer and saw several collections of Native American history specific to Northern Arizona.

Benjamin Franklin invented the community library in America. He was always wanting for books, and it was an occasion to stumble upon a new collection. In his autobiography he describes meeting people who were “lovers of books.” He would make conversation with these folks, hoping to glean something new from the books they had read. In Philadelphia, he had made acquaintances with fellow lovers of books, each holding a small collection. Franklin thought it in their best interest to rent a room to store the books, allowing individuals to borrow from others as desired.

To expand the concept, he created a subscription library, collecting money to purchase more books. Eventually, the American library system expanded, turned into a public service, where now anyone can get a library subscription for free, with access to computers and the internet, daily newspapers, magazines on any subject, the ability to check out and take home movies, music, TV shows, and, of course, books.

When we think of “public education” we almost always think about “public schooling,” yet as education writer Heather McDonald points out, these two terms are not interchangeable. She argues that we mistakenly invest too much energy into public schooling, to the detriment of public education.

Community libraries serve a vital role for an educated public. Let’s not take them for granted.

Summer Reading List 2017

Powells-City-of-Books
Powell’s Books, Portland.

On last year’s summer reading list, I admitted to not having read every book cover-to-cover (yet). I ended up regretting that strategy because I never finished the book Thinking Fast and Slow. Still haven’t. It got boring and repetitive after a while. Felt like I shouldn’t be writing quips about books I hadn’t finished.

So turning a new leaf, a new summer, another celebration of reading, each of the following books I read in full:

Teacher Man: An intimate look into the life of a teacher. This book was written by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who spent 30 years in the public school system of New York City starting in the 1950’s. I super recommend this book to any teacher or anyone interested in education. McCourt captures the thoughts and feelings of a teacher’s daily grind with a sharp, tender sense of humor. I found myself laughing out loud at times during the book.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: A collection of graduation speeches delivered by Kurt Vonnegut, the author of many novels including one of my favorites, Cat’s Cradle. He calls himself a humanist. Time magazine has called Vonnegut “a zany but moral mad scientist.” The speeches take on basically the same themes, so the collection is a bit repetitive, but the message was worth hammering home: The world is totally screwed up, but nothing’s stopping you from being kind to each other. The title comes from an anecdote Vonnegut repeats in every speech, about his uncle who insisted on appreciating random pleasant moments with verbal recognition. For example, right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the early morning, comfy chair, still cool outside with the sun starting to stream across the floor. If this isn’t nice, what is?

How to Write Short: This book is about writing. The subtitle is Word Craft for Fast Times. As the title indicates, it’s about writing in the digital age. I enjoyed reading this book, not only for the writing tips but for the examples of good short writing. Most of all, this book caused me to become a more critical reader of short writing. It’s everywhere. Advertisement jingles. Bumper stickers. Tweets. Food label descriptions. Word craft is all around us, and it’s kind of fun to pay attention to it.

Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four: I picked up this book at Goodwill for $3. It’s by John Feinstein, an acclaimed sports author. The book slowed down for me at times, but overall Feinstein provides a solid, in-depth look into the college basketball championship tournament. The Last Dance describes the tournament from multiple perspectives — from coaches and players, to the referees and team selection committee. It also dives into the history of the tournament, which, as always in American sports, is tied to the growth of television contracts. This book was part of my basketball summer study, which included watching several hoops related 30 for 30 documentaries on ESPN, and researching the careers of Jordan and LeBron for a blog post.

1776: By David McCullough, 1776 is a historical dive into a decisive year in American history, the opening of the Revolutionary War. I don’t generally seek out war history, but this book was fascinating. American patriots in an underdog struggle. Commander George Washington being indecisive and making crucial errors of judgement, getting second guessed by his right-hand man, but eventually delivering courageous position victories. American soldiers marching dozens of miles in the frigid Boston winter, no shoes, in the middle of the night. British parliament debating the merits of fighting the Americans. Letters written back and forth, revealing the disruption of normal life in the 18th century. A change in weather possibly making the difference between defeat and victory. Human nature put to the test under fire, both sides well-aware of the historical ramifications. Fascinating.

What have you been reading lately? Drop me a line if you have any recommendations.

Long Live Books!

Hot off the Presses

Dear Readers,

It is with great enthusiasm that I announce the publication of an e-book. This humble publication, a compilation of previously blogged material, will hopefully be the first of some longer work available for purchase.

Before pitching the e-book, I thank you for reading this blog. These days, time and attention are expensive social resources. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your attention.

The publication of an e-book was a coffee-shop accomplishment over the summer. A little backstory. Two years ago I blogged about my Achilles tendon, which had snapped during a basketball game. I wasn’t writing much at the time, so the injury kickstarted the habit — figured since I would be laid up with nothing to do, might as well reflect on recovering from what’s considered among the worst of sports injuries.

Not many people read the entirety of those Achilles posts, because I didn’t put them all on social media or anything. The blog is still online, but posts are listed chronologically starting with the most recent. So for someone reading the blog for the first time, they would have to read it backwards, or go through the annoyance of clicking from the archives.

