Review of The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life, by Steve Leveen

The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life

How to get more books in your life and more life from your books.

by Steve Leveen

Levenger Press, 2005. 123 pages.

This book is a celebration of reading. Steve Leveen talks about how to get more books into your life, with ideas like making a personal lifetime reading list, listening to audiobooks, and sharing books with others in book clubs. As an avid reader myself, most of his ideas were not new to me, but I did enjoy reading the ideas of another book lover for savoring books.

Some of his writing is a celebration of the reading life:

“Book love is something like romantic love. When we are reading a really great book, burdens feel lighter, cares seem smaller, and commonplaces are suddenly delightful. You become your best optimistic self. Like romantic love, book love fills you with a certain warmth and completeness. The world holds promise. The atmosphere is clearer and brighter; a beckoning wind blows your hair.

“But while romantic love can be fleeting, book love can last. Readers in book love become more skilled at choosing books that thrill them, move them, transport them. Success breeds success, as these lucky people learn how to find diamonds over and over. They are always reading a good book. They are curious, interested — and usually interesting — people.”

I especially like his conclusion:

“On the first page of this little guide, I suggested that I could help you find more time to read. I hope that by employing some of the ideas in this little book and others you discover, you’ll fall deeply in book love — not once but perpetually. Then you will not have to worry about finding the time to read; that time will come to you. You will naturally do some things less as you read more. What those things will be is obviously your decision.

“Finally, I hope you read some books for no reason other than pure enjoyment. Let a fine story grab hold of you, let yourself be embraced in this uniquely human pleasure with sweet abandon. As you collect books for learning, also collect books that make you laugh and cry and shudder and forget the real world completely. It is good for us in more ways than we know.”

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Review of Shelf Discovery, by Lizzie Skurnick

shelf_discoveryShelf Discovery

The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading

A Reading Memoir

by Lizzie Skurnick

With Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily von Ziegesar, and Jennifer Weiner

Avon (HarperCollins), 2009. 424 pages.

This was the perfect book to read slowly while I was taking an online class given by the Association for Library Service to Children called “The Newbery Medal: Past, Present and Future.” Because this book was, also, about the books of childhood. Okay, maybe not all the childhood reading this book covered was necessarily “distinguished,” but it was truly memorable. And a whole lot of fun to stroll down memory lane with Lizzie Skurnick and some guest writers, talking about the books we loved as teens. As a matter of fact, a lot of Newbery Medal winners and Honor Books were included, so it was truly pertinent to the class.

I was won over immediately by Laura Lippman’s Foreword to this book, because I have always been a rereader. My father is not a rereader. My sister is not a rereader. They are proud not to be. My sister does not buy books, because she is not going to read it again, so why spend the money? My father is embarrassed when he forgets he’s read a book before and accidentally starts on it again. I, however, have always taken great delight in rereading old friends, and love C. S. Lewis’s essay, “On Rereading.” I knew I would enjoy this book when I read Laura Lippman’s words:

“Some people are baffled by re-reading in general, the re-reading of children’s books in particular. What’s the point? Why waste time revisiting the books of childhood when there’s so much else to read? With these essays, Lizzie Skurnick has answered those questions far more eloquently than I ever could. It’s as if a kindly psychiatrist suddenly appeared with a sheaf of missing brain scans…. By the time we realize the profound influences of our youthful reading lists, it’s too late to undo them. Yes, if I knew then what I know now, I would have read more seriously and critically during those crucial years that my brain was a big, porous sponge. But I didn’t and my hunch is that you, dear reader, didn’t either. So stretch out on Dr. Lizzie’s couch… Contemplate the fact that Ramona Quimby may be a fictional creation on a par with Emma Bovary. We should not be ashamed of re-reading our favorite books, only of re-reading them thoughtlessly.”

But I especially liked what Lizzie Skurnick said about how the books themselves brought her right back to her own experience of reading them:

“When I first started doing reviews of classic young adult literature for Jezebel’s Fine Lines column, I was amused and surprised by the odd, visceral details that returned to me with every work: Pa bringing the girls real white sugar wrapped in brown paper in Little House in the Big Woods, Sally J. Freeman having a man-o’-war wrapped around her foot (who even knew what a man-o’-war was?), Claudia choosing macaroni at the Automat in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. These strong, charged images that have never left me — they’re often even stronger than memories I have of my own life. I simply see the cover, and they come back — like fragments of a dream I can’t quite remember, Proust’s madeleine, but even stranger, since I’ve never even tasted one.

“Some of the lives I read about were very similar to mine (I could see a lot of my own camp life in There’s a Bat in Bunk Five, minus the cute boyfriend, natch), and some couldn’t be more different (despite my best efforts, I have yet to achieve psychic synergy with a dolphin). But it wasn’t about finding myself — or not finding myself — in the circumstances of a girl’s life, as much as I might be fascinated by it. It was about seeing myself — and my friends and enemies — in the actual girl.

