Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Summer internship at LibraryThing

Will you be around Portland, Maine this summer? Are you interested in libraries, programming, or website design? LibraryThing’s looking for a local intern (or two) to work on a variety of projects for us. Depending on your interests and skills, we may have you work on programming or design for LibraryThing.com; we’d also be interested in having some help on various Legacy Library projects, so if you have an interest in historical libraries and bibliography, we’d love to hear from you too!

Potential internship opportunities:

  • LibraryThing.com programmer. Build a new feature (or improve an existing one) for LibraryThing.
  • Designer-developer. Help LibraryThing plan its future look.
  • Legacy Libraries researcher/cataloger. Assist with research, cataloging and maintenance of the Legacy Libraries.

Skills

  • Programming. LibraryThing is made with PHP, mostly in non-OO code. We also use JavaScript and MySQL.
  • Design. The standard software and a keen eye.
  • Legacy Libraries, we’re looking for someone with an interest in library history and bibliographic description. You don’t need to have the programming and design skills mentioned above, but a familiarity with bibliographic databases and rare books is a must.
  • Bonus. Familiarity with LibraryThing itself would be extremely helpful.

Intangibles

  • We like to hire people who care about books and libraries, and believe in a open and humane vision of the future for both. We live to create technologies that make readers happy and keep libraries vital.
  • LibraryThing is an informal, high-pressure and high-energy environment. Programming is rapid, creative and unencumbered by process. We put a premium on speed and reliability, communication and responsibility.

Location

LibraryThing is headquartered in Portland, Maine. For these internships we’re looking for people who can be in the office regularly.

Compensation & Schedule

We’ll pay—minimum wage, but we’ll pay! We’ll work with you to come up with a suitable schedule for the summer, but ideally we’d like you to commit to about a month with us.

How to apply

Send an email and resume to jeremy@librarything.com. Instead of a cover letter, go through this blog post in your email, responding to it, especially the skills and intangibles part, and suggest some ways you could be useful or projects you’d love to work on. Include your availability for the summer months (June, July, August).

Labels: jobs

Monday, May 7th, 2012

May Early Reviewers batch is up!

The May 2012 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 100 books this month, and a grand total of 2,841 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Tuesday, May 29th at 6 p.m. EDT.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, and more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

Taylor Trade Publishing Akashic Books Henry Holt and Company
Riverhead Books Lake Claremont Press Ballantine Books
Wilderness Press Ashland Creek Press Doubleday Books
Tundra Books South Dakota State Historical Society Press Random House
The Permanent Press Small Beer Press St. Martin’s Griffin
Exterminating Angel Press Touchstone Books Random House Canada
JournalStone Eerdmans Books for Young Readers Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Kayelle Press Random House Trade Paperbacks Putnam Books
Human Kinetics Heathrow Books William Morrow
Archipelago Books Talonbooks Leafwood Publishers
Palgrave Macmillan Safe Harbor Publishing Centrinian Publishing Ltd
BookViewCafe Bellevue Literary Press Quirk Books
McFarland Dragonfairy Press Kensington Publishing
Ingber Spiegel & Grau Stone House Press
Crux Publishing

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Reminder: Edible Books Contest!

Quick reminder: we’ll be accepting new entries for our Edible Books Contest until 4 p.m. EDT on Thursday, May 10.

See the contest announcement for all the details on entries, rules, prize information, etc. Or check out the entries submitted so far in the photo gallery.

Labels: contest, contests, fun

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

April Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online. It includes a reminder about our Edible Books Contest and more!

For one of our author interviews this month, I talked to Elizabeth Little about her new book Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, published this month by Walker & Company.

What was the most enjoyable moment in researching Trip of the Tongue? The worst?

My most enjoyable moment was, without a doubt, my first evening in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I had just spent the past few days with friends in Tacoma, and I was loathe to leave their hospitality for what sounded like an uncomfortably rustic accommodation in the middle of nowhere. But then I discovered that I was staying in a cozy little cabin a stone’s throw away from this windswept gem of beach. That evening I walked along the sand in my bare feet as the sun set. Then I returned to my cabin to drink hot chocolate and read about language. A near-perfect evening.

My least enjoyable moment, on the other hand, was surely when I was in northern Maine, when I got caught in a snowstorm and had to battle all-day morning sickness. There’s a very good reason why that section didn’t make it into the book.

How did you end up deciding which particular languages to highlight in the book? Were there some that just barely didn’t make the cut that you’d like to tell us about?