Hence, the idea to edit and compile the blogposts into a short e-book. Now available for purchase on Amazon for $1.99. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can read on your internet browser, or download a free Kindle-reader app on your phone. After you read it, you can share it for free with someone else.

Here’s the link and the description I wrote up for Amazon:

heel fast

Heel Fast: A Journal of Recovery

One minute he’s playing basketball, the next minute he’s going to the emergency room with a torn Achilles tendon. Say goodbye to hiking, biking and basketball; say hello to surgery, crutches and a long road ahead. This is the story of a high school teacher’s eight month recovery from a debilitating sports injury. Told in a compilation of blog posts written during the recovery, this short read is full of memorable reflections on healing, community, and resilience.

Thanks again for staying tuned. Any feedback I receive on my writings, critical or complimentary, is extremely valuable to me, so always feel free to comment on a post or write me an email. If you do read the e-book, please consider writing a review on Amazon.

Next week we return to regularly scheduled programming, as I will post my second annual “Summer Reading List.”

Yours truly,

Billy

Happy Fourth of July

July 4th is my favorite holiday. Independence Day. The birth of the greatest nation on Earth. Yes, I am proud to be an American, “where at least I know I’m free.”

I can still hear that song playing in my memory, watching the fireworks explode over my head as a kid. We always watched the fireworks with my grandparents. But my grandfather stayed home because the fireworks brought back war memories.

As much as I hate war, I am proud of my grandfather’s service. I can’t image the horrors he experienced on the beaches in the Pacific during World War Two. I’ve read books about it, watched movies about it, but I still can’t fathom it. My grandpa is now resting in peace.

Another reason I like July 4th is that it’s the least commercialized holiday. I don’t feel obligated to do anything or buy anything. You barbecue, drink beer, wear red-white-and-blue, and blow things up.

The last reason I like July 4th is that we are celebrating the most profound political Declaration ever made:

We are all created equal. This is self-evident. Our dignity does not need to be conferred by a King or any government. In fact, the only purpose of a government is to protect our natural rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. If any government tries to deny these God-given rights, or starts to value its own power more than the inherent dignity of the people, that government needs to go.

That’s deep. Those words inspired a collection of diverse peoples to come together to fight against a powerful nation.

join or die

In my U.S. history class, we try to go deeper with the concept of Independence. What does it mean to declare independence? When is enough enough?

What would it mean to declare psychological independence in a relationship?

Would it be patriotic for students to declare en masse, independence from a paternalistic education system?

Is it an act of patriotism when a rich NFL quarterback kneels during the National Anthem to express his concern that too many unarmed black men are getting shot to death by the police?

Does his kneeling dishonor my grandfather’s service?

Does it matter that the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slave-owner?

How do you square the Declaration of Independence with the fact that, in 2017, blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than whites?

How do you square “at least we know we’re free” with the fact that the U.S. has a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world?

What are we celebrating, anyway?

flag

The beauty of a text is the ability for interpretation. The spirit of a text matters beyond the original context for which it was written.

The Declaration was used in its original context to fight against British subjugation, and it can be applied hundreds of years later, by people who live under the American flag, to hold power accountable to its tenants.

Frederick Douglass, 1852, giving a Fourth of July speech, railed against the hypocrisy of slavery in a “free” country, the evils of the slave trade, and the travesty of the Fugitive Slave Law. But he ended his fiery speech with an affirmation:

“Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery.

“‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

Martin Luther King Jr., 1963, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial in his famous “Dream” speech, started by affirming the spirit of the Declaration:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note …

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

dream speech

American society today is very divided.

President Trump spent the weekend brutally insulting TV show hosts, complaining about “Fake News!” and accusing 23 states of disloyalty for refusing to turn over voter information to the federal government. A Republican secretary of state from Mississippi said that Trump’s commission making the request could “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”

In 2017, our national birthday causes division. There is an article published today by the Associated Press about blacks, Latinos, and immigrant right’s activists having mixed feelings about the Fourth of July.

“‘There’s a lot not to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July,’ said Janelle Astorga Ramos, a University of New Mexico student and daughter of a Mexican immigrant. ‘Even though it’s a time to celebrate as a country and (for) our unity, it’s definitely going to be on the back of our minds.'”

Blind patriotism is foolish. The Fourth of July is not about blind patriotism. The Declaration of Independence does not endorse blind patriotism.

No, the United States is not perfect or nearing perfect when it comes to honoring the Declaration. Maybe we’re taking a step backward before we take another step forward.

If Douglass can be hopeful in 1853, and if Dr. King can be hopeful in 1963, we can certainly be hopeful in 2017.

I think Ramos has it mostly right. I would say there is a lot to be proud about when celebrating the Fourth of July. Yes, injustice should be in the back of our minds. Some have the luxury of having it less in mind than others. There’s still work to be done. But it’s time to celebrate as a country and for our unity.

Cheers to the United States of America.