Rapid City Public Library | The Director’s Chair – May 2017
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The Director’s Chair – May 2017

My time here is quickly coming to an end. I will be leaving Rapid City this August in order to accompany my wife as she takes up her new position as librarian at the American International School in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I have enjoyed my time here. This library is a tremendous resource for the city of Rapid City and should be supported enthusiastically by both the residents of the city and county. Do you know all the services that come out of this library? We are still about books and reading (believe it or not, reading skills will always be valuable), but we also have

  • Magazines, Print and Digital
  • DVDs & Streaming Movies
  • Downloadable Music Albums
  • Books on CD
  • Video and Board Games
  • eBooks & Dowloadable Audiobooks
  • 3D Printers
  • Research Databases,
  • Programs – Hands-on, Concerts, Cooking, Book Club, Technology, Movies & more (at least one of which you are bound to enjoy)!

A library, with a little imagination, can be a world of knowledge and entertainment. Why is that important?

“I believe the accelerations set loose by Silicon Valley in technology and digital globalization have created a world where every decent job demands more skill and, now, lifelong learning. …The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over. If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.” [Thomas L. Friedman, “Owning Your Own Future,” NYT May 10, 2017]

Lifelong learning is going to be the key to making and keeping America great. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you grow. Learning about and collaborating with technology will continue to be important, but sharpening critical thinking, intercultural communication, teamwork and problem-solving will be essential skills in the 21st century. You learn and sharpen those skills by reading both non-fiction and fiction. Reading fiction is particularly important, since it can help build empathy.

Let me put it this way: reading can change your life. Do it.

 

A list of material read, listened to or watched:

Incarnations: a history of India in fifty lives     [HISTORY 954.0099 KHI]
Khilnani, Sunil

The High Middle Ages      [GREAT COURSES 909.07 DAI]
Daileader, Philip, Prof.

Pete Seeger: in his own words    [BIOGRAPHIES MUSIC SEEGER]
Seeger, Pete

The 40s: the story of a decade     [HISTORY 973.917 FOU]
The New Yorker

 

The High Middle Ages

I find the study of history to be endlessly intriguing. I think it is the librarian in me. I read a book of history and find myself looking for more information on this personage or that event that was touched upon in the text, then follow that information to other areas of inquiry as to what came before as well as what happened afterwards. History is a mosaic of ever increasing complexity, which makes it endlessly fascinating.

I particularly like the study of the European Middle Ages, a time period that, when I was growing up, was considered a Dark Age. We were not taught very much about what went on because a lot was unknown about the time period. I also found it interesting that the time period could be isolated from what was going on in the rest of the world. That helped focus. I had a metal castle as a boy with plastic knights armed to the ready to defend it and a healthy appetite for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Black Knight. That has since changed. As I grew older, it was good to find out that my plastic knights were not all there was to the story. There was a lot more going on.

Prof. Daileader’s The High Middle Ages is a continuation of his course on The Early Middle Ages, covering the years 1000 to 1300. This was a time when universities were established on the continent, inquisitions began to operate in defense of Christianity, crusades were launched, and democracy once again found a political foothold. It is a long time frame and a lot of countries’ histories to cover in twenty-four half-hour lectures, but Prof. Daileader does a good job keeping it accessible.

I love these kinds of courses because they disprove my belief that I actually know what something like feudalism is, how the chivalric code came into being, or what the Inquisition was all about. For instance, there was not just one Inquisition, but many of them, and some of them were even expected (a Monty Python reference, for those who are interested). Likewise, the quality of life for peasants was uneven throughout Europe at this time as European society evolved slowly, but inexorably. In my youth, I tended to think of the Middle Ages as a static time with no progress being made, but of course that could not be true. Change is our one constant. Trying to figure out why changes occur is what makes history so interesting.

This is, by necessity, an introductory course on its subjects, but Daileader gives the listener a good starting point for further study of such subjects as “women in Medieval Society,” the Norman Conquest, and Magna Carta, by combining his lectures with the accompanying booklet.

The library has a number of Great Courses on a variety of subjects that can be borrowed. The courses tend to be more in-depth and are led by university professors respected in their fields and winners of teaching awards. Most of them come with an accompanying booklet that outlines the lecturer’s material and offers suggestions for further reading and “Questions to Consider.” This one also comes with a timeline, a glossary, ‘biographical notes,’ and an in-depth bibliography. All these courses are well worth investigating.

 

Pete Seeger: in his own words

There is something very liberating in watching Pete Seeger sing. If anyone believed in the power of music and song to change the world, he did. You can hear it in his voice, see it in his eyes; and the words and music he wrote carry that message on to younger generations.

For most of my life, Pete Seeger has been a controversial figure. That’s because by the 1960s he had been involved in so many causes (e.g. labor, socialism) and would go on to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement and protesting the Vietnam War, that most people with an opinion either loved him or hated him. Through it all, Seeger seemed to be involved in the ‘folk song cause,’ the freedom of a people to express themselves, whether that expression be for an unpopular cause or the voice of a movement a million strong.

