July 15, 2010

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On reading, again

So I was sitting on a folding chair in the lobby/waiting area of the Little Gym in Jenkintown with about half a dozen or so other parents who were also waiting for their little girls to finish an hour-long gymnast- ics/dance class.

I was trying to concentrate on a copy of Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs and Coca Puffs,” an anthology of essays on pop culture that I had checked out of the Glenside library, but I couldn’t keep from getting drawn to — not into — a conversation that broke out in front of me about books and reading.

A group of parents – two on laptops and one brandishing a brand new iPad, were talking gadgets and reading. At the time, the iPad was a new phenomenon – the first honest-to-god tablet computer. One of its uses, one proclaimed by the owner of this iPad, was for e-books.

Everyone agreed that e-books were great.  All thought devices like the iPad and the Kindle were must haves. You could see the look of acknowledgement on the faces of the laptop owners. Next to the gleaming black iPad, they might as well have been clutching old Smith-Coronas.

Apple had launched its own electronic book store, accessible through its online media superstore, iTunes. Through the iBooks app (short for application, for any of you technophobes) an iPad user could download nearly any mainstream book for  $9.99. And the iPad, unlike the Kindle, promised color and other interactive features you couldn’t get anywhere else. Publishers of magazines and books, media journalists and Apple execs proclaimed the device a savior of publishing.

As they talked about the best devices for e-books, they all agreed purchasing titles was essential. “I have to own the book,” said the only other male parent in the room. “I like to be able to read a book whenever I want it.”

I ducked behind my tattered, library-borrowed paperback.

I’m no Luddite. I blog regularly. Most of my music is now digital. I’m a big fan of Google. I love the iPad. But I would never, ever spend $10 or more on an e-book or $3.99 on an e-magazine (that was what an e-edition of Wired cost last time I checked). And I don’t understand why anyone would.

I feel especially strong about this when it comes to books. What do you get when you buy an e-book? You get the full text of a book that you can read on a portable device… And the Kindle and iPad both look like great ways to read. They are small, light and the page turning on the iPad is really pretty neat.

If I wanted to buy a book, I know many good used bookstores that are fun to browse. And for free, for absolutely $0, I can go to a library and get nearly any book I can think of. I have my own circuit of libraries that are within about 10 minutes from my home: Glenside, Elkins Park, Abington and Springfield.

Rarely has there been a book I can’t find in that circuit. And if those libraries don’t have the title, they can find it for me at another branch and get it to me in a couple of days. The same is definitely true for the Philadelphia library system.

But, judging by the conversation of my “peers” at the little gym, I’m in the minority. As of last month, Apple has already sold more than 3 million iPads. And libraries have been at the front of the line for state budget cuts that have reduced hours and eliminated programs, including an e-book-sharing program through the Montgomery County library system that was funded by state dollars.

There’s nothing wrong with progress, but it’s not fun to think about a society in which you can no longer borrow a good book.

Pete Mazzaccaro


From GObama to NObama: Have teens turned away from President’s promise?

About two years ago my sister’s iPod was blasting “It’s a New Day” by rapper, she was wearing a T-shirt that screamed “Hope,” and her backpack was sprinkled with several red and blue pins. If you haven’t recognized her yet, she was a generic teenager in 2008 – an avid Barack Obama supporter.

Today, her iPod probably no longer has that song, that “Hope” t-shirt is probably somewhere in my room, and those pins are most likely shoved somewhere in the cluttered basement. Where these three objects ended up today symbolize the shift not only in total support for now-President Obama, but also, more specifically, in teen support.

I looked far and wide on Google for any type of poll addressing the shift in teenage support for President Obama and turned up with no answer (Maybe I should have used Bing). After finding nothing, I thought it couldn’t be too hard to get some data myself, so I turned to my closest 991 Facebook friends and put them up to the task to take a survey (anonymously). I asked three yes/no questions and one free response question. In only 24 hours, 85 teens responded, and the findings are intriguing.

The first question addressed teenage support for Obama during the 2008 election. Unsurprisingly there was heavy Obama support in 2008: 62 anonymous survey-takers were supporters, while 23 did not support Obama in 2008.

The second question addressed approval of Obama’s job, almost a year-and-a-half after being inaugurated. With 73 percent of the survey-takers supporting him in 2008, only 47 percent approve of President Obama’s job so far – quite a shift in popularity.

The third question addressed the 2012 election. If the election were tomorrow, 41 teenagers (48 percent) would support the current President – only one more than approve of his job now.

