Public Intellectuals to Follow in These Times

Note added February 24, 2020: We are now several years into this disturbing era, and many of the voices I mentioned in this 2017 post are certainly proving to have been worthy and valuable voices of reason and fact-based opinion. 

To them I must add the excellent daily writings of Heather Cox Richardson, who brings a political-historical perspective that is extremely helpful. 

On my Facebook feed, I recently asked my network of friends to chime in with recommendations of today’s public intellectuals–writers and thinkers whose work they follow as trusted and insightful commentators and activists during the times we are living through–the era of Trumpism.

I’ll compile the list here for ease of use and for continuous updating.

I may decide at some point to create categories within this listing, so as to separate out those who are really reporters, or politicians, or others whose role is not quite that of the classic “public intellectual.”

Many thanks to all who contributed!

Madeleine Albright
Gloria Allred
Carol Anderson
Dean Baker
W. Kamau Bell
Charles M. Blow
David Brooks
Brené Brown
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Noam Chomsky
Stephen Colbert
Juan Cole
Gene Demby
Kevin Drumm
Barbara Ehrenreich
David Fahrenthold
James Fallows
Bob Garfield
Roxane Gay
Masha Gessen
Henry A. Giroux
Brooke Gladstone
Amy Goodman
Chris Hayes
Christopher Hedges
Bell Hooks
Haro Kondabalu
Nicholas Kristof
Paul Krugman
George Lakoff
Bill McKibben
Rachel Maddow
Jeff Madrick
Bill Moyers
William Perry
Dan Rather
Robert Reich
David Remnick
Heather Cox Richardson
Arundhati Roy
Jennifer Rubin
Bernie Sanders
Steve Silberman
Jay Smooth
Rebecca Solnit
Gloria Steinem
Joseph Stiglitz
Matt Taibbi
Krista Tippett
Rebecca Traister
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Elizabeth Warren
Naomi Wolf
Sheryl WuDunn

Ruminations on the Role of the Chorus in The Mikado

OK, I’ve been living with this work of light opera for a number of weeks now. Famously, actors are stereotypically known for asking, ”but what’s my motivation?” This is supposed to be an aid to carrying off their role in a convincing and emotionally connected way.

It’s hard for the person who sings an occasional line and dances an occasional step to really land emotionally in the part, or even, sometimes, to understand why we are singing the lines we’re singing.

But, as I said, I’ve been singing and thinking about the part for awhile now, and I’ve come to a disturbing conclusion: my role is that of a “good German,” one who goes along to get along, one who blithely endorses lies for his own safety and security, one who rejoices in the misfortunes and sorrow of others when it aligns with his own immediate self-interest.

Within the space a single song, for instance (the Finale of Act I), the chorus changes its allegiance at least three times: we begin in fear for our own lives; rejoice when a victim is found (Naki-Poo); accuse that victim of forswearing his bride-to-be, Katisha; tell his alternate bride (Yum-Yum) that she is sure to die for her seduction of Nanki-Poo; and then turn on Katisha, shouting her down when she tries to expose the truth of the situation—literally drowning her out; and, finally, rejoice in the impending, if doomed, marriage of Yum-Yum and Naki-Poo.

In another song, we cower and play toady to the Mikado himself when he happily sings and dances as he recounts his brutal plan to torture criminals in an appropriate manner suited to their “crimes.” We laugh along with him at the prospect of the grim fates that will befall minor criminals. Indeed, the entire premise of the play, that those who flirt should be condemned to die, seems perfectly reasonable to all of us.

One further example: we are complicit in the lie of Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bette when they construct their elaborate lie to the Mikado regarding the execution of Nanki-Poo, making us subject to the same fate they are threatened to share—execution for “compassing the death of the heir to the throne.”

The Mikado may be “light opera,” but its dark message is anything but. And the role of the chorus is a cautionary tale for all who live within the boundaries of any regime that relies on its citizens for complicit agreement with its policies and practices. We, the chorus in this play, are a pack of pampered cowards, enjoying our stay at this resort with no regard to actual virtue, nobility, dignity, or any of the other adjectives we incorporate into our songs. I’m not sure we convey that to our audience, but if they consider us at all, I think they would be forced to dislike us intensely.

(I’m sure these are not original thoughts, but they are my thoughts, having not read too extensively about G&S. Now I will go do some research to see if this has already been the subject of someone’s thesis or dissertation….)

Music-making as a middle aged amateur

I recently turned 57 years old. In some things, I feel the wisdom of age–in my work life, for instance. But in others, I feel like a perpetual beginner. Nowhere is this clearer than in my musical endeavors.

I’m lucky to have three groups of friends with whom I can regularly make music. My church choir, my church folk band, and the band I play in, Commonhouse.

None of us in Commonhouse has any illusions that we will make the big time. We are free of that kind of ambition. But we have strong ambition in other ways. We want to write and arrange strong pieces of music–songs that are compelling for their own sake. Little works of art.

And to that end, we keep meeting each Monday night to play for a couple of hours. We bring the songs we’ve written and work with the group to turn them into something of worth. We play in front of other people occasionally, nerve-wracking though that it.

