Wednesday, January 22, 2020

125 New York Library Years--and the Books Checked Out the Most

Children in the Bronx visit a New York Public Library bookmobile in the 1950s.
The New York Public Library

The New York Public Library is celebrating its 125th anniversary. The library system has 92 locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. As part of its celebration, it recently announced the top 10 all-time books with the highest circulation. The story about which books have been checked out most is not as straightforward as it might seem.

First of all, most of the top ten are children's books because they are shorter and are checked out more frequently (and finished more quickly). The number one book checked out in the library's history is The Snowy Day, a children's book written by Ezra Jack Keats. A 1963 Caldecott Award recipient, it has been checked out 485,583 times. A Wall Street Journal article mentions that the book has remarkable diversity, having a main character that is black and a longevity that has spanned generations.

As an aside, Margaret Wise Brown's children's book Goodnight Moon was not on the list. Here's why, according to a National Public Radio story.
"The library also awarded an 'honorable mention' to Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. That book might have been a contender for the all-time top spot, but NYPL children's librarian Anne Carroll Moore so disliked the 1947 book that the library didn't carry it until 1972. That late entry kept the book off the top 10 list — for now."
 Two dystopian novels are on the list, Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The only non-fiction book on the list was Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.

First edition cover
One of the greatest novels I've ever read is on the list: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. There aren't many recent works on the list because time in circulation is a significant factor. However, R.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made number 9 on the list.

It would be interesting to find out more history about the NYPL's books and this list. For instance, was Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ever banned by the library, and for how long? This is a novel that has alway been controversial, one that I taught as a classroom teacher, and even wrote an essay about: "Is Huck Finn an Archetypal Hero?" I think it would also be interesting for the library to issue a list of the top 10 novels, if possible.

The Snowy Day was the first picture book with an African American protagonist to win a major children’s award.
[Martin, Michelle H. (2004). Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children's Picture Books, 1845-2002.]

Here is the list of the top 10 books checked out in the history of the New York Public Library.
  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: 485,583 checkouts
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss: 469,650 checkouts
  3. 1984 by George Orwell: 441,770 checkouts
  4. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 436,016 checkouts
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 422,912 checkouts
  6. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White: 337,948 checkouts
  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 316,404 checkouts
  8. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: 284,524 checkouts
  9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: 231,022 checkouts
  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle: 189,550 checkouts
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Saturday, January 11, 2020

"A Discovery of Witches," "Shadow of Night," and "The Book of Life": A Review of Deborah Harkness's Trilogy

Goodreads, Discovery of Witches
What if our world were composed not just of ordinary humans but also vampires, witches, and daemons? And what if these additions to the human world were developed not as fantastic creatures but as other alternatives to evolution, such as the neanderthals, but with still paranormal abilities?

Deborah Harkness entered into the gothic realm of the supernatural novel about six years after young adult author Stephenie Meyer splashed into our awareness with her novel Twilight. It would not be inappropriate to mention similarities: handsome vampire, Romeo/Juliet romance, and if not sparkle, then at least a bit of glimmer. However, Harkness plants her feet more firmly in science and the adult world. The female protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a scholar albeit a witch who has renounced her abilities. Vampire Matthew Clairmont is a doctor and researcher who is pulled into the world of "creature" politics by Bishop's inadvertent discovery of a historically potent book of spells and knowledge, the Book of Life, also catalogued in an Oxford antiquities library as Ashmole 782.

Author Deborah Harkness is a scholar and professor of history, and even though her trilogy surfs the vampire fad of the early 2000s, she adds historical credibility and detail to the romance and bloody bosom-bearing passages. I checked the trilogy out of my local public library, and at about 1,600 pages of reading, I have to honestly say that if the narrative did not drag, it did at times bog down in excessive minutiae of plot, perhaps a scholar's fascination for reconstructing history? The overall arc of the plot, though, which is both globe-spanning and time-spanning, does introduce a fascinating variety of settings and characters. Sir Walter Raleigh, anyone?

One powerful tool Harkness uses in her trilogy is science. The vampires and the witch tradition have existed long enough in the series to allow for a lively interaction between the advancement of scientific knowledge and the hidden existence of the magical "creatures." How do they exist, and why? What is their place in the world in relation to plain old humanity? The interplay between ancient lore and modern science promotes quite a bit of the novel's drive.

