What We’re Reading!!

Summertime, and the reading is easy… or challenging, or inspiring, or thought-provoking, as the case may be. Many City Tech library faculty take advantage of the slower summer months to catch up on their reading, and this past summer was no different. From the cool rainy days of June through the heat wave of July and a surprisingly-pleasant August, librarians read a variety of books for leisure, scholarship, and research. Here several City Tech library faculty discuss their favorite reads of the summer, many of which are available to borrow from our library (or other CUNY libraries).
Ian Beilin, Assistant Professor, Instruction Librarian
MP3: The Meaning of a Format by Jonathan Sterne
A fascinating, intricately woven contribution to the history of technology and of audio technology specifically, Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format traces the origins of today’s most commonly used music format, the MP3, far back in history. The book reveals much more than just the history of a particular format. In the course of his research, Sterne discovered that the story of the MP3’s genesis is composed of many strands, and in order to tell this this story explores a wide variety of subjects, including the development of telephone technology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hearing research, and economic and cultural history, just to name a few. One of the primary lessons of his research is that new formats are heavily dependent on previous formats, and are profoundly shaped by the presuppositions, experiences, limitations, and specific interests of the people who create them. Formats are not only technological solutions to technological problems; they are also have political, economic, and aesthetic dimensions. In the case of the MP3, Sterne shows how a relatively small group of people drew on a long tradition of audio, hearing and communications research, as well as their own aesthetic and ideological assumptions (both conscious and unconscious) to create the formal standard now known as “MP3.” Like all good historians, Sterne explains that what has become common and universal is actually just one possible outcome among many possible ones, and by no means the most desirable. His story reminds us that our world is made up of objects, institutions, and structures that, far from natural or inevitable, are contingent, unstable, and always subject to change and challenge.
Monica Berger, Associate Professor, Electronic Resources and Technical Services Librarian
Lost Worlds: Adventures in the Tropical Rainforest by Bruce M. Beehler
I heard the author, an ornithologist and leading international nature conservationist, give a talk about his experiences discovering new bird species in remote parts of Papua New Guinea. Since he was such a good speaker, I thought I’d give his memoir, Lost Worlds, a try. Although I enjoyed the stories about horrible living conditions in the field and near-death escapes as well as the author’s other adventures in the different countries where he worked, the most interesting part of the book was learning about the politics of development. Conservationists, in competition with oil and mineral companies, need to create genuine and mutual relationships with indigenous groups or the likelihood of habitat destruction in the name of profit is highly probable.
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Grann, a New Yorker contributor, recently wrote a great article on an American who had a tragic involvement with Fidel Castro. Having read an excerpt from The Lost City of Z years ago, I thought this would be a good summer read. The book is about the many explorers who tried to find El Dorado, a lost, golden city, in the Amazon, particularly an explorer named Fawcett who disappeared into the jungle in the 1920s. Grann retraces Fawcett’s steps. The author’s startling discovery is revealed in the final pages of the book.
Cailean Cooley, Lecturer, Administrative Support Librarian
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville
I first read this story in high school, and became interested in giving it a fresh look when a friend mentioned it in conversation. I couldn’t remember how the tale ended, but recalled that much of the story possesses a singularly dark flare that I really treasure. When reading it again this summer I was delighted to be chaperoned through the story by a narrator with such preposterous candor and ceremonial hubris. At one moment I believed the storyteller had cast himself as the satirical, omnipotent patriarch (all the while convincing me that he was in actuality, a witty, self-deprecator we could all adore). But the next minute I was convinced that a more lonely or pitiful soul could not be found on Wall Street. Melville’s occasional colloquialisms aren’t a hindrance for the reader, but rather quite charming. In fact, his ability to weave an element of charm through his prose, despite the story’s overwhelming thread of unrest, is quite genius. I highly recommend this short story for the first (or fifth) time. I downloaded the digitized copy by Project Gutenberg using my iBooks app, which made reading this classic easy and fun!
Bronwen Densmore, Assistant Professor, Instructional Design Librarian
Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson
I became aware of Jon Ronson’s work through the public radio show, This American Life, where he is a frequent contributor. Some readers may also be familiar with some of Ronson’s previous books, (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Psychopath Test), where he delves into fringe beliefs and institutional culture (at the same time). Lost at Sea, Ronson’s most recent book is a collection of recent magazine publications loosely organized around the notion of the eccentric personality, and includes interviews with robots, Juggalos and Indigo Children. Ronson himself is probably as much of an eccentric as many of the subjects of his interviews, which make his interactions over the course of this book both sympathetic and entertaining.