The languages that made it into the book were those that really challenged my own assumptions about the history of language—or language itself—in the United States. I spent some time in San Francisco, for instance, but my background in Chinese language and culture made for a less than compelling narrative thread. It was a lot of “Oh, yes, I remember reading about that.” (Looking back on things now, I wish I had tried to look at Chinese language and culture in Old West frontier towns. Although that should probably be a book of its own.)

Some other sections had to be set aside because they led me down a very different path than the one I was trying to travel. The chapter that got cut at the very last minute was a chapter that looked at the impact of technological change—very particularly in transportation and manufacturing—on language communities in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. I loved my time in each of those cities – in Baltimore I met the loveliest and most helpful docent and historian at the city’s Jewish museum; in Cleveland I gorged on paprikash and learned about Hungarian girl scouts; and in Detroit I went to the Ford Rouge Factory, which turned out to be one of my favorite activities on the entire trip. Unfortunately, when I found myself compiling economic paper after economic paper for research purposes, I had to acknowledge that my focus was starting to drift.

In the final chapter of your book, you note that Trip of the Tongue didn’t end up being the book you thought it would be. How did you originally envision it, and how did your travels and experiences change the book into what it is?

At the beginning I envisioned that the book would be more of a romp: road-tripping high jinks with some linguistic data thrown in. What I ended up with, though, is something more like a meditation. On language, on discrimination, on my own preconceived notions. I first got an inkling of this in South Carolina, where I went to learn about Gullah. My very first day in Charleston, I learned about these spikes (called chevaux-de-frise) that some city residents put on their fences in the nineteenth century to protect themselves in the event of a slave rebellion. It was at that point that the desire to write anything resembling a romp died a swift death. The history of race and language and culture in the United States isn’t exactly rich in comedy. (Though I certainly tried to find it where I could.)

But I’m glad that I ended up somewhere very different than I’d intended. Because it’s not much of a journey of discovery if you only learn things you already knew.

Read the rest of our interview with Elizabeth Little.

I also talked to Diana Preston, the author of The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-1842, published earlier this year by Walker & Company.

For those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, give us a thumbnail synopsis of the First Anglo-Afghan War: how did the conflict come about, how long did it last, and what was the result?

The First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838-42 is one of Britain’s most notorious military catastrophes. The genesis of the war was British suspicion that imperialist and expansionist Russia was planning to advance through Afghanistan to invade India, Britain’s richest and most prized colonial possession. The Afghans resented the British presence, and the invasion was politically controversial at home. Barely two years after the British had occupied Kabul thousands of British and Indian troops, officials and their dependents suddenly found themselves besieged. A disastrous retreat to India under constant attack by the Afghan hill tribes left only one Briton and several Indian soldiers alive. When the news of the disaster reached Britain, it was greeted with anger and the British sent an army of retribution to punish the Afghans. Soon afterwards, the British withdrew from Afghanistan with their puppet king already murdered, allowing Dost Mohammed, who had surrendered to the British and been exiled by them, to return. The entire enterprise was a disaster that soured British-Afghan relations for many years.

How did you come to be interested in the conflict, and how long was the research process for The Dark Defile?

I’ve been interested in the conflict for a long time and in particular in some of the characters but the more I began delving into the sources the more I realized it is something of a cautionary tale. The Duke of Wellington (the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo and a former Prime Minister) predicted at the time—accurately as it turned out—that “The consequence of crossing the Indus once, to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country.” (British forces entered Afghanistan twice more over the subsequent 80 years, before doing so again as part of the current NATO-led force.) I became increasingly intrigued not only by what actually happened and the many vivid personal stories but also by the wider political and strategic issues surrounding the campaign.

Subsequent research in the UK and northern India took about two years.

I was struck by Lady Florentia Sale, whose diary of the war you draw on frequently in the book. Tell us how Lady Sale ended up in the middle of the conflict, and about her diary which recounts so vividly the events she witnessed.

