More on book-banning

Remember Gerald Allen? The state rep from Alabama whose proposed ban on all gay-themed library books I blogged about last week? Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a post about the latest development. According to the Guardian, George Bush has just invited Mr. Allen to the White House. Because he’s interested in what Representative Allen has to say.

Let’s just pause for a moment and consider how wrong that is, shall we? First, Allen proposes a law that’s a) blatantly unconstitutional and b) hard to see as anything but a hateful swipe at gay people. And then Bush, instead of either ignoring this wingnut and his unconstitutional bill or saying “I appreciate Mr. Allen’s moral fervor, but in a free society we trust people to decide for themselves what they’re going to read, and we don’t go around banning books,” rewards the guy with a visit to the White House and a confidential chat.

This doesn’t bode well for the next four years, does it? At this point, it would not greatly surprise me if Bush were to appoint Allen to the brand-new cabinet office of Secretary Of Keeping The Uppity Homos In Their Place. So much for trying to heal the rifts in the country.

Here’s a snippet from the Guardian reporter’s interview with Allen:

Allen claims he is acting to “encourage and protect our culture”. Does “our culture” include Shakespeare? I ask Allen if he would insist that copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets be removed from all public libraries. I point out to him that Romeo and Juliet was originally performed by an all-male cast, and that in Shakespeare’s lifetime actors and audiences at the public theatres were all accused of being “sodomites”. When Romeo wished he “was a glove upon that hand”, the cheek that he fantasised about kissing was a male cheek. Next March the Alabama Shakespeare festival will be performing a new production of As You Like It, and its famous scene of a man wooing another man. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is also the State Theatre of Alabama. Would Allen’s bill cut off state funding for Shakespeare?

“Well,” he begins, after a pause, “the current draft of the bill does not address how that is going to be handled. I expect details like that to be worked out at the committee stage. Literature like Shakespeare and Hammet [sic] could be left alone.” Could be. Not “would be”. In any case, he says, “you could tone it down”.

And by way of comparison, consider this passage from Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran :

We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works,
considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something
seemingly more urgent—namely ideology. This was a country where all
gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms. …

A few years ago some members of the Iranian parliament set up an
investigative committee to examine the content of national television.
The committee issued a lengthy report in which it condemned the showing
of Billy Budd, because, it claimed, the story promoted

Does this sound familiar? Now we know who Gerald Allen’s spiritual kindred are. I rest my case.

This book-banning thing has clearly pushed a whole lot of my buttons. (You should have seen the first draft of this post, which contained much swearing and the phrase “crockery-smashing rage.”) I think I’ll get back to the “why read literature?” series — which, yes, actually will be more than one post long — this weekend and talk about what some of those buttons are.

See also: Maud Newton, Neil Gaiman, PZ Meyers, and the American Library Association’s official response. (Yay, ALA!)

Wikipedia classified and silly TNT movies

[This is something of a test post, because there was a bit of Typepad weirdness last night. Anyone else try to post and then get prevented from editing?]

Do you use Wikipedia? Did you know you can look at Wikipedia content organized by Library of Congress classification? Complete with subclasses. I think that’s kinda nifty, though it would be still more interesting if they did the same thing for Dewey.

(Speaking of which, I watched TNT’s rather cheesy The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, and the one part that gave me a genuine chuckle was Noah Wyle’s character’s list of his qualifications at his job interview, beginning with "I know the Library of Congress and Dewey decimal classification systems" and ending with "I could set up an RSS feed!" The mention of RSS feeds made me happy. But in the main, I was disappointed by the fact that the Librarian, who in the promos had been made to sound like a cross between Indiana Jones and Rupert Giles, turned out to be all low-grade knockoff Indy and not at all Giles-ish. How I still miss Buffy…)

Superman and Green Lantern ain’t got nothing on me

Can’t…resist…Superhero Generator…can’t…resist…

Ladies and gentlemen, meet OperaSeriaGirl. She’s fiercer than she looks. Hers is the power of coloratura! She can scale three octaves in a single bound! She can charm rocks and trees into following her!


I don’t think I’m quite done. I may come back and add a few more while I’m at it.

(This diversion brought to you by Rana, scribblingwoman, LiL, and probably lots of others by now.)


Giulio Cesare in my living room

The glorious thing about recorded opera, on the radio or otherwise, is that you can listen to it on a lazy Sunday afternoon in your living room, with the windows flung open to let in the unusually mild winter air (sorry,  any neighbors of mine who may not share my penchant for the Baroque). The drawback is that you can’t jump up and shriek "Brava! Brava!" at the end of a particularly impressive aria. Well, you can, but the singers can’t hear you.

I’m listening to Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto on the radio, and I will have to go out before the end of it. But, the announcers just indicated which recording they’re playing — the Rene Jacobs one from Harmonia Mundi — and boy is it ever going on my "Recordings to Invest In" list. And I found both the complete libretto (bilingual version here, with sound files) and the score online. My Italian is just good enough for me to follow along with the words, and someday I’ll get my music-reading skills back in enough order to be able to read the score with ease. But right now I am simply listening with, no doubt, a moony-eyed expression on my face.

