book review: zone one

I’ve read a few reader reviews (as opposed to professional reviews, or reviews by writers, or literary critiques of somewhat higher worth than oh say this one you’re reading here) of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, and it appears that I am the exact audience for this zombie novel about ennui.

First off the three days of “the present” are cut up with tonnes of flashbacks, giving the reader the pieces of how we got to this point. Characters all have the “Last Night” (before the world changed) story and the versions and variations we witness are a big part of the story. So structurally it wasn’t “this happens, then this, then this…” which is something I enjoy.

Second, while there was zombie killing action, the scenes were short and brutal. In books that’s how I like my action. Dwelling on how bullets penetrate undead flesh holds little interest for me, since one of the strengths of the novel is the interiority of the whole experience, how the characters feel about and are changed by the actions they’re taking. Whitehead’s writing dwells on the parts I care about, and can be damned pretty at times (even if there’s a bit of an emotional detachment to the whole thing).

Third, the protagonist was a self-proclaimed average person who ended up being good at surviving. He was not a badass. He was lonely and disaffected, middle class and black. He resembled a Murakami narrator, but one who drifted into a zombie war. The moments when he has to do something besides drift feel earned.

Fourth, I loved the choice to set the main story in the “rebuilding the world” phase. The characters aren’t the first wave of marines clearing out zombie hordes from the streets, buildings and subways of New York; they’re the civilian clean-up crew taking out the last stragglers. They’re more pest-control than soldiers (though they’re being directed by military types for the greater glory of the American Phoenix). It felt more like Bringing Out the Dead than The Walking Dead.

Fifth, the worldbuilding of the war against zombies had exactly the right amount of Catch-22 ridiculousness for me. There are strict anti-looting regulations enforced by the growing bureaucracy holed up in Buffalo, which mean that companies looking for an in when society builds back up again sponsor the rebuilding effort by allowing their products to be looted. I loved those kinds of details. And the language the characters use that doesn’t get explained until you’re used to them using it didn’t feel out of place.

In short, this is now probably my favourite zombie novel.

Snowball and the Adbusters by Jami Dwyer Used under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license

a hill probably not worth dying on

Yesterday, one of my colleagues who has a job in a regional library system tweeted that she was thinking about corporate sponsorship of public libraries. She didn’t mention any details, but it connected with issues I’ve been thinking about recently.

Now first, I am a person who was brought up on Adbusters and basically think advertising is bullshit immoral manipulation. In high school I was filled with righteous indignation about a Coke-sponsored scoreboard we received. Props to my high-school’s administration for letting me get angry and try to organize a revolt against this scoreboard so I could learn firsthand that nobody cared but me.

I need to confess that so you don’t read what follows and try to detect me being unfair to the needs that advertising can serve. Do not waste the effort. You will absolutely see me being unfair to the practical reality of advertising. Things cost money and advertising can help bring that money in. I hate that shit, but am capable of trying to set aside personal feelings in the name of professionalism. I may fail in that attempt. So be it.

Caveats aside, let’s take a hypothetical situation. Let’s say a local IT company approached a library I worked for and said “Hey, we’ve got some mousepads with our logo on them. We see your public internet computers don’t have mousepads. Can we give you these to use there?”

Anti-advertising though I may be, I think there’s space for legitimate debate in a situation like that. (Remember that if it was up to me personally I’d be saying “Fuck no! Kill your mousepads with fire!” but in this situation I’m thinking professionally not personally.) There might be use for mousepads at our public computers. We might not have them simply because we wanted to save money at the IT level (since we spent all our mousepad money on ergonomic mousepads to protect our staff’s wrists). It’s also possible we might not have mousepads because they’d be a hassle to keep hygenic or something. But maybe library members have complained about the crappy mice at the internet computers and having mousepads would make their experience better.

So you’d look at the situation and do some assessment and weigh the benefits vs the costs. Benefits-wise remember that all we’re getting out of this is the mousepads themselves. No extra money is changing hands. Among the costs is appearing to endorse one specific company. If you’re in a smallish community and there’s one local IT place and a Staples or whatever maybe that’s something you’d do for the company to help them out. It’s also possible the mousepads would cause other problems due to their materials or something.

In my mind accepting those mousepads is something community-spirited and charitable that the library is doing to help the company. The company is not really helping the library by offering these mousepads. If we needed mousepads we could find the budget for them; if we didn’t need them we could keep on doing without. The benefit for the library is miniscule. The company is the one getting the benefit of advertising in a trusted public institution.

I don’t like it, but I can understand doing this. I’d still argue against this kind of thing because I don’t see how these logoed-up mousepads help the library fulfill its mandate of facilitating knowledge creation in the community. Maybe if instead of an IT company it was a local literacy organization that’d make this a more attractive way of expressing support. Framed as a local community building initiative, I could probably deal with these mousepads.