Plain-speaking, fifty-year-old Florentia Sale arrived in Kabul to join her husband, a senior British officer nicknamed “Fighting Bob”. She devoted her early months to planting a flower garden but when the Afghans rose up she found herself trapped in Kabul without her husband who had left with his regiment for India. She commented acidly on subsequent British military incompetence and diplomatic vacillation, writing, “it appears a very strange circumstance that troops were not immediately sent into the city to quell the [rising] … but we seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on … General Elphinstone vacillates on every point. His own judgment appears to be good but he is swayed by the last speaker …”

She survived the early days of the British retreat, caring with her pregnant daughter for her dying son-in-law, a wounded British officer. She was then taken hostage by the Afghans. Her clear-eyed, unsentimental, occasionally humorous diary provides a detailed account of events, both previously in Kabul and then in her captivity and—unlike some of the other eyewitness accounts written with an eye to publication—rings true to the core. She describes how, as she and the other prisoners were bundled away by their Afghan captors, they passed naked starving people left behind by the retreating British column who were surviving “by feeding on their dead comrades.” She also wrote that she and the other prisoners quickly became verminous—”very few of us … are not covered with crawlers”—and learned to distinguish between lice which they called “infantry” and fleas which were “light cavalry”. She lived to be eventually reunited with her husband.

Read the rest of our interview with Diana Preston.


Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

If you don’t get State of the Thing, you can add it in your email preferences. You also have to have an email address listed.

Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

LibraryThing “Edible Books Contest”!

We haven’t run a good, old-fashioned contest in a while, so it’s time! We’re going to try something new (to LibraryThing) for this one: it’s a virtual Edible Books Contest!

How to participate:

1. Create an “edible book.” We’re defining this broadly, so entries can include dishes:

  • referencing a book’s title or characters (puns are entirely welcome)
  • inspired by a book’s plot
  • in the shape of an actual book (or eBook, or scroll, etc.)
  • takeoffs on the LibraryThing logo

2. Take some photos of what you made. The photo at right is one of the entries from the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library’s Edible Books Festival (see more of their photos here).

3. Upload the photo to your LT member gallery. Sign in, then go here and click the “Add another picture” link to add the image.*

4. When adding the image, tag it “EdibleBooks2012″. This will add your image to the contest gallery, and counts as your entry into the contest. If your photo doesn’t have the tag, we won’t know that you’ve entered. You’ll be able to see all the entries here.

5. Tell us about it in the “Title/description” box.

Deadline: Add your photos by 4 p.m. EDT on Thursday, May 10.

What we’ll do:

Based on all the images in the “EdibleBooks2012″ photo gallery, LibraryThing staff will choose the following winners:

Grand Prize (1)

  • An LT t-shirt (size/color of your choice)
  • An LT library stamp
  • A CueCat
  • An LT sticker
  • Three lifetime gift memberships
  • Great honor

Runners Up (2)

  • Your choice of one LT t-shirt, stamp, or CueCat
  • Two lifetime gift memberships

We may also pick a few Honorable Mentions—final number will depend on the number of entries received—and they’ll receive a lifetime gift membership.

Have fun!

Fine Print: You can enter as many times as you like, but you can only win one prize. Your dish must be made of edible ingredients (no hats, lost-wax sculptures, performance art), and by entering the contest you certify that it is your own creation. All decisions as to winners will be made by LibraryThing staff, and our decisions are final. LibraryThing staff and family can enter, but can only be honored as prize-less runners-up. Any images you load stay yours, or you can release them under a copyleft license, but we get a standard “non-exclusive, perpetual” right to use them.

Questions? Feel free to post questions/discussion/etc. here.


* We thought about having everyone send us their dishes for judging (and tasting). But we decided they might not hold up to mailing well, and that our waistlines probably couldn’t handle it!

Labels: contest, contests, fun

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

New Legacy Libraries: Houdini, Douglass, McCullers, Waugh

Four recently-completed Legacy Libraries to report!

Frederick Douglass – working from a National Park Service inventory of the books at Douglass’ home, Cedar Hill, a small group of volunteers flash-mob-cataloged more than 1,300 books to Douglass’ LT catalog. Thanks to amandafrenchbenjclark, Elizabellegoddesspt2, JBD1thornton37184waitingtoderail, and wendellkate for their kind assistance! Douglass acquired an impressive collection of government documents, which make up a pretty hefty portion of his library. Member meburste holds the most books in common with Douglass so far, at 47.

Harry Houdini – A large portion of Harry Houdini’s library (which was huge!) is now at the Library of Congress, and we’ve now added that to LibraryThing, along with a few other books in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Other significant portions of Houdini’s library are not yet accounted for in LT, but we’re hopeful that other information might allow us to fill in some more segments of his very interesting and extensive collection. I’m sure we’ll never be able to add another library so heavily focused on magic and spiritualism! One of the top members with whom Houdini holds books in common? Jackie Gleason.

