Talking About Books: State Of The Union, Dark Horse, The Library Book
State of the Union by Nick Hornby, Riverhead Books, 2019.
One of the best feelings in the world is discovering that your favorite author has recently released a new book. Sadly, I found Nick Hornby’s State of the Union, to be a bit of a disappointment, although it took me a while to figure out why.
This short book — more a novella than a novel — is made up of ten vignettes. These scenes are snapshots of the protagonists, Tom and Louise, as they meet in a pub before their marriage counseling sessions. Hornby is a master at creating flawed, relatable characters, and here he does not disappoint. Nor does he with the interaction between the two characters, who bicker and tease each other like people who have been married, maybe, a little too long — people who know each other’s vulnerabilities a little too well.
While the dialogue is witty and natural, some of the narrative is surprisingly clumsy. Descriptions such as “They are enjoying this conversation. They are amused and animated,” sound more like stage directions than narration. Hornby seems to have written this story simultaneously as a book and a TV series (which premiered on the Sundance Channel around the same time as the book release). Perhaps, this led to an overlap between the two styles of writing.
However, the greatest disappointment of this book is its lack of depth, in terms of character development. The plot has never been as strong an element in Hornby’s work as the view he gives us into his protagonists’ inner lives. In novels such as About a Boy and A Long Way Down, Hornby uses alternating chapters to give readers glimpses into the thoughts and emotions of multiple characters. In State of the Union, we see Tom and Louise only from the outside. We hear what they say and see what they do, but we don’t know what either of them are thinking.
If we were to see more of Tom and Louise than their ten-minute pub conversations, perhaps this would not be problematic. As it is, it is difficult to feel that we truly know either character, which makes it difficult to care much about what happens to them.
Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. By Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas. Harper One, 2018.
From its subtitle, you might assume that Dark Horse is one more book, among many, about choosing a career path. It is anything but. Parts of the book are designed to assist readers in finding a satisfying job — presenting stories of “dark horses,” people who dramatically and successfully altered their career paths in midlife. However, the authors’ main aim is to propose a new approach to work in the 21st century.
In the opening chapters, Rose and Ogas explain how the industrial revolution led to an era of standardization. This was not a bad thing, in and of itself. For example, in the 1890s, the company that would become Bristol-Myers Squibb became the first drug manufacturer to guarantee the dosage and purity of every bottle of medicine produced. The problem is that standardization and uniformity did not stop with products. Instead, it continued with the attempt to standardize human beings to fit the needs of the industrial workplace. The conventional wisdom about how to be successful and happy became: “Be the same as everyone else, only better.”
Rose and Ogas use their book as a platform to advocate for a change from a culture of standardization to one of personalization. As individuals, this will require the courage to break from previous career paths (typically set for us at the age of eighteen, or younger), in order to find more satisfying jobs. The authors lay out a way to do this by discerning what they call “micro-motives.” These are tiny personal preferences that can help guide an individual to a job that is a good fit. They also advise readers — contrary to conventional wisdom — to “ignore the destination,” because having a specific career destination in mind is inherently limiting.
As a society, breaking from the standardization mindset will require us to invert our current thinking about excellence and fulfillment. Rather than finding fulfillment through the pursuit of excellence, Rose and Ogas believe that people can only achieve excellence by pursuing fulfillment. Discovering what brings fulfillment is something that takes time. It is not something that fits neatly into twelve years of basic education or a four-year college degree. Thus, changing how we approach work will require us to change the structure of education and career preparation.
Whether you are looking for a new approach to your job search, or for a whole new way of thinking about work, Dark Horse is a book that will challenge your preconceived notions and — possibly — point you in a new and rewarding direction.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster 2018.
I had thought, after reading a summary, that The Library Book was an account of a fire that decimated the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986, and the arson investigation that followed. This is probably what the author intended when she began her research. However, there turned out to be very little “there” there. (Spoiler alert: the cause of the fire has still never been established.) Instead, The Library Book uses the fire as a framework to discuss the past, present, and future of libraries.
Orlean spent hundreds of hours in the Los Angeles library, shadowing various staff members. This gives her insight into many issues that library outsiders may be unaware of. Having worked in public libraries for over a decade, I am familiar with many of these issues. For example: how does the library remain a place that is open and welcoming to all, while still guaranteeing the safety of the (eighty percent female) staff? How far should the library stray from its original mission of lending books? For those who cannot understand why it takes public buildings so long to make needed renovations, Orlean gives us a peek into the glacial pace at which local governments move.
One aspect of the book that troubles me is Orlean’s tendency to romanticize libraries and the people who work there. When she does this, it is easy to tell that she is still an outsider, regardless of the time she has spent behind the scenes. At the beginning of the book, she talks about the magical quality of childhood library trips with her mother, and she can’t seem to let go of that ideal as she writes about the Los Angeles library. In her world, librarians are overwhelmingly selfless, altruistic figures, desiring only to serve the public and preserve books for future generations.
In reality, library jobs are still jobs, and libraries are prone to petty office politics as any other workplace. One of the dirty little secrets of libraries is how librarians (defined as those with a Masters Degree in Library Science) sometimes limit the career advancement avenues available to non-librarians, to protect their own domain. This is not to malign librarians as a group — only to point out they are human beings, and their motives are not purely altruistic. It is never a good idea to put any profession on a pedestal. However, if you can take this aspect of The Library Book with a grain of salt, it is an interesting insight into the workings of your public library.