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Humans of New York

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Humans of NYHumans of New York
by Brandon Stanton

A picture book — a completely engrossing and thought-inspiring picture book. That’s what I found on the “new books” shelf of my local library branch. I picked it up on a whim, thinking I would thumb through it in one evening and return it quickly. Instead, I kept it for the full 3-week loan, studying these photographs one by one, slowly savoring the individual faces and their brief snippets of words.

According to the book’s Introduction, this photo collection began in 2010 as a project to create a pictorial census of New York City. But as the photographer continued taking pictures of people, he found himself listening to their words, seeing their uniqueness, wanting to convery the wonderful variety of humanity in a fresh way. He began posting a portrait every day on a web site “Humans of New York” — (HONY for short). It’s been going on for several years now, and attracted more and more viewers, but I had never heard of it until I picked up this book in the library. For some of us, a traditional book is still our doorway into a new place.

There’s not much text, but what’s there is almost like found poetry:

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Anything Can Happen

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Anything Can HappenAnything Can Happen
by George and Helen Papashvily

I first discovered this delightful book when I was about 13 or 14 years old, in that wonderful semi-circular fishbowl of a library at Britton Road Junior High. Ten years later, when the school closed, I stumbled on this book at the library discard sale and snapped it up. It has never failed to give me a lift and a smile during all the years since.

It’s the autobiographical account of the author’s journeys from Vladikavkaz, Georgia, Russia, to New York City, and after that to Detroit, California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and assorted roads in between. Along the way, he meets people of every culture — both locals and transplants — with open-minded interest and open-handed generosity — and takes the reader along for the ride.

It’s a laugh-out-loud funny book. More

Mavericks of the Sky

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Mavericks of the SkyMavericks of the Sky
by Barry Rosenberg & Catherine Macaulay

I breezed through this book in a weekend. The story of the first few years of the U.S. Airmail Service, it’s full of action and adventure — and frequent comedy. The thought that crossed my mind more than once as I read was — “They ought to turn this into a movie.”

In 1917, the U.S. entered WWI with an air force that was still new and untried. But then, aviation itself as a field was barely over a decade old at that point. Planes, engines, and piloting skills were all going through a period of rapid experimentation and development. Everyone was working through a steep learning curve.

Flying the mail originated not in a particular demand for faster mail delivery, but from a crying need to develop pilots’ skills at cross-country flying. The first chapter of the book lays out the problem succinctly:

The country had been at war for just over a year and already dozens of flyers had been killed. … The problem had less to do with the superior dogfighting skills of aces like Baron Manfred von Richthoven than with the fact that the airmen were simply getting lost. With only a rudimentary compass to navigate by, and facing unfamiliar enemy terrain beneath their wings, they were unable to find their way back to base and eventually ran out of fuel and crashed. They were proficient with stick and rudder, but they lacked the ABC’s of cross-country flying.

Between them, the Army and the Post Office came up with a novel solution to the problem: More

LibriVox 10th Anniversary Collection

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LV 10th AnniversaryLibriVox 10th Anniversary Collection

Every year on August 10th, LibriVox has celebrated the occasion by releasing the annual Anniversary Collection. These are very eclectic potpourris of fiction, poetry, memoirs, essays, history, science articles, even occasional songs, some only two or three minutes long, others nearly an hour long. The only thing these pieces have in common is that each title must include the number of the anniversary year — eight, nine, — and now — ten.

The number of individual items in each collection has grown each year — eighty for the 8th Anniversary, ninety for the 9th — and thus this year, to celebrate the 10th, we have a collection of a full 100 items.

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Don’t Mind the Gap

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Yeah.  It really has been three whole months since I paid any attention to this blog.

Over on the LibriVox forum, that sort of thing happens often enough that they have an acronym to cover it — RL. Anyone who explains a gap in activity by saying, “Sorry, I got caught up in RL“, is instantly understood. Real Life — it happens to all of us.

We all have an internal sense of what to drop when we are juggling too many things to carry. If I’ve got a purse, some books, and a bag of groceries containing eggs, and something’s going to slip and fall kerplop, I’ll drop the purse or books in order to hang onto the eggs. They’re most likely to be hurt, and the other things can be picked up after I safely set down the eggs.

When RL becomes a juggling act, this blog is what goes kerplop and lies underfoot until more immediately needy tasks have been safely landed.

It’s happened before, and it’ll probably happen again. Eventually, dropped items do get picked up. No harm done, really — maybe just a bit dusty from lying around so long.