Carson McCullers – The library of Carson McCullers is now at the Harry Ransom Center, which also houses McCullers’ papers. While it’s not quite clear that McCullers herself collected all the different editions and translations of her own works included in her library at the HRC (check out the author cloud), and some of the books in the collection almost certainly belonged instead to other family members, we thought it was still very much worth adding. Not surprisingly, McCullers shares quite a few books with fellow Legacy subjects, including E.E. Cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Ernest Hemingway.

Douglass, Houdini, and McCullers don’t share a single book in common, but Douglass and Houdini share ten books, while Douglass and McCullers share two titles (the Bible and Les Misérables). Further combination work and additions could change this, of course.

Just as I was getting this blog post ready to go, I realized that I never blogged about the completion of Evelyn Waugh’s LT catalog back in December (shame on me!). This was accomplished by member jburlinson, who added the titles from July 2010 through the end of 2011.

I also added the small, three-book library of Godbert and Sarah Godbertson yesterday afternoon: this is the first joint husband/wife probate inventory in the Plymouth (MA) Colony records, taken in October 1633 after both Godbert and Sarah died in a smallpox epidemic.

Other projects continue chugging along! We were really hoping to be able to work on adding the Titanic libraries (there were two, one for first-class passengers and one for second-class passengers), but we’ve had no luck in finding a catalog of the books. If you can help us out there, we’d be very grateful.

I know for sure that there are more Houdini books out there, and it’s very likely that more Douglass and McCullers books remain to be added, so if anyone knows of others for these as for any of the Legacy Libraries, please do let me know.

NB: Both the Houdini and McCullers libraries were added through a new tool we’ve got that allows for the direct import of MARC records (once they’re in they still need some cleanup to make them display correctly, and often require the addition of copy-specific notes, &c., but this tool certainly speeds along the process). So, if you know of a possible Legacy Library that’s out there in some library catalog, let me know about it and if we can add it directly using this method, we’ll certainly do so! Some more from the Harry Ransom Center are already in the pipeline, for example.

Come chat about this Legacy Library update here.

Labels: legacies, legacy libraries

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Library-only 2.0 is dead. Long live Library 2.0!

Library 2.0 is alive and well at Lamar County and the more than 300 other library systems that use LibraryThing for Libraries.

Over at Information Today Steve Coffman wrote a long and interesting piece The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire, running through a list of recent library efforts in the digital world and concluding that most have been failures. His comments on “Library 2.0″ are of special interest here:

“Jumping ahead a few years, we have Library 2.0. Some may feel that it is too early to write this off … even if we could all agree upon what it is supposed to be. Basically, Library 2.0 was intended to allow library users to interact with librarians and each other online using a variety of new social tools developed for the web. It was meant to include patron-contributed reviews and rankings, tagging, blogs, Twitter posts, Facebook sites, and so on. Even a cursory look at some of the more highly regarded Library 2.0-styled websites suggests that this idea may not be going very well. It seems that any conversations we may be having are largely with ourselves, while our patrons are busy contributing reviews and doing all sorts of other cool, interactive things on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and the hundreds of other places people get together online to compare notes on books.”

Coffman is right that library-only Library 2.0 efforts have failed. Most such systems don’t aggregate across libraries and, when they do, Library patrons aren’t that interested in adding content to their library catalog, which fail to connect meaningfully to the larger digital world.

But library efforts continue to succeed, by taking advantage of data and communities outside the library. Coffman mentions LibraryThing’s wealth of tags and reviews as something outside of libraries, but LibraryThing data appears in hundreds of library systems in the United States and around the world.

Through LibraryThing for Libraries library patrons can read more than 600,000 professionally-vetted user reviews–the cream of LibraryThing’s larger corpus. And if they feel like it they can add their own review, which is aggregated across all libraries that use LibraryThing for Libraries. The results are pretty good–a book like Mockingjay (eg., Randolph County) has 583 reviews, 22 of them from library patrons.

After reading the reviews they can browse their local collections drawing on over 85 million user tags, exploring the world of “Steam Punk,” “Cozy Mysteries” or “Queer Fiction” within their existing catalog and restricted to their collection. And they can explore similar books based on all the users, books, tags and other data of LibraryThing, mashed up with the availability and usage statistics of their library and others.

Although vendors continue to sell “Library 2.0″ as a “feature,” it was never so. Social software is always both feature and society, requiring scale and openness to users’ wider world. That a library can’t be Facebook all by itself isn’t sad, or a failure. Facebook isn’t Facebook by itself either. The error comes in thinking about the 2.0 world in 1.0 terms. Library-only 2.0 failed because it tried to be an empire. Library 2.0 is alive because it isn’t one.