Ah, here is writing a kindred soul, who, like me, was pulled from childhood into the lives of girls in books.

And now the fun comes in to hear her telling about those lives. Some are the same books I loved and cherished myself. Some are quite different. Judging by the copyright dates, Lizzie Skurnick is several years younger than me. She also got hold of some raunchier material than came my way, for whatever reason. (You mean to tell me that’s what’s in Flowers in the Attic? Lauri Ann, you read that? Okay, well.)

But most of it is simple good clean fun. I laughed at some of the themes she found. For example, all the books that describe living off the land. She says:

“I am convinced more than ever that once the great global climactic catastrophe has destroyed the earth, when the stragglers dig themselves out from their damp bomb-shelter hovels and go hard-core low-tech, readers of young adult fiction will make up the core of the new society . . . because we are the only ones who will find living off the land fun.”

Some other chapters’ themes are tear-jerkers, coming of age, danger, runaways, romance, paranormal, and old-fashioned girls, though Lizzie Skurnick has much classier ways of wording them. She really covers a wide variety of titles. Just a smattering of some favorites of mine that she covers are: A Wrinkle in Time, A Ring of Endless Light, Jacob Have I Loved, Bridge to Terabithia, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Understood Betsy, In Summer Light, The Moon By Night, An Old-Fashioned Girl, The Secret Garden, and A Little Princess.

She covers 73 titles, so, obviously, there are many more. I had not read most of them, but somehow half the fun is the fondness and the spirit with which she tells about them. And I will definitely have to look some of these up.

I recommend doing like I did and reading a chapter or so a day. I am going to start following her blog, Old Hag.

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Review of Show & Tell, by Dilys Evans

show_and_tellShow & Tell

Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration

by Dilys Evans

Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2008. 150 pages.

Here’s a magnificent book for any adult who loves children’s picture books. I don’t think of myself as knowing much about art, but this book taught me much, and helped me appreciate the work and talent that goes into making picture books today and the great tradition behind it.

This wonderful book is in large format with lots of examples. It explains the career, the inspiration, and the techniques of twelve great children’s book illustrators.

The illustrators that Dilys Evans chose to feature are: Hilary Knight, Trina Schart Hyman, Bryan Collier, Paul O. Zelinsky, David Wiesner, Betsy Lewin, Harry Bliss, David Shannon, Petra Mathers, Brian Selznick, Denise Fleming, and Lane Smith.

In the Author’s Note at the beginning, she explains her choices:

The definition of “art” has been debated for centuries, but to my mind art happens when a particular creation stops us in our tracks. It makes us think. It touches our deepest emotions and oftentimes it teaches us something new.

Historically, children’s picture books have not been categorized as fine art…. My goal in this book is to explore some of the very best picture books that qualify for that distinction. As part of this exploration I looked for powerful imagery and storytelling ability that goes beyond a simple interpretation of the text or event….

For my purposes I needed a wide range of styles, techniques, and content. Some of the illustrators I have chosen are icons in the children’s book world, others are relative newcomers. But this is not a “best of” list. That would be impossible, given the incredible number of talented artists working in children’s books today…. My purpose was not to profile a particular group of illustrators but to choose a group that would offer readers as broad a frame of reference as possible.

Ultimately, my hope is that this book might help all of us who value children’s books to find a universal language to talk about art on the page; a vocabulary that helps describe this unique form of artistic expression with greater clarity and common understanding. And that we will then take that vocabulary and use it to explore the many other wonderful books that are on our shelves.

In this regard, we truly suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Children’s books have never looked better or been more important. They are one of the few quiet places left where a child can go to be alone, and to travel worlds past, present, and future. They are often the first place children discover poetry and art, honor and loyalty, right and wrong, sadness and hope. And it is there between the pages that children discover the power of their own imaginations. They are indeed a dress rehearsal for life.

Here’s a wonderful look behind the curtain at how that stage scenery is created.

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Review of Read It, Don’t Eat It, by Ian Schoenherr

read_it_dont_eat_itRead It, Don’t Eat It!

by Ian Schoenherr

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2009. 32 pages.

Ah, at last! With this simple book, I’ve found a delightful and fun way to talk with preschool kids on library tours how to treat books in the library. This book will be perfect! It gives the message in a quick and entertaining way.

The message is simple: Treat books nicely. For example:

“Don’t overdue it,
just renew it.
(Really, now, there’s nothing to it.)
Leave no trace
(or at least erase).
Don’t censor, delete, or deface.
It’s not a platter, or a stool.
Be careful with it at the pool.”

