I heard about Christine Williams’ book Still a Man’s World on Twitter in the context of discussing how silencing within the profession of librarianship works. It was a fascinating read, and even though it was written almost 20 years ago, everything but the contemporary stats still seem relevant (at least in regards to librarianship).
The book talks about how gender works in four predominantly female jobs: librarian, elementary school teacher, social worker and nurse. There’s a chapter on how these professions became associated with women (previous to the late nineteenth century these were populated by men) but the bulk of it is a sociological analysis of what it’s like to be a male in these predominantly female professions, and how different it is from being a female in a male dominated profession.
One of the biggest differences comes in the form of the glass escalator for males. This is the phenomenon where you find far more male administrators and other higher-ups than you’d expect from the pure demographics. Part of this has to do with promoting men out of front-line jobs to get them into a zone where tradition says it “makes more sense” to have men (like as the principal of an elementary school rather than a kindergarten teacher). Some of this has to do with how the corporate structure of even these female dominated workplaces rewards a lifestyle that puts the job first ahead of any other life-considerations.
There’s a chapter on masculinity in these professions and how that’s seen as a rare and special thing that needs to be protected and rewarded, as compared with women in male jobs who have to assimilate themselves. There’s a need to show that despite doing women’s work we’re still masculine. Obviously, this is why so many male librarians are bearded. Another thing is how males tend to self-segregate into parts of the profession deemed a bit more acceptable. So a lot of male librarians tend towards the techie side of things, or academic libraries rather than being children’s librarians.
I think some things (in librarianship at least) have changed since the book was written. There were a lot more men getting library degrees in my classes than back in the early 1990s when the people were interviewed for this book. Also, it’s kind of cute how people talk about these professions as being easy to get a job in.
It probably isn’t the most rigorous academic book, though Williams does include an appendix on her methodology that gives the whole thing a bit more oomph than mere anecdote. A cursory look at Google Scholar sees the book cited a few hundred times and not in any obviously disparaging way.
In any case, I found it very interesting as one of these men working in a “female” profession. I know I get a lot more credit (from parents and employers, actual and potential) for working with kids than a female version of me would, and I think it’s good to be conscious of that kind of thing.
Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a story about two Victorian white men who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them went mad after the American Civil War and killed a man in England, where he was sent to an asylum. The other was a philologist who had trouble getting meaningful work in his field. Together they (did not) fight crime!
Winchester tells this story very well, with many digressions into the interesting-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-it drudgework of creating a complete record of the English language. Throughout the story he mentions that there are issues to be taken with the OED, the kinds of issues of imperialism and entrenchment of power, but it’s primarily an easily readable celebration of the work these two people (among many) put into this enormous piece of literature.
One thing I didn’t appreciate was how the prologue uses a dramatic version of the first in-person meeting between the two men, but then later in the book it explains how that was americanized bullshit written to sell newspapers in a “too good to check” kind of era. I just felt it was disingenuous to use the story as a hook in exactly the same way. But whatever. It gave me something easy to hang the story on, and got me into it in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s a lie.
This story wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it was being told about Wikipedia. I tend to think of its whole community of volunteers working together on a collection of human knowledge as something new and technological in an internet-only kind of way, but that is also how the OED was built. Contributors included some experts and some random citizens (who happened to be guilty of crimes). Wikipedia just flips the expected ratios of those expected categories.
Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was is not as phantasmagorical as its title might imply, but if you add in the subtitle – A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents – you get a bit closer to the matter. It’s a history of anarchists and revolutionists in 19th century Russia and France primarily. I don’t read a lot of history so I don’t know if it was tremendously accurate. It gave me a bit better an idea of some of the political challenges going on at the time and how the secret police used agents provacateur to try and manoeuvre naive folks to serve other political ends. I liked it because it was about the people who were leftist but not Marxist, which is something especially historically I am very capable of forgetting.
Richard Florida’s Who’s Your City? is the kind of book that reminds me why I’m not such a fan of nonfiction in book form. It’s much trickier to check up on the assertions being made when you aren’t reading nonfiction online. Habits of reading the whole thing through before checking up on it can lead one into being absorbed into the book’s world and eventually buying into what it has to say even if you wouldn’t, had you read it through someone’s Twitter feed. There’s just more investment in reading a book that makes me a bit less likely to argue with it.
Who’s Your City? is about how people should choose the place they live. The thesis is that even though the internet has changed the way the creative economy works, place still matters. Florida breaks it down by major life stage and provides tables of what the best places in the U.S. for each of those demographics is. The idea is that clustering creative people together makes for more creativity and better urban existence.
