Avoiding the “Toxic Middle”

I read an article today about librarians (and I’m sure this is not unique to our profession) who are the jaded voice of been-there, done-that pessimism and anti-innovation.  The Toxic Middle by Joseph Janes, a Library Science professor, was an interesting one for me.  I have certainly come up against these “wet blanket” librarians in my short tenure in the profession, and I’d like to think that most of them really truly meant well when they brought their cynical and jaded opinions to the table.  I went to a workshop at the ALA Conference that put a snappy acronym to something that I’ve been working hard to embrace – QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally.  When I meet “wet blankets,” I try to just hear the useful advice buried within their crabby comments, and not take the idea heckling personally.

What got me thinking when I read this article though, is that we all do this.  Here’s the thing: it’s hard to know when your past experience is relevant and useful, and when it’s just coloring your perception to the point that you don’t see possibilities and opportunities.  Sometimes what you know about a situation, a patron, a plan of action is really useful – the way things have been done in the past might really smooth the future path, might help you be more empathetic and accepting of a person’s behavior, or might help you avoid pitfalls, time sucks, and wasted energy.  Sometimes though, the information you have in your head about how it went down last time might stop you from seeing possibilities.  At what point does the past experience you bring to the table shift from being valuable to being a liability?  There isn’t a clear line there, and it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed it.

I don’t think this cautionary tale should be aimed solely at older, established librarians – it’s really just a good reminder to all of us that regardless of where we are in our career, we are all bringing something valuable to the table.  I have been lucky enough to be mentored by some truly inspiring librarians, and I hope to be able to pay that forward at some point in my career.  I’ve also been very lucky to be taken seriously, listened to, and supported quite actively by those around me.  I really can’t complain about toxic middle layers in my personal experience, but it’s worth a reminder that I don’t want to find myself in the position of knocking someone’s experience or ideas just because something in my past experience sours my perception.

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Upcoming Reading List

I feel like I take as much pleasure in the anticipation of reading as I do in the finishing of books – which is a good thing because I start more books than I finish, and I bring home more books than I start.  I bring home an awful lot of books.

I’m still reading Inferno, and still feeling more or less the same about it.  However, I’m almost done, and I have some contenders for the sweet spot on my nightstand.

The frontrunner is a fairly new book by a fairly young author: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon.  I read a really great review of the book at some point in the last two months, and promptly misplaced the review.  I don’t want to read too much else about it for fear of changing my mind about reading it, so I think I’m going to just dive right in.  It’s outside of my usual genre, so I’m just going to go for it.

Because I can never be reading just one book (I try and keep it to under 5 – but I’m not big on rules, and I break that one all the time), and I like to simultaneously read both fiction and nonfiction, I just picked up Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton.  People whose taste I admire love Alain de Botton, and I confess to having checked out more books of his than I’ve finished.  The bigger life questions have been at the forefront of my mind these last few months, so this title jumped out at me this morning and I’m going to give it a try.  I don’t read enough essays (unless you count humorous or parenting essays, which seem to be all I read lately).  So, this is my educational/intellectual reading for the month.

I’m also bringing home This I Believe: On Motherhood.  I am working up to gathering my thoughts on being a mother.  It is my favorite thing that I’ve done with my life, a huge challenge, and something that I rarely feel up to.  I love reading about parenting, and mothering, and all the paradoxes that we all feel, but which are very hard to talk about.  It is lovely to read sentiments which I feel but bungle when I try to express them.

What are you reading?  What should I add to my list?

Battling Inertia

I bared my soul about writing just the other day.  Writing is something that I’m trying to build back into my life, for many many reasons, but it’s feeling very hard.  I sit down here, and think “What do I have to say today? Nothing.”  I feel the same blankness that I feel when someone first asks me for a good book recommendation – as though I’ve never read a good book in my life.  But because I get asked all the time for book recommendations, I’ve learned to push past that blank brain and start making connections between the person in front of me and our collection.

I recently read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which was absolutely fascinating, and a must-read if you like having interesting things to tell people that take 10 seconds or less to explain.  One of the (many many many) things that surprised me is that food diaries work in part because they change a habit.  They make a critical change that creates room for new habits, and it’s not necessarily even about not wanting to eat something because you’ll have to write it down and admit to eating it.  It’s about creating a new habit, which creates room for more new habits.  Sometimes the habit change process needs to be sneaky, rather than obvious.

So I’m posting here every day, and it’s a little like that food diary.  What I’m putting in this space is less relevant than that I’m putting that space in my day for writing.  Making room for a new habit that I’d like to stick.  How do you change habits, get out of ruts, and make time in your day for the things that really matter?