I’d never heard Barbara Schlick before, but her "V’adoro, pupille" is utterly gorgeous. If I were Caesar I’d be running after her too: "vola, mio cor, al dolce incanto" indeed. And, speaking of Caesar, it’s Jennifer Larmore! I’m now officially a fan. I tuned in just in time for "Va tacito e nascosto", and wow. I think Call Me Mister is going on my Christmas list.

Also loving: Bernarda Fink as Cornelia; Derek Lee Ragin singing "Si, spietata" as a great big virtuoso hissyfit (I just noticed how well all those "S" sounds fit an aria that ends with "You shall taste my venom!"); and Marianne Rørholm’s Sesto. I love a good ensemble cast. And it just keeps getting better and better. ("Al lampo dell’armi" followed immediately by "Se pieta di me non senti": oh my oh my oh my.) This is why I love Handel more than any other composer except Mozart.

Next week’s Opera Matinee is Tristan und Isolde. I’m not a huge fan of Wagner, but the hosts of this show have such good taste in recordings that it may be time for another attempt to understand what all the fuss about Wagner is about.

Scattered thoughts from today

1. Bookstore sales are a good thing. Bookstore sales with everything 30% off are especially good. And thus it was that I ended up this evening with Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which several friends recommended; Cole Swensen’s Goest (the talk about it in the poetry blogosphere got me interested, but it was this poem that sent it to the top of my to-buy list); and The Rough Guide to Reading Music and Basic Theory, which I spotted on the music shelf and snapped up as part of an ongoing initiative to increase my overall musical literacy.

2. I’ve been feeling vaguely unwell all day, like I’m on the verge of coming down with something, so tonight I’m going to bed early. But with a stack of new books, ha ha!

3. The Alcohol Quiz (cheers, Rana!) says I’m a martini:

You Are a Martini

You’re not a total lush, but you do like your drinks strong.
For you, drinking is an art. An experience to be relished.
That doesn’t mean you don’t get really really drunk.
A few strong martinis, and you’re dancing on the bar!
What alcoholic drink are you?

It’s true that I like a nice vodka Gibson every so often, but I’ve never actually danced on a bar. (Mildly inebriated karaoke is another story.)

4. I was going to write a whole post satirizing this delightful news item ("Gay book ban goal of state lawmaker", Birmingham News, 12/1/04), but I think it satirizes itself just fine, don’t you? I mean, consider:

An Alabama lawmaker who sought to ban gay marriages now wants to ban novels with gay characters from public libraries, including university libraries.

A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle."

Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed.

"I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them," he said. …

He said that would include nonfiction books that suggest homosexuality is acceptable and fiction novels with gay characters. While that would ban books like "Heather has Two Mommies," it could also include classic and popular novels with gay characters such as "The Color Purple," "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "Brideshead Revisted."

I suppose Rep. Allen also wants to bury the Iliad (it’s not easy to maintain that Achilles and Patroclus are Just Very Good Friends), Sappho’s poems, Plato’s dialogues (the Symposium being an early and classic example of "promoting homosexuality"), most of the rest of ancient Greek and Roman literature on general principle, the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales on account of the Pardoner and his friend the Summoner (arguable, but a case can be made), Dante’s Inferno (see canto 25), Shakespeare’s sonnets, Whitman, Woolf, Proust — whoops, did we just censor half the Western Canon? I think we did. Oh well, too bad. Anything to keep other people from reading things we don’t approve of ourselves.

(Something I was told this summer, which encapsulates for me why my future profession is important to democracy: "In any library, you should be
able to find something that affirms your beliefs and something that
offends you. If you can’t find both, we’re not doing our job.")

You know, on second thought, I think I’ll have that martini after all…

Polly want a high F?

Whoa. Just, whoa. Go listen to this Zauberflöte-singing parrot.

(You know, for years I’ve lain awake wondering whether it would be possible to teach a bird to sing that aria. And now…and now the question has been answered. Thank you, Harrison!)

Home from Thanksgiving: the Birgit Nilsson remix

WTJU’s Sunday Opera Matinee has already prompted enough posts here that I’m instituting a “Sunday opera blogging” category just to talk about whatever’s being broadcast. I missed most of this afternoon’s broadcast, having spent a good part of today in transit back from a Thanksgiving visit to my native city. Getting there was something of a trial — I miss living on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, where if you set out to take a train, you can reasonably expect it not to be four or five hours late — but the rest of the trip was splendid. Thanksgiving dinner at my uncle and aunt’s house included a collective nitpicking, over pumpkin pie, of Peter Jackson’s treatment of the Helm’s Deep scenes in The Two Towers. (I love my extended family.) I always feel more grounded after seeing Baltimore again, and this time I got to spend an evening with my friend T., who’s living there this year, chattering about music and city life over Proletary Ale at The Brewer’s Art near lovely and historic Mt. Vernon.

