Thursday, June 30, 2011

The day the music died

For me, personally, that would be today, the final day of jazz programming on Pittsburgh public radio station WDUQ.

Earlier this year, Dusquene University sold the station to Essential Public Media out of Boulder, Colorado.

Presumably (or so listeners were told during several pledge drives), this was because the university could no longer foot the bill.  Members, myself included, pledged diligently to keep the station going, and specifically to keep jazz on the air.

WDUQ's official slogan (as per the mug) was "News, Jazz, NPR."  So, between "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," it was wall-to-wall jazz, with local hosts and guests and frequently, local performers (and national ones making a stop in the city).  The station aired over 100 hours of jazz a week.

When Essential Public Media took over, they vowed to honor the station's legacy...and I suppose they have, in their own cynical, paltry way.  Jazz will still be on WDUQ.  For six hours a week, on Saturday nights.

The other 94+ hours that used to be devoted to jazz?  Wall-to-wall news and talk radio.

"NPR ate my local public radio station" is the name of a Facebook group formed by and for "members of public radio stations that have been taken over by the NPR borg."

I'm now one of 'em.

Don't get me wrong:  I love NPR and have always been a pledge-paying member of whatever station I listen to most often, wherever I've lived.

But I love local culture more.

Essential Public Media's rationale for the change is that Pittsburgh is the only city of its size in the U. S. without an all-news public radio station.*   So by EPM's bizarre logic, that means they're required to junk their new acquisition's successful format so that we can have one.  EPM insists on defining what the public wants by what they think we lack, rather than by what we've already got, and what loyal listener-members want to keep.

Pittsburgh is of the very few public radio stations in the country with a jazz format (my old member station, KUVO in Denver, is another).  DUQ members shelled out to keep jazz on the air, largely because jazz is such an integral part of the city's history, and Pittsburgh has been a mecca for the genre pretty much since its inception.  Just look at this list of jazz musicians who've come from, or been based in Pittsburgh compiled by the Carnegie Libraries.  Even if you know nothing about jazz, you'll undoubtedly recognize a few names on there.

The format isn't a lack.  It's a celebration of what's important locally, which the folks a thousand miles away in Boulder don't seem to be able or willing to comprehend.  Pittsburgh has three NPR stations, and WDUQ has always had the largest membership.  So what, exactly, is "missing"?

To say I'm upset is putting it mildly.  But more than I'm angry, I'm heartbroken.

I listened earlier this week as Tony Mowod, who's hosted "Jazz on the Nightside" in the evenings for 23 years, talked with one of the many local jazz musicians he's had on his show this week.  Tony talked about growing up feeling like a weirdo for being into Stan Kenton when other kids didn't even know who that was.  His guest joked, "Try telling your friends you were listening to a Sonny Stitt record last night!"  And they talked about how much harder it will be for young musicians to learn about the genre when there's so little of it on the airwaves.

The guest played several tracks from his own CDs, including the last number at the end of the show:  "Goodbye," which was Benny Goodman's traditional closing number.  If ever there were a tearjerker of a torch song, that's it.  I first came to know it through Linda Ronstadt's version, on the big-band album she recorded with the Nelson Riddle orchestra, What's New.

Sure, it's sentimental, mawkish, and over the top.

But it wrenched my heart again to hear it at the end of one of Tony's last broadcasts, and to hear him get choked up when the guest said afterward that he played it "to say goodbye to you, Tony, even though I don't want to."

Such a loss.

Thanks ever so much for listening to the "public" in public radio, Essential Public Media.  You've taken away the part of WDUQ that truly was "essential" to me.  My NPR pledge will go elsewhere from now on.

*Correction:  one of two, according to former DUQ host Katherine Fink, whose post better explains the business end of this change.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What do books do?

