The Saturday Read ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’ by Rebecca Mead

What if you had reached the “Gold Watch and Goodbye” phase of your career only to be catapulted back into the spotlight by current events?

That seems to be what’s happening to Canadian author Margaret Atwood as her ‘new’ literary sensation, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, originally published in 1985, leads the literary fiction category on Amazon and is number ten on The New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction list. A film version of the book will begin streaming on Hulu next week. And earlier this week Ms. Atwood was included in the list of  Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

The Saturday Read is Rebecca Mead‘s multi-dimensional profile ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’.

The ‘Gold Watch and Goodbye’ career reference is evident as Ms. Mead brings us along on a March evening when Ms. Atwood received the National Book Critics Circle lifetime-achievement award. In her closing remarks the author asked, “Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did this lifetime go?”

The profile offers a panoramic view of this one lifetime; from one writers beginnings to mentor and evangelist for new writers.

“Atwood was born in Ottawa, but she spent formative stretches of her early years in the wilderness—first in northern Quebec, and then north of Lake Superior. Her father, Carl Atwood, was an entomologist, and, until Atwood was almost out of elementary school, the family passed all but the coldest months in virtually complete isolation at insect-research stations; at one point, they lived in a log cabin that her father had helped construct.”

In college she switched majors from philosophy to literature. She challenged the traditional canons of British and American literature with an argument for Canadian literature and its dominant theme of survival.

“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.”

She was an established writer before “the sometimes divisive years of second-wave feminism” and wrote an essay giving voice to colleagues.

“It’s not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women . . . come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along,” she wrote. “It’s like being judged innocent after you’ve been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim.”

“Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes…

Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.”

It’s the fearless questioning that has resonated over time and reintroduced readers to the classic ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ this spring.

Rebecca Mead’s profile of the thoroughly modern, septuagenarian writer is required reading as a companion to the novel.

“In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “make margaret atwood fiction again.”

 

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@latimesfob this weekend:

The Handmaid’s Tale from Page to Screen: Margaret Atwood & Bruce Miller in Conversation with Mary McNamara, Conversation 2063 Sunday, April 23 @2:30PM in Bovard Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus

The Saturday Read ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (translated by Ros Schwartz)

Does our work define us? Many would argue it doesn’t and yet, we carry the bias of standard stereotypes throughout our work day toward those we encounter along the way.

This question of work identity and expectations forms the center of the story of ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by French writer Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

In this novel, I wanted to highlight the invisible, the battered lives, the ordinary people who often go unnoticed; and I wanted to show that each of them could have their own unexpected story. In a society where looks have become a religion and where we judge more on appearance, I wanted to highlight our prejudices and show that the clothes do not always make the man. But this book is also a declaration of love for words and for reading. All the characters have a close relationship with words – the words they read, the words they speak and finally the words of love. These words are the real cement of the novel.”

The novel’s hero is Guylain Vignolles whose workplace is dominated by an overbearing caricature of the worst boss ever, and ‘The Thing’.

“The Thing sat there, huge and menacing, right in the centre of the plant. In the fifteen years he had worked there, Guylain had never been able to call it by its real name, as if the simple act of naming it might be to acknowledge it, to demonstrate a sort of tacit acceptance, which he did not want at any cost. Refusing to name it was the last bastion he had managed to erect between it and himself, to avoid selling his soul for good.”

What if your job was to destroy the thing you loved most? That’s Guylain’s dilemma. ‘The Thing’ – the Zerstor 500 – is a hungry metal behemoth that turns books into sludge. (You will have a different view of recycling after reading the description.)

Guylain finds meaning in rescuing sheets of paper from the jaws of the “eleven-tonne monstrosity” and reading these disjointed narratives to his fellow commuters each morning on the 6.27.

Then, one day he finds a memory stick “through pure chance” as “it jumped out of the folding seat as he lowered it. A little plastic thing barely the size of a domino which bounced across the floor of the compartment and came to a halt between his feet..”

The contents of the USB are revealed as Guylain, the ‘reader on the 6.27’, replaces his daily narration from the remainders of ‘the thing’ with the story of a mysterious stranger.

