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Staff Picks: Books

Prisoners of Geography

This 2015 book, subtitled Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World, is praised by Newsweek as a work that 'shows how geography shapes not just history but destiny.' The ten maps and the discussion of each conveniently take up ten chapters: Russia, China, United States, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and The Arctic. The discipline of geopolitics gets a very good airing here, with answers by British author Tim Marshall to such questions as: 1) Why will America never be invaded?, 2) What does it mean that Russia must have a navy, but also has frozen ports six months out of the year?, 3) How does this affect Putin's treatment of the Ukraine?, 4) How is China's future constrained by geography?, 5) Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy?, and 6) Why will Europe never be united? The physical aspects of the world's nations are a major factor in determining the conduct of international relations even in this modern age. Historical yet current, this book is a rich source for understanding the world scene in the 21st century and the background to its development.

Information Wants To Be FREE

 Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand is famously credited with the saying "information wants to be free", but it was hacktivist wunderkind Aaron Swartz who took his quote as marching orders and set out to actually make it free – with both troubling and thought provoking results. The new book The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on The Internet by Justin Peters reads like a highly contextualized biography of Swartz and the history and circumstances that led to his tragically taking his own life in 2013 rather than face what most characterize as an overly aggressive federal prosecution for anonymously downloading massive amounts of academic articles from the JSTOR database. Peters veers off from the Swartz storyline multiple times to give context and a sense of history to the complex history of intellectual property in the US, something that he is criticized for in Stephen Witt’s NYT Sunday Book Review of the book. But I loved the veering off and the lively and accessible prose that Peters uses here. Aaron Swartz believed deeply in the power of open access to information as the central idea that makes our democracy so powerful. I will leave it to readers of this book to make up their own minds about the status of that ideal today and what they are willing to do about it. Highly recommended! 

For more about Swartz and his story, I recommend the great documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.

First Ladies

One of my fields of study in addition to librarianship has been political science, so it naturally follows that I would be an eager viewer of C-SPAN. In fact, I have been known to watch Senate hearings at 3:30 a.m. The program on which this 2015 book is based, though, comes on at the more reasonable time of 8:00 p.m. on Sunday evenings. Susan Swain, the moderator of C-SPAN's series on first ladies of the United States, is in my opinion one of the finest interviewers on TV. In this book she has compiled material from the series that originally ran in 2013 and 2014 and is now being replayed. The result of her efforts is, under one cover, an absolute treasure of information and little-known facts about the presidents' spouses, and by extension, the presidents themselves, their families, and events concurrent with their time in the White House.

Countdown to Zero Day

I casually picked up Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the launch of the world's first digital weapon because I was familiar with her writing for Wired magazine where she covers cybercrime, privacy, and security issues. While I knew Zetter as a skilled writer, I was not prepared for this book to capture my attention so profoundly and to be such a scary thrill to read. The book begins as an account of the detection and spread of what seemed at the time (2010-11) a rather routine computer “malware” attack but quickly unfolds into a thrilling whodunit with complex international implications and a glimpse at the kind of cyber-warfare that we will face in the future.


I Pledge Allegiance

This story touches my heart. I picked it up to read because I met Pat Mora one Fall when she made an author visit to Kalamazoo. I always enjoy her work, so it was natural for me to read this book.

The story is about Libby’s great aunt (Lobo) who is eighty years old. She has been studying very hard, learning all about America so that she can take her citizenship test. Libby and her Mom will go with Lobo to the ceremony when she becomes a citizen of the United States.

Libby’s class practices the Pledge of Allegiance just as her great aunt does. Libby’s teacher explains the meaning of it as they recite it. Libby and Lobo practice saying the Pledge of Allegiance every night so that on Friday, the big day, they will both be ready. While they wait for Friday to come, Libby’s great aunt tells her about her country and coming to the United States. They came here to protect the family.

At the ceremony, the Judge tells everyone what a happy day it is. She has all the new citizens stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

When my mother-in-law was eighty years old, she too became a citizen of the United States. We were lucky enough to be able to have the Judge come to her home and perform the ceremony. My daughter was in kindergarten at the time and we talked about how Grandma had to learn the history of our country and how important it was to her. It was a touching ceremony and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her, there was not a dry eye among us. We were every bit as proud of her as Libby was of Lobo. It is something our family will never forget.

No Place to Hide

No matter what your personal opinions on Edward Snowden, or his actions, are; Glenn Greenwald’s account of breaking the Snowden story, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state, is gripping stuff. Greenwald, a journalist who has subsequently become synonymous with the Snowden leaks and hasn’t been shy about offering his strong opinion on the blanket NSA surveillance they exposed, spends the first half of No Place to Hide detailing the cloak and dagger story of his first contact with Snowden and the events that led to Greenwald flying to Hong Kong to meet Snowden personally and release the initial secret documents that broke the story worldwide. The second half of the book is devoted to explaining the alphabet soup of secret NSA programs that Snowden’s documents exposed. These surveillance programs effectively try to sweep up and collect all communications and internet activity worldwide and their breadth and depth is downright shocking. Viewed as evidence that we are living under a dangerous surveillance state or proof that our government is fighting terrorism by any means necessary, No Place to Hide is an eye opening and incisive read.

American Folklife

Library of Congress American Folklife Center: an Illustrated Guide…the title sounds bland, but the book/CD set is anything but! It covers a wide cross-section of folk art and folk lore in the United States.

Most amazing is the accompanying CD. With 35 tracks in all, there are songs from all over the U.S., including a song sung by Zora Neale Hurston, storytelling, personal interviews with many different people about aspects of daily living and the impacts of war and slavery. Some recordings are over 100 years old. Altogether they demonstrate the richness and variety of cultural experience in our country. This would be a great teaching tool to help bring an American history topic to life for your students.


Library of Congress American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide