Libraries are a geek’s paradise
I love libraries. Over the years they have served as both workshop and sanctuary for me, and the most beautiful libraries embody an almost sacred quality.
The Central Branch of the Boston Public Library, located in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood on Copley Square, is one of my favorite places. The McKim building of the Central Branch, the site of the photos here, is deservedly a tourist attraction.
You might think that my affinity for libraries is all about my being an academic. However, in my experience most professors prefer to work in their offices or homes, rather than join the masses in a public or university library.
In fact, when I peer around the stunning Bates Hall reading room of the McKim building, few of the denizens “look” like professors — that is, assuming that profs have a giveaway appearance! Instead, I see a lot of young folks and adults from varying walks of life, at least based on the books, papers, and gadgets they have piled about them.
You won’t see many books in these pictures! The McKim building houses the research collection, which for the most part can be accessed only by request. The lending library adjoins the McKim building — it is big and serviceable but not nearly as architecturally appealing.
Today’s lending libraries are a multimedia treat for borrowers. Books, DVDs, audiotapes, and even e-books are now part of the treasure trove. Especially for folks on a tight budget, a library card can be a ticket to adventure, enlightenment, and entertainment. That $25 bestseller at the bookstore? It’s free to read from the library! (And if you read the first chapter and find that the book doesn’t float your boat, it doesn’t cost a cent to return it — unless you’re like me and return it overdue.)
And at some libraries, you can even refuel with some coffee and a morsel, though it’ll cost you.
For researchers and writers working on their latest articles and books, libraries are repositories of accumulated knowledge. Even if one isn’t doing research at the library, it provides a place of solitude to contemplate the task at hand. When I sit at the long tables at the Boston Public Library and imagine what other patrons are working on, I feel a quiet sense of shared purpose among our diversity of projects.
When I depart from the library and step out into the heart of the city, it feels like I’ve left a contemplative, cloistered space to rejoin the hurly-burly of urban society. I happen to like cities, so that’s not a bad thing for me. But it does make me look forward to my next visit to the library.
Music and memories
Music and memories. We hear an old pop tune on the radio or MP3 player and it quickly summons memories — good, bad, in-between — about a chapter of our life we associate with that music. Are there any stronger connections between popular culture and our life experiences?
The Andrews Sisters or Glenn Miller and The Greatest Generation. The Beatles or Motown and classic Baby Boomers. Music can be an instant on switch to a personal nostalgia channel.
Gen Jonesers and pop music
For many Generation Jonesers, Billy Joel provides a body of memory-making music. The songs contained in volumes I and II of his Greatest Hits album were especially popular during my college and law school years (late 70s through mid 80s). When I listen to them in the rough order of their release as singles, I’m treated to a year-by-year “mind’s eye” trip down memory lane.
Among the 25 songs in the album, my favorites are “Piano Man,” “New York State of Mind,” “You May Be Right,” “Allentown,” “Tell Her About It,” “Uptown Girl,” and “The Longest Time.”
But they’re not on the list because they’re necessarily the best songs, objectively speaking. No, I include them mainly because I associate memories with each. Overall, they capture a meaningful time in my life when I was finishing college in Indiana and moving to New York for law school. In fact, it’s hard for me to listen to the album for its own sake, because the memories connected with those songs are so sharp.
Given my druthers, I prefer the popular music of the first half of the last century to the stuff that followed. Yup, I’m more likely to listen to Frank Sinatra than to The Clash, though I enjoy both. In any event, I know I’m not alone among my peers when I turn on that 80s “oldies” station and fill with memories.
A song and a smile
Associations between music and memories can run deep, into the recesses of minds otherwise harder to reach. About ten years ago, I was part of a group that gave short vocal concerts at senior homes. At one of our little gigs, I sang a classic from the World War II era, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Here’s a lovely Vera Lynn rendition:
While I sang, a resident of the home grew the sweetest smile on her face. The way her eyes lit up, I could tell that the song resonated with her, that it touched some part of her experience. After our show was over, I thought I’d say hello and went over to her. But my effort to strike up a friendly chat quickly revealed that she was non-responsive to verbal messages, that she had withdrawn back to the place that likely led to her to be living in a senior home.
It was a quick lesson: Music could reach her in a way that ordinary conversation could not. And it could still cause her to smile.
What makes those British TV dramas so good?
If you need more evidence of the triumph of television as a premiere form of entertainment, just check out the continually growing list of quality dramas from across the pond, usually via PBS or BBC America.
Downton Abbey is the obvious pick right now, but it’s one on a long list. I’m especially drawn to British crime dramas. Helen Mirren’s brilliant Prime Suspect is one of my favorites, but what about more recent additions such as Broadchurch and Whitechapel? And let’s not forget old standbys such as Foyle’s War, or the Oxford pair of Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis.
The good stuff from Britain can pop up unexpectedly. For example, I was searching around Amazon’s streaming video a few months ago and discovered London Hospital (a/k/a Casualty 1900s in the U.K.), a short-lived drama about the Royal London Hospital set during the turn of the last century. It’s got a touch of ER and a load of Victorian atmospherics and understated Brit acting (wholly unlike ER). It also serves as a bit of a history lesson about health care 100 years ago.
