This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, January 29, 1997

January 29, 1997- Oprah Winfrey

Let me say at the outset that I have never watched Oprah Winfrey. There’s no particular reason; I’ve never watched any of the daytime talk shows.

But suddenly Oprah Winfrey is making big waves in the world of libraries.

It seems that Ms. Winfrey, an astute and avid reader, has launched a once-a-month “Oprah’s Book Club.” The results are astonishing.

Her most recent show aired on Wednesday, January 22. The book she discussed was “She’s Come Undone,” by Wally Lamb, originally published back in 1992. I understand that the show concluded at 5 p.m.

Fifteen minutes later, Douglas County patrons had placed 23 holds on the two copies owned by the library. As I write this (January 26), there are 51 holds on the two copies.

It is the library’s policy to purchase one copy of a title for every four requests. The idea here is to try to keep the waiting time for a hot title reasonably short.

Unfortunately, “She’s Come Undone” is out of print. That means that the library can’t pick up any more copies.

On the other hand, that might change. Oprah is having a big effect on the lives of authors, the fortunes of publishers, and the availability of good books.

For instance, consider Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” published in 1977. In 1993 it won the Nobel prize. The same year, sales reached 98,500. In the book business, that’s a big success.

But after it was featured on Oprah’s Book Club, the publisher of the book printed another 730,000 copies; Everyman Library (another publisher) is getting another 50,000 copies of a reprint ready. Almost overnight, Morrison’s book joined the ranks of the latest titles by Stephen King, Danielle Steel, and Scott Turow.

Jane Hamilton’s debut novel, “The Book of Ruth,” was published in 1988. It sold about 8,000 copies. Then Oprah put it on her show. Immediately, Doubleday rushed half-a-million copies to the bookstores. Houghton Mifflin is publishing an extra 50,000 in hardcover.

I should say, too, that Oprah also teamed up with the American Library Association to distribute another 10,000 copies to America’s schools and libraries. Librarians notice things like that.

People in both the TV and the publishing business seem taken aback by the phenomenon of Oprah’s Book Club. Publishing consultant Robert Riger said, “No one has ever had this kind of impact on books. The only comparable thing I can think of is when Mao Zedong would say, ‘Let’s go out and do X, Y and Z,’ and all of China would do it. This is another cultural revolution.”

Washington Post editor David Streitfeld remarked that the surge to America’s bookstores and libraries suggests that “it’s possible the widely reported death of reading was due simply to poor marketing.”

As you might expect, publishers are flooding Oprah’s office with books. Thus far, to her credit, she’s completely ignoring them. Oprah picks what Oprah wants.

But what DOES she want? In a Time interview, she said, “I choose these books because they are readable, poignant, thought-provoking. Our audience is predominantly female; all three books I’ve picked are strong stories with strong women.”

Speaking of strong women, it’s clear Oprah Winfrey is now one of our country’s most powerful forces in the arenas of book publishing and library purchasing.

How does that sit with me? If more people will be reading good books, then Oprah just got herself a new fan.

(But do be patient with us as we scramble for extra copies, OK?)

Wednesday, January 22, 1997

January 22, 1997 - Martin Luther King, Jr

Lately I’ve been reading “The Fourth Turning,” by William Strauss and Neil Howe.

I’ve written here before about their earlier book, “Generations.” “The Fourth Turning” hits most of the same themes: four basic generational types cycle through an arc of institution-building, followed by a profound challenge to cultural values, followed by an eventual renewal of those institutions based on new values.

According to Strauss and Howe, America is now in a period of cultural “unraveling.” There is in fact much good news to be found: violent crime is decreasing, the divorce rate is declining, the rate of abortions is down, substance abuse is dropping, academic scores are rising.

But to hear the politicians and pundits talk, we are nonetheless a culture in crisis. The sense of community, of common cause, seems ever farther away.

Meanwhile there are other trends: increasing political isolationism, a tightening on immigration, some disturbing reminders -- such as the upheavals in Miami in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1992 -- of the potential for widespread racial violence.

Ironically, when last America did seem united -- the unparalleled days of economic growth following our World War II triumph -- there was a different complaint. It was the era of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” of soul-less conformity to a culture many found suffocating and sterile.

And of course, there was a profound racism of a different sort than today’s.

In the midst of what Strauss and Howe call the “Consciousness Revolution” of the 1960’s, came Martin Luther King, Jr. A thoughtful student of Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi’s “civil disobedience,” he succeeded in effectively dramatizing the second-class status of African-Americans. Through peaceful “sit-ins,” highly publicized group walks, and his own remarkable eloquence, he held a mirror to the face of white America.

In the evening news, white Americans saw black Americans sprayed with fire hoses and beaten by police -- non-violence met with the most brutal physical retaliation. The powerful idea of principled, non-violent resistance seared the national consciousness, kicking off a wave of attempts to make real what King spoke about at Civil rights march on Washington. He said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed that ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’”

King was the first black man to be chosen by Time magazine as “Man of the Year.” Later that same year (1964), he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Four years later, he was assassinated. In 1983, his birthday was declared a federal holiday.

