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Photo: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters
Afghan boys read books inside a mobile library bus in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Just when you thought the news was too depressing to turn on the radio or open a newspaper, here’s another story about good people making sure that books get to children who need them most.

Anne Cassidy writes at the Guardian, “Around the world, mobile library programmes are taking books, educational support and even counselling to communities in serious and urgent need.

“Every week, two converted blue buses stocked with children’s books carefully navigate the streets of Kabul, avoiding areas where deadly explosions are common. These travelling libraries stop off at schools in different parts of the city, delivering a wealth of reading material directly to youngsters who have limited access to books.

“ ‘A lot of schools in our city don’t have access to something as basic as a library,’ says Freshta Karim, a 27-year-old Oxford University graduate who was inspired to start Charmaghz, a non-profit, in her home city having grown up without many books herself. ‘We were trying to understand what we could do to promote critical thinking in our country.’ …

“In some cities public transport is being commandeered as means of getting books to communities that need them most. Vehicles are being reimagined and upcycled to not only to spread the joy of reading, but to educate and improve lives. …

“For Karim, buses were a cost-effective, efficient way to get books to children. Charmarghz rents them from a state-owned bus company. … The organisation is funded by donations from local business and communities, and also boasts a third bus that acts as a mobile cinema. Over 600 children visit the buses each day to read, socialise and play games. …

“On the other side of the world, in Tijuana, Mexico, another bus has been similarly transformed – this time for migrant children, whose families have come from countries such as Honduras and El Salvador to escape violence or poverty.

“The city is a popular destination on the migrant trail as it lies south of California where the courts tend to be more welcoming than in places such as Texas, so people have a higher chance of being granted asylum in the US, says Estefania Rebellon, founder of the Yes We Can World Foundation, which runs the bus school. …

“The school chose a location next to a shelter for families, as children make up 60% of the resident population. Many families remain at shelters for months waiting to apply for asylum.

“Rebellon was inspired to set up the school after volunteering at a Tijuana refugee camp. ‘I saw kids running around without shoes, just malnourished and not having anything to do,’ she says. ‘We needed a fast solution to an urgent problem. … The kids can’t be registered in schools because they don’t have a status.’ ”

Elsewhere:

• “Comic books were left on trains, buses, trams and underground systems in cities around the UK [in November] to mark 80 years of Marvel Comics.

• “A tram in Bucharest recently hosted an interactive poetry library where passengers were able to read poetry books written by Romanian authors and listen to jazz.

• “Carriages on two subway trains in Beijing were turned into audio book libraries where passengers could download books. …

• “People in the Netherlands get to travel on trains for free during the country’s annual book week celebrations. Passengers can present a novel instead of a rail ticket.

• “In the Greek city of Thessaloniki, the transport ministry installed mini libraries at bus stops to allow commuters to read as they wait for the bus. ….

• “Passengers on New York’s subway can download free short stories, poems, essays and book excerpts to their devices during the transport authority’s annual Subway Reads campaign, first launched in 2016.” More here.

Fresh off an hour or so of reading to my grandchildren, I know for sure that books mean a lot to kids. Adults, too. It’s important to learn to read, for sure, but maybe even more to let imaginations soar.

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Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, from 1890. A new book describes one man’s hunt for Shakespeare’s library.

There are people I’m sure you know who get a bee in their bonnet about some topic, often to the point of wearing out their friends and relatives with a barrage of random facts. But although their enthusiasm can be wearing, there’s no doubt that their research provides benefits to many of us, whether their obsession is about an ancestor of ours or someone we all claim as our own, like Shakespeare.

This report is for Laurie, who is likely to appreciate the enthusiam of Shakespeare hound Stuart Kells.

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “In an autumn in which scholars have unearthed Milton’s copy of Shakespeare in Philadelphia and parchment fragments from the 13th-century epic Le Roman de la Rose in Worcester [UK], Stuart Kells, author of the forthcoming Shakespeare’s Library, would like to be clear: he has not uncovered the Bard’s book collection, despite what the title might suggest.