This data gave me the basic statistics. It was the free response answers that gave me the most insight as to why teenagers have either taken off their Obama pins or kept them on over the past two years. I found that there should have been four categories of responses, but Obama came away with only three.

The first noticeable group was comprised of teens who were supporters in 2008 and still back the President today. Most teens from this group pointed to the horrendous situation in which President Bush left this country. One teen who still supports the President said, “Americans expect Obama to fix the issues overnight ... and we shouldn’t be so quick to pounce on him every chance we get.”

Another survey taker said “he has faith in Obama ... but everything takes time.” This sentiment was the trend for this group: too much criticism and not enough time has been given thus far.

The second group was much less sympathetic towards our President. This is the group of teens that Obama lost since the 2008 election. The overwhelming sentiment of this group was that Obama’s campaign promises have not been kept. One teen said “he has lost support for Obama. He ran as the anti-Bush candidate... but nothing has changed.”

Another response pointed to the idea that “Obama did not do the right things [upon being elected]. Once again we have lost our faith and excitement in our President.” Quite ironic considering the teen with that response may have been the same teen sporting a “Hope” t-shirt on November 5, 2008.

The third group was the group of teens who never were, and still are not supporters of Obama. The sentiment from this group was simple: too much spending, too liberal, and too many campaign lies. Judging by their responses, I’m guessing that many of them were excited by an opportunity to get their grievances down in writing.

One survey taker said “the President has failed to do anything good for the country.” One of the more eloquent teen responses from this group of non-supporters gave some insight into the President’s shortcomings by stating, “Obama is a socialist.” The actual best response from this demographic said “Obama has not implemented anything of substance. He has spent more money... and he may have talked the talk, but his actions speak to a bigger government with no reliability or responsibility...”

One group that was missing and would be unsettling for the Obama campaign in 2012: teens that were not supporters in 2008 and now are on the Obama train. While this is not news to anyone, this survey supported the fact that the President has not gained much support since 2008; instead, the steam has been gradually running out.

Not one of the 85 responses pointed to a “new” supporter, and even out of the 41 teens who would support Obama in 2012, many of them said they would be cautious to do so—much different than the “Hope”-T-shirt-wearing teen support in 2008.

This shift in popularity took place in about two years. The reason for it may lie a bit deeper than answers to the free-response question. There is no doubt that Obama’s presidency has not gone as smoothly as many supporters hoped it would (though Sarah Palin and Fox News seem pretty pleased about things so far). But it doesn’t seem nearly bad enough to lose 26 percent support from 85 teens.

It may be that teens in general make less serious of a commitment. In a generation where the hit song stays current for no more than a month, this turn in support could be attributed to an overall lack of commitment – an unwillingness to support a man they stood behind only two years ago. If this is actually a contributing factor for Obama’s slide in teen approval, this could be a problem for a long time – not just for Obama. This could mean a future of extremely volatile support for anyone in the public light.

Another theory might be that we had a short leash for Obama in such a critical time. Every survey taker lived through the entire Bush administration, and, in turn, our generation might be tired of a failing and problem-ridden leadership. If Obama’s presidency continues to go downhill, my heart would go out to the next president. Talk about a short leash ...

Or, it may just be that our generation is listening to the older generation, following its lead away from the President. We could just be serving as a microcosm for the “real” numbers of a generation above. Or, maybe President Obama is doing poorly enough to lose 26 percent support over a two-year span. A scary thought is that from 2003 to 2004, our well-loved President George W. Bush enjoyed a nice 27 percent drop in approval rating – granted, those were from the “real” numbers.

Whatever the reason, the teenage population will be important in the 2012 election. Many of the survey takers who supported Obama couldn’t vote in 2008. Although they couldn’t vote, teens were unarguably a huge part of Obama’s victory. In 2012, according to this survey, teens could contribute to Obama’s demise.

Although it’s very early for a prediction (assuming Obama will run for reelection), those teens who continue to back the President in hopes of an improvement in a second term may start packing up this hope a little early. This is the same sort of hope that the supporters had in 2008. The same hope that has been dwindling away since January 2009. And maybe this is the same hope that the teen generation, and all Americans for that matter, can find again, so my sister can once again put those pins on her backpack.

Adam Garnick is a Local intern.


Of booksellers, ephemera middens and historians

Back in April, Meredith Sonderskov, of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, asked me to be a speaker for the society’s program during the Chestnut Hill Book Festival. Traditionally, they put together a program where four speakers who have written history books, especially local history books, wax eloquently about historical matters.