This past weekend, a local Bahai group (themselves frequent targets of prejudice and violence around the world) teamed up with local citizens, the Douglas County School District’s Multicultural Alliance, the Douglas Public Library District, and others, to honor Dr. King with a Unity Walk in Highlands Ranch.
Perhaps, in this time of our cultural “unraveling,” it’s worthwhile to remember that there is always a time for people who are out-of-step with their culture. From their persistence may yet come a whole American tapestry.

Wednesday, January 15, 1997

January 15, 1997 - Bean Soup

I don’t know if it’s the weather, or that it’s January and so the new year. But about every twelve months I get a strong urge to cook up a batch of bean soup. And when I get the urge, I call my dad for the recipe.

It’s not that I can’t, or haven’t, written it down. But somehow the phone call is one of the ingredients that makes for good soup. “About half an hour before it’s done,” my dad says, “add about half a cup of ketchup.”

“Ketchup!” I always say, wondering. “Why ketchup?”

“For color,” he says.

It’s a remarkably simple recipe: a ham hock (or something like it), a pound of Northern beans, a chopped onion, a hard sprinkle or six of garlic salt, some pepper, a tablespoon of dried mustard, and enough water to cover it all by at least an inch. Bring it to a boil, then cover and simmer it forever. A good bean soup takes at least a Saturday or Sunday, a good six hours of heavenly percolation. And don’t forget the ketchup.

There’s a little more to it. You should look in on it every couple of hours, and for the first part of the day, you can add a touch more water. But after about four hours, the soup begins to get serious, and you dasn’t dilute it.

As I was chopping up the onion, gathering spices, and talking to my dad this last time, he admitted that he didn’t have a library card. Naturally, I gave him a hard time about it.

He tried to defend himself by saying that he reads regularly to Nathalie, my 1 and a 1/2 year old niece and his youngest grandchild. Oh yes, dad said, every time he goes over there, Nathalie waddles up with a new book and says “read me!” He wondered where all those books came from.

It happens that I know. Before Nathalie was born, I put some pressure on her mother, Katy. “Let me tell you about one of the best, most enjoyable baby-sitting techniques in the world,” I told her.

“First, you get a library card. Then, you take your daughter to the library, at least once a week. Be careful to read one or two books to her while you’re there. That helps her learn what kinds of books she likes best. It also makes her feel comfortable.”

Katy looked a little dubious, but I kept hammering. “There’s a right way to teach your children how to be read to. You have to put them in your lap. They can feel with their whole body that you start reading on the left, and move to the right. When they sit in your lap they feel safe, and focused. You don’t come between them and the book.

“You’ll be amazed,” I said, “how fast kids pick up vocabulary this way. You’ll also be grateful for how well it works to calm a child down.

“Trust me,” I said.

Well, she did. And it paid off. Little Nathalie is bright, articulate, a good baby who is known to her local librarians.

Soups feed the body, books feed the soul, and there’s more than one kind of family recipe.

Wednesday, January 8, 1997

January 8, 1997 - Grendel

A couple weeks back I picked up the December 28, 1996, Denver Post and read about the vicious beating of a woman in Grand Junction, the murder of a 6 year old girl in Boulder, and the state-sponsored slaughter of half a million people in Rwanda.

In the same issue I read that “Dougco wants driven students” -- an announcement about the Douglas County School District’s new International Baccalaureate program.

Saturday, December 28, 1996 wasn’t an especially unusual day for news. Pick up any newspaper, any day of the week, and you’ll find (among other things) ample evidence of human cruelty. It’s news -- but there’s nothing new about it.

So I find something ironic in the recent local concern about John Gardner’s “Grendel,” a retelling, from the monster’s point of view, of what may be the oldest example of English literature: “Beowulf.” The concern, as I understand it, is that some parents object to the violence in the story. Further, they have requested a labeling system for potentially disturbing literature in high school classes.

At the time it was written, “Beowulf” was a heroic tale told in installments, something like today’s movie trilogy “Star Wars.” And like all heroic tales, “Beowulf” dealt with basic human themes: sudden violence and gruesome death, to be sure, but also courage, strength, and loyalty.

The story has endured some 1200 years now, endurance being the only real test of a classic. But “Beowulf” isn’t easy going for modern audiences. That’s one of the reasons Gardner -- once a professor of medieval literature at the University of Southern Illinois -- wrote “Grendel.” It provides a doorway to a classic.

In the process, “Grendel” has become something of a classic itself. Most books fade pretty quickly, sometimes from one week to the next. But Gardner’s book, published in 1971, has been around, still generating thoughtful discussion, for 26 years.