Of course, with the words alone, it wouldn’t be such a gem. The pictures make the book, with fuzzy round big-eyed animals doing outrageous things to library books, and one bear in particular trying to help them stop.

Kids seeing the book will definitely want to side with the nice bear and, like him, take to heart the message at the end:

“Share with a friend, a sister, a brother.
Now go out and get another.”

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Review of Our Own Selves, by Michael Gorman


Our Own Selves

More Meditations for Librarians

by Michael Gorman

American Library Association, Chicago, 2005.  224 pages.

I’m a new librarian.  I got my MLIS degree one year and one month ago.  All the same, once something becomes a job, there’s a danger that it will become “just a job” instead of a calling.

Reading a book like this one, slowly, one meditation per day, helped to remind me why I’m so proud and happy to be a librarian.  It reminds me that, despite the day-to-day little annoying details, I am doing a good work from a noble tradition.

As Michael Gorman says, “One of the great intangible benefits of library work is the sense of self-worth that comes when we realize that, no matter how humdrum the day or week, we are playing a part in bringing the good things of life to everyone and improving our communities, one life at a time.  A library serving a community of any kind (a village, school, city, college or university, corporation, government) enriches that community, which would be impoverished and weakened if that library did not exist.”

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Review of Free for All, by Don Borchert


Free for All

Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library

by Don Borchert

Virgin Books, 2007.  223 pages.

Starred Review

I loved this book.  Why should I need to read a book about working in a library?  Haven’t I seen it all myself?  Reading these pages filled me with the delighted recognition that our customers at Herndon Fortnightly Library are not the only eccentrics out there.  Besides, Don Borchert showed me the funny side of the quirky situations that face library employees every day.  He gave me permission to laugh about them.

For example, one afternoon I read this passage:

“Legally, they aren’t required to give us a great deal of information:  a home address, a phone number, a driver’s license if they’d like to show it to us.  But some people are screwed up.  They will make up addresses; they will say they have no phone, no driver’s license.  The less information you have on them, the less able you are to get a hold of them when the books drift overdue and cruise into lost territory.

“Some patrons put down post office boxes as their home address.  This is not a happy thing, because when the patron has $750 worth of missing books it is impossible to knock on their post office box and ask them politely where the books are.  At this point, they are gone.  But if the DMV puts the post office box on their driver’s license, it’s good enough for us.  If it is not on their driver’s license we are dubious.

” ‘I can’t get mail where I live.’

“This statement, too, makes us suspect, because as far as we know the mail goes everywhere.  When we are lied to in the first tentative moments of the relationship, we know it will end in tears, accusations, and large fines.”

In the very next week, we had a potential new customer come in who gave a post office box as his address and wanted a card given to him on the spot.  (Our policy is that we will mail it.)  Two people discussed our policy with him for a half hour before the employees decided to walk away!

I thought it was funny — I just read about that in Free for All!  Of course, I might not have found it so amusing if I had been one of the ones trying to explain our policy.  The customer seemed to think that repeating his excuses for not having a street address over and over again would make us change our policy.

Perhaps I found this book so much fun because working in the generic American public library is still fairly new to me.  I got my start with eight years working in a library on an American military base in Germany, which has very different clientele.  Now for a year and a half, I’ve worked at two public libraries in Virginia, and the situations I have encountered seem to precisely match those described by Don Borchert in a small branch library in Southern California.

In fact, that may be half the fun.  The library where the author works could almost be the exact library that my parents took me to when I was a young child, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.  Almost forty years later, it’s amusing to realize that library was so much like the one where I work now (though of course without the Internet, or even computerized checkout back in those dark ages).

He did give me a new appreciation for why so many kids hang out at the library after school:

“Four hours a day is too much for a child, too much for most adults.  Even if doing a thing is fun, do you want to keep at it for four hours a day, twenty hours a week?  We are adults.  We are paid to be here.  It is a job — one of those real jobs I had successfully avoided for years.  Four hours a day for a child in the library is close to four hours of minimally supervised hell.

“When a child is dropped off for that many hours, it’s free day care, pure and simple.  The library is heated in the winter, air-conditioned in the summer, there are adults in charge, and there are clean restrooms.  By not thinking about it too closely, or too clearly, parents think they are doing a good turn for their children.  The kids get to catch up with their friends, get a leg up on their homework, and relax after a hard day of schoolwork.  And that is the flawed yet attractive theory they are going with. . . .

“But plenty does happen at the library, especially when you’re given four hours a day to think about it.  You’d think a kid doing homework from 3:30 to 6:30 every day would be cutting a dazzling, high-profile swath through school, but there’s a wrinkle.  We don’t make them do homework.  We are not their parents.  We don’t have a vested interest in their success.  Not surprisingly, a lot of the kids dumped off at the library for three and four hours a day are the same kids who wind up taking summer school because they failed their subjects the first time around.