So, Library-only 2.0 is dead. Long live Library 2.0!

Labels: library 2.0

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

April Early Reviewers Batch is up!

The April 2012 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 73 books this month, and a grand total of 2,202 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Monday, April 30th at 6 p.m. EDT.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, and more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

Akashic Books MSI Press Henry Holt and Company
Ashland Creek Press Ballantine Books Penguin Young Readers Group
William Morrow Washington Longfellow Press Chin Music Press
Orbit Books Tell-Tale Publishing Group, LLC WaterBrook Press
Humanist Press Palgrave Macmillan QW Publishers
Tundra Books Doubleday Books Dream Treader Press
Orca Book Publishers Human Kinetics Coffee House Press
Dundurn Light Messages Putnam Books
Pale Fire Press BookViewCafe Confiteor Media
Blazing Sword Publishing Ltd. Leafwood Publishers Information Today, Inc.
CyberAge Books Centrinian Publishing Ltd Taylor Trade Publishing
Sunrise River Press Elephant Rock Books Prufrock Press
Crossed Genres Publications Random House Kirkdale Press
Little, Brown and Company The Overlook Press

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Important Policy Change

Effective immediately, LibraryThing will no longer be including lean finely textured beef (commonly referred to as “pink slime”) in any of our products. We have revised all page designs and source code so that this product is no longer required for smooth operation of the site.

Over the past several weeks many members have written to us expressing their concern about the use of boneless lean beef trimmings on LibraryThing. While the USDA and food industry experts agree that lean finely textured beef is perfectly safe, recent media reports have caused considerable consumer concern about this product. We have concluded that in response to member concerns, we must take steps to ensure that this product is not used anywhere on the site, and have worked diligently to make the necessary changes to LibraryThing.com. That process is now complete.

We at LibraryThing would like to thank all those who took the time to express their concerns about this product.

UPDATE: It appears that small quantities of pink slime have continued to seep from the LibraryThing user interface. We blame a supplier, and will be working to remove any and all interface slime as soon as possible.

UPDATE: April Fools is over, so the slime-drip is gone. Click on the image below to see what it looked like:

Labels: openness

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

March Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online.

I forgot to include in SOTT a very neat interview our friends at Random House passed along: Jennifer Egan, the author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, did a Q&A with Dan Barden about his new book, The Next Right Thing. You can read the interview here, and thanks to Random House for sharing it with us!

For our author interviews this month, I talked to Lauren Groff about her new book Arcadia, published this month by Hyperion and Voice.

Like your first novel, Arcadia is set in upstate New York, where you grew up (as did I). How do you think the area has shaped the things and people you write about?

I find that I can only write about places after I’ve been absent from them for a while. I’ve lived in Florida for six years, now, which only makes me love upstate New York more. I grew up there, and it seems that when I want to write through or about a childlike sense of wonder, I reach for the place I remember as a child. Also, I miss the lilacs and the icicles and the rolling hills and the cold lakes in the summer, and this sense of loss makes me long to return there when I sit down to work in my hot and humid studio.

You’ve set one section of Arcadia in the future, 2018 specifically. Did you find writing scenes in the future any different from writing scenes set in the past, or in the present?

It was strangely exhilarating to write scenes set in the very near future: it wasn’t as pure an imaginative leap as writing a hundred years in the future would be, and it required research and thought into where we are in the world right now. It was as if I had a photograph of the present, and my job was to paint beyond the bounds of the frame.

Tied up in Arcadia is the fascinating and elusive idea of utopian communities: did you find yourself doing much research into historical views or depictions of this topic as you wrote? If so, was there a particular source that you enjoyed or found most useful?

There are many books about both philosophical utopias and real-life attempted ones on my shelves. I find the utopian urge to be a deeply American one: in fact, in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were over forty utopian intentional communities created (and lost) in America. The two that were among the most successful, and therefore the most devastating when they collapsed, were Oneida in central New York in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century community called The Farm in Tennessee. I visited both places for overnight stays and loved them both.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you make
it a reality?

I’ve always been passionate about books, but to become a creator of the things I loved most in the world seemed impossibly difficult, and possibly even narcissistic, when I was little. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know that they were normal people and not gilded demi-angels selected by the gods. It began to dawn on me that I could do this, too, when I took a writing class in college, taught by a real, live novelist. After I graduated, I made my poor parents suffer a little because I declared that I was going to be a writer, and I did many terrible jobs for a few years to be able to teach myself how to write fiction. Then I went to graduate school, which gave me two years in which I wrote as much as I possibly could, and learned a great deal.