A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial by Meghan Cox Gurdon, who argued that young-adult literature has become a bastion of "depravity," "brutality," and "ugliness":
"Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail. Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it."
One of the books that she includes in her list of recent offenders is Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a book I have regularly included in the YA lit class I teach ever since its publication in 2008.  It is a brilliant, hilarious, tragic, and moving novel.* 

Yes, it has dark moments.  Yes, the narrator, Arnold Spirit, jokes openly about masturbation and "boners" (he's a 14-year-old boy, for chrissakes!).  But it is, at heart, a book about endurance, perseverance, and (ironically) the value of reading.  Standing in their school library one day, Arnold's friend Gordy points out that
"There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here....I know that because I counted them."
"Okay, now you're officially a freak," I said.
"Yes, it's a small library. It's a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish."
"What's your point?"
"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know."
Gordy's observation helps Arnold realize that the world we see and think we fully understand is, in fact, full of mystery.  Much like the mystery that surrounds a child with his or her nose in a book:  What's she thinking?  What's going on in her head?

I'm not interested in engaging in the debate about whether, and why, YA literature is so "dark" these days, and what adults should or shouldn't do about it.  What interests me in this latest kerfuffle is what has always interested me when books for kids and teens are challenged:  What is it that we think books do?  How do we imagine they work on kids' minds?  And why don't we make the same assumptions about adult readers?

I have long thought, and discussed with students in my YA lit classes, that book challenges are motivated not so much by the specific, offensive content of any given text, but by the privacy of the act of reading.  Concerned parent sees child deeply engaged in a book, oblivious to the external world (oblivious, in fact, to the parent), and becomes suspicious.  What's in that book that's so interesting?  And why can't I monitor that experience?

If parents sincerely object to "dark themes" in their teens' lives, they ought to be raising this kind of public stink about hyper-violent video games, and movies, and...well, the daily drama in most high-school hallways.

Of course, I know that books are more likely to be questioned than other forms of media because most challenges arise when controversial texts are assigned as required reading in public schools.  (Although why some parents would be OK with their kid picking up such a book on their own and reading it, rather than reading it with the guidance of an expert reader, also known as a "teacher," I've never understood.)

But I remain convinced that the real problem is that the parent sees the child experiencing something that the parent cannot monitor or co-experience, as they could a video game or a movie.  The process of reading, and the images and ideas reading generates, is entirely internal and invisible, and I think some parents find that completely unnerving.

The other thing that baffles me in these cases is the weird construction of what the act of reading, and books themselves, can do to a kid.

As a voracious, lifelong reader, I understand that reading can be one of the most powerful and life-changing ways of experiencing the world possible.  

Parents who object to "dark" books also see the act of reading, and texts themselves, as powerful--but they construct that power negatively, casting the act of reading and books themselves as dangerous and potentially corrupting.  Gurdon writes,
It is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. 
There seems to be a logical line here that gets crossed:  is Gurdon suggesting that if a teen girl reads enough novels about eating disorders she will, most likely, develop one?  And what are these "pathologies" she fears might be normalized if kids read about them:  homosexuality? Poverty?  Heaven forfend.

But what intrigues me most about the above quote is how it underscores the fear of books and reading that seems to be at the heart of book challenges:  what is it that these parents fear their children will absorb through the silent, private act of reading? 

One of the things Gurdon herself fears is that kids might acquire (gasp!) bad taste by reading such things:  "Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it," she says, and claims that it is "a dereliction of duty [for parents] not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options."

Let me tell you a story:  One summer when I was in middle school, my parents and I went on a long  road trip to the east coast.  We spent a night at Chautauqua in New York, and before we left the next morning, we browsed around a bookshop and they offered to buy me a book for the the trip.  I chose a book of poems by Rod McKuen.  (Hey, it was the late 1970s.)

My mom, herself an English professor, objected on the basis of taste:  "He's a terrible poet."  My dad, undoubtedly not wanting to start a long day in a small car with a quarrel, but wanting instead to just get on the damn road, intervened, saying, "Let her choose.  If that's what she wants to read, let her read it."  Smugly, I carried Mr. McKuen's book to the cashier.

Of course, my mom was right:  the poems were terrible, even though I didn't recognize that at the time.

And guess what happened as a result of my parents' dereliction of duty?  Dear Reader, I grew up to be an English professor.

Clearly, that book ruined me.  If only she'd snatched that book from my hands and given me a "more desireable option."  Which I probably would have studiously refused to read.  Gurdon clearly has forgotten how unwelcome such lessons in taste are to the average person between the ages of, oh, seven and death.