“Maybe, their disgruntled parents think, if you have to do four hours of homework a day and still don’t understand it, it’s too hard.”

If you work in a library, you need to read this book for the laughs of recognition.  If you don’t work in a library, your eyes will be opened to see that it’s much more than the ultimate quiet job.  Libraries do provide an interesting perspective on human nature.

I love the description of libraries Don Borchert gives to open his book:

“A library is an idea more than anything else, and it is an idea that is impossible to swallow in one or two big bites.  The library is patrician, elitist, and democratic, stocking biographies of NASCAR drivers, pornography, antidemocratic literature, comic books, and the works of the great thinkers from the past two thousand years.  Once a book hits the shelf, the library is loath to get rid of it no matter what outrage it causes.  The only way a library will discard a book is if it is ignored.  The scandalous ones do not get ignored until they are passe. 

“The library offers books on every subject imaginable, in a variety of languages, and offers state-of-the-art computers with free word processing and Internet services.  A mecca for scholars and students of all ages, the library is the dullest place in the world — 91 percent of the time.  It also attracts the homeless, the mentally ill, occasional pedophiles, Internet junkies, unattended children down to the age of two, con artists, thieves, beggars, cultish homeschoolers, and people who are in general angry with every level of state and federal government.  Most of these people decide to fill out an application and get a library card.

“This makes librarians inordinately happy.  We love seeing new patrons wandering around, browsing, looking at what’s on the shelves.


“Because there is a belief that once you begin to open books, you will become a better person.  It is Pandora’s box, but in a good way.  You are inching toward the promised land, page by page.  And it doesn’t matter if you subscribe to this theory or not.  The subscription has already been bought and paid for.

“We are all misfits, poseurs, and clowns.  We are heartbroken and lonely, failures in life, criminals and frauds.  Most of our successes are pleasant illusions.  Through the books on the shelves, the library becomes a support group and lets us know that we are not alone.  Once we realize we are not alone, we can relax, set our burdens down, and move on.”

Truly, this book shows us that as library workers, we are not alone.

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Review of The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett


The Uncommon Reader

by Alan Bennett

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007.  120 pages.

It was the dogs’ fault.  The Queen of England’s dogs lost control of themselves and ran into the City of Westminster travelling library.  Once there, the Queen felt obligated to borrow a book.  Once she had the book, the Queen started reading it.  Once she started reading, she finished it.

“That was the way one was brought up.  Books, bread and butter, mashed potato — one finishes what’s on one’s plate.  That’s always been my philosophy.”

One book leads to another, and another. . . .  The Queen learns all kinds of places and times she can fit reading into her life.

“She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds.  The duke didn’t like it one bit, of course, but goodness it helped.”

Unfortunately, the Queen’s new habit causes great consternation among her staff.  Then drastic changes in her habits, her conversations, and even her outlook on life.

This book was chosen as the All Fairfax Reads selection for 2008.  It celebrates the joys of reading and the way reading can change a life.  The book is short and humorous and good fun.  Some food for thought as well!

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Review of Our Singular Strengths, by Michael Gorman


Our Singular Strengths:  Meditations for Librarians, by Michael Gorman

American Library Association, Chicago, 1998.  196 pages.

ISBN: 0-8389-0724-5

Here’s a great book for a new librarian, excited about beginning a profession and a calling — in fact, for someone like me!

Michael Gorman, with forty years’ experience working in libraries, tells us about these meditations:  “My aim is to present a topic, thought, or story that encapsulates some aspect of libraries and learning as an aid to understanding or reassessment.  Beyond that I wish to provide aid and comfort to my colleagues in this profession that is often besieged — financially, psychologically, and in many other ways.”

His introduction summarizes nicely the beliefs expressed in this book:

“I believe passionately in libraries — in their social and cultural value, their redemptive power, and their centrality to learning and civilization.  I believe in the intelligent use of technology to enhance the services and programs of libraries and to enable us to fulfill our historic mission.  I believe in real, not virtual, libraries.  I believe in our core values of service, intellectual freedom, and the right of all to equal and full library services.  I believe that reading is a vital component of human progress and that we do no more important things than giving the habit of reading to children and encouraging ever-increasing literacy in adults.  I believe in public service and the public good and in the profession of librarianship, which has made so many contributions to both.  I believe that all libraries and librarians share a common purpose and that solidarity and mutual assistance should be among our guiding professional lights.  If this book, in expressing these beliefs, can make some contribution to librarianship and individual library lives, it will have been well worth the writing.”

Here are more quotations I thought worth collecting:

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