“Once a year, at the spring equinox, I do a recount. Just to see, to make sure that nothing ever changes. At this very special time of year, when day and night share time equally, I do a recount with, lodged in the back of my mind, the ludicrous idea that perhaps, yes, perhaps one day, even something as unchanging as the number of tiles covering my domain from floor to ceiling might change.  It’s as hopeless and stupid as believing in the existence of Prince Charming, but deep down inside me is that little girl who refuses to die and who, once a year wants to believe in miracles.”

Julie’s domain is in the basement of a mall. And it’s her story that should forever challenge the reader’s preconceptions of society’s work identity assignments.

“When you’re a public lavatory attendant, wherever that may be, you’re not expected to keep a diary and sit there tapping away on the keyboard of your laptop. You’re only good for wiping from morning to evening, shining the chrome, scrubbing, polishing, rinsing, refurbishing the cubicles with toilet paper, and that’s it. A loo attendant is meant to clean, not to write…It’s as if there has been a misunderstanding, a miscasting. In the nether world, even a miserable twelve-inch laptop next to the tips saucer will always be a blot on the landscape…”

“I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that people generally expect only one thing of you: that you reflect back the image of what they want you to be.”

“Fit docilely into the mould, slip into this lavatory attendant’s costume – which is what I am paid to do – and play the part, sticking closely to the script.”

Mr. Didierlaurent has filled the gap in workplace literature with a beautifully told story of memorable characters who reside in the periphery of vision, but will long linger in the reader’s memory. Here is a novelist providing the lesson that not all workplace advice is to be found in the business section of the bookstore.

After reading the novel, and becoming acquainted with a cast of characters who bring it to life, perhaps we can reorient our expectations, and look beyond the surface for the complementing prism of talent that defines us all.

Resist “sticking closely to the script”, and follow Julie’s advice.

“I advance in small steps. Not a single day goes by without my writing. Not to do so would be as if I had restricted myself to the role of loo-poo-puke cleaner that they want me to play, a poor creature whose only raison d’être is the lowly occupation for which she is paid.”

 

The Saturday Read ‘New York Fashion Week: An Oral History’

‘The Saturday Read’ this week is an online interactive feature from the September 8, 2016 New York Times ‘Thursday Styles’ section, capturing a multi-media moment in fashion history as the baton is being passed to the next generation of designers. Ruth La Ferla brings us ‘Our Stories’, an oral history from fashion icons Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Issac Mizrahi and Alexander Wang.

This one is for all of you who are first to the newsstand for the September issues of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, hoping to find a few classical wardrobe elements to update your look for fall. Designer outlets may be the closest most of us get to the runway, but many aspire to a career in one of the global capitals of fashion.

“As New York Fashion Week approaches its 75th year (the first official shows, massed under the heading of Press Week, were held in 1943), with 151 shows spread over nine days, many designers are questioning the future of this semiannual gathering. “We are facing the end of an era,” the designer Diane von Furstenberg said in a recent interview. “But there is nothing nostalgic about that. The future will be more exciting.”

The future may well be exciting, but for many in the industry, the past is one to savor and celebrate. Here, a crowd of fashion notables reflect on their experiences: the good, the bad, the awkward and the forever memorable.”

From their “first shows”, through the “unforgettable moments”, “growing pains”, “the glamour girls” and the “dark days” as AIDS devastated the industry, the top designers, models and fashion commentators share their success, and the mistakes along the way to being installed as icons. If you believe we learn from the wisdom of others, this interactive experience is required reading/viewing.

Here’s a sample.

ZAC POSEN

“In February 2002, when I showed my first collection, I did the setup preshow in my parents’ living room. I had done the collection with small seed money that was generally lent by friends, family and with my savings from the lemonade stand that I had started as a kid on Spring Street.”

ALEXANDER WANG

“Our first fashion week show, for fall 2007, was in a Chelsea warehouse. It was hectic backstage. I remember our casting director freaking out because all the models and dressers (who also happened to be my best friends) were eating greasy pizza, and the director was like, “Where’s Alex?” I was right there eating pizza, too. I guess I didn’t know any better.”