Many people felt threatened by Seeger over the years, not the least of which was the US Government, which blacklisted him along with many others in the 1950s. What was his threat? “It does not make me happy to be the occasion of rancor within any community. I have always sung in hopes of unifying people, not dividing them. But I don’t mind being controversial, or being accused of singing controversial songs. The human race benefits when there is controversy and suffers when there is none.”

To read his words, I have come to realize that there were many sides to Pete Seeger. He was no saint, though he had a philosophy. He believed in the “common man” and saw first-hand the devastation a failed economy could wreck upon them during the Depression. And he witnessed the blight of fascism. “…I was caught up in the social ferment of the 1930s and the struggle against fascism which, in a larger sense, is still with us today. I’ve made as many mistakes as anyone else, probably more, but they have all been my own mistakes. No one ever told me what to think. The long range goals seem just as clear as ever. But the arguments about the exact road to take to get there are sure confusing.”

He was for unions; he was against monopolies; he was for free speech; he was against abuse of the environment; he was for “the people”; he was against censorship. The list could go on. He sang to end the Vietnam War, he crusaded to clean up the Hudson River in New York. He believed in the power of people to live in peace, if only their governments would let them. He was Pete Seeger.

All the causes and contradictions of the man are here in this book. Here is all the uncertainty of a man who wished to make a difference for the people of his world, who was willing to stand for something in which he believed. He was not unique in his time and he was definitely of his time (as we all are). Whether you agreed with his stands or not, whether you loved or hated him, especially if you have never heard of him, you should read this book. Then seek out his recordings. In my mind’s ear I can still hear him singing, at the top of his voice, This Land is Your Land.

 

Incarnations: a history of India in fifty lives       

It has long been a conceit that Western civilization is superior to all others. There were many reasons for this, none of them valid. The world is a fascinatingly diverse place populated by interesting people who have had a significant impact on their parts of the world. Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia is the type of book that highlighted the lives of people, well-known and obscure, who had an impact on history, either good or bad. Khilnani’s book is similar, however where James’ book was filled with mostly familiar individuals, Khilnani for the first time introduced me to many of the people who have had a hand in making India the land it is today.

Starting 2500 years ago with a life of the Buddha and ending with Dhirubhai Ambani, who amassed the Reliance Industries fortune, the book covers such disparate characters as Panini, the codifier of Sanskrit grammar, and the legendary Buddhist king Ashoka, to the great writer Rabindranath Tagore and the brilliant filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Along the way we meet an interesting combination of cultural influencers both eastern and western: the poet Kabir, the linguist William Jones, the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, the politician Indira Gandhi. It is enough to make one wish to delve deeper into this fascinating mix that is India.

I do not find Khilnani as interesting a writer as someone like Clive James, though he does a good job combining reasons why a particular entry is pertinent today with the life and times of the subject. The one glaring omission I see is that a work like this, covering as it does personalities both famous and obscure, the likes of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Muhammed Ali Jinnah, would omit such a cultural icon as Ravi Shankar. Surely his contribution to Hindustani music was as profound as Ray’s contribution to film.

 

The 40s: the story of a decade        

I have not read this book yet. Not all of it. Sometimes I come across a book that I hesitate reading because I know it is going to be so good that I do not wish to use it up too soon. This is that kind of book. I know the writing is going to be great (the text is from The New Yorker after all) and it has been so far. But the magic is not all in the style of the writing. All of these stories come from the pages of The New Yorker, all written during the 1940s. Written when the history was being made, when the writers were at their typewriters, the films were being made. All of this put my imagination squarely in that troubled decade.

Of course, the war figures prominently, from E. B. White’s uncertainty about where current events will take him, to John Hersey’s graphic description of the bombing of Hiroshima. Character studies include Walt Disney, the German writer Thomas Mann, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and a young writer named Norman Mailer. “The Current Cinema” includes reviews of Casablanca, The Grapes of Wrath, and Citizen Kane. The fascination for me here is that, though most of us have heard or read or studied these cultural icons and their assessments by critics of more recent vintage, here we get to read how they were viewed by their contemporaries when their contributions were new and vital. Fifteen pages on Duke Ellington? Six pages on Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh? What publication would you get that in today?

Can you tell I am a fan of The New Yorker? Harold Ross created the magazine in 1925 with the backing of Raoul Fleischmann and hired some of the great writers of the era to work for it. In this collection you can read Edmund Wilson, W. H. Auden, Lillian Ross, George Orwell, Lewis Mumford and Vladimir Nabokov, to name a few. It is a satisfying collection reassuring this reader there was once a time when facts were checked, proofs were read and grammar was corrected. The book is part of a series, so if the 1940s are not of particular interest to you, perhaps the 1950s or 1960s will do. Be forewarned, the writing here is east-coast-centric, particularly New York-centric (I read some of the reviews on Amazon—I often do for entertainment—and some of the ‘reviewers’ bordered on the nonplussed by that bias: hint: the name of the magazine was and is The New Yorker). Any chance the series would go back to the 30s and 20s?