“ ‘But I have confirmed its existence, clarified its scale and scope, and documented what happened to it,’ says the author, who has spent 20 years on the trail of Shakespeare’s personal library, and lays out his search in his new book. ‘It would be a very different book if I had gone out and discovered his library. No one has done that. It isn’t in one spot.’ …

“Kells is by no means the first person to have embark on a quest to find Shakespeare’s library during the last 400 years. As he writes, “for every species of book person, the idea of Shakespeare’s library – his personal collection of manuscripts, books, letters and other papers – is enticing, totemic, a subject of wonder.’ …

“Those not sold on his death, or destroyed or lost, ‘are sitting quietly, in cabinets and on shelves, in public and private collections around the world,’ he speculates. …

“ ‘There are things out there still being found and that’s part of the fun. … People are still finding chests of early letters, and there are volumes of multiple plays all bound together.

‘Play scripts were thought of as low literature for some time – they were slightly disreputable and weren’t taken seriously.’ …

“One of his tantalising findings is the potential former owner of a theologicial work by Agostino Tornielli. The book was published in Milan in 1610 and shipped to England, where it was bound in brown calfskin in 1615, the year before Shakespeare’s death. The cover panels on the book include an image of Pyramus and Thisbe, and the edges of the text block are decorated with elaborate patterning.

“The owner of the four bindings is not known, but there are a few hints.. … Writes Kells. ‘In tiny letters, the cover image is signed “I. S.” No one knows whether the initials are those of the block-maker, the bookbinder, the bookseller, the book’s owner, a patron or a dedicatee.’ … But the initials match those of Iohannes Shakespeare, William’s father, who dealt in leather hides – ‘no doubt some of them for bookbinding,’ Kells writes.

“Kells believes that one of the reasons for the disappearance of Shakespeare’s library is that the playwright was not an ‘avid inscriber of books,’ or much of a letter writer. ‘Practically minded and commercial, he does not seem to have been driven by abstract ideas of fame and posterity,’ Kells writes. …

“ ‘I’m quietly confident things are going to turn up,’ he says. “We now see the quarto editions as some of the greatest literary treasures in the world but, up until the 19th century, they were thought of in a different way. They are slight documents, little pamphlets, so it’s very probable they’re out there. We now have clearer eyes to search for these things and different ways of analysing them and dating things. We’re in a golden era of discovery right now.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I must say, it takes imagination to interpret the initials of Shakespeare’s father on a piece of leather this way, but it is surely imagination that will find and assemble the lost library.

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Photo: The Guardian
Mashed Mahjor says she started Book Cottage in Afghanistan because there children don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk freely and ask questions.

Today’s post is another in a series about what books mean to people. At least since the age of 10, I myself have found that getting lost in a book is about the most consistently comforting thing I do, and it seems that many other people feel the same.

Stefanie Glinski writes for the Guardian, “In a dimly lit room in west Kabul, stacked with shelves full of books, a small crowd gathers around the warmth of a gas heater. Books clamped under their arms, they are eager to share the stories they’ve read over the course of the week.

“Members of Afghanistan’s youngest reading club, the Book Cottage, range in age from four to 13. The club is just one of many reading circles that are springing up across the capital and reviving a book culture that, once lost, is now vibrant, liberal and expanding once again.

” ‘You have to start them young,’ explains the initiative’s founder, 25-year-old Mashed Mahjor. ‘The country is still at war, so children don’t have a lot of opportunities to talk freely and ask questions, especially girls. We have to bring our book culture back to life.’

“After starting the reading club six years ago, she now has up to 20 regular members – and hundreds of book donations from all over the world.

“But trends are shifting. In west Kabul, a neighbourhood with laid-back coffee shops, small startup businesses, a quick-growing dating scene and – at its heart – Kabul University, reading circles for all ages are expanding. They have started to provide a platform for Afghans to discuss, in a mixed-gender environment, issues not on the public agenda of a conservative society. …

“One such space is found in a basement room of one of the city’s universities, where a group of up to 20 book lovers meets weekly. Some travel the length of the city to participate.

“ ‘It’s worth it,’ says Attash Mashal, a civil engineer and government employee. ‘Most of the books we read can’t be accessed in Afghanistan, so we search for them online and print out copies. We read novels, poetry and philosophy.

“ ‘This one is censored though,’ he adds, holding a copy of Albert Camus’ The Fall. ‘We just found out.’ …

“It’s the translations that most people are after, as it can be difficult to read books in English or other languages. At Aksos, the city’s biggest and most diverse book store, people squeeze into the tight space, examining new titles, reading in corners, or taking selfies against a backdrop of bookshelves. Books are the new cool.