British TV dramas typically mix great use of locations with astonishingly good acting. And whereas even the best American TV dramas usually feature young, very attractive lead actors and actresses, the Brits aren’t as obsessed with youth and looks. As a result, the characters tend to grow on you in more nuanced ways, like real people do.
Furthermore, the storylines are more compelling than so many American counterparts. The crime dramas tend toward the gritty and authentic. You’ll never confuse an episode of Prime Suspect with, say, one of TNT’s The Closer or its successor, Major Crimes.
However, it’s also fair to say that America is catching up, thanks largely to a cluster of superb dramas on cable, such as The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad (so I’m told — binge view to come soon).
Here in Boston, we’re looking at a pretty cold winter. What better time than to access the treats awaiting us on the small screen?
Great train stations capture a gamut of emotions: Reunion, separation, joy, sadness, anticipation, anxiety, romance, you name it. It’s no wonder that so many iconic movie scenes take place in train stations.
In the U.S., my favorite is Washington D.C.’s Union Station. If the Boston-to-D.C. Amtrak ride wasn’t so long (taking the better part of a day), I’d be on it every time I took a trip to the nation’s capital! Union Station is beautiful, busy in a good way, and replete with shops and eateries to pass the time.
New York’s Grand Central Station comes in second for me. It would be tied for first with Union Station but for the fact that it has been relegated to the status of commuter rail terminal. I hope the folks in Westchester County won’t get mad at me when I say that it’s such a waste of a public palace to hear announcements for trains departing to White Plains.
Chicago’s Union Station is a pretty cool place. The Windy City was one of the nation’s most active passenger rail hubs back in the day, and Union Station’s splendor remains evident.
Boston’s South Station is the Little Engine That Could. It’s not super fancy or beautiful on the inside, but it looks nice on the outside and serves as the city’s main intercity and commuter rail station. Not bad for a college town on steroids.
One of the ugliest, most cramped major stations is New York’s Penn Station, which was once an architectural showpiece until certain powers that be knocked down its most beautiful parts and turned it into an underground horror show.
Most of my train travel abroad has been in England and the European continent, and about many of those places I can only say wow. London, Paris, Berlin, you name it, both past and present make themselves known.
During trips to London, I’ve usually stayed at inexpensive B&B hotels near Victoria Station. I just love that train station. It pulsates with life.
Like air travel, a long train ride used to be something of an event. Those days have largely passed, at least in the U.S. Nevertheless, a beautiful train station can still fill one with excitement over journeys starting and ending.
Your first personal computer
Do you get nostalgic about your first personal computer? Perhaps it is a sign of geekdom if the answer is yes. But if you’re a Gen Joneser, it’s very possible that you discovered computing on your own, making for a lot of good gee whiz discoveries and eventual memories.
When I finally decided to buy a personal computer in 1988, I aimed for the low end: The venerable Commodore 64. By then, the IBM PC had already made its mark, and the Apple 128 was giving way to the Mac. Nevertheless, I was still working as Legal Aid lawyer in New York City, and I didn’t have a lot of money.
More importantly, the C64 had established itself as one of the best game machines around. Designers had squeezed everything they could out of its tiny amount of available memory, and the result was an incredible array of gaming software. I was especially partial to sports video and simulation games, and the choices were considerable.
Productivity software designers were similarly ingenious. For example, the C64 supported decent word processing programs that signaled the eventual demise of my electric typewriter. The C64 even managed to introduce me to online computing, however primitively. Powered by a 1200 baud modem, I dialed into Quantum Link, soon to become AOL.
Although I was among the last major wave of C64 buyers, I was in very good company. As this excellent Wikipedia article about the history of the C64 tells us, it was one of the bestselling computers of all time. Airplane buffs will understand the reference when I say it was the DC-3 of personal computers.
In the early 90s, I upgraded to a PC, and about five years ago, I morphed over to Macs. Yup, affordable personal computing power has come a long way during the past 25 years. For me, though, I don’t think that any computing experience will surpass the pure fun of booting up that C64.
The communal experience of watching a great movie or TV show
One Sunday night during my first semester of law school at New York University, I had reached my fill of studying, so I decided to catch a movie. I checked the Village Voice and saw that “Singin’ in the Rain,” the classic 1952 musical starring Gene Kelly, was playing at the Theatre 80 St. Marks movie house in the East Village. I had never seen the movie before, but I thought I’d enjoy it.
So I trekked over to the theatre and plunked down my five bucks at the ticket window. I expected that the theatre would be pretty empty — I mean, c’mon, who goes to see a 30-year-old movie on a Sunday night? — but lo and behold, hardly any free seats remained!
Within a half hour into the screening, I knew I was watching what would become my favorite movie. I was thoroughly entertained, enchanted, and uplifted. And what added so much to the experience was that people were clapping, enthusiastically, after each of the iconic musical numbers, such as Gene Kelly’s signature performance of the title song (click above!) and Donald O’Connor’s dazzling, funny song-and-dance number, “Make ‘Em Laugh.”