I also find it odd that there seems to be an arbitrary, unspecified point in one's development when books cease to be "dangerous" or "bad for you."

When is it, exactly, that young people can be trusted to read what they choose to read without potentially being harmed by it?  I remember being utterly freaked out by the scene in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure when the title character arrives home to find that his eldest child has hanged himself and his siblings in a closet "because we were too menny."  I was haunted by World War I for weeks after reading All Quiet on the Western Front.  And there's an explicit image of a donkey repeatedly described in John Irving's The Cider House Rules that no amount of brain bleach will ever eradicate.

All of these I read when I was in college or grad school.  I've read other books in the two decades since that have disturbed me, as well as many that have moved me to tears, made me laugh out loud, pissed me off, or bored me stiff.  Don't good books continue to affect us deeply regardless of our age?  Isn't that why we read in the first place?  Why do we imagine that children and teens, in particular, need to have those potential effects vetted and filtered before they even experience them?

There's also a tremendous hypocrisy in the fact that so many cultural critics these days lament the fact that kids don't read at all, and say that we need to do whatever we can to get kids up to speed as readers, and then turn around to slap certain books out of kids' hands while saying "But not THAT."

Adults who challenge books are more often trying to protect themselves and their ideas about what childhood and adolescence should be than they are trying to protect real children and adolescents.   

So, with apologies to Sherman Alexie, I'll end with an affirmation that I wish such adults would repeat to themselves when they see a kid engrossed in a book:  A child, even the smallest one, is filled with thoughts you can't know.  Instead of balking at such a thought, let's embrace and encourage the complex, private mystery that is reading.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
*Alexie wrote an eloquent and passionate response to Gurdon's article, and he has said elsewhere, in an autobiographical essay titled "Superman and Me," that books saved his life

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Toddling our way back from Columbus yesterday, Rosemary and I stopped in Zanesville to scout out one of the antique malls there, where they have a lot of nice examples of Ohio pottery: Weller, Roseville, Owens, and even some Rookwood. All priced pretty much beyond what we are ready to pay, however.

My big purchase of the day was, instead, a giant pile of used postal cards, around 150 of them, for a grand total of fifteen dollars, plus tax. They make a small archive, really, centered on one John A Mansfield, an attorney from Steubenville, Ohio, and all dating between about 1879 and 1887. For a brief bio (from Googlebooks) see here. A few are from friends or family members, but the majority relate to cases of various sorts; he apparently worked to collect monies owed on various notes, and a lot of the cards involve that kind of work. One is from the Supreme Court of Ohio, indicating a date assigned for oral arguments in Lindsay v. Ohio, for May 5, 1882.

There's a lot of postal history here, and some of these cards probably have a bit of value as collectibles: six or eight have blue or purple postal cancellations, which command a premium: those are probably worth five or ten bucks each.

But it's the contents that I find most fascinating. Some are hard to categorize: one favorite reads "John A Mansfield. Dear Sir we will be at your house on Wednesday of this week. Govern yourself accordingly. Yours, A N Moore." One wonders just what sort of self-governing is in order when faced with a visit from A N Moore.

I have a long standing interest, of course, in the history of handwriting, and part of the attraction of a batch of cards like this is in the variety of scripts they show. But, given how much time I spend buying (and sometimes selling) books, it was a delight to see that one major strand of the correspondence here involved Mansfield's efforts to build up his own law library, including cards from at least seven different booksellers, from places as far separated as Steubenville, Jersey City, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York.

He seems to have frequently asked for catalogues, and to have ordered many books. When Ingham, Clarke, and Co. in Cleveland wrote in 1881 that "We have just now a full set" of Ohio and Ohio State Reports, "20 vols in 19, 26 vols (last 6 vols new) [and] 56 vols in 55 in Excellent condition" they must have very much hoped he would pay their 120 dollar asking price.

But the other side of the book trade is all too evident here, too: in 1886, Robert Clarke & Co., in Cincinnati, write to say "Replying to yours of 31 Dec, regret that we cannot use the odd vols Ohio Laws you wish to sell. There is nothing in your list we have not already on hand and as they are very slow selling we do not care to duplicate stock."

Somehow, I don't think these cards will make it into my own stock: they don't take up much space, and and it would be a shame to split them up.