Rothman At-Large

Too Few Library E-Books? Here’s a Solution

January 2, 2013

If you can’t find the right library e-books for your new Kindle, Nook, iPad or other gizmo, you’re not alone.

More than 100 patrons of the District of Columbia Public Library were lined up electronically this week for 10 e-book copies of The Racketeer, John Grisham’s new novel about the murder of a federal judge. Some 400+ D.C. library users awaited 60 electronic copies of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the best-selling fiction title on the New York Times list. And a digital version of The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling, was not even in the catalog of the D.C. public library system. 

The Grisham e-book crunch at the D.C. public library (Photo by: The Grisham e-book crunch at the D.C. public library

Could a well-stocked national digital library system—in fact, a pair of them, one public, one academic—be a solution for Washingtonians and others? My political opposite, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote two “On the Right” columns in favor of the idea in the 1990s. President Obama and Congress should catch up with WFB. I myself have been on the case for the past two decades.

The national digital library issue, a K-12, jobs and poverty issue in disguise, merits at least a brief mention and ideally more in the State of the Union address. No question about the need. Washington library patrons are hardly alone in their plight, as shown by similar statistics from some other major library systems and by recent coverage on National Public Radio, where, among other things, you’ll find that Random House can charge a library $100 to license a new e-copy.

William F. Buckley Jr. loved the national digital library concept (Photo by: scan of 1990s Washington Times column) William F. Buckley Jr. loved the national digital library concept

Significantly, a relationship exists between children’s academic achievements and the number of books they can enjoy at home, and potentially e-books could be huge encouragers of family literacy. One of the best ways to get students reading is for their mothers and fathers to act as role models, even if parents’ books are about their own diverse interests rather than their children’s. (Yes, more e-books of appeal to low-income people and members of minorities would help.)

With colorful pop-up art and other treats, paper books can be a great way to turn toddlers in time into readers. But when it comes to slashing costs and increasing availability of titles matching K-12 students’ precise interests, nothing beats the possibilities of e-books. The technology is only going to get cheaper and better, as shown by Worldreader’s successful use of Kindle E Ink machines in schools in the African bush.

For more details on the national digital library solution—including friendly suggestions to a D.C.-based trade association, as well as local philanthropist who cares about knowledge-related matters—see

Click here to share your thoughts.

2013? Bring it on. To Hell with Superstition!

December 23, 2012

Never mind fiscal cliffs, or the fact that the real danger isn't a Mayan-style apocalypse but a nuclear one (with the Doomsday clock last set at five minutes to midnight).

For more than a few of us, the big threat is the year ahead, 2013. Perhaps 85 percent of the world’s office buildings lack marked 13th floors, and a word even exists for fear of the number, triskaidekaphobia.

“Could we please move on to another year,” some might beg, “or at least call it by another name? Just like the elevator numbers.”

David Emery, Urban Legends guru on the site, tells us the Turks refused to utter “13,” and that male chauvinist pigs of yore hated it because 13 was the number of menstrual cycles in a lunar year. He also reminds us that "there are 13 witches in a coven." And for good measure, Emery writes that “Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all have 13 letters in their names." Freddy Krueger of Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th fame qualifies numerically and must love a word inspired by dread of that date, paraskevidekatriaphobia. Friday the 13th is even said to increase your risk of hospitalization---from a transportation accident---by up to 52 percent.

My late mother had a vested interest in this, having been born in 1913, and I did some cursory research to see if the mix of good and bad from back then might foreshow life a century later.

What follows is more than a little subjective. Richard Nixon also entered the world in 1913, a positive if you think about the Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency, but not so great when you remember the “Tricky Dick” of Watergate. A British freighter exploded in Baltimore Harbor with 343 tons of dynamite, killing at least 40 by one estimate. In Mexico that year, Francisco I. Madero, a prominent writer-statesman-reformer, was assassinated. In China, another political killing paved the way for the rise of a dictator. In the Philippines, Gen. John J. Pershing, aka “Black Jack,” led the Bud Bagsak Massacre where at least 2,000 civilians died. War broke out in the Balkans. More than 400 British miners died in the UK’s worst mining disaster.

Ouch. Not a very good year if you go by the preceding alone.

But 1913 was also the year of the Woman Suffrage Parade in D.C., the passage of the 17th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to allow direct election of U.S. senators, and the birth of the Rockefeller Foundation, kicked off with a $100-million donation from John D.  B’nai Brith’s Anti-Defamation League was founded. President Wilson set off the final explosion for the Panama Canal, an enterprise problematic in political and moral terms but a triumph for world commerce.  The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris. The transcontinental Lincoln Highway was dedicated; the United States Soccer Federation, formed; the first moving assembly line, started at Ford Motor Company; woman’s suffrage, enacted in Norway. Did those and the other positive events make up for, say, the 2,000 dead civilians butchered in the Bud Bagsak Massacre? Sorry, but I don’t think so: I won’t sugarcoat 1913.

