This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,272) on Friday, October 8, 2021.
Audiobooks—are they really “books”? If you listen to an audiobook, does that count as reading one? Those questions came to mind as I read an email this week from a good friend and newsletter reader. She was responding to an item about reading in America that I included in last week’s newsletter. Her email is below.
Some people don’t believe that listening to an audiobook counts as reading a book. Fair enough. The hearing of a book is indeed different from the reading of a book.
But for many of us, fortunately, our first experience with a book was as an audiobook. Some good person—parent, older sibling, caring relative, kind friend—read it to us before we ourselves could read. Even if we do not listen to audiobooks now, we all were once there, listening intently and taking it all in, and letting our imaginations run wild. Even if you don’t “like” them, don’t discount the power of the audiobook.
Have a wonderful and literate weekend.
Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,274 subscribers and had a 26.8 percent open rate; 1 person unsubscribed.
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St. Louis: stories and scandals; beer and baseball
Every city, large or small, produces its stories and scandals. Some do better at that than others. St. Louis is one of those cities that is above average in this regard.
St. Louis, near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, started out in the 18th century as a place where professional trappers would converge to trade goods, stories, and liquor. You can imagine what that was like. It was a rugged, no-holds-barred place that would scare away the faint-hearted.
There are also the two Bs: beer and baseball.
One of the world’s largest beer producers, Anheuser-Busch, is headquartered in the city and is an indelible part of the city’s identity. So are the St. Louis Cardinals, a baseball team that has been around for about 150 years and has more World Series championships than any team except the New York Yankees.
Now we have some of the great stories and scandals of St. Louis within the covers of a single book, Storied & Scandalous St. Louis: A History of Breweries, Baseball, Prejudice, and Protest. The author of the book is Jo Allison, which is the pen name of Linda Dobkins, a friend and former faculty colleague at Emory & Henry College. Linda and I had offices down the hallway from each other in Miller Hall during the three years that I taught there.
Her book is a treasure trove of stories and photos that will delight anyone who has drunk a beer, cheered at a baseball game, or viewed with wonder the mighty Mississippi River that has, for 200 years, been the great geographic dividing line of the nation. You can turn to any page of this book and get a good story; then, chances are, you’ll turn to the next page and the next. The research and attention to detail of the author is obvious, and the author never loses sight of the fact that she is writing about real people, not cartoon characters.
Linda is the author of the Julia Nye Mystery Series and related short stories, which are deeply researched tales set in and around St. Louis during the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Linda shifted gears for this latest book, writing fact instead of fiction, but she had to do it all from her home in Bristol, Virginia—rather than traveling to St. Louis for on-site research—because of Covid-19.
Writing the book without in-person access to sources was a strain, she said, and it increased her dependence on archivists and librarians.
“Writing during a pandemic made me depend on their archivists, reminding me how important librarians are to an historical fiction—and nonfiction—writer.”
Linda was a journalist in Joplin, Missouri, early in her adult life, and she says, “I consider my (10) years of reporting the best education I could have.” That’s a sentiment shared by many of us former reporters.
Banned Books Week
Banned Books Week was last week (Sept. 26-Oct. 1), but that’s no reason to stop the observance at just five days. The banning of books is a problem every day of the year in America and elsewhere, and the problem should not slide back under the carpet.
The official BannedBooksWeek.org website says this:
By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles lists of challenged books as reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country. The Top 10 Challenged Books of 2020 are:
- George by Alex Gino. Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community.”
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Banned and challenged because of the author’s public statements and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people.
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint, it was claimed to be biased against male students, and it included rape and profanity.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the author.
- Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes and their negative effect on students.
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Challenged for profanity, and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message.
Does this list sound familiar? It should. The same books show up year after year. Some are new, depending on what the controversies of the day are. Some are classics (Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee) that show up every year.
And these, of course, are not the only books that are challenged. They are simply the ones that are challenged most often.
Despite the motives that some may have, restricting intellectual freedom in any way is never a good idea.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
Oleg Gordievsky: The greatest Cold War spy, saved by a dirty diaper (part 2)
Babies need to be changed. It’s one of the inevitable facts of life. And, if you’re not going to help do that, it’s best—for many reasons—to get out of the way.
