Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent (2010)

Big Bend is one of the most beautiful and rugged places I've ever been, and I'd love to go back -- even after reading the harrowing and fascinating book Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent (2010), lent to me by the lovely and awesome Joolie.

Parent emphasizes that the vast majority of park visitors have a great time and a smooth visit and are certainly never injured or killed. And yet, there are apparently a lot of ways to die in Big Bend. Some of them include: struck by lightning, being unprepared (like hiking for 15 miles in 100+ degree heat with no liquid except a Pepsi and some vodka), getting shot by unknown robbers, drowning in rapids, rope too short -- die hanging from a cliff, heat exhaustion makes you loopy and you lose the trail and wander into the desert, several flavors of suicide, pay someone to murder you, and freak snowstorm. I must admit I was a little surprised not to have any mountain lion / bear attacks in there, but apparently those are pretty rare.

Parent tells each story with a mixture of a ranger's "just the facts" narrative and a journalist's empathetic eye. By combining incident reports and investigations with after-the-fact interviews with survivors and their families, Parent almost always strikes just the right balance in bringing us these stories of mistakes, accidents, malice, and bad luck. Having personally experienced a death march through the desert in October brought me particularly close to the stories of the poor folks who died wandering in that hot and treeless expanse. [I might look fine in this picture, but I swear I felt like I was going to pass out and that I wasn't thinking very clearly.]

The book is peppered with a few stories of survival, and all the incidents give the reader a sense of the impressive skills and dedication of the park rangers and volunteers. Even when there is no chance that an individual has survived, the amount of work they put into finding the body, documenting what happened, and learning how to improve the safety of park guests is really amazing. Reading this book didn't make me any less eager to go back to Big Bend, but it did give me a sense of the risks and responsibilities any hiker or camper has when they take themselves out into the wilderness.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi (2011)

My library recently ordered a copy of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi (2011), and since I am the copyright go-to-gal, I thought I ought to read it. It took me waaaaay longer to finish it than it should have since I made the questionable decision to read it during my "free time" at work (note to self: I don't really have any of that), but even though it took me a while, I'm very glad to have the knowledge from this book under my belt.

Copyright and fair use are often presented as impossibly complicated concepts that the ordinary person could never hope to understand without the help of a lawyer. In fact, most people are so unsure of when fair use applies and when it doesn't, that they don't do plenty of things that they could do because they are worried about misinterpreting the rules and getting sued. Aufderheide and Jaszi make the argument that fair use is a powerful right, and that if we don't start using it, it will slowly be legislated away from us by influential copyright-owning corporations.

The most powerful tool in their toolkit is the development of Best Practices in Fair Use for various communities (there are guides for documentary filmmakers, media literacy educators, and more -- including, most recently and excitingly, a guide for Academic and Research Libraries). These codes help ordinary users interpret the law as it applies to scenarios and best practices in their specific community. While it isn't a free pass to do whatever you want, these best practices documents have stood up in court and helped guide legal decisions that are fair to copyright owners and those who want to freely use copyrighted material in their work.

Aufderheide and Jaszi make the complicated world of fair use and copyright law downright entertaining and understandable, and include a whole host of "what if" scenarios that get the user used to thinking through the various elements of making a fair use decisions. I'd recommend this book to any librarian or archivist who deals with copyright issues, any professional who works with faculty or students in making fair use decisions, and all creators and academics who need to exercise fair use in their work and play.

Fair Use Forever!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (1964)

I'm still slowly making my way through the 1500+ books on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, and the next entry is The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (1964).

The Words is Sartre's autobiography of his first ten years, written when he was 59 (and the same year he was awarded and refused to accept the Nobel Prize). This isn't a traditional autobiography in any sense, although we do get the trajectory of Sartre's childhood and a series of events from his life. Instead, The Words is sort of an explanation, or an apology. He tells the reader: "This is why I have written so much. This is why I think the way I do."

Sartre's father died when he was only a year old, so he and his mother, Anne-Marie, went to live back with her parents. Cut off from the influence of a father, and surrounded by doting adults -- a sister-mother (who shared a room with him and was also treated like a child by her parents) and two indulgent and proud grandparents -- Sartre was rewarded for being precocious and treated like he was the smartest and cutest little boy on the planet.

Because he came from a literary family, his early interest in books was not surprising. He started by pretending to read (and then to actually read, but not understand) the serious literature in his grandfather's study. Later he indulged his passion for the pulpy westerns and adventure stories that his mother would buy for him behind his grandfather's back. And soon, as his imagination, isolation, and frustration grew, he began to write his own adventure stories. Reams and reams of them. At first he wrote for his adoring public ("Isn't Jean-Paul cute hunched over his notebook like that") and later in secret, for himself and his future admirers. In fact, at a certain point in his childhood, everything he did was in service of future fame and immortality. Because he knew he would be a famous and admired writer, he wrote. Because he was sure that every small decision he made as a child would be analyzed after his death, he spoke from a script and acted from a book that would be viewed in the best light by the people of the future.

The Words is divided into two sections: Reading, and Writing. The first section is the most enjoyable, the second, although just as simply and engagingly written, is often sad, ponderous, and pitiful. Although it is certainly based on the true experiences of Sartre's childhood, the narrative is told through the lens of a grown man, a successful philosopher and playwright, who is more than a little fed up with the world, writing, and himself.

Definitely worth reading if you like books, writing, philosophy, or Sartre. I've not read any of his plays and just a bit of his philosophy, but you don't have to be familiar with his works as a whole to get quite a bit out of this book.

And because I can't resist, here is a rather long passage describing Sartre's early relationship with his grandfather's and grandmother's books:

I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: amidst books. In my grandfather's study there were books everywhere. It was forbidden to dust them, except once a year, before the beginning of the October term. Though I did not yet know how to read, I already revered those standing stones: upright or leaning over, close together like bricks on the book-shelves or spaced out nobly in lanes of menhirs. I felt that our family's prosperity depended on them. They all looked alike. I disported myself in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by ancient, heavy-set monuments which had seen me into the world, which would see me out of it, and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as the past. I would touch them secretly to honor my hands with their dust, but I did not quite know what to do with them, and I was a daily witness of ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather -- who was usually so clumsy that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him -- handled those cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiant. Hundreds of times I saw him get up from his chair with an absent-minded look, walk around his table, cross the room in two strides, take down a volume without hesitating, without giving himself time to choose, leaf through it with a combined movement of his thumb and forefinger as he walked back to his chair, then, as soon as he was seated, open it sharply "to the right page," making it creak like a shoe. At times, I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.

In my grandmother's room, the books lay on their sides. She borrowed them from a circulating library, and I never saw more than two at a time. Those baubles reminded me of New Year goodies because their supple, glistening leaves seemed to have been cut from glossy paper. White, bright, almost new, they served as pretext for mild mysteries. Every Friday, my grandmother would get dressed to go out and would say: "I'm going to return them." When she got back, after removing her black hat and her veil, she would take them from her muff, and I would wonder, mystified: "Are they the same ones?" She would "cover" them carefully, then, after choosing one of them, would settle down near the window in her easy-chair, put on her spectacles, sigh with bliss and weariness, and lower her eyelids with a subtle, voluptuous smile that I have since seen on the lips of La Gioconda. My mother would remain silent and bid me to do likewise. I would think of Mass, death, sleep; I would be filled with a holy stillness.