DONNA KARAN

“The turning point came in 1985 when I left Anne Klein. At the time I said to my bosses, “I have this vision for a little company.” Women in those years were wearing shirts and little ties to the office. I asked myself: “Where is the sexuality? Where is the comfort? Where are the clothes that go from day into night? How do you travel with your wardrobe in one bag?” And that’s how the Seven Easy Pieces came about.”

ALEK WEK
Model in the 1990s

“When I started modeling, people kept saying, “Oh, she’s so different, she’s bizarre,” like I wasn’t quite normal. Of course there was a racist element to those conversations. People were beating around the bush. But if I focused on that, I don’t think I would have stayed in fashion. Being viewed as different only gave me more incentive. I wanted people to know that your features or your color don’t make you less beautiful. My motivation was deeper than me just putting on makeup and clothes and doing shows.”

SIMON DOONAN

“All those people perished, and now many young people maybe don’t even know that Perry Ellis was an actual person. Many young African-American designers would be inspired to know how many great African-Americans had careers at the time.

These people didn’t all just get on a bus and drive off somewhere. They died excruciating deaths, some in the hallways of hospitals without help or support. In many instances, their families rejected them. I distinctly remember people who didn’t have a funeral or memorial. I had a friend who was buried in an unmarked grave.

It’s always troubled me that these supertalented original thinkers weren’t adequately memorialized.

They were Patrick Kelly, Angel Estrada, Isaia, Clovis Ruffin, Halston, Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, Tina Chow, Tim Hawkins, Robert Hayes and Laughlin Barker. And the photographers: David Seidner, Barry McKinley, Herb Ritts, Bill King and so many more. They were window-dresser friends: Bob Currie, Michael Cipriano, Bob Benzio, Stephen Di Petrie. The list goes on.”

 

 

The Saturday Read ‘LIT UP: One Reporter, Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.’ by David Denby

If you believe that the humanities are as critical as STEM skills in the 21st century workplace, take a trip back to high school with David Denby and this week’s Saturday Read, ‘LIT UP’: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.

We have this basic disconnect in our workplace today that is pitting generalists against specialists. The consequences are trickling down into our public education system.

If you’re a parent considering where to invest in your child’s college education, you’re probably looking at ‘vocational’ programs that ‘guarantee’ a job at graduation. If you’re that same parent, but now in the role of organization executive, you realize your recruiting efforts must consider ‘cultural contribution’; potential in addition to skill set. If you’re a student, you hear ‘STEM good, humanities bad; or worse, a waste of time’.

Writing in The New Yorker in February, Mr. Denby addressed the challenge in advocating for the humanities in today’s skill driven education/employer complex. He cited recent state government efforts to offer ‘bonus premiums’ in financial aid to students enrolled in STEM degree programs by cutting funding to students in the humanities.

“Lifetime readers know that reading literature can be transformative, but they can’t prove it. If they tried, they would have to buck the metric prejudice, the American notion that assertions unsupported with statistics are virtually meaningless. What they know about literature and its effects is literally and spiritually immeasurable. They would have to buck common marketplace wisdom, too: in an economy demanding “skill sets”—defined narrowly as technical and business skills—that deep-reading stuff won’t get you anywhere.” 

In ‘LIT UP’ David Denby is searching for the magic that transforms a young reader into a lifetime reader. “How do you establish reading pleasure in busy screen-loving teenagers – and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?”

He chooses to go back to school for the 2011-12 academic year at Beacon, a New York City magnet high school, at the time located on West 61st St, observing teacher Sean Leon‘s tenth grade English class.

“School was the place to find out. And students in the tenth grade, I thought, were the right kids to look at. Recent work by neuroscientists has established that adolescence, as well as early childhood, is a period of tremendous “neuroplasticity”. At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change.”

The book is structured by months, and reading selections. Mr. Leon introduces each book with inventive assignments, questions and at one point, a ‘digital fast’. Mr. Denby provides thumbnail plot sketches to shake the cobwebs from our ‘required reading’ memories. And we meet the students, by pseudonym, in their reactions to the literature.