I had never before been at a theatre where strangers cheered scenes of a movie in each other’s company. We reveled in that film, and obviously it made for a lifetime memory.
Going to see movies at Theatre 80 and other revival movie houses would become a staple of my New York experience. At times I would drag someone along, and on other occasions I’d just go by myself. How cool it was to watch classic old movies on a big screen!
At the risk of sounding like the first year of law school was a cakewalk (rest assured, it wasn’t), another good memory of communing before a screen occurred every week in the Hayden Hall dormitory where most first-year law students lived. The dorm had a TV room, and dozens of us would gather to watch “Hill Street Blues” and “Cheers” as a group study break.
“Cheers” was at the start of its long run, and we enjoyed it. But it was “Hill Street Blues” — a cop show that anticipated just how good TV dramas could become — that most captured our attention. Largely unknown actors such as Daniel Travanti (Capt. Frank Furillo), Bruce Weitz (Sgt. Mick Belker), and Betty Thomas (Sgt. Lucy Bates) made for one of the best ensemble casts in television history, and the developing storylines maintained our interest from week to week.
Such communal viewing experiences are few and far between these days. The old Theatre 80 still stands and is used for performing arts events, but it’s no longer a movie theatre. The widespread availability of VCRs pretty much killed off the revival houses, and with them went the experience of watching a classic movie in the company of others.
I have no idea if the TV room in Hayden Hall is still around, but even if it is, I’d be surprised if it plays the same community-enhancing role for the undergraduates who now live there. Most of them probably have their own TVs or use their laptops to watch the latest small screen programs.
As the rows of DVDs running along my bookshelves and my Netflix subscription attest, I appreciate being able to pop in a disc of a favorite movie or TV show. But I know it’s not the same as applauding with others for “Singin’ in the Rain” at Theatre 80, or rooting with friends for Captain Furillo and his squad to catch the bad guys and survive City Hall politics on “Hill Street Blues.”
Has the Kindle Paperwhite pushed e-reading devices over a tipping point?
Over the years, I’ve owned several incarnations of the Amazon Kindle e-reader, and though I’ve found it especially useful while traveling, ultimately I’ve been happy to return to the real things. However, the latest Kindle offering, dubbed the “Paperwhite,” has crossed a major technological line in terms of clarity and lighting. It won’t replace the books in my library, but it’s a darn good Plan B.
Basically, it boils down to the reading experience. The Paperwhite stands out with the sharp clarity of its text and its excellent lighting feature, the latter so good that you can read in bed with all the lights off. This photo of the text screen doesn’t do it justice, but maybe it’ll give you an idea:
Currently the most inexpensive version of the Paperwhite is selling for $119. That’s not exactly a cheap initial investment, even for an avid reader. But this is the first Kindle upgrade that, at least for me, provides a reading experience good enough not to make me long to have a book in hand. And with all the traveling I sometimes find myself doing, it’s a treat to be able to bring a few dozen books with me via an e-reader that makes reading a pleasure.
I know that many regard the printed book as sacred and the e-book as a sacrilege. I’m not out to change anyone’s mind on this question, other than to say that all things being equal, I’d still rather have an actual book at my side. Nevertheless, I’m currently on an extended out-of-town visit with some friends, and the new Kindle has proven to be very handy.
Plus, it is pretty cool to turn the lights off and still be able to read. It’s sort of the grown up edition of reading a book under the covers with a flashlight.
Remembering blizzards of yore
Big parts of the country are facing heavy snowfalls and blizzard-like conditions right now. My home in Boston is among them, though I’m managing to avoid it because I’m out of town. Regardless, weather like this does push my memory buttons, thinking back to blizzards of days gone by.
Of course, I don’t have to think back far at all to reach the last blizzard, a blast that hit Boston hard last February. I took the photo above the night of the heavy snowfall, just steps from my small condo building. It was kinda fun to be out that night, and I was among a number of hearty souls (including canine ones) reveling in the snow.
The next day, folks were shoveling out of the mess. Fortunately my beloved City Feed & Supply Store, about a 30-second hike from my home, was open to sell provisions, including coffee and hot chocolate:
Three years ago, I was spending Christmas with my cousins in New York when a blizzard hit. We had a great time, including a Broadway performance of La Cage Aux Folles where a spirited cast delivered their best to a half filled house. Here’s midtown Manhattan during the heaviest snowfall:
But big snowstorms experienced as an adult may not compare to their magical quality when you’re younger — especially if it means schools closing!
I remember the blizzard of 1967 that hit Northwest Indiana and other parts of the region. Our Aunty Elaine was visiting from Maui, Hawaii, and she got a proper (if reluctant) introduction to a midwestern winter! Anthony Diaz produced and posted to YouTube this snippet of a longer video on the blizzard:
My brother Jeff and I were grade schoolers then, and if I recall correctly, it meant no school for a week!
I also remember the huge blizzard that overwhelmed America’s Midwest and Northeast in 1978, including the NW Indiana area. I was an undergraduate at Valparaiso University, and the campus was buried by the accumulation.
Most of those affected by the current weather will know by tomorrow morning what this storm has wrought and the full degree of inconvenience attached to it. In any event, keep warm and safe, and enjoy the sights.