Monthly Archives: May 2016

Pop-up Bookstore(s)

During the past few days, I have handled hundreds upon hundreds of books.

I am the person who manages the book orders for the many classes we offer to our more than 500 high school students. I have a lot of help from department chairs, teachers, and the very patient representative at the online company that secures and sells the books we and our students use. But it’s still a lot to keep track of.

I like the challenge, though. Not just because I like books, which I obviously do, but because I like how they are still completely essential to who we are and what we do as a school. Historian Barbara Tuchman famously said, “Books are the carriers of civilization.” And, in many ways, books are still the lifeblood of education.

Last week, my office was transformed into a pop-up bookstore. There I sorted and distributed to faculty 70 copies of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, 20 copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 12 of The Buddha in the Attic, and 14 copies of Netherland among others. In addition, I handled countless single copies of carefully chosen and dedicated books to be bestowed to our top scholars in an awards ceremony on Thursday and at graduation on Friday. The local pool just opened for the season but I haven’t made it there much at all — I have been swimming in books.

As if that wasn’t fun enough for me, my husband emptied out a huge bookshelf at our house. Lining the fireplace until last night were stacks and stacks of our children’s books, which I finally hauled upstairs into the study where there was, no surprise, no room for any more books. The books are sitting in somewhat neater piles now, waiting for me to find the time and the space to file them away. I’m anxious for the weekend, when I’ll have time to thin the stacks and organize things on to shelves. A patient pile of books in disarray exerts a subtle pressure: pick me up, read me, put me in order.

Yes, book publishers have had to reconceive their business models, and ebooks are likely here to stay. Some booksellers have unfortunately gone out of business. But it’s no accident that after all the fanfare of moving bookstores to online settings, itself is considering buying 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores according to Greg Bensinger’s February 2 report in the Wall Street Journal. I can’t think of too many places as pleasant as a peaceful bookstore — only maybe the peaceful pages of a book.

Near the end of last week, I had a few extra copies of the books I had ordered, so I invited faculty to stop by and take what remained. The first two takers were math teachers, and the extra books were gone by the end of the day. My office is mostly back to normal; the pop-up bookstore is closed. Until the next time.

My Bitmoji

If I do anything fun with social media, I have my teenage daughter to thank. She’s the one who put the GIF app on my phone and helped me get an “avatar emoji” known as bitmoji. Without her, I would be helplessly uninformed about these and other features of communicating in the 21st century.

My bitmoji is definitely a little silly (she says “let’s taco about it!” with a taco in her hand) and I tend to be serious. But I have to admit that I like being able to respond to people with a funny cartoon that looks a little like me doing funnier things than I usually do.

A great article in the New York Times magazine this weekend about avatars by Amanda Hess asks a question, one I have been thinking about since getting my bitmoji: “Online, we present ourselves in ever-more-numerous guises across a variety of platforms. What does the ‘avatar’ we choose say about who we really are?”

Hess recounts the history of avatars from Hinduism to today. “In Hindu theology, Vishnu assumes various earthbound avatars — among them a fish; a tortoise; a half-man, half-lion — in an effort to restore order at times when humanity has descended into chaos. Now we’re the gods,” she says, “reinventing ourselves online in the hope of bringing order to a realm we can’t quite keep under our control.” When I paste a bitmoji image of myself into a text message, I don’t consider myself a god, but I see Hess’s point about wanting to participate in, if not reinvent, the world I’m living in.

Hess points out that we represent ourselves differently via different platforms and uses herself as an example: “On Facebook, I’m posed by a professional photographer, waist contorted into a slimmed line, eyes peering up out the window of a skyscraper. On Snapchat, I’m burrowed into my office chair, blankly blinking my eyes open and closed.” She is not alone. Although my bitmoji is my only cartoon avatar, I use different photographs of myself on Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook to communicate different things about myself, as do many others.

But I wonder, haven’t people always acted, and presented themselves, differently in different settings? At least to some degree? And isn’t it arguable that successful people know how to modify their affect or appearance to suit a given context? Don’t we all, for the most part, dress up for the opera, and down for the grocery store?

As I usually do when pondering these kinds of questions, I turn to literature. In response to Hess’s question about what our choice of avatar says about ourselves, I think about Jay Gatsby, a lower-class kid from the mid-west who could have won an Oscar for his performance as a monied New York blueblood. Gatsby’s charade didn’t last forever, and it cost him his life, but in my opinion it wasn’t criminal that he tried to be something that he wasn’t.

I probably owe my attitude toward human chameleons to another literary figure, Oscar Wilde, who was the subject of my undergraduate thesis and with whom I spent a good year of college. It was Wilde more than anyone else who helped me to understand and accept that identity is not a static state of being, but a fluid reality. He understood that better than most, given that it was illegal at the time for him to be who he was.

In our use of digital avatars today, we continue a long legacy of trying on different masks and seeing which ones fit.

Yes, It’s a Thing

I really loved a recent article by Alexander Stern in the New York Times titled “Is That Even a Thing?” I had started using the question myself (“Wait. Is that even a thing?”), but I hadn’t stopped to think about what I was really asking. Stern’s article made me think more about, well, this whole thing, the asking about what is and isn’t a thing.

Stern says that “we [ask] about a thing because we are engaged in cataloguing.” I agree that we have a deep and innate desire to put things in their places, to order our world. And we can’t begin to do so until we have decided what things are worth our attention, until we have tried to group those things that are in our grasp.

The work seems that much harder—perhaps even different—when there is nothing to actually hold in our hands. So many of the things we consider to be “things” today aren’t things at all—they aren’t tangible artifacts or touchable realities. They are literally ghosts in the machine, passing digital trends, fads, or phenomena. In Stern’s mind, ours is a world “gone to pieces,” where things are not always real enough or real at all, leaving us in a constant state of bafflement and ironic detachment as we try to cope with what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “unreal reality.” Still, we try to flag it or file it.

An antidote to some of this confusion came to me when I saw a student approaching my office on Monday morning with a laundry basket filled with, of all things, things. She had decided to use a laundry basket to transport her final project to school. Her final project was a collection of things that she had collected to pay homage to the Museum of Civilization featured in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenwhich she had just finished along with Lily King’s Euphoria and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Two of these novels are distinctly dystopian, revealing the ways in which society is restructured in the aftermath of a cataclysmic break of some kind (pandemic in one case; culture war in the other). The other features a culture clash of sorts in which Western and aboriginal notions of civilization are put in dramatic juxtaposition. My student wanted to explore her own ideas about what constitutes her civilization and how it impacts her and she, it. So she collected meaningful artifacts, gathered them up, and brought them to school: her grandfather’s typewriter, which she frequently uses; a dream-catcher; one red Chuck Taylor high-top sneaker; a music box with a spinning ballerina and two black and white photographs of her parents when they were younger; a vinyl record that a friend made for her; an iPhone; a Rubik’s Cube.

It was more than fun to look at these things together. We spent time talking about how important the curator is to the exhibit, just as the author is crucial to the story that is told. We discussed the importance of historical context, and also how some things—jewelry, toys, cooking utensil—are as old as human time itself.

In this age of fleeting impressions and impermanence, I find myself challenged by the simple question of whether something is a “thing” to me or not. That’s probably why I got so much comfort looking at my student’s basket of things. In that moment, I felt that it was at least possible that the answer to this question is a lot simpler than the question itself.