So — to return to the subject at hand — late this afternoon, after an epic voyage back by train and connector-bus, I caught a cab home from the station. The driver turned out to have his radio tuned to the Opera Matinee. “I don’t know what they’re singing about,” he said, “but it sure sounds good!” I said that I listened to the same program most Sundays and asked if he knew what the opera of the day was. He didn’t know, but just then the announcer came on and said they were featuring Birgit Nilsson singing Wagner and Puccini. So we listened to her for the rest of the ride. It completely made up for the three-hour bus trip between D.C. and Charlottesville. (Though once we got out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic around D.C., the view from the bus window was quite pleasant, and we arrived in C’ville just in time to see the mountains turning various shades of indigo and purple in the setting sun.)

Next week they’re broadcasting Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Hoorah! I don’t know which recording, but I’ll be sure to post something about it.

Bibliophile bedrooms and (brief) blogging breaks

Via Library Girl, an exhibit at MIT that offers the perfect solution to the problem of "too many books, too little furniture": just turn your books into furniture. Note the reading lamp, the encyclopedia bench, and the quilt made out of pages.

And with that, goodbye for now; I’m taking a holiday blogging break. See you all next week. Happy Thanksgiving!

Open letters to elected officials

Dear Mr. President,

May I make a suggestion? If you’re genuinely interested in being a uniter, not a divider; if you want to appear to be more "compassionate"; and, in general, if you don’t want people to jeer at you —

then maybe, just maybe, it might not be a good idea for part of the latest government funding package to be earmarked for "a presidential yacht".

I realize that it’s a petty thing to fixate on, just a drop in the bucket of a $338 billion funding package in which there are much bigger things to provoke ire (on which more below), but … it’s the symbolism of it, you know? I doubt you’re a fan of William Carlos Williams, but his poem "The Yachts" came immediately to mind when I read that news story. Perhaps you might like to read it and draw your own comparisons?

Dear Congress,

The same goes for you, too. And don’t EVEN get me started on that anti-abortion provision in the same bill. You know what happens when you make abortions more and more difficult to get? You don’t end abortion. You just ensure that women who are really desperate to end a pregnancy, and who can’t afford to get an abortion from a reputable provider, will start resorting to desperate measures. Do you know what that means? Women will die. Do you want that on your consciences? (Yes, I am also looking at you, Supreme Court. And at you again, Mr. President, the next time you have to appoint a justice.)

One of those evil "elitist" liberals,

  • who gets really, really pissed off when her elected officials cut funding for education and health care, but then award themselves big expensive toys;
  • who thinks that it’s horrific that lower-income women will undoubtedly be the ones who’ll suffer the most if Roe v. Wade gets rolled back;
  • who thinks it’s a disgrace that 12.9 million children under 18 in this country live in poverty (17.6 percent, or nearly one in five, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), and wonders how exactly that contributes to the so-called "culture of life";
  • whose government does not seem to care about any of this, which is dismaying;
  • and who is now going to end this list before her blood pressure rises to the point of apoplexy.
  • (Links via Joseph Duemer and LiL.)

Mining Shakespeare

Via LISNews, a news item on a project of the kind I would love to be involved with someday: Mellon grant to fund project to develop data-mining software for libraries

In his winning project, titled "Web-based Text-Mining and Visualization for Humanities Digital Libraries," Unsworth [John Unsworth, Dean of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] expects to produce software "for discovering, visualizing and exploring significant patterns across large collections of full-text humanities resources in digital libraries and collections." …

In traditional "search-and-retrieval" projects, scholars bring specific queries to collections of text and get back more or less useful answers to those queries, Unsworth said.

"By contrast, the goal of data-mining, including text-mining, is to produce new knowledge by exposing unanticipated similarities or differences, clustering or dispersal,
co-occurrence and trends."

And here’s the part that really caught my eye:

With data-mining tools, Unsworth said, you first select a body of material that you think is important in some way, next select features of those materials that you similarly think are important, and then "map the occurrence of those features in the selected materials to see whether patterns emerge. If patterns do emerge, you analyze them and from that analysis emerges — if you are lucky — new insights into the materials."

For example, in the planning grant for this project, members of his research team, using the full set of Shakespeare’s plays, selected five "circulation-of characters" features — scenes, nodes, singles, loops, switches — as independent variables, and "genre" as the dependent variable; they then "attempted to order the plays by feature similarities and see how that corresponded — or didn’t — to genre," he said.

"There was one very interesting result, which was that Othello fell squarely in with the comedies. If I were to analyze this result, I’d ask a number of questions about the methods used to produce the results, but once satisfied that I was not looking at an artifact of the procedure itself, I would ask what it means that Othello has the structural features of comedy, and from there, an interesting journal article might emerge."

Years ago I heard a professor of classics give a lecture on Oedipus Rex and Othello in which he suggested that Othello was "structurally a comedy." I forget how he reached that conclusion (it had something to do with the way the plot of Othello centers around its protagonist  being elaborately deceived). It’s fascinating to think about how the UIUC research team reached the same interpretation by such a different road. This kind of thing is what appeals to me about humanities computing.

Or, to pose a question that I heard posed this summer: what could we do if we had the entire nineteenth century online?