Here I am, looking back to last May and considering where I left off and how I might begin again.There’s a gap that seems to require some explanation, some spackling-over. Then again, spackle is useless when the hole to be filled is too wide. Maybe this gap will just have to remain unfilled.

I haven’t actually stopped reading during this gap. I’ve just stopped documenting the reading. In my personal hierarchy of priorities, doing certain things is important — documenting what I do isn’t.

That’s such an important statement that I want to say it again — say it clearly so that it sinks into my thoughts. What I do — day by day, year by year — matters muchly. Documenting what I’ve done doesn’t matter at all in the long run.

People have lost every scrap of their life’s documents — photos, letters, diaries — in floods, fires, and wars. It hasn’t mattered. What has mattered is their lives as lived, their effect on the world and people they touch. What matters is what goes on in RL, Real Life.

The books I have read have shaped my thoughts and feelings, my character and my actions, at an internal core so deep that only God understands what goes on there. The events and people that command my attention and involvement have shaped me, too, even as I’ve played a part in shaping them. This is the unstoppable ruckus of RL and its constant development.

I pause to write now and then, as I’ve done since I was a child, because the activity of writing is for me actually an activity of thinking. Writing slows down the thought process, helps me to think with more awareness of what I’m thinking, helps me to examine what’s happening at that unseen deep core, perhaps to understand it better.

But much as I need these occasional fits of writing, I don’t need them the way I need other more immediate things. If there’s an occasional gap in the writing, that’s okay, the activity of RL is still going on and still doing its work of shaping who I am becoming. And eventually, there will always be slower moments when I can return to writing. Maybe one of those slower moments is coming along now.

As to the three-month gap, it’s not going to be filled. Let’s just hop over it and keep on going.

The San Francisco Earthquake

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San Francisco Newspapers Cover PictureThe San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
by a number of nameless but intrepid newspapermen

A few months ago, I began working on a LibriVox recording with my usual LV team — (GregG and AnnB) — A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitkin & Hilton, written in 1906 just a few months after the events described in the book. In the course of working on that project, I became particularly interested in the work of the newspapermen of that city. The headquarters of all the major newspapers were destroyed, along with their printing presses, and yet the reporters still managed to collect and publish news of what was happening around them. On the Library of Congress website, I found this collection of historic newspapers, including several issues of the San Francisco Call from the days following the earthquake. That led to my most recent solo project, The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire as Reported in the Newspapers of that City.

Reading these newspapers, more than a century old, felt surprisingly familiar. It connected in my mind with the reading I do at Reachout Radio, where we do live readings from today’s newspapers. In the Aitkin & Hilton book, even though it was written shortly after the event, the story was told in the past tense, as something already beginning to pass from “news” to “history”. In the newspaper readings, everything is happening in the present tense, in the immediate here and now. If only radio had existed in 1906, I might have been a Reachout Radio reader, turning the pages of the papers, looking for the articles that would be most informative to the listeners on the other end of the airwaves.

We would have to begin with the leading articles, the ones which pull together the big picture of what’s happening. Where are the present fire lines and which way is the fire moving? Where are the civic leaders meeting and what is their game plan? Where are people to go for safety, and how are they to get there? Before the internet, before television, before radio, the printing press was the clearing house for everything people most desperately needed to know.

Then there are the small and personal items. A wealthy woman lost all her property in the fire, but announced that she was giving half of what she had in the bank to the relief fund. Two men in what appeared to be a Red Cross wagon stole blankets and jewelry from the homeless camped in Golden Gate Park. Enrico Caruso got a black eye during an altercation over luggage at the ferry boat wharf. A University of California professor rescued the paintings at Hopkins Art Institute by cutting them out of their frames as the flames surrounded the building, rolling up the canvases and taking them to safety.

The reporters diligently collected data and more data, and devoted full pages to making it available. People seeking friends and relatives checked the hundreds of names and addresses published in the papers. Lists of people hospitalized at various locations were available, with a brief description of their injury. Locations of relief stations and food distribution stations were published in the paper. Businessmen, driven out of one location, turned to the newspapers to announce new temporary locations and to ask their employees to check in.

Even the “Personals” were fascinating little glimpses of small human details in the larger story. Herb asked Eve in a classified ad, “Where are you?” Mr. Monteverde published an ad asking for information on the whereabouts of the children of the Mexican Vice President, who had been staying with a Miss Velasco. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart announced that their building had escaped unharmed and that school would resume Monday. An enterprising Oakland real estate broker advertised “an earthquake-proof 5-room cottage” and advised the reader to “Grab it quick!”