And now for the ultimate exercise in subjectivity. The year 1913 saw the ratification of the 16th Amendment, which gave us the income tax. As a progressive and as an unabashed Keysenian, I like that as a compensatory mechanism along with the social programs anathema to the Koch Brothers and friends. More than ever, we need full-strength taxes on the ultra-wealthy. Consider the tendency of free trade and technology and certain tax policies to exacerbate the outrageous inequalities here in the U.S. and actually hurt the rich in the end---by reducing the ability of the masses to buy Mr. Own It All’s products.

Perhaps you disagree. Either way, happiest of 2013s (and of Christmases, Hanukkahs, Kwanzaas or whatever else you might celebrate)! To hell with superstition; bring on the New Year!

Click here to share your thoughts.

The Life and Death of the Chain-Smoking Editor

September 30, 2012

How could I have written a newspaper novel like The Solomon Scandals without a chain-smoking editor?

Kamikaze levels of tobacco and booze use helped certify newsroom denizens as manly risk-takers several decades ago, the time period of Scandals. Women were part of the scene by the 1970s, but they tended not to partake with such joyous abandon. The late Molly Ivins, whose columns inspired the Red Hot Patriot play now at Arena Stage, stood out as a proud colossus among the exceptions.

The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee was, of course, among the most famous smokers and risk-takers. In Yours in Truth, Jeff Himmelman writes of Bradlee “striding through the newsroom, dragging on a cigarette and scaring the shit out of the young reporters (and some of the old ones).” But the Post’s Smoker in Chief sensibly quit The Weed in 1974.

Bradlee the nonsmoker—I’ll assume he hasn’t relapsed—survives at 91 with a whole different side we didn’t see during Watergate. Newsroom cigars and cigarette don’t for the most part, either among editors or reporters.

Good riddance.

I love anti-smoking laws and am rooting, too, for anti-junk-food legislation. Call me a “health fascist,” Molly—I don’t care. Our side has a built-in advantage, of course. We generally outlive y’all.

Cigars and cigarettes were bad for me back in my newspaper days even if my exposure was just second-hand and even if I share my last name with the unrelated tobacco dynasty. One heart attack and quad bypass later, they would be worse now. But oh the era when news factories at times seemed to come with as much smoke as steel mills! At the Lorain (Ohio) Journal, my old daily in a lakeside steel-and-automobile town west of Cleveland, the top editor smoked cigars and even looked like Pierre Salinger, the famous cigar aficionado and journalist who was the press secretary to yet another cigar man, JFK.

Irving “Leibo” Leibowitz died in 1979 of cancer (tobacco-related to some extent?). I miss him just as much as I miss the clickety-clack of Underwoods and the clattering of wire service machines regardless of my love of iPads, Kindles and other crushers of antique technology. More, in fact. Had Ben Bradlee known what was happening in Lorain, he would have relished the way Leibo was playing up the early Watergate stories before the topic was safely in the mainstream. So goes my recollection, at least, of the Journal’s coverage.

If true, that would have been yet another manifestation of the guts of so many within the old fraternity of chain-smoking editors—well, the better ones like Leibo and Bradlee.

The Journal’s Watergate-related items weren’t flawless; at least one editorial cut Tricky far too much slack. But I still remember us as many miles ahead of the pack thanks to Leibo, with ample help from one of our wire guys, a bright young Oberlin grad and nonsmoker named Rich Petrick.

Not long ago, Florence York Ellis, a fellow Journal alum, shared Leibo’s musings on the Leibowitz-Salinger resemblance. Click on the image for a more detailed look at the clip from the Journal, now known as The Morning Journal. Flo smoked for pleasure, not show, and finally quit her pack-a-day indulgence. No puffs since '75. She can recall Leibo taking her and another reporter, Michele Killean Rice, out to lunch at the local Brown Derby to celebrate an anniversary of the two women's health-related withdrawal from tobacco.

But what's the word from the real authority on this topic, at the Journal, anyway --Tom Skoch, the editor, today's Leibo equivalent? "The Morning Journal has been a mandatory smoke-free building for several years. If Leibo were still here, I'm guessing he would probably just go around with an unlit cigar in his mouth."


Click here to share your thoughts.