Another strength of the trilogy--and I have to say that I admire Harkness for this skill--is the author's ability to create and develop a wide range of interesting and unique minor characters. Sometimes the main characters become foils to highlight the fascinating personalities of the minor characters. Some of these characters are historical and some are creations of the author. I found them all enjoyable and couldn't get enough of them, especially since these minor characters not only became themselves on the page but also came to define through example the characteristics of vampire, daemon, witch, and human. And, yes, some of the most dynamic minor characters were human.

Finally, this series would be just another foray into the twilight without the underlying thread of discrimination, persecution, and intolerance that laces the story together. Humanity is a study of these cruelties, and the novels intelligently weave man's inhumanities along with devoted love and objective science to create a perspective, I think, that transcends the genre. Deborah Harkness has added another novel to the trilogy--Time's Convert, which continues the saga, continuing to utilize the organizational structure of combining present action with the characters' past actions. I plan to give the series a bit of a rest, and then I'll pick up the fourth book and give it a go.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

"Red Sister," "Grey Sister," and "Holy Sister": A Review of Mark Lawrence's Fantasy "Book of the Ancestor" Trilogy

That sharp edge of the blade where fantasy and science fiction meet is a precarious perspective for a writer of speculative fiction to adopt. Anne McCaffrey did so with her Pern series, C.J. Cherryh did so with her Morgaine saga, and Lawrence has done so with his Book of the Ancestor trilogy: Red Sister, Grey Sister, and Holy Sister. That's distinguished company for Lawrence to rub elbows with, but this trilogy earns him the privilege.

The science fictional premise is that a star-faring race colonizes the planet Abeth. Its sun dying, the original colonists (the ancestors) set up a means of keeping a thin strip of the planet around the equator unfrozen so that their descendents can survive. These colonists consist of four races, each with unique abilities, some physical and some mental, and at the time of the trilogy's action, these races are mixed to varying degrees among the surviving population. 

Enter Nona, a child of eight years, whose powers unfold as the storyline progresses through the three books. She is adopted by the nuns of Sweet Mercy, where the lowest order of the nuns is the most physical--kickass nuns. Environmental and political crises unfold, Nona grows and evolves over the next decade, and readers are swept into the intrigue and magic Lawrence's universe.

Abeth is cold, but do not think of soft, pristine snow. Think of cold, cold winds, encroaching glaciers scouring the land. Think of dirty snow, rotten snow, winter noir, and the tone of the novels, which colors Nona struggles to survive in a harsh world. And then there are the ruins of the Lost Ones, ancient aliens and their mysterious artifacts. 

The characters seek to walk the Path in order to control the basic power of the universe. They seek to pull the Threads of reality to activate the laws of nature. They seek to manipulate how others perceive reality in order to control the actions of individuals and armies. Lawrence convincingly describes battle with swords, martial arts, and mind-bending powers. And Nona and her Sisters are central to the action of saving the world by saving themselves. 

Lawrence's universe is believable, and his focus on action and the evolution of Nona provides all the suspense and conflict--and revelation and achievement--that one can ask for. I end this review by passing on words of wisdom from the good Sisters: "It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent, Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men."

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Most Viewed Posts for My Blog over 10.5 Years? I'm Curious!

You have to remember that I'm just a small-time blog, one writer who for years has written for love and pleasure. There were even long stretches of time when I didn't write, not when I stopped enjoying writing but when life interfered, I guess you could say. This blog has been online for almost ten and a half years, its articles having been viewed almost 330,000 times, with almost six hundred posts.

Starting as a writing blog to feature my published work, Tom Kepler Writing quickly expanded its content to include all of my life--mirroring my writing since I tend to write about whatever is happening in my life. This lack of focus has probably diminished the marketing of my published work but has increased my understanding of my life and what I'm about as a human being. Not a bad trade-off!

As a comparison of numbers, my camping blog Green Goddess Glamping has been online for about one and a half years. It's page views as of now are 74,140. Like this blog, I am the sole writer, having written 108 original posts about camping. With my blogging experience, though, I've been more deliberate and effective in my marketing. Comparing the current blogs, in  ten and a half  years, my total page views for Green Goddess Glamping would be around 519,000. I believe the page views will be much higher, though. The camping blog has been active one seventh of the time that this blog has.