“Aksos holds anything from The Kite Runner – another book previously banned in the country – to The Daydreams of Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president.

“ ‘Once again, the city is boasting poets, writers and creatives pushing against the recent norm,’ says [Syeda Quratulain Masood, who has been researching Kabul’s book culture for her PhD at Brown University in the US].

“ ‘I think it’s because in book clubs, or when writing poetry, we can share our ideas and beliefs without restrictions,’ says Yalda Heideri, a student in her twenties who attends a university book club.

“ ‘Afghanistan has restricted us a lot, especially us women, so we found a way to have discussions that would be embarrassing or even impossible outside.’ But for Heideri, literature has also become an escape from daily life in a wartorn country where there were 3,804 civilian deaths last year, according to the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan.

‘When I get tired of it all, I escape into poetry. It’s a whole different world.

” ‘Kabul is improving and becoming more open, which makes me hopeful. But regardless of where peace negotiations are going, we have to find our own way to cope, and books are just that for me.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photos: Sian Cain/The Guardian
Where libraries are scarce, Indonesians have risen to the challenge. Sutino ‘Kinong’ Hadi, above, runs the Bemo mobile library in a Jakarta suburb.

Books are important for children, but there are many places around the world where books are scarce. Caring adults do what they can to fill in the gaps, sometimes even going without food in order to buy more books.

Sian Cain writes at the Guardian, “With a great heave, a young man pushes the ancient, three-wheeled rickshaw down a ramp and it splutters to a start. The driver, Sutino ‘Kinong’ Hadi, laughs as he putters his tiny Bemo in a loop outside a preschool in Tanah Abang, in central Jakarta. It’s all the signal the children need; around 20 flood out to envelope the car, pulling at hangings, clambering into the front seat. It’s an exciting time: their library has arrived.

“Kinong is one of thousands of Indonesians who have opened their own library in their own communities. Estimates suggest there are thousands of such libraries in Indonesia, started by ordinary people with great initiative to address the lack of books in their area and funded by occasional donations.

“There is the Perahu Pustaka, a library boat that sails around West Sulawesi. There are libraries on the back of vegetable carts, shelves lugged around by horses in Serang and in West Papua. Across Banten, a 200-strong motorbike gang called the Komunitas Motor Literasi (Moli), brings books to homes from a box attached to their vehicles, delivered with the ease of a takeaway. …

“The persistent myth that Indonesians aren’t interested in reading still pervades; last September, Jakarta governor, Anies Baswedan, told the Jakarta Post: ‘We are challenged to improve our reading interest, particularly in an era where people are far more interested in reading WhatsApp [chats] than in reading books … People nowadays prefer to skim rather than read.’

“But civilians argue that interest isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of infrastructure. ‘Reading appetite isn’t low in Indonesia, it’s just hard to get books,’ says Laura Prinsloo, a publisher … ‘A lot of the people operating these libraries don’t have an education, which makes it hard in a place where it’s about who you know. So if you don’t know anyone, you just do it yourself.’

“Like Andri Gunawan, a wiry young man who heads up the Komunitas Motor Literasi. He never had a library in any of his schools and only became a voracious reader as an adult. ‘Contrary to what a lot of people say, it’s not that there is no interest in reading, it is that there are no books,’ he says. …

“Or Kiswanti, a 52-year-old woman who started out delivering books door-to-door for free on her bicycle. Now, her library and school Warabal, found in Parung, Java, is 21 years old and houses 15,000 books, looked after by 25 volunteers for 1,700 members. …

“ ‘My father apologised as he couldn’t send me on to further education’ she says. ‘But he told me, if I wanted to be smarter, I had to read.’ …

“When Kiswanti opened Warabal in 1997, she even began fasting 10 days each month to buy more.

‘I needed 3,000 rupiah (16p) to eat a day,’ she explains. ‘If I didn’t eat, I can save 30,000 (£1.66) in 10 days – so I could take our best students by taking them to bookshops and buy them any book they want.’ …

“ ‘Reading transports me and introduces me to new worlds – I want to give children that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. For similar stories on seat-of-the-pants libraries around the world, search the blog on the word “library.”

This mobile library has been running since 2013. The children are eager for books, but Hadi has found it’s not advisable to let the books go home if  he wants them back.