Now what about if those mousepads don’t have the logo of a local computer shop but an ad for McDonald’s? And no one has ever ever complained about the lack of mousepads at the public computers?

At that point I get angry at anyone even thinking about putting those mousepads in my hypothetical library.

There is no fucking way that my hypothetical library should be lending its name to McFuckingDonald’s. I may be too strident in this kind of thing and this is why I will never be in management/administration of any organization but I would be saying Fuck Off to McDonald’s even if the corporation was buying the library books/databases/Lego/staffing budget and wanting to put their logo anywhere near us.

This is because I think the brand of “Public Library” has value. Immense value. It isn’t something to be given away or peddled for worthless bullshit trinkets like mousepads or keychain tags or whatever. If my hypothetical library is going to partner with a corporation there is going to be an exchange of value that actually supports my library’s mission.

It’s possible to do that. Lego has a Read Build Play program that’s partnered up with Association for Library Service to Children to use Duplo in storytimes. That is direct support of literacy and makes sense in the context of a library. If Canadian Tire was donating tools to a library makerspace, I’d be okay with their logo on a “Tools provided by:” sort of sign. If a local Nissan dealership was giving my library an amazing deal on a van to make a service-mobile (note that I am speaking hypothetically here; I do not work for FVRL), fine, I’ll have a Nissan logo on the stuff we give out about our van. If we’re getting real value out of it I’ll accept a certain level of sponsorship.

But for penny-ante tchotchkes? Fuck you.

(Again, I’ll admit I’m never putting McDonalds’ name/logo anywhere near any library I have any power in. It’d be the same thing if Exxon-Mobil wanted to buy a whole new building for my library and put their name on it. Not gonna happen. This may be cutting off my hypothetical library’s nose to spite its face but I just could not handle such a thing.)

Now, it’s possible the observant reader might think I had some kind of personal/professional stake in this at the moment. I cannot possibly comment on such speculation. In conversation today, my scattered internet-based colleagues agree that such situations of selling out a library’s integrity and mission for bits of plastic and fabric are shameful but probably not an issue to hypothetically sacrifice continuing employment for.

The featured image on the main page is Snowball and the Adbusters by Jami Dwyer used under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 license

oh spineless administrations, aren’t you cute and ubiquitous?

Did you hear about the gutless public library administration that didn’t tell the corporate sponsors of a non-library event in their city to fuck right off? If not, here you go:

Bookninja says: Libraries in Vancouver should tell Olympics, and spineless bosses, to “fuck off”

The corporate assholes at the Vancouver Olympics, through the spineless leadership of the Vancouver library system, have instructed city librarians to not only not use products and services by competitors of official Olympic sponsors for Olympic-themed events, but also to cover with cloth or tape any existing infrastructure with offending brand names or logos. I’d say I’m speechless but, given the headline, I think I’ve got my response down.

Libraries should not be beholden to that kind of shit. Did you hear about the Sam Katz sponsored idiocy they’re planning to try in Winnipeg? Corporate naming rights to anything and everything, including library books. Maybe if someone wasn’t so fucking horny for a helicopter, the library would be able to get books that qualified librarians chose rather than whatever someone wanted their name in. I don’t know if that will actually affect any sort of buying decisions. How would I possibly know? But I don’t want to see libraries quietly fold and become part of the corporate bullshit pervading our society. That’s why I’m going to library school next year, inshallah.

A while back I read a book (which it appears I didn’t review here) called Revolting Librarians Redux. It’s about how librarians are supposed to change fucking systems. To make things better. Better cataloguing, better service, just betterness, often in spite of administrations. Because really, the idea of having information provided for free, and with people to help you sort through it, is a pretty great idea. Not everyone can afford broadband internet at home and not everyone can get through all the shit that’s out there. I hate the idea that these administrations try to turn libraries into corporate-sponsored zones. Pepsi doesn’t give a shit about giving the citizens a means to be informed, unless it is being informed about Pepsi. Libraries are supposed to be better than that.

Shut up and let me be an idealist.

These stupid policies get in the way of what competent librarian folk do. And these Vancouver Olympic policies were written by a City communications flack on her own initiative. Nobody said the Olympics weren’t going to happen unless a Wendy’s logo got covered up. There is nothing at stake beyond the freedom of information to be represented at the library. She was just worried about offending the money and wanted to tell her offensive colleagues down at the library to tone it down while the adults were in town. Rolling over preemptively in case of trouble. Just in case someone might be offended by the “wrong” symbol. Which is exactly what libraries shouldn’t be doing. Moral of the story: people in offices suck.

Unrelated to anything, I heard people talking about the movie The Warriors yesterday, and I (not being involved directly in the conversation) got to say “Caaan youuu diggiiiiit?” and only one of the people involved look at me like I was insane. The other was all over that shit, and we chatted about the movie and the videogame that brought the movie to my attention. Which was pretty satisfying.