Sunday, April 27, 2008

Reviewed: Books on Ida B. Wells, The Library at Night, and Labor

Peter Conrad has a decidedly 1.0 review (or 0.0, if there is such a thing) of Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night (Yale University Press) in The Guardian. Conrad imagines Manguel sitting in his library,

preferably at night, with the 'shapeless universe' outside expunged by darkness. Warmed by the pools of light that spill from his lamps, he does not even need to read: the smell of the wooden shelves and 'the musky perfume of the leather bindings' is enough to pacify him and prepare him for sleep....Within his global, multilingual book collection, he can effortlessly travel in both time and space.
This world is fading, however, for "libraries like his are now imperilled by their virtual equivalents on the internet. A book read on a screen has dematerialised; we can neither own nor love it, and if we can't hold it in our hands how can we absorb it into our minds?"

Eric Arnesan has a fine review of Ida: A Sword Among Lions, by Paula J. Giddings (Amistad/HarperCollins), on pathbreaking African American journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, for the Chicago Tribune. He writes:

What emerges clearly from Giddings' account is a portrait of a courageous activist who desperately longed for recognition and credit but found herself instead perpetually frustrated when passed over for office or denied the praise she believed she deserved. One of the many strengths of Giddings's biography is her reluctance to either romanticize or minimize Wells' contributions. She is also appropriately attentive to the broader canvas of black politics, continually situating Wells in a spectrum of black perspectives that can no longer be reduced to Booker T. Washington's accommodationism and W.E.B. DuBois' militancy. If excessively detailed at times, "Ida: A Sword Among Lions" is nevertheless a skillfully constructed and often moving account of a life and a time whose complexity is always central to its story.
Two books on labor history, THE BIG SQUEEZE: Tough Times for the American Worker, by Steven Greenhouse (Knopf), and AMERICAN-MADE: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, by Nick Taylor (Bantam) are reviewed by H.W. Brands for the Washington Post. For Brands, Greenhouse offers "enlightened counterpoints to the dark force of Wal-Mart," even though it is "hard to imagine how government will summon the will to effect the changes" Greenhouse believes are necessary for American workers. Taylor's book is "bigger than its title suggests; he provides a succinct survey of the Great Depression and particularly its consequences for workers." Even though "a warm glow of history enshrouds the WPA," Brand writes, "no one should want to see the WPA experiment repeated, for the reason that it would require reliving the economic circumstances that made it necessary. All the same, the WPA experience demonstrates that democracy can act decisively in a national emergency."

1 comment:

Dean C. Rowan said...

Prof. Dudziak,

Thank you for deigning to include notice of a book about libraries, much less one that would seem to have little to do at all with the discipline, as opposed to the practice, of legal history. Judging from Conrad's review, I would not enjoy Manguel's cloying—hardly Romantic!—epitaph to old-fashioned libraries, despite my being a devoted librarian. But neither do I enjoy Conrad's waltz through the clichés. Why do commentators persist in depicting libraries in ghostly terms? Prompted by Manguel, he invokes funereal tombs, unreadable tomes, the Bible, religion, sacred citadels, mental sanctuaries, cemeteries... This is patent nonsense to anybody who has worked, and not merely daydreamed, in a library. Nor are libraries "imperiled by their virtual equivalents on the internet." The are in fact augmented by 'net resources. What imperils libraries is a willful naivete as to what literature and books are for, a naivete compounded by notions of cultural value and economic efficiency illustrated by Conrad's pathetic historical timeline, in which an important datum regarding Gutenberg's achievements is the purchase for a large sum of money of one of the earliest Western printed books. What exactly does this have to do with books or literature or libraries? Almost nothing, I think, except for the trivial facts that books can be costly, libraries require funding to operate, and Google and Amazon can purchase Gutenberg Bibles with their lunch money.