Read the rest of our interview with Lauren Groff.

I also talked to Taras Grescoe, the editor of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, coming soon from Times Books.

Tell us a bit about how the idea for this book came about, and how long you spent making all the trips it took to research the different cities you profile. What was your best experience (transportation related or otherwise) while researching the book? Your worst?

For the last decade, I’ve been thinking about writing a book-length examination of how cars changed our lives, and how car-centered thinking has transformed our cities. But I didn’t want to contribute another angry screed against the evil motorcar to the literature. There are so many people thinking differently about transportation, and so many amazing initiatives happening in cities around the world, that I figured I could combine a little righteous anger and a lot of hope and optimism in the same book—which is why I detail how we got into the mess of sprawl and congestion, and how a lot of committed people are finding ways to get us out of it.

As much as I loved riding funiculars, rattly old subways, and high-speed trains in Asia, Europe, and South America, the best experience was meeting people around the world who are committed to making their cities better places to live for themselves and their families—a lot of those people have become friends. The worst part: when I was looking at sprawled and congested cities like Phoenix and Moscow, being stuck in endless traffic. Hours I spend in a car always feel like hours I’ll never get back.

You write that Straphanger is, “in part, the story of a bad idea: the notion that our metropolises should be shaped by the needs of cars, rather than people.” How and when did this idea take hold, and can you tell us a few of the ways this bad idea has manifested itself?

Streets in North American cities belonged to the people of those cities until at least the ’20s. Kids played in them, pedestrians crossed them at will, streetcars and horsecars and cable cars used them, bike-riders enjoyed them, vendors sold food from carts. They were anarchic, and alive. Though Americans accepted the new technology of the automobile, and it became ever more affordable thanks to Ford’s mass production, it took a concerted effort on the part of automobile industry lobby groups to manufacture the concept of the “jaywalker” and convert city streets into speedways for cars. At first, police resisted, citizens resisted: tens of thousands of kids were slaughtered by Chevrolets and Fords, and there were giant demonstrations against “death drivers” in almost every major city in the 1920s. A great portrayal of the process in action is Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918. (Tarkington was clearly ambivalent about the coming of the automobile to the city, but he brilliantly portrays the way that new technology unstitched so much of what old walkable cities used to be.) Later, technocrats like Robert Moses in New York City consolidated power and streamlined the process of building cities for cars, rather than people. Car culture really did its job well: now nobody finds it strange that so much precious public space—the streets of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto—should be occupied by two tons of privately-owned of plastic, fiberglass, and metal.

Read the rest of our interview with Taras Grescoe.

I also had a chance to chat with Natalie Dykstra, the author of Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Do you recall what first interested you about the life of Clover Adams?

I vividly remember the moment I got interested. I was still in graduate school, working on my dissertation about how nineteenth-century women represented themselves in letters and diaries, when I read a five-page scene in Blanche Wiesen Cook’s brilliant first volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Cook describes how Mrs. Roosevelt would go every week to Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to sit in front of the seated bronze statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that marked Clover’s grave. She found comfort there in the months after her discovery of her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer. But why? I became fascinated by the woman who fascinated Mrs. Roosevelt.

You write in the prologue “Clover’s life has remained half-illumined, a reflection of how others viewed her but not how she saw herself.” But, you argue, her photographs “invite the viewer to stand not on this side of her suicide, but on the other, the one she lived on.” For those who might have not have yet had the chance to see Clover’s photographs, what is it about them that’s so compelling? Do you have any particular favorites?

Clover’s photographs, when I first saw them, struck me as interesting and extraordinarily beautiful. Packed with a lived life. There are photographs of friends, of the seashore, of her dogs perched at chairs around a table as if “at tea.” There are carefully composed photographs of her women friends that have great clarity and style and portraits of children that confer an enormous dignity. She got down on the same level as the children to take their photographs, so the viewer sees them eye to eye. And she was meticulous about the sequence in which she put her photographs in the albums, one image per page. I suppose some of my favorites include her gothic-like picture of her summer home, Pitch Pine Hill, on Boston’s North Shore; her portrait of Elizabeth Bliss Bancroft, wife the historian George Bancroft; and her portrait of three women standing on rocks at the seashore, with two of the women turned away from her camera.

Read the rest of our interview with Natalie Dykstra.


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