Thursday, March 27, 2014

Learning for Fun Outside The Classroom

As an information/reference librarian, I appreciate any learning opportunity in areas unfamiliar to me.  MCPL's collection includes lecture recordings on numerous academic topics.  They come in different formats including downloadable ebook options.

The lecturers, in most cases, teach at college and graduate school level and were chosen by good reputation.  MCPL's catalog will lead you to many free lectures in the fields of science, history, fine arts, music, religion & theology, literature, business and many other subjects you might enjoy.

Here are the steps I use to find the lecture collection in MCPL's catalog.

1. Go to New Catalog on the website
2. Click on “Advanced Search” next to the “Search” button in the top right corner.
3. Type one of the two major series names, “Great Courses,” or “Modern Scholar.”
4. Choose format type “sound recording,” “video disc,” or "electronic resources."
5. Add a broad subject term of your interest such as “history,” “science,” “music,” etc.

Introducing a couple of my all-time favorites:

Creating Humans: ethical questions where reproduction and science collide by Alexander McCall Smith

Yep, it is the same Alexander McCall Smith.  Great Courses website introduces him: “Edinburgh professor Alexander McCall Smith delivers a course that discusses the various moral aspects of human reproduction from methods of contraception to methods of ending a pregnancy. He will discuss the moral, cultural, legal, and political influences on reproduction as well as the scientific advances in reproductive technology.”

Robert Greenberg lectures on classic music on various topics and lives of composers.  
I call him the “Click & Clack” of music lecturer.  There were many times I burst out laughing listening his lectures while cooking or driving.  This could be hazardous to your health.

Another option is using MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) offered by various academic institutions.  Please see an earlier blog by my colleague on the subject.

Happy Learning!!


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Nowruz the Persian New Year

Nowruz the Persian New Year

It’s difficult to believe as I’m writing this that spring is here. For many it’s just a marking that warmer weather is on the way, but for the Persian culture it means much more than that: it is their new year, called Nowruz (literally translated as The New Day) and they mark it with many traditions that are celebrated by Iranians and ethnic cultures that were under Persian influence.

Originally begun under the Zoroastrianism religion, it has developed into a secular observance and has become a time for family and friends to gather together and celebrate, no matter where or what country they now live in.  This may have been the origin of spring cleaning as houses are stripped clean for the event before the New Year celebration. Several days before the New Year Chahārshanbe Suri is celebrated when everyone goes outside and lights bonfires.  It is good luck to jump over the fire.  It is a triumph of light over darkness, spring over winter, which is also a Zoroastrian tradition. Check out Fireworks Wednesday.

But the main event is the Haft Sin.  Literally it means 7 items placed on a table that begin with the letter “S” in Farsi. Yes there are more than 7 items listed here but the more the better!
Seeb-apple (the earth)
Sabzeh-wheat (growth)
Samanu-a sweet pudding (wealth)
Senjed-a dried fruit (love)
Seer-garlic (health)
Somaq-dried berries (sunrise)
Serkeh-vinegar (age)
Sonbol-hyacinth (growth and what a wonderful aroma!)
Sekkeh-coins (wealth)
Also included are:
A mirror (the sky)
Painted eggs (fertility)
Goldfish (animals)

And what Persian celebration would be complete without delicious, special foods. It is deemed good luck to eat sabzi polo mahi. This is a fish and rice dish cooked with green herbs symbolizing…what else…the growth associated with spring. And for dessert, baklava and samanu.  On the thirteenth day (the unlucky day) after NowRuz, everyone goes outside for picnics and the custom is to bring your sabzeh (the wheat you've grown) with you and throw it into a running stream to get rid of your bad luck.

So when you meet Iranians in the next few days, you may wish them a Happy New Year or in Farsi “Aideh Shomah Mobarak” or literally Happy Party! And may spring be a happy and prosperous time for all of us and above all green!

For more information about the Persian culture, here is some material you might want to check out:
Persian Mirrors by Elaine Sciolino
One Thousand & One Persian-English Proverbs: Learning Language and Culture through Commonly Used Sayings / compiled & illustrated by Simin K. Habibian.
The  Story of the Revolution (Website) BBC World Service Persian Story of the Revolution
Wonders of Persia = Zībāʼīhā-yi Īrān / written by Nazli Irani Monahan
And search under Iran culture in our catalog  for other material including a large selection of Iranian films Iran films.

lisa n

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Summer on the Brink

One Summer: America, 1927

Please let me know if I mention Bill Bryson too many times in my blogs and articles. I do apologize, but he somehow touches my heart and the heart of America while sharing a more global view. He is often laugh-out-loud funny, yet we can never finish any of his books without learning some very interesting new facts.
His newest book One Summer: America, 1927 takes a rather rambling approach to American history using the cultural icons of the 1920’s. America was on the brink of becoming great. And these heroes (or anti-heroes) formed the basis for that.

Beginning with aviation and Lindbergh, he goes on to baseball and Babe Ruth; technology and  Henry Ford; boxing and Jack Dempsey politics and Calvin Coolidge; the red scare and Sacco and Vanzetti; the eugenics movement and anti-semitisim, anti-Catholicism and of course just plain racism; publishing and Edgar Rice Burroughs; performing arts and the development of moving pictures and Rin Tin Tin, radio and even the invention of television. All of this and more happened in 1927, and Bryson takes it on with his sardonic view of American pop culture.