Like titles from Dostoyevski’s “Crime and Punishment” to Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” “Grendel” looks at the psychology of evil from the inside.

But what distinguishes “Grendel” isn’t just the fact that it features -- like the daily newspaper -- acts of violence. Gardner (author of another book called “On Moral Fiction”) seeks to place that violence in a larger context, to explore the meaning of evil.

I respect parents concerned enough about what their children read and their schools teach to want to go public with their complaints. And there are certainly books that offend ME.

But we must remember that what some readers find “offensive” makes a poor standard for either the exclusion or the labeling of literature. “Romeo and Juliet,” to some, promotes parental disrespect, glorifies gangs, and advocates teen sexual relations. But is that Shakespeare’s real message? Almost every year, people try to get “Huckleberry Finn” removed from public schools because they find the word “nigger” demeaning to African-Americans. Is that the important point about Twain’s book?

As library director, I have received parental complaints about several Grimm Brothers fairy tales, from parents who find these stories TOO grim to be permitted on library shelves. There are parents who want gentler wolves, who want portrayals of life that are unremittingly sunny. For the sake of the children, they want dreams without nightmares. As a father myself, I understand. But that’s not literature. That’s Sesame Street. There’s a difference.

I would argue that the great value of a high school English class is precisely the fact that it exposes young people to the full range of adult literature, which by necessity includes much that is harsh and difficult, and gives them the opportunity to make sense of it. Grown-ups do have nightmares.

We don’t apply Hollywood-style ratings to newspapers. We shouldn’t apply them to classics, either. (Hollywood, remember, gave us the version of Scarlet Letter with a happy ending. Hawthorne’s book is a classic. The movie is not.)

Labeling the classics -- predicated on the incidence of sex and/or violence -- ultimately focuses on irrelevancies. It obscures the real value or message of a particular book, burying it in the prejudice and timidity of the hour.

If indeed the Douglas County School Board wants students who are “driven” to excel academically, let us hope it will encourage a broader exposure to the universe of classic literature, not a narrower, more politically correct one.

Wednesday, January 1, 1997

January 1, 1997 - New Year!

On Christmas Day, at 2 o'clock in the morning, my 9-year-old daughter woke me up to say "Merry Christmas!" I had at that point been in bed for a solid, restful stretch of almost 45 minutes. But with true Christmas spirit, I responded, "Go back to sleep!"

Maddy vibrated with anticipation for another four hours. (We could feel her bed shake through the floor boards.) Eventually, she did get us all assembled before the glittering tree with its mounds of gifts.

Then came another great moment. I pointed out a present for Perry, our 2-1/2 year-old. "For me?" he asked. "From Santa," I told him. Together, we plucked off the bow, and peeled back all the wrapping paper.

In a voice of total rapture and awe, he said, "It's a BOX!"

I've been bemused ever since. My children defined for me the two characteristics of all that's best about childhood: "eagerness" and "wonder."

When was the last time you got so excited by something that you couldn't wait till morning? When was the last time you looked at something ordinary and found it miraculous?

Wouldn't both of those attitudes be just the right way to start a New Year?

As far as the library is concerned, there is certainly a lot for ME to look forward to. For instance:

* New technology. In addition to what we've set aside from our 1997 budget to purchase new computer equipment, I've also been working on three different grants for technology.

The first grant -- the biggest -- is with the Douglas County School District. (District staff, particularly Gary Murphy and Barb Kimball, have done most of the work. And very good work it is, too.) If successful, this will link all Douglas County schools, public libraries, senior centers, and the CSU Extension office to a single, high speed network: DCEdNet. The network would provide access to a "virtual library," as well as the Internet, and a wealth of locally developed information. It's an exciting prospect.

My second grant teams up the Douglas Public Library District with the Colorado Historical Society. It would enable us to provide topnotch educational content to the school district -- and indeed, the whole state -- through a World Wide Web server, maintained by the public library.

My third grant I just got the check for: it pays to install something I call a LUI (pronounced "looey") -- a "Library Universal Interface." The LUI, like the Graphic User Interface (pronounced "gooey") that sits on most of today's desktop computers, will help to make library computer catalogs easier to use. More on this in weeks to come.

* New reference services. In 1997, we will be establishing new collections and staff at each of our libraries. We think better reference services -- the answering of questions, the identification of a broader range of information resources -- is emerging as a strong public expectation of our growing system. In 1997, we'll begin to make some real progress here.

* New buildings. Thanks to the support of Douglas County voters, 1997 will see the beginning of plans for some expanded library buildings. First up: Oakes Mill, in Lone Tree. New (or renovated) buildings are always fun, giving the community a chance to help create the "Great Good Place."

* New materials. With more space comes more materials. And here I feel just like my son: it's a BOOK! There could be ANYTHING in there.

In addition to the above, there will be the continuing surprises, challenges, and occasional moments of pure delight that attend public service.

May your year be as richly promising as 1997 looks to be for us.