I said, no, I don’t think so, I’ve not written anything historical and I don’t believe I’m about to. She said, please, you could talk about your years as an antiquarian bookseller in Chestnut Hill. No, I said, I just don’t think I can step back and get a grip on my trade, not one that would be appropriate in a historical setting.

“Just get up and be yourself, you’re such an entertaining public speaker.”

That stopped me, not because I found it flattering, but because I have never given a public speech in Chestnut Hill – not in the 20 years I’ve lived here. I went home and tried to decode that compliment.

The best understanding I could come to is that I have an alarming dinner table habit of telling stories, each and every one of them in illustration of some silly or arcane “epiphany” I’ve had lately. The fumes from an uncapped bottle of gin, carelessly wafted to my end of the table, often exacerbate my condition and further loosen my tongue.

But that, strictly speaking, is not public speaking. Perhaps she meant that I’m free and easy with my opinions via this column that Daniel Webster died and left me in his will. I reckon sometimes I am, but that still didn’t give me equal footing with genuine historians – people who have written history books – so I said no again.

But I added, “Please make a sincere effort to find someone more appropriate and if you genuinely cannot, I’ll try to think of something to say.” And that was the end of it. Or so I thought.

The Chestnut Hill Book Festival’s opening loomed a scant two weeks away when I received one of those “Dear Occupant”-type letters from the historical society: “Dear Mr. Gilmore, Thank you for agreeing to participate in the Historical Society’s event.”

Whatever dreams of personal glory I may have delusionally held, crashed and burned on the anonymity of that word “participate.” Instead of personal, public failure I now realized I faced generic public failure as a plug-in unit.

And, gulp, I would speak first on the evening’s recital program. The menu: First: a little chilled melon (myself) followed by meaty victuals (Jim Garrison, author of “Houses of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill and the Wissahickon Valley, 1880-1930” and Mark Sellers, co-author of “The Historic Houses of Awbury”) and concluding with a postprandial course of the savory and prolific Tom Keels, author of “Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love.”

Even a chilled melon needs something cool to talk about. I thought long and hard about what I might say. I hoped to get perspective on how being a bookseller in Chestnut Hill might differ from doing the same in some other Philadelphia neighborhood, or even, goodness gracious, selling books on the other side of the river we use as a barrier against the Bobos in Paradise (David Brooks’ descriptor for life on the Main Line).

I was enthused and set to talk about how bookselling in Chestnut Hill differs from plying that trade elsewhere when I realized I knew nothing about the subject. I’ve never operated a store other than my Chestnut Hill one.

Unfortunately, the discovery that I knew next-to-nothing about the subject occurred after I had begun my speech last Friday.

Not a good feeling. Especially after launching two or three New Yorker-style jokes that didn’t work, such as: Two old Hillers sitting in their club downtown. One turns to the other and says, growly-voiced, “You know, I tried Pizza once ... I didn’t get it.” 


Feebly, I switched to plan B: We booksellers are the great cultural-ephemera midden builders. We climb into attics, descend to basements, prowl in garages, barns, storage facilities, and sheds, and even meet people in parking lots – all for the great honor of hauling back every scrap of paper or cardboard the sellers couldn’t bring themselves to throw away.

I mean: photographs of unknown relatives; movie, theater, dance party and political convention tickets and programs; bills for lawn care; paint store receipts; recipes for making food, liniments, elixirs, and compost; napkins, greeting cards, postcards and lacy valentines; old newspapers, magazines, broadsheets, correspondence; handbills, posters, billboard advertisements. The list is endless.            

Literally, because there is no cut-off point, no place where one could draw the line and say, “There, that thing, despite being 100 years old, would be of no interest to a historian.” Every single material thing in the world is interesting, because its formation was the answer to a question. And the historian’s job is to figure out what the question was, when only the object is left behind.

In the meantime, we dray horses haul it, sort it, and sell it, while the historians are the sleek Arabians that get to wear silks and be crowned with roses as their pictures are snapped.

I did manage to get some of that message said at last Friday’s symposium. But then, as always with booksellers, I degenerated into anecdotes.

Stories about the wonderful books I’ve handled, and the intelligent, interesting, funny, and downright eccentric customers I’ve known. The beautiful houses from which I’ve taken ordinary books and the ordinary houses from which I’ve taken beautiful books. A very unpredictable business.

I’d say you could look it up, but my contribution to the evening was all too ephemeral.

Hugh Gilmore can be reached at



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