And now, we’ve recorded some of those songs, and we’ve turned them into an extended-play CD of five original songs. If you’re interested, you can listen to them and possibly buy them online at

If you’re inclined, please have a listen!epcover

Submitting names and groups to the musicians database project

I’ve been getting some great response from my request for input for the Sonoma County Musicians Database I’m working on.

A couple of frequent questions–do I want ALL bands and musicians and musical groups? From way back? Yes, and yes.

Here’s a new way to submit info: A Google Drive form


Database of Sonoma County Musicians

Tom_WaitsHere’s the next phase of development of our “Community” website: I’m building a spreadsheet of Sonoma County bands, musicians, groups of all types. Right now it’s in the collecting names phase, and I’ve posted a Facebook note with a preliminary list, asking for crowdsourcing help in filling it out. Take a look!

Eventually I would love to do something along the lines of either or both wonderful local music websites from the musical hotbeds of Seattle and Austin:

The Austin Music Map
The Seattle Band Map

Update: article about public libraries and local music posted yesterday by American Libraries!

What does a librarian do?

hot dogsYesterday, at lunch, I was out on the street just down from my Library buying a hot dog. The guy who runs the cart–a wonderful character, much beloved–was on his cell phone, having a complex conversation with a health care network. He had a conversation with me after he hung up, apologizing for the delay, saying that he would have to try to track down a certain doctor so he could ask a question directly. I offered to look him up on my smart phone, and within a couple of seconds, he had the guy’s number. I told him that’s what I do–I answer questions, because I’m a librarian.

Another example from outside the library proper: I am a big music fan, and lately I’ve been going to a number of shows by a Marin County guitarist, Danny Click. It occurred to me, as both a librarian and a Deadhead, that there were no set lists for these shows. So, I started creating them, and I tell people–it’s the librarian in me that wants this information available and organized.

Same rock guitarist, different example: I wanted to know more about Danny Click, but there is a dearth of info about him and his career available online. There was, for instance, no Wikipedia entry. So I wrote one.

If, every time any one of us librarians in the world did something that we would be inclined to do because of our profession and then told the world that we were librarians, would there be a sense out there in the world of the value of librarians as an integral part of our society? As an asset?

A librarian friend told me, when I told her about the hot dog incident, that I was being an embedded librarian. That made me think–why can’t we equip our reference librarians with smart devices and send them out into the downtown, bustling neighborhood, ready to answer whatever question is sent their way? Something to consider!

New Jennifer Egan: Black Box

As soon as I get a few minutes to spare, I am excited to read the new book by Jennifer Egan, Black Box, which just arrived in the mail yesterday as a “Limited Edition Bound Proof.” 57 slim pages with lots of white space, this novel was originally published as a series of tweets.

I loved A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I’m intrigued by this new one. If you leave a comment, no spoilers, please!

Related links:

New Yorker article:

All the tweets:

Sonoma County Library’s Multi-Pronged E-book Effort

First off, how do you spell e-book? Research meticulously undertaken via a google search shows that even though “e-book” seems to be preferred, there is rampant inconsistency. I think the little hyphen will go away, as it did for email, over time.

Now that’s out of the way, I am involved in a flurry of activity surrounding the impending launch of my library’s first-ever major foray into e-books, via the OverDrive platform, early next month. (The date is shrouded in secrecy…ok, it’s September 6). We hope to start with a good selection of e-books for all ages, focusing on popular reading. I am disappointed to see many of the most popular e-books unavailable through our OverDrive plan, including big titles like The Help, which seem to be available to other OverDrive customers. (Something Sarah Houghton blogged about a long time ago, so no surprise….). And of course, the lack of titles from Simon and Schuster, MacMillan, Penguin, and others who decline to sell e-books to public libraries makes fulfilling our mission as a library fairly difficult. What are they thinking?

But OverDrive is not the only thing we’re doing.

We have joined as a member library of, making it possible for our patrons to check out hundreds of thousands of e-books scanned by the Internet Archive–both public domain titles and titles that are in the orphan copyright status, published between 1923 and 1997.

We have built a Local Authors Community database, and have invited Sonoma County authors to post their e-books there for DRM-free checkout, as a sort of loss-leader approach to promoting themselves within their own community.

And we have several databases of discipline-specific e-books available through our website, such as legal and business books.

In the meantime, we are following the progress of Califa in building an alternative, akin to that pioneered by the Douglas County Library in Colorado, whereby libraries can purchase e-books directly from publishers.

Wish us luck!

Building Community by Building Local Collections

I have always been a firm believer in the concept of “bibliodiveristy”–a word I made up back in 1995 or so, taking off on the concept of “biodiveristy.” The idea being that it is the responsibility of libraries to collect, preserve, and make accessible the work of their local authors, musicians, and other artists, because if we don’t, who will?

As a first step towards implementing this at my current job with the Sonoma County Library, we have built a website called “Community.” Right now, this focuses on authors–writers who lived or who now live in Sonoma County, ranging from Jack London to Anne Rice.

Next, we hope to do the same for our local musicians. I was pushed by a local grocery store, believe it or not, who have compiled and released a CD of Sonoma County musicians called “Real Music.”  Our musicians include some big names, too, such as Tom Waits, Les Claypool, and the late Kate Wolf.