Perkus Tooth

I am nearly finished reading The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith.  It’s an interesting collection of short stories by a variety of contemporary and well-known authors, each story a character sketch, a glimpse into someone else’s life.  I’ve mostly enjoyed it, and it’s been a good introduction for me to a few authors I’d heard of but not read.  One such author, Jonathan Lethem, is someone I’ve heard of repeatedly (I think he writes similarly to other authors that I enjoy?  Perhaps he’s been recommended to me?  Perhaps I’ve just seen his name on the bestseller list?), and his story Perkus Tooth is near the end of this collection.  This story and its characters are haunting me, and I will have to pick up one of Jonathan Lethem’s novels soon.  I just read his Wikipedia page to find out more about him, and learned that he lives in Berwick, Maine, just one town over from where I grew up.  Neat!  I love local celebrities even more than national ones.  Sometime I’ll dig up the photo I sneakily had taken with Rob Caldwell at a party.  Possibly the highlight of that year.

A Mystery

People have lots of different reactions to stress.  When I’m stressed, I generally check out socially.  I don’t pick up the phone, I don’t write emails or letters, and apparently I don’t blog.  Don’t ask me what I’ve been stressed about – I haven’t been able to pin it down.

I have been reading, and I read ALL 6 of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books within a month.  I really enjoyed reading all of them!  It was kind of like watching an entire run of TV on DVD – I didn’t have time to forget details, and I got the whole story at once.  Only problem – it would be hard to review any one book now because the stories all run together.  I have to say All Mortal Flesh was my favorite, and A Fountain Filled With Blood my least favorite.  Will I read another if she puts it out?  I’m not sure – I Shall Not Want, the most recent book, has a pretty happy ending.  I’m not so into happy endings, and I don’t know if I want to keep reading if the main characters have a regular relationship.  Our book group was actually going to have J S-F visit and speak about her books, but it was postponed due to widespread power outages, then cancelled due to snow.  I had a question to throw out for discussion: Why do most people not consider mysteries to be literary?  The genre seems to be written off by many, as in “I liked the book but I’m not going to call it good literature,” or “I want something light…how about a mystery?”  I’m not saying all mysteries are well-crafted works that will live on in history, but I would say these mysteries were at least as well-written as much of the new fiction we have on our shelves at the library.  Hopefully, we will be able to have Julia speak at the library at some point, because I would LOVE to meet her.

In beer news, Novare Res is celebrating strong beers right now.  Jim and I met Robin and Jeff there last night, and the selection right now is truly wonderful.  The only problem is that we no longer live within walking distance, so we have to exercise restraint and caution in our consumption.  We are solving this problem by going more often!  We should be camped out Sunday afternoon, should anyone want to join us.

I have also been knitting like crazy.  I just finished a HUGE shawl that I started in August of 2007.  Or was it 2006?  The yarn is a nice rustic one-ply I purchased in Canada from Cottage Craft Fine Woolens, and it made a wonderful springy Feather and Fan Triangle Shawl (Ravelry Link).  I’ll block it tomorrow (hopefully) and take some photos.  I was inspired to pick it back up by a similar shawl being worked on over at Mason-Dixon Knitting, and an urge to finish some languishing projects.  I’d like to finish a few things before starting a number of new projects that I picked up yarn or patterns for at SPA a few weeks ago.  We’ll see how long that pragmatic side of me lasts.

Bleak Midwinter

I’m currently reading In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming, a pretty local author.  It’s the first in a series of mysteries, and I don’t usually read mysteries.  I love this book!  I started it yesterday evening, and I’m almost done.  I checked out the second book in the series, so I can prolong my experience.  This book has been recommended to me by a handful of people, and every time someone described the plot to me, it didn’t sound like something I’d like.  So I’m not going to describe the plot here at all.  Also, the title sounds a bit…bleak.

We’ve all be challenged at the library to read outside of our usual comfort zone.  I had a hard time describing what I usually read, and finally settled on a term that is probably accurate but sounds pretentious – literary fiction.  My favorite authors are all described in Novelist or Wikipedia as literary fiction, so I just went with it.   A quick story about what I like to read – a woman asked me for a book recommendation the other day.  She wanted something light and fun to take on vacation, and it had been awhile since she’d read anything, so she wanted something good.  I wavered, and since I didn’t have any other authors to go on, I was thinking about what is popular here, and what might be good, and drawing a blank.  She asked me what I like to read, and whether I’d read any great books lately.  I had to admit that what I like to read is generally the opposite of light and fun.  I like dark or challenging books that make me think differently.  I like books to push me a little, and make me see things from a different perspective.  If I want something light, or something distracting, I watch a movie or knit.  I’m too slow of a reader for light reading.  Having said that, some of my favorite books that I’ve read recently have been light – Twilight comes to mind.  So I had to call on someone else to help her find a book, and I felt like a bad librarian.  To my credit, she was in an awful hurry and didn’t want to wait for me to cough up some decent light authors, but all the same, if I can’t recommend good books to people, I’m not doing my job.  So when I decided to read In the Bleak Midwinter, it was for two reasons – it’s our library book group selection for February, and it falls outside the genre I usually read, so it counts for our work challenge.  And it’s opened my eyes to a new genre, which is awesome.  Hopefully, the more excursions I make from my genre, the better I will be at matching books to people.

In other news, Jim and I were watching Futurama last night.  I love that show.  The opening sequences are just so funny.  As are the rest of the episodes.