At one point, the author gives the students a questionnaire to find out what books they read on their own, and their favorite authors. He finds three ‘real readers’ in a class of 32. “…unfairly or not, I was sorry that among Mr. Leon’s students there were no mad enthusiasms, no crazy loves, no compulsive reading of every book by a single author…”

In writing the book, he was encouraged by colleagues to create a scalable review, contrary to his initial approach, resisting quantification, and observing “a single place where literary education seemed to be working.” 

He realized that you can’t clone Beacon’s Sean Leon. He wanted other teachers to learn from Leon’s methods, but realized additional perspectives would add to his narrative.

“Typicality and comprehensiveness remained impossible to achieve, but variety was not. I delayed finishing the book, and, in the academic year 2013-14, I visited tenth-grade English classes in two other public schools – shuttling up many times during the year to James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven with a largely poor African American population; and five times in the spring to a school in a wealthy New York suburb, Mamaroneck, a “bedroom town” in the language of the fifties, where people sent their kids to good schools.”

Mr. Denby’s appendix includes the reading lists for each of the schools he visited and a ‘where are they now?’ college destination roster of the Beacon English Class of 2014. “There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don’t work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.”

“Teenagers, distracted, busy, self-obsessed, are not easy to engage – not by their teachers or by their parents. To keep them in the game, the teachers I watched experimented, altered the routine, changing the physical dimensions of the class. They kept the kids off balance in order to put them back in balance. They demanded more of students than the students expected to give.”

This is a book for parents, parents who are business leaders; teachers and the politicians who minimize their value; and students. We’re in a reading crisis and we need folks who have emotional intelligence, who can think, judge, make decisions and create a vision for an enterprise within a global world view.

“Teachers are the most maligned and ignored professionals in American life. In the humanities, the good ones are as central to our emotional and moral life as priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams. The good ones are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest. They can’t be; the children’s lives are right before them. In high-school English, if the teachers are shrewd and willing to take a few risks, they will try to reach the students where they live emotionally. They will engage, for instance, with “naïve” existential questions (what do I live for?) and also adolescent fascination with “dark” moods and the fear of being engulfed by adult society. Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stevenson, Orwell, Vonnegut, and many others wrote about such things. And if teachers can make books important to kids—and forge the necessary link to pleasure and need—those kids may turn off the screens. At least for a few vital hours.”

The Saturday Read – a selection of the best articles of 2015 from Jon Ronson, Oliver Sacks, Kathryn Schulz and Nikil Saval

This week the recommendations for ‘The Saturday Read’ come from journalists who wrote some of the most popular long form articles of the year. Instead of a book, which might seem daunting in the midst of holiday shopping and celebrating, sample the writings of these four storytellers who tackled a range of topics including internet shaming, death, earthquakes and the origins of the white collar worker.

On Wednesday, ‘The Upshot’ covered ‘The Stories That Held You The Longest in 2015’. “We measured the favorite Times articles of 2015 in a new way — by the total combined time readers have spent looking at them. It’s a mix of ambitious investigative projects, big breaking news, features and service journalism.”

Number two on the list first appeared in the February 12, 2015 New York Times Magazine. Written by Jon Ronson, ‘How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life’ tells the story of the world of public ‘internet shaming’ through the experience of its victims.

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“In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it…

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.”

Number ten on the list was an Op-Ed piece by neurologist and writer, Oliver Sachs, ‘My Own Life’, on learning he had terminal cancer.

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“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).”

A New Yorker article received a lot of attention when it first appeared in July. ‘The Really Big One’ was researched and written by contributor, Kathryn Schulz.

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“Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada. The “Cascadia” part of its name comes from the Cascade Range, a chain of volcanic mountains that follow the same course a hundred or so miles inland. The “subduction zone” part refers to a region of the planet where one tectonic plate is sliding underneath (subducting) another. Tectonic plates are those slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans. Most of the time, their movement is slow, harmless, and all but undetectable. Occasionally, at the borders where they meet, it is not.”

Longreads.com selected their ‘Best of 2015’ which included an excerpt from the book, ‘Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace’. The fifth most popular article was ‘I Would Prefer Not To: The Origins of the White Collar Worker’, written by Nikil Saval.