The interesting point of analysis is that even though I haven't written as regularly over time on this blog, and even though I've marketed this blog less intensely over the years, it's monthly page views are still fairly comparable to the camping blog. Why? What I've seen is that the weekly and monthly page views totals for the Green Goddess Glamping blog accumulate from just a few popular articles posted during that time. For Tom Kepler Writing, this blog, there is a steady and strong viewing of articles over many years because of viewer searches that have located older yet still interesting articles. Keeping that in mind, then over the years the camping blog will also amass a range of articles that attract readers who are searching particular camping topics. Interesting!

10 Highest Viewed Articles from This Blog, Tom Kepler Writing

Of the ten highest viewed articles, the highest was a techie article on a Facebook "Like" button. Two articles were about publishing, one article was about a movie, and half of the articles were book reviews. The book reviews were about books that can be called "popular and literary" classics. The most-viewed articles present an interesting range, both from topic and time perspectives! More specifics below.

  1. New Facebook "Like" Button Added to This Blog: With the highest number of page views (11,200), this post is short, just telling where to get html to post a "Like" button on a blog page. Funnily enough, I don't even know if the August 2012 information is still current. The post was heavily view for about six months and then dropped off to essentially nothing.
  2. Backlists, Self-publishing, Breakout Novels, and "The Dream": With about half the page views of the #1 post (5,520), this article was publishing in May of 2011. It had moderate page views for around two years and then had, for some reason, a great year in 2014, then settled down to a trickle or nil. It interesting aspect of this article is that it discusses backlists as a powerful business strategy for mid-level authors whose earlier novels are out of print. E-books are a way for the authors to re-invigorate their backlists. For this blog, it's my "backlist" of articles that are generating page views in numbers that are similar to my newer blog numbers, around 3-5 thousand page views per month. I think whether a mid-level author or lone blogger, having one's backlist of writing still being discovered and read is a compliment to the power and authenticity of one's writing. Folks are still reading the older stuff. Big Smile!
  3. A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, by John Muir--a book review: I love to read John Muir--a lot--so I guess my enthusiasm is catching. Posted in June of 2011, this article received its largest number of page views through 2015 and now has tapered off to noticeable yet fewer amounts, yet is still regularly viewed (5,350). Muir chronicles a naturalist's hike, soon after the Civil War, from the upper Midwest down to the Gulf--on a trek and ship voyage that eventually leads to Yosemite. I've reviewed about four or five pieces of Muir' writing, so if you search this blog, you'll find several enthusiastic accounts.  (This link might work: Muir.)
  4. Is Huck Finn an Archetypal Hero?: Published in January of 2012, this article's title delivers the content focus. The page views (3,130) have remained consistent over all the years to the present. I think this article is discovered by students who are reading the novel. I probably wrote it while teaching the novel. The hero's journey coupled with Twain's realism--and a novel that is still consistently banned--Huck's adventure is quite a read. It's also interesting from the perspective that Twain spent the Civil War years out West after quitting (if not deserting) the Confederate army.
  5. Apocalyptic Jack London--The Scarlet Plague, a review: A lot of readers don't know that Jack London, a self-educated man, was a serious socialist at a time when the common worker needed protection from the titans of industry. What made London great, though, was his love for the story he was writing, which he passes on to the reader. With a good number of readers (2,340), this review, published in October 2011, experienced three years of higher views and has now dropped to low but steady viewing. 
  6. Traditional Publishers Adopt Self-publishing: This short article is about how traditional publishers began jumping on the self-publishing wave by establishing self-publishing branches of their businesses, allowing (for a price) the authors to publish using the publishing house imprimatur (a self-publishing branch version). For writers seeking publication, the article highlighted a trend developing in the industry at that time. Posted in December of 2009, the views have settled down with the settling or congealing of self-publishing avenues (3.430).
  7. Ironman 2--the backstory revealed by a Marvel Comics aficionado: In May of 2010 I was inspired to write about a superhero movie. Why not? Views (2,830) were mostly for the first couple of years but have continued. Basically, after watching the movie I had some WTF questions, which a guy I know, an Ironman fan, was gracious enough to answer. He begins his responses with the following sentence: "Obviously, you were not a big Marvel Comics reader when you were younger." A fun interaction! 
  8. The Old Man and the Sea--Maharishi School Student "Book Report" Reactions: As a teacher reading this novel with the class, I allowed students a variety of ways to respond to their reading experience. Their contributions? A "prequel," an "obituary," and a more traditional analysis of Hemingway's novel. I think providing students with a variety of ways to respond to the novel was something good I did as a teacher. This article was posted in February 2012 with its strongest views in the first three years of posting (1,620). 
  9. Zane Grey--my love/hate relationship with his writing: Zane Grey's writing reflects both beautiful descriptions of nature, romanticism, and racial and ethnic bigotry--pretty much the norm for his time. This article was my way of personally processing those extremes. Posted December 2010 (1,730).
  10. Hanging Clothes by Moonlight: Unique among the top ten most-viewed articles, this is a personal narrative essay. "I think hanging clothes to dry after washing is probably the cheapest way possible to save money and to help the environment."  Nice to see that one of my more creative pieces made the top ten. Posted November 2012 (1,220).
As a note, there is some irregularity with the total number of viewers for the articles. Blogger Analysis provided two counts, which weren't the same. I just chose one for the totals.