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Photo: University of York
A UK lab is learning what the DNA in old books has to tell us about the past. Even the beeswax used in seals is rich with data, including the flowers that grew in that region year to year.

Do you know what set you on your career? As an oldest child, I spent a certain amount of time explaining things, and I liked making a school for my dolls. Although I ended up as an editor for many years, I started my worklife as a teacher and am now back to volunteer work as a teacher.

The scientist in the following story got launched on his passion after watching the movie Jaws.

Sarah Zhang writes at the Atlantic, “It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.

“Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep. Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. …

“In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted from human bones and teeth. DNA evidence has enriched — and complicated — stories of prehistoric human migrations. It has provided tantalizing clues to epidemics such as the black death. It has identified the remains of King Richard III, found under a parking lot. But Collins isn’t just interested in human remains. He’s interested in the things these humans made; the animals they bred, slaughtered, and ate; and the economies they created.

“That’s why he was studying DNA from the bones of livestock — and why his lab is now at the forefront of studying DNA from objects such as parchment, birch-bark tar, and beeswax. … With ample genetic data, you might reconstruct a more complete picture of life hundreds of years in the past.

“Collins splits his time between Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, and it’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of -ologist he is. He has a knack for gathering experts as diverse as parchment specialists, veterinarians, geneticists, archivists, economic historians, and protein scientists (his own background). ‘All I do is connect people together,’ he said. …

“Collins began his scientific career studying marine biology, thanks to a formative teenage viewing of Jaws. He specialized first in marine fossils and, later, in the ancient proteins hidden inside them. This turned out to be a dead end. For the most part, the fossils were too old and the proteins no longer intact enough to study. He was forced to look at younger and younger material, until he crossed from paleontology into archaeology. He applied the techniques of protein analysis to pottery shards, in which he found milk proteins that hinted at the diet of the people who used those pots.

“Collins quickly realized that DNA held even more potential than ancient proteins, which can be ‘a blunt tool compared to DNA.’ The DNA of any single animal is, after all, a library coding for all the proteins their cells can make. …

“When Collins embarked on the parchment project, he gathered a team that included geneticists as well as archivists, bookmakers, and historians.

“It didn’t take long for the group to hit their first culture clash. In science and archaeology, destructive sampling is at least tolerated, if not encouraged. But book conservators were not going to let people in white coats come in and cut up their books. Instead of giving up or fighting through it, Sarah Fiddyment, a postdoctoral research fellow working with Collins, shadowed conservationists for several weeks. She saw that they used white Staedtler erasers to clean the manuscripts, and wondered whether that rubbed off enough DNA to do the trick. It did; the team found a way to extract DNA and proteins from eraser crumbs, a compromise that satisfied everyone.”

Read how the research evolved, here.

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Photos: Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times
Comfortable easy chairs tempt customers at Lake Forest Park’s Third Place Books near Seattle. Some independent bookstores aim to be an extension of your living room.

The demise of the bookstore keeps being predicted, but independent shops flourish here and there. The survivors are the ones that provide more than a book.

Moira Macdonald reports for the Seattle Times, “If you walk through the entrance of Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park — right past the signs by the door that say EAT SLEEP READ — on a random weekday afternoon, you might find something nobody could have predicted a decade ago: a neighborhood bookstore, busy and thriving. …

“Ten years ago, when the recession hit and Amazon’s deep discounts seemed to sound a death knell for independent bookstores, such a picture might have seemed like the most fantastical of fiction. Beloved Seattle bookstores were closing their doors throughout the aughts, and those who remained open seemed to face an impossibly uphill task — who would pay full price for a book when you could buy it for less online? But there’s more to an indie bookstore than the price on a book’s cover. …

“Founded in 1998 by visionary developer Ron Sher, Third Place Books got its name from sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s theory of the necessity of a third place; one that isn’t home or work but somewhere we can connect with a community. …

“While far from the oldest bookstore in Seattle, Third Place is the only one that in recent years has expanded to three locations, opening in the Ravenna neighborhood in 2002 and Seward Park in 2016. All offer a mix of new and used books, … a comfortable place for coffee or a meal, friendly booksellers eager to recommend a new favorite, a busy schedule of author readings and special events — in other words, offering not just books, but an experience. …

“In their three very different locations — a suburban shopping center north of Seattle; a quiet residential neighborhood near the University of Washington; a south Seattle neighborhood with one of the country’s most diverse ZIP codes — Third Place is offering ways to find community.