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“When does the office begin? It’s a question without an easy answer. One can associate the origins with the beginning of paperwork itself—until recently, the most common mental association with office work (think of the derogatory phrase “paper pusher”). In other words, since the invention of writing and the corresponding ability to keep records in a systematic manner, there have always been places that resemble offices: monasteries, libraries, scholars’ studies. Banking furnished an especially large amount of paperwork; the Uffizi, an incomparable gallery of Renaissance art in Florence, was also one of the first office buildings—the bookkeeping offices of the Medici family’s groundbreaking financial operations. Clerks, too, have existed for ages, many of them unclinching themselves from their desks to become quite famous: from Samuel Pepys, the British government diarist who reported on the gossipy world of seventeenth-century England, to Alexander Hamilton, who had cut his teeth as a merchants’ clerk before he became the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States; Benjamin Franklin, paragon of pecuniary restraint and bourgeois self-abnegation, started out as a dry goods clerk in 1727. Perhaps some of the tediousness of Franklin’s own writing was honed in the conditions of his first job: since clerks have had the opportunity to keep diaries, they have bemoaned the sheer boredom of their tasks—the endless copying, the awkward postures, the meaninglessness of their work. When not doing writing for the job, clerks have cultivated the habit of writing about the job—or literally around it…”

 

 

The Saturday Read ‘Patience and Fortitude’ by Scott Sherman

In times of financial crisis, you start looking around the house for things you might sell off until you realize all you have left is the real estate under your roof. For the New York Public Library in the early years of the 21st century, the fine art had been sold at auction, the staff had been ‘right sized’ and all that was left to remain solvent were the private donors and the coveted real estate footprint of branch locations.

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, And The Fight To Save A Public Library’ by Scott Sherman.

“This is a book about a world-class library that lost its way in the digital age.”

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A public library is a community sanctuary that has historically offered immigrants a way to the middle class. In the Preface, author Sherman retells the story of former New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was working as a boot-black in 1940s Times Square, visiting the main library at 42nd Street.  “It was the first time I was taught that I was welcome in a place of education and learning. I would go into that great marble palace, and I would check my shoeshine box. A gentleman in a brown cotton jacket would take it as if I’d passed over an umbrella and bowler hat.”

This is a New York story, but one that illustrates the fate of the non-profit organization in an economic downturn. In the case of the NYPL, originally founded by bankers and corporate titans, the seismic shifts in the economy forced the influential board, of modern day financiers, to engage big name consultants in an attempt to apply “free-market solutions to complex institutional problems.”

The central narrative of the book was first reported by author Sherman in the December 2011 issue of ‘The Nation’. ‘Upheaval at the New York Public Library’ made public a four year old ‘Central Library Plan’, conceived and ratified by the NYPL’s trustees.

“The core trustees – led by the developer Marshall Rose – did what came naturally to them: they sold the NYPL’s land and took steps to shrink an institution they may have viewed as bureaucratic and inefficient…Personal enrichment was certainly not the trustees’ intention; they were sincere in their desire to assist the Library. It was hubris that drove them forward, and which ultimately led them astray: they believed that corporate logic could be effortlessly applied to a sprawling, decrepit library system.”

Consider this the first shot across the bow, as the Sherman chronicles the response from writers, researchers, NYPL employees, politicians and library patrons.

A 2012 Op-Ed piece written by Theodore Roosevelt biographer, Edmund Morris for The New York Times offers a sample of the opposition.

“I read newspaper reports about the determination of Anthony W. Marx, the president of the library, to spend $300 million to transform the main building, long devoted to reference, into what sounds like a palace of presentism. He wants to close the library system’s biggest circulating branch, the Mid-Manhattan (located just across the street) and the Science, Industry and Business Library (also in Midtown) and somehow wedge their contents into the already overstocked central research library.

For that he will need all the spatial ingenuity of his trendy architect-designate, Norman Foster. But something’s going to have to give, and you can be sure that what is new and hard and digital will prevail over what is old and papery and transportable elsewhere.”

On May 7, 2014 Robin Pogrebin reported that the NYPL has abandoned its renovation plan.