Just looking at these numbers and dates of publication, I have to say that probably some of the reviews of classic books and their number of page views corresponds with the time I was teaching and had attracted a number of parents, students, and school-related readers. Perhaps I don't have them now, but the backlist still regularly generates some readers. 

My lesson from this analysis is that the key to a successful blog is quality writing. If writing can create interest and joy, if it can stimulate both the intellect and the emotions, then I think interest in that writing will endure. I hope you check out some of these articles. It's fulfilling to know my writing from years past can still provide a good read. 

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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

John Muir Goes A-Campin' at Hetch Hetchy

The Hetch-Hetchy Valley, California, 1870s, oil on canvas by German-American artist Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), currently at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I'm really enjoying my $1.99 ebook, John Muir's Ultimate Collection, having recently read the essay "The Hetch Hetchy Valley." This essay chronicles his camping trip into the Hetch Hetchy in 1873, before the fight to keep the Sierra Nevada valley that is near Yosemite from being dammed and flooded for water for the San Francisco area. Muir later rewrote this essay as a plea to not destroy the valley, but the original version I read is more the early writing style of Muir: innocence, wonder, and reverence. (This original essay online here.)

Muir, circa 1860 (PBS)
Muir decides to visit Hetch Hetchy during the first week of November, so there is some danger of snow. This, of course, is before satellite weather forecasting, so in his usual inimitable manner, Muir takes three loaves of bread for his food--one for the trip up, one for the trip back, and one for emergencies. He also has his blanket and a nice cup for his "complementary coffee"--Muir, the glamper! "Thus grandly allowanced, I was ready to enjoy my ten days' journey of any kind of calm or storm." 

He decides to leave the trail and follow some grizzlies to achieve a short-cut in his route, which includes some adventure through the rough country. He's careful, of course, since he doesn't want to startle the bear on a narrow canyon path only wide enough enough for one! "At first I took [the path] to be an Indian trail, but after following it a short distance, I discovered certain hieroglyphics which suggested the possibility of its belonging to the bears," a mother and her cubs. Since the essay was written, readers, you can assume he survived that adventure. Hiking escalates to mountain climbing, all the while Muir describing the experience in his highly readable style that combines travelogue with objective, scientific observation as he adventures all day and then settles in for the night. 
"Night gathered, in most impressive repose; my blazing fire illumined the grand brown columns of my compassing cedars and a few withered briers and goldenrods that leaned forward between them, as if eager to drink the light. Stars glinted here and there through the rich plumes of my ceiling, and in front I could see a portion of the mighty caƱon walls, dark against the sky, making me feel as if at the bottom of a sea."
Muir discusses the history of the valley, its human occupation--and, yes, there is a snowstorm. Our intrepid traveler weathers it, and not alone. "I did not expect company in such unfavorable weather; nevertheless I was visited towards evening by a brown nugget of a wren."

This beautiful, descriptive narrative essay is a tribute to the beauty and glory of the natural world--and unfortunately, also a prescient eulogy to the now-inundated valley. This is Muir at his finest--the minimalist camper, the scientist and naturalist, and the priest of the forest cathedral.

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