Anne Leonard, Assistant Professor, Instruction/Reference Librarian
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I did not set out to read highly-praised, much-blogged-about fiction this summer, but some now-forgotten online review led me to pick this up. If fiction set in and around university life is a genre, then I am a fan of that genre. The narrator of this novel is the daughter of an aloof and troubled psychology professor who regards his family members as potential laboratory subjects. The action shifts between the narrator’s childhood and her own college years, and the narrator’s stark self-awareness, combined with growing isolation and near-muteness that overtakes her in late adolescence, is wrenching and mysterious. It is not until nearly halfway into the book that a key event in the narrator’s childhood is revealed, which sets in motion the narrator’s search for love, identity, forgiveness and family. Happily, I avoided the many spoilers appearing all over the Internet and was remained engrossed by the narrator’s parallel tales of complex sibling relationships in her early childhood and the lengths she goes to in early adulthood to heal from devastating trauma.
Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison
I hope I’m not the only reader of to read this less like a cookbook and more like an extremely compelling encyclopedia, picking, choosing, and jumping around. Its organizing scheme is intuitive but nontraditional; instead of grouping recipes by meal or function, the book is organized by botanical family. Thus recipes for the beloved nightshades or Solanaceae are grouped together – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers – and so are recipes that use the beloved and aromatic members of the Lily or Liliaceae family, including onions, garlic, leeks, and asparagus. A somewhat new but enthusiastic and successful gardener, Madison’s tales of raising many of these vegetables in her New Mexico garden are alluring to any garden-less city dweller, and she disperses practical advice about vegetable cultivation on every page. Madison’s recipes are elegant and unpretentious, yet homey and achievable. It is a true pleasure to read a cookbook authored by a passionate chef and eater who endorses no dogma, doctrine, or rigid eating style, but gracefully coaxes the best from simple and fresh ingredients.
Maura Smale, Associate Professor, Information Literacy Librarian
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I’d been meaning to pick this up when it was published last year, and was reminded of it recently when it was mentioned by several academics that I follow on Twitter. Blurbed as “a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century,” this novel is a fast, fun read that’s perfect for the summer. The protagonist is a twentysomething out-of-work designer in San Francisco named Clay who literally stumbles into a job on the night shift at a round-the-clock bookstore. As one might suspect (because what bookstore is open 24 hours a day?), Clay soon discovers that the bookstore is but one piece in a giant game-like puzzle, with various players striving to break a mysterious code. Of course, the plot soon thickens; I won’t spoil anything by revealing that it involves both cutting-edge information technology from Google as well as an ancient secret literary society. Mr. Penumbra was a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish.
Too Big To Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room by David Weinberger
I enjoyed Weinberger’s previous book—Everything is Miscellaneous—while working towards my master’s degree in library and information science, especially his discussion of information classification systems (and what librarian wouldn’t?). Weinberger is a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and his most recent book tackles the effects that the increasingly networked nature of information has on our ability to build and share knowledge. The book covers topics that are likely familiar to those of us who work with information in its many forms, from information overload to crowdsourcing (think Wikipedia) to homogeneity of ideas (often called the “filter bubble”). Weinberger’s measured discussion of the benefits and pitfalls of networked information is fascinating reading that manages to be both concise and thought-provoking. I’m thinking about assigning parts of this the next time I teach our library course LIB 1201: Research and Documentation in the Information Age.
Junior Tidal, Assistant Professor, Multimedia and Web Services Librarian
User Experience (UX) Design for Libraries by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches
This summer I’ve been catching up on some reading, and I recently read through this book on UX or user experience. User experience is the measurement of quality dictated by a user or group of users regarding a system. While UX is typically applicable to websites, it can also be used for other tasks involving an interaction that must be completed. The authors review some very low-tech methods, such as card sorting, surveys, and interviews, that can be uses to improve websites. Card sorting asks users to label cards and arrange them the way that they think works best for the names of links on a website. Based on this input, administrators can improve the website to make for an easier browsing experience. Not only can this make the website easier to use, but it can also provide data to support important design decisions. Although this book is specifically geared towards librarians and libraries, it would also be a good read for anyone creating websites used by a wide range of people. The book takes into account balancing the needs of users, libraries, and organizations. This tends to get overlooked as websites are developed with considerable effort, but are underutilized.
–Compiled by Prof. Maura Smale