Last month, Tom Mashberg of The New York Times reported on the new plan to create a high-tech space under Bryant Park to house 2.5 million research works from the original stacks.

“This was not, of course, Plan A. That plan entailed a makeover of the flagship Fifth Avenue library that would have sent the research books to Princeton, N.J. But it set off a virtual Fahrenheit 451 of outrage among scholars and others for whom the library’s role as a research mecca seemed endangered. Critics, who hoped the old steel stacks could stay in use, remain apprehensive about the new stocking and retrieval system, which they say is impressive but has not been tested.”

To be continued…

And while you wait, catch up on the history and the cast of characters who bring ‘Patience and Fortitude’ to life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Saturday Read – ‘Humans of New York:Stories’ by Brandon Stanton

We learn from the wisdom of others. In Brandon Stanton’s new book we learn from the wisdom of strangers. The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘Humans of New York: Stories’.

“The simplest way to describe the development of HONY over the past five years is this: it’s evolved from a photography blog to a storytelling blog…after cataloging thousands of people, I stumbled upon the idea of including quotes from my subjects alongside their photographs. The quotes grew longer and longer, until eventually I was spending fifteen to twenty minutes interviewing each person I photographed. These interviews, and the stories that resulted from them, became the new purpose of Humans of New York. The blog became dedicated to telling the stories of strangers on the street.”

The first career story is the author’s own. He graduated from college, took a job in Chicago as a bond trader, lost his job, moved to New York and started taking pictures of folks on the street. His work evolved into a blog with 15.6 million followers. His first book of photography, Humans of New York, landed at the top of The New York Times Bestseller List in the fall of 2013 and the new book will debut at the top of the November 1, 2015 list.

Why the response? Because the Mr. Stanton’s stories, told in words and images are about us. The scope of his project embraces NYC folks encountered on the street, reflecting on their past and future. We don’t know names. We don’t know ages. We can only guess in connecting the photo to the quote. At times the words seem at odds with the picture.

Here is one example from a young man, perhaps in his early teens.

“I’ve sort of had an arrogant demeanor my entire life, and I’m learning that I’m going to have to change that if I want to succeed. I realized that it doesn’t matter how clever you are if nobody wants to work with you.”

Another from a young woman seated on a suitcase, in the middle of a train station.

“I wish I’d partied a little less. People always say: ‘Be true to yourself.’. But that’s misleading because there are two selves. There’s your short-term self, and there’s your long-term self. And if you’re only true to your short-term self, your long-term self slowly decays.”

And a man at mid-life in what appears to be a cold corporate lobby, sitting on a stone bench, framed by a stone wall.

“When you’re twenty-five, you feel like you’re riding a wave. You feel like opportunities are just going to keep coming at you, and you think it’s never going to end. But then it ends.”

“When does it end?”

“When you turn forty, and they start looking for someone younger.”

The reader gets a sense they are looking in the mirror, but they’re not. The photo doesn’t match the selfie, but the sentiment fits.

Heather Long, writing for CNN Money, interviewed Stanton and attended his reading at a NY Barnes and Noble. What has he learned in the process of photographing and interviewing 10,000 people? “Americans should reconsider how much they work.”

“He often asks: What is your biggest struggle? And what do you regret most in life?
“Balancing my life is an answer I hear a lot,” he said. “Balancing work and family.”
People go on to tell him how they wish they had skipped that marketing conference and attended their daughter’s 8th grade dance instead.”

One of my favorite ‘inteviews’ appears early in the book (page 5). The narrative comes from a third grader (?).

“I want to build a bridge”

“How do you build a bridge?”

“If you want to build a bridge, it’s going to take a long time and it might be hard because your employees might not be as interested in building a bridge as you are. You have to think about what type of bridge you want to make…” 

He could be talking about life and career.

HONY: Stories invites us on a road trip through the streets of New York, opting for the detours that welcome conversation. This is a book to read slowly, observing the detail in the photos and the humanity in the words. It’s a compendium of other’s lifelong learning, generously shared.

“I want to be an artist.” “What kind of art do you want to make?” “I want to make different versions of myself.”