Did you know that Rin-Tin-Tin was voted best actor in the first Academy Awards in 1927, but the Academy determined that only a human should win? All those classically trained actors that moved to Hollywood for talking films must have been a bit chagrined.

Calvin Coolidge, who was said to be weaned on a pickle, so sour was his countenance, could find solace only while he was fishing in the southwest, dressed in a cowboy suit. When asked, he declined to run again.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan of the Apes, was a man of such libidinous character that he often went off with 3 or 4 partners at once, although married to the same woman for many years.

There are many more of these vignettes that are just as dismaying as they are funny.  But the most interesting as well as upsetting chapter was on the eugenics movement. It still amazes me not only how many ordinary people believed in selective breeding, but how many academics supported it as well. Grants were received from the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. Margaret Sanger, the well-known advocate for birth control, supported it and states began adopting laws outlawing certain groups from intermarriage. Prominent Nazis traveled to the US to study eugenics. It is a fascinating albeit disturbing bit of history.

Bryson was specifically beguiled by Chicago, which, he said was as well known for its lawlessness as Pittsburgh was known for its meatpacking industry. And they embraced that culture. Al Capone was in charge and no one denied it. Everyone it seemed was on his payroll.

But it is Charles Lindbergh that somehow ties this book together. It was his flight that epitomized the twenties and helped change the world of aviation to make it possible for America to become part of the rest of the world. And so Bryson begins and ends with Lindbergh, the hero, the villain, the tragic figure.

If you are interested in this kind of history of popular culture, you may want to read John Dos Passo’s U.S.A., a fictional trilogy, published during the 1930s which covers the first three decades of the 20th Century. Dos Passos inserted several types of “experimental writing” including “Newsreel” which contains news clippings and song lyrics; “Camera Eye” which includes autobiographical vignettes of public figures, and stream of consciousness writing.  I loved this idea of mixing fiction and non-fiction and even wrote an essay on it when I read it in high school. So I guess I will always be attracted to the same kind of subject material, whether I’m 16 or 60.

lisa n.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Found in my Garage: The Lost Age of Letters

Pen and letter

When I moved into my house I stashed a trunk at the back of the garage planning to sort it out later.  Well “later” turned out to be 26 years.  Over time the trunk became covered with the nameless stuff that seems to reproduce in garages.  Unearthing it was like digging through archaeological layers of my own life.  What would I find inside?  The trunk came with me from England back in the day and I used it to store college papers and various mementos, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I would find.  It turned out I did excavate artifacts from a bygone age, the Age of Letter Writing.  Not just my family, but all my friends wrote to each other constantly and I kept all the letters.  Some are long multi-page affairs written even though writer and recipient would be seeing each other again in just a few days.  Some are brief notes conveying information, but even these are written in complete sentences without abbreviations and with a fountain pen!  Email, IM, and Twitter have obliterated the Age of Letters as surely as the Barbarians overwhelmed the Roman Empire.  I felt like a historian going through these letters, but what will the historians of the future do with just Tweets to work with?

Explore history through letters:
Painting - woman writing letter
  • Just how important letters are to historians is shown by Andrew Carroll in Letters of a Nation: a collection of extraordinary American letters.  Organized by period and by theme, these letters by famous, infamous, and ordinary Americans tell the story of the nation as it was experienced, rather than in the words of omnipotent historians.  
  • One of the most notable collections of letters in American history is that of John and Abigail Adams, who give us an eyewitness account of the American Revolution as they lived it.  
  • There has probably been no better illustration of how letters illuminate the past than in Ken Burns’ documentary film on the Civil War.  Seeing images of the letters with their beautiful penmanship and hearing them read aloud makes us realize that ordinary Americans with an ordinary education could write beautiful prose in those days. 
Great writers, of course, were usually also great correspondents, and their letters can give us important insight into their lives and work.  
  • Dickens never wrote an autobiography but the next best thing is Selected Letters of Charles Dickens edited by Jenny Hartley.  
  • The recently published Life in Letters by P. G. Wodehouse is delightful and shows that he had just as appealing a personality as you would expect from the great comic novels. 
  • Others reveal more unpleasant characters in their letters. T. S. Eliot comes to mind; his letters are wickedly satirized in the Guardian’s Digested Read series. 

Painting - Man writing letter
For a history of letter writing, both composition and penmanship, see Script and Scribble: the rise and fall of handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey, and The Missing Ink: the lost art of handwriting by British novelist Philip Hensher. Both lament the passing of an age.  But there are a few voices fighting a rearguard action against the Age of Twitter. If you have an interest in improving your handwriting and learning how to write letters for different occasions check out these resources:

The decline in letter writing is having some unintended consequences apart from reducing our attention span to 140 characters. The profession of Graphologist, or handwriting analyst, is now as much an endangered species as blacksmith or sorcerer once were. If my descendants ever choose to go through the letters now stacked in neat boxes in my closet they may have a difficult time deciphering the handwriting. But they will certainly wonder how we found time to write all those letters. They may not realize it was because we didn’t need to constantly monitor our electronic devices.

Rita T.