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Staff Picks: Volume 1

Staff Picks: Volume 1

Everyone knows that librarians are pretty savvy about books. Most of us love reading them as much as we love helping our patrons discover them. But what does the library staff read for fun? In this post, David Vassar, a Reference Librarian at Quinn Library, recommends some of his recent favorites.


Written by David Vassar, Reference Librarian

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Chabon are two of my favorite American fiction writers. Their full-bodied characters come alive in evocatively drawn settings, and the highly engaging narratives keep you turning those pages. 

In The Bean Trees, Kingsolver’s Taylor is a tough and smart heroine who escapes her small-town Kentucky environs in a barely serviceable VW. The protagonist finds herself thrust into adoptive motherhood en route to Tucson where she and her tiny companion—whom she’s dubbed “Turtle”–are in turn ‘adopted’ by Mattie, savvy and big-hearted proprietress of Jesus Is Lord Used Tires in hot, scrubby, rustic ArizonaKingsolver is sheer pleasure—Check this one out!

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

Chabon’s protagonists in Telegraph Avenue, Archy and Nat, are respectively African-American and Jewish, both family men and proprietors in their own right–of Brokeland Records, a used-vinyl emporium and de facto community center situated between Oakland and more affluent Berkeley.

Chabon expertly renders the community’s cultural, familial, and ethnic tensions, tensions that are leavened with the right dose of wit, fun, and some lingering countercultural good vibes. A prospective new megastore, which Nat campaigns mightily against, threatens both Brokeland and the tenuous harmony of its environs. 70’s memes abound in Chabon’s highly engaging saga, lending a quasi-documentary feel to the joy of reading this tale.

In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik

My three nonfiction selections here all address themes related to my own evolving personal interest in cultivating the inner life in order to more effectively engage with an increasingly noisy, disruptive (and disrupted) modern world. 

In his elegantly written and well-referenced work In Pursuit of Silence, George Prochnik explores the myriad varieties of technologically created noise that assaults us daily. He relates interviews with scientists, architects, acoustical engineers, soldiers in war zones, and everyday commuters in support of his advocacy for quieter public and private spaces, which he considers crucial for genuine human flourishing.

How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell calls on us to become refuseniks amid the relentless chatter of social media, and to devote our attention instead to restoring “the biological and cultural ecosystems where we forge meaningful identities, both individual and collective” (Introduction, p. xxii).

In support of her manifesto, Odell evokes myriad voices including Diogenes, Zhuang Zhou, H. D. Thoreau, Thomas Merton, David Foster Wallace, and John Cage. I find How to do Nothing a provocative and richly annotated book that can help us confront both attention deficit as well as attention misdirection.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

With How to Change Your Mind the popular botanist, pundit, and science writer Michael Pollan is likewise concerned with enhancing the inner life, but in this instance facilitated by an external agent: psychedelics.

Beginning with a fascinating chronicle of the history of LSD, peyote, psilocybin, ayahuasca and other such “entheogens,” including the work of fellow “psychonauts” including Albert Hoffman, Roland Griffiths, Robin Carhartt-Harris, and Paul Stamets, Pollan discusses the recent resurgence of interest among behavioral scientists in their use as effective therapeutic modalities. He recounts his own consciousness-expanding psychedelic forays–with experts on hand—and emerges a staunch advocate for their responsible use. Thoroughly referenced, fascinating, and educational, Pollan’s work is mind-bending in the best way.

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