It was this fact that saved the life of Oleg Gordievsky, the West’s greatest Cold War spy.
In 1985, Gordievsky, a KGB colonel and son of another KGB officer, came under suspicion by the Soviets. Gordievsky had been feeding information to the British and Americans for years about Soviet capabilities and intentions. He was so valuable to the Western intelligence agencies that they had devised a plan to get him out of Russia if he felt his life was in danger.
That time had come.
Part of the plan involved having Caroline Ascot, the young wife of a British diplomat, and a friend of hers drive to the Finnish-Soviet border with Gordievsky covered up and huddled in the boot of the car. Along for the ride, of course, was their small baby, Florence. The whole operation of exfiltrating Gordievsky was a complicated one involving a couple of cars and several intelligence agents. And, it was one of those operations where you couldn’t plan for everything.
They passed through several checkpoints without incident. When they finally got to the border, things began to get tense. Guard dogs and their handlers began sniffing around the vehicles. There were lots of odors from all directions, but the closer the dogs came to the car, the more interested they seemed. Caroline had to do something.
Florence offered her a solution. Caroline took the baby out of the car, opened up the trunk, and put her down in it. Right on cue, Florence filled up her diaper. Caroline changed her quickly and dropped the soiled diaper in front of the dogs.
The dogs, needless to say, didn’t smell the man hidden in the trunk. Their guards, too, wanted nothing to do with the “operation” that was taking place in the trunk. The diaper was changed, but the odor lingered. The car was allowed to pass through the border.
This story is one of many intriguing tales contained in the book The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre, the best true-espionage writer of our age. Macintyre was recently interviewed on Dan Snow’s History Hits podcast, and you can listen to that interview at this link. A good summary of the book can be found in this 2019 article in the New York Review of Books (a subscription may be required).
This week’s bandsaw box: A teapot with a secret
This teapot isn’t for making tea, but it could be good for storing some tea bags.
And its secret inner shelf could be ideal for hiding that special one-of-a-kind tea bag that you don’t want anyone else to grab.
This week’s bandsaw box has a walnut front and mixture of woods inside. It sports a coat of Danish oil that enhances the beauty of the walnut and is topped off with several coats of lacquer to give it something of a shine.
Pull the drawer all the way out and look at the back of it, and you will find a secret shelf. No one will guess it’s there unless you let them know about it.
Jennifer S.: I have seen the statistics you cite about readership, and as a fellow reader/writer—and former librarian—I’m, of course, a huge fan of books and reading. I think your more positive lens is instructive! I looked up a summary of the Pew report, and the numbers are similar to those from 2014 (23% of adults reported that year that they had not read a book in the previous year). In other words, we aren’t necessarily reading less, which is good news.
I note that those demographics which read least are also the demographics that do not visit public libraries. While one hesitates to read causation into statistics, I’m fairly sure that this parallel is not a coincidence. In our local library, we were thinking of ways to make the library more welcoming to everyone, including those under-served populations, but of course the pandemic has made everything, including library work, more stressful and challenging. Still, I think that librarians are doing a lot of great work in encouraging more people to read and to partake of the important community connections that are also part of library work.
I’ll add just one little plug, that perhaps you can share with your readers, who I bet are also in the bookish camp: Audiobooks are a great option for folks who don’t feel they have time to read, or who find sitting down to read hard or elusive for various reasons. Many, many people (including, alas, some librarians and teachers) do not consider audiobooks to be “real” books. I think changing this perception would help raise that readership statistic just a few points, at least!
Thanks as always for an interesting newsletter!
Finally . . .
This week’s watercolor: Sidney Bechet
Best quote of the week:
In our world of big names, curiously, our true heroes tend to be anonymous. In this life of illusion and quasi-illusion, the person of solid virtues who can be admired for something more substantial than his well-knownness often proves to be the unsung hero: the teacher, the nurse, the mother, the honest cop, the hard worker at lonely, underpaid, unglamorous, unpublicized jobs. Daniel J. Boorstin, historian, professor, attorney, and writer (1914-2004)
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The Loyalist who was a spy, a giant floating violin, and exfiltration from the Soviet Union: newsletter, October 1, 2021
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