The problem is that this whole thing applies solely to his “creative class” or what in previous decades would be called yuppies. There’s no real discussion of the working class, beyond “suckers that can’t afford to move somewhere better should hope they have a support network built in wherever they’re stuck.” Doing some post-book reading of Florida’s other work it’s clear he doesn’t really have anything to say for people who want to make the places they already live any better. The U.S.-centric nature of the discussion also made it less than useful in the Canadian context, where we’ve got far fewer cities to choose from.
Basically, I feel like I should have read a good critique of the book rather than the book itself. Not recommended.
White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia isn’t exactly the travelogue I expected from reading the back blurb. It’s about a Polish journalist, Jacek Hugo-Bader, who travels through Siberia in a truck in the middle of winter, but that aspect of the trip only appears in the first and last chapters of the book. The rest is arranged more topically about the people he interviews in these Siberian communities.
Once the realization that this wasn’t going to be a wacky journey tale set in, I quite enjoyed the book. Hugo-Bader talks to AIDS patients, hip-hop wannabes, shamans, religious communities and alcoholics. His european perspective on the Siberian aboriginal people gives those sections quite a different tone from the way you’d write about them in North America. Not better, but it was different enough to make me notice and try to analyze why it felt so foreign. Would it have felt more natural if I was a white Canadian forty years ago? Maybe, but maybe that’s just me thinking these Eastern Europeans are a bunch of assholes.
Anyway, problematic aboriginal discussions aside, I liked the book for its alternative perspective on the parts of Russia that don’t make the news. I’ll talk to my Russologist friends about how accurate this Polish journalist was, but for a non-expert it was an interesting read.
I do not have kids. I don’t have plans to parent any time soon. I am happy my job does not require me to be actually responsible for the long-term development of children. But I have friends with kids, and one of them recommended Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting to all his friends with toddlers as a way to look at discipline and the kinds of things people should be looking for rather than blind obedience from their spawn.
The first half of the book looks at the whole notion of reward and punishment as both being bad because they rely on the notion that parents do not love their kids unconditionally. That when the kid is bad and is punished by withdrawing love, or when doing something good means she’s showered with affection it changes the way a developing mind thinks of the world. Kohn is looking at that “sticker generation” phenomenon of rewards for every little thing and saying that doesn’t teach kids to think about what others actually want (just like a forced apology is no apology).
The second half deals with what parents can do instead. It’s explicitly anti-behaviourist, in that Kohn’s thesis is you shouldn’t train a kid the way you train a pet. There are bits about observing what a kid does and asking questions rather than just saying “Great job!” Taking the kid’s perspective into account and working with it to get things done, that sort of stuff that might be hard to do in the middle of a rushed morning but that is at least a bit reflective on the whole process of child-rearing.
It’s not a step by step to raising kids differently, but it’s an interesting book of ideals.
Alison Bechdel’s book Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a memoir, a genre I don’t find myself reading a lot of. If you’ve read through my archives here you see I’m mostly into things that definitely haven’t happened or couldn’t possibly happen. Travel among the stars, or dealing with mystical artifacts or whatever. But if all memoirs were as good as this, I’d probably be devouring more of them.
Oh, I suppose I should mention it’s a comic too. And I do read a lot of those. So maybe this isn’t that far out of my usual fare.
Bechdel’s book is mostly about growing up and dealing with her father’s homosexuality (at the same time she was coming out as a lesbian) and his criminal behaviour with some of his students, and his death. Which may have been a suicide.
She doesn’t tell it straightforwardly, but circles around events and brings things back and forth through time echoing dreams the way memory does at its best. It starts with the house her father was constantly renovating. It deals with life in a funeral home. There are neglected dreams and OCD episodes. It’s painful and terrible and everything seems fraught with meaning.
It’s very much a personal story. It’s the kind of story that makes you ask “how do the people she wrote about feel about this?” It’s courageous and self-absorbed in a way I can’t help but admire. Really great work.
I read Should We Burn Babar? because I’m interested in the idea of radical children’s literature. Herbert R. Kohl’s book is a collection of essays that are about this but are also about radical education, which, I guess would be more interesting to me if I were a teacher than a librarian.
The first essay, on burning Babar, is very good at looking at the racist colonialist enterprise that Babar is enmeshed in and questioning how to read this book with kids, and if we even should. Kohl’s conclusion is that it can be read, but it must be done critically so the readers don’t get sucked into the idea that all the troublesome things that happen in the story (the bringing of European customs to the naked elephants who are left behind, the complete lack of agency that Celeste has in marrying Babar, the fact that symbols like Babar’s hat are bandied about as if they self-evidently mean something in regard to power).