The San Francisco newspapermen were working under serious disadvantages. All three major papers in the city lost their buildings to the fire on the first day. But being true news hounds, they weren’t about to give up when they were standing in the middle of a big story. Reporters from the three rival papers pooled their stories on the first day, located a borrowed press across the bay in Oakland, and put a small 4-page edition on the streets of San Francisco the next morning. By the following day, each paper had organized a temporary location of its own and was ready for some serious reporting. By the third day, the San Francisco Call was putting out eight pages of fine print, including stories from surrounding towns like Santa Rosa and Mendocino.

Of course, the newspapermen couldn’t help including an article about themselves. “Call Distributed Free to the People from Automobile — Crowds Rush Frantically to Secure Paper Wherever Stops are Made” announced a headline of pardonable pride.  Yes, we did a good job, the boys of the press told themselves and their readers. It was true; they did a job of notable importance and they did it well. And to top it off, they temporarily waived profit for the sake of their deeper mission — the perennial mission of the press, yesterday and today and always — keeping the people informed.

London Under

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London UnderLondon Under
by Peter Ackroyd

This book is subtitled “The Secret History Beneath the Streets”. It’s not a systematic and chronological history, but a series of topical meanderings, each chapter a relish of assorted tidbits and trifles. The life of a great city, hidden beneath the streets and surfaces, is considered as though we were considering the bones and blood vessels of an organism, the life lived just beneath the skin.

One bit that impressed me was this: While Manhattan’s bedrock is solid schist, London’s foundation is gravel and clay. For all the centuries of its habitation, London has been slowly sinking into the muck beneath. The surface structures of Roman Britain have gradually become the cellars and basements and underground crypts of more modern buildings. Even the rivers and streams which once flowed on the surface of the land have gone to earth over the centuries, roofed over and left to flow in the darkness under the city. When new foundations are dug, the clay “weeps”, and this watery substratum continually seeps into the city, a reminder of the marshes from which it rose. A statistic that stopped me and made me read it again — every day 15,000,000 gallons of rising groundwater are pumped out of London.

There’s an entire chapter on the greatest of London’s underground rivers, the Fleet. There was a time, long ago, when it was a navigable waterway, spanned by beautiful bridges. By the time Ben Jonson and Jonathan Swift wrote about it, it could only be described as a sewer. By the eighteenth century, it had been covered over and hidden underground, although in 1846 it escaped in an explosion of foul gases and a deluge of filthy water which flooded the neighborhood. Archaeologists have found the debris pulled from the muck of the Fleet a treasure-trove — everything from carved Roman deities to medieval toilet seats, from floor tiles to buckles, from children’s toys to decapitated skulls.

Another chapter describes how Londoners took to the tunnels of the London subways to shelter from the bombs during WWII. At first, the city authorities and the subway companies tried to discourage this behavior, fearing the presence of panicky people loitering idly underground. But it proved impossible to stop people from buying the cheapest ticket to anywhere and then riding from station to station at random. As thousands of people began lying down wearily on the platforms, blocking the way, creating a sanitation and fire hazard, the authorities decided to accept the inevitable, and set some rules to control the situation. People were allowed to shelter in a particular assigned station, lines were painted on the platform to indicate spaces to be kept clear, wooden bunks were installed for sleepers, and sanitary rules were enforced by inspectors.

There are several chapters discussing various aspects of the London Underground, one of the most legendary subway systems in the world. One is a recounting of the ghost stories that haunt the tunnels, another is a look at the explosion of art and literature inspired by the Underground. There was a 1928 silent movie called Underground which preserved a view of the life beneath the streets in the era between the wars, and a Seamus Heaney poem “The Underground” which sets the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in the vaulted tunnels and tiled stations.

The London sewer system is the subject of a fascinating chapter. I had first read about this as one of several great engineering projects in a book called Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury. Revisiting the story here, I met with bits I didn’t recall having heard before. Workmen digging the sewer line in Smithfield uncovered ashes and human bones, and were startled to realize that they had stumbled on the site of the burnings of 16th-century Catholic and Protestant martyrs. People known as “toshers” made a living off the sewers, entering at low tide from the points where the sewers emptied into the Thames, scavenging underground armed with bullseye lanterns and long protective coats with capacious pockets in which to stow their findings. Modern-day tourists who visit the sewers are dressed in waders, hard hats, and coveralls, taken on tours by guides who read them the safety rules before setting out on this strange odyssey.

Deep dungeons, gas lines, aqueducts, pneumatic tubes, buried rivers, Roman baths, medieval crypts, holy springs, air raid shelters, mudlarkers and toshers, mole men and miners, all the life under the skin of the city, flow through this little book as the Fleet flows under the streets of London.

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