“Each store offers at least one book club; Seward Park, leading the pack, has five: Reading Through It: A Post-Election Book Club; Booze & Lasers (for science fiction/fantasy); Social Justice Syllabus; a teen book club; and a new Black Literature club, starting in January. Lake Forest Park’s three book groups include a general literary club, a nonfiction club and a Knitting Book Club (no, they don’t read books about knitting, but knit while they meet, discussing a variety of books).

“The Ravenna store takes advantage of its proximity to UW to present the monthly Black Jaw Literary Series, which features students and faculty members from the university’s creative-writing program. And it’s taken a creative approach to the author appearances that are the bread-and-butter of the bookstore business: Literary Luncheons. …

“Sometimes, creating community in a bookstore doesn’t involve books at all. Calendar events for the three stores include language conversation clubs, mahjong gatherings, live music (often at Third Place Commons, an open community space adjacent to but operated separately from the Lake Forest Park store) and Magic Mondays, a popular monthly demonstration by local magicians at Ravenna. …

“And the stores give back to the communities they serve, regularly supporting local schools. … Other charitable programs [include] single-day fundraisers — instigated by employees, and quickly organized. … The most recent [raised] money for legal services for refugees detained at the U.S.-Mexico border; business that day was up 75 percent.”

More.

A mother and son peruse a picture book at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington. As traditional bookstores close, Third Place books has actually been expanding to new locations.

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Jaimee Leigh sells books at the Barrow Bookstore in Concord, Massachusetts, but during after hours, she makes literature-themed birdhouses designed for actual birds. 

Betsy Levinson was the editor of the Concord Journal for many years and was responsible for the majority of the articles, writing with exceptional grace and insight. Nowadays, she contributes as a stringer, and I see her byline most often on infomercials for local real estate, which don’t interest me as much. But in a recent front page article she did herself proud. And when I went to the locale to take pictures, I could see that other readers had been inspired to follow up, too.

This is what she reported for the Journal. “Jaimee Leigh sells books at her sister Aladdine Joroff’s shop Barrow Bookstore in Concord, but a talent for creating one-of-a-kind birdhouses keeps her busy during her hours away from the shop.

“The birdhouses aren’t just functional, either. Her creations are pieces of art, each one designed around a work of literature.

“For instance, the roof of her ‘The Hobbit’-inspired birdhouse has glow-in-the-dark lettering on the roof in the same original font that J.R.R. Tolkein made for his books.

“Then there is the suet bird cage, inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience,’ which she noted was written from a Concord jail cell where he was ordered after refusing to pay taxes. Leigh inscribed words from the book inside. …

“It was four years ago that the idea of making a book-themed birdhouse came to Leigh. She was visiting her godmother in Sligo, Ireland, and attended a creative arts competition as a fundraiser for a storied estate there. She made a ‘memory box’ featuring seashells found in the area, photos and poetry. Though it wasn’t a birdhouse, it inspired her to create ‘similar things for the bookstore in Concord.’ …

″Each birdhouse ‘aims to summarize the essence of a book or story,’ Leigh wrote.

They are sealed from the elements on the outside, but she leaves the interior free of chemicals or noxious fumes that might hurt the birds.

“She bores holes of different sizes to accommodate larger or smaller birds. Recently she started fitting inch-wide ’emergency egress steps’ inside the house in case the bird finds the inside too smooth and can’t get a toehold or clawhold to get out. Leigh’s careful about using a perch on the outside because sometimes predator birds can lurk outside. …

“She has shipped birdhouses to South Korea, Canada and Texas. Others are scattered around the floor-to-ceiling stacks of books at the shop. She has donated houses to local charities for fundraising auctions. Each one can take 60 to 80 hours to complete, she said. … For information, email Leigh at barrowbookstore@gmail.com, or visit barrowbookstore.com.”

More at the Concord Journal, here.

I took pictures of birdhouses featuring the Brothers Grimm, Dracula, and Great Expectations. Regarding the latter, note that Miss Havisham’s wedding dress is evoked by lace, and the clock is stopped at the moment her bridegroom ditched her, twenty minutes to nine.

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