There’s also an essay on Pinnochio, which was interesting because of its focus on how the real story doesn’t turn him into a good little boy. He remains mischievous and more human than Disney would have you believe.
Once the book got into educational methods and things I lost interest. He’s obviously an older guy and I wonder how much of what he discusses as radical has been incorporated into education curricula these days. I’d be interested to hear what people with more knowledge of that kind of thing have to say.
I read Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives because of a conversation between a bunch of newly-/almost-graduated librarchivists I know talking about the terrible job prospects in our chosen field. Now, a week from being done with my library schooling, the book was an interesting perspective what this training had prepared me for and how.
The big thesis of Disciplined Minds is that the main difference between a professional and a nonprofessional is that non-professionals are only allowed to do non-creative things, while professionals do the creative work. This is often why people engage in the paper chase for degrees; they want to be able to do the fulfilling interesting parts of the job, not just the rote mundane things. But creative people don’t necessarily do things that their superiors want them to do, which is why they need to be professionally trained; they need to be trusted that they won’t act against the system’s interests. The book talks about how professional training is designed to make professionals into reliable servants of the hierarchical system of society’s status quo.
These students scramble to figure out the rules of the game in their university graduate department or professional school, and then they literally compete to adjust themselves appropriately. Being not merely adjustable, but self-adjusting, they are good students in the eyes of the faculty. For the same reason they will be good professionals in the eyes of their employers. These students do not simply refrain from acts of insubordination, such as challenging the training institution’s agenda or criticizing the ways that agenda reflects the needs of the larger system. Rather, they enthusiastically embrace the system of professional qualification and defend the qualifying examination. The personal strategy of these skilled submissives is to play the game: to use the qualifying examination to demonstrate on the system’s terms that they are “good” (that is, well-adapted), to be certified with a credential and to get a job with a new set of rules to submit to. In short this means integrating themselves into the system, being dwarfed by it but surviving, if not as independent forces for change in society, then at least as well-fed biological entities serving the status quo.
Jeff Schmidt draws a lot of his examples from the world of physics academia, which is his background, and I have to say that the worlds he describes are much harsher than whatever I experienced in either of my professional degrees (neither of which had certification/qualifying exams like passing the bar or whatever). But it’s still there. The first term core is really crappy at our school, filled with busy-work that serves little purpose but to ensure that you’re capable of following orders and engaging in alienated labour (work that you feel no connection to).
And then there’s the job hunt. Trying to convince people that you will be a good employee is a recipe for soul-crushing. From the book:
It is vital to the system that the losers serve the hierarchy respectfully, and not sabotage it, when they find themselves with jobs that have lower social status than the society of “unlimited opportunity” had led them to expect… Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers.
That about sums up what it’s like looking for a library job in the current system.
I’d like to think that in general librarians are different than the professionals Schmidt describes, but I can see how we are inculcated with certain values that will help us be good workers in systems, not necessarily good individual thinkers. Librarchivism does seem to have a better focus on its social benefit to society than Physics though. And the hum of free-speech and preserving institutional memory ideals in the background does influence how we’re taught. I have friends who are beginning their training to become teachers this fall, and I’m really interested to see how their professional training experiences match up to mine (and each others’ since they’re going to different universities).
The final section of Schmidt’s book is about how to be a radical professional, and the emphasis there is on identifying as a challenger of the status quo first, not as a professional. This means having solidarity with non-professionals and challenging for what is better for society and the people we serve than our bosses. I like to think that’s part of librarianship anyway, but am not completely naïve. I’m glad I have colleagues who are more radical than me to challenge me to not just get swept up in politics as usual as I try to be an employed librarian.
All in all, a fascinating book. I’d love to see a more contemporary book like this (which is from 2000) written in the smaller-scale Canadian system.
Why Read the Classics? is a collection of essays by Italo Calvino about literature. He discusses Ovid and Aristotle and Homer, all the way to Hemingway and Borges. Calvino writes interestingly enough about the topics, but especially when it came to authors I hadn’t read a lot of, the essays weren’t so compelling as to make me want to fix these gaps in my education. Probably my favourite essay was the one about Hemingway and why people love and then abandon his work, basically without huge embarrassment. So yes, a decent book but not the weird and awesome experimental writing of Calvino’s that I prefer.