November 9-15, 2005

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The Oxford Guide to Library Research
The siren call of the Internet justifiably worries librarians. When students, professors and journalists think that surfing the web is easier than cruising the stacks, they might never learn what they're missing. Even more tempting is the grail of universal access promised by Google and others with their projects to digitize whole libraries. Unfortunately, as Thomas Mann, who works at the Library of Congress, points out, the common Internet keyword search produces far more textural dross than gold. Even if we knew what algorithms search engines use to rank results, those results are still no better than the search terms entered, even if, as Mann writes, "those terms are not the best ones in the first place." Keyword searching does not allow for variant spellings, for instance, nor does it filter out "the thousands of hits on the right words in the wrong contexts." No cybersubstitute yet exists, Mann argues, for the vast intellectual superstructure of subject hierarchies (from general to exquisitely precise) created by armies of catalogers and available in the hefty Library of Congress Subject Headings volumes. Mann's handy guide provides plenty of quick suggestions for maximizing the resources of a good library (including his emphasis on the overlooked power of serendipity in open-stack browsing), as well as tips for finding web-based archives that really work. (By Thomas Mann; Oxford University Press; 293 pages; $16.95 paper)
—Michael S. Gant


The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright
How much do we really want to know about our favorite children's-book authors? Lewis Carroll's unseemly taste in urchins, A.A. Milne's disaffected son, who hated being Christopher Robin—some backstories are best left alone. Then again, when it turns out that Dare Wright, who wrote and took the photo illustrations for the popular Lonely Doll series in the late 1950s and early '60s, was a stunning ice-princess blonde fashion model who liked to pose in the nude covered only with sea weed and shells, like a dead body washed ashore; who carried a torch for a dead RAF pilot while fending off a succession of sexually frustrated suitors; and whose mother, Edie, was so domineering, so smothering, that she made Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver—well, the reality is more fascinating than the fantasy. Reporter Jean Nathan structures her biography like a detective story. While searching for a copy of The Lonely Doll, she discovered that Wright, a bed-ridden recluse, was still alive in a New York hospital. Over the course of several years, Nathan befriended Wright and begin to peel back the layers of a life as enlivened by glamour as it was crippled by neurosis. As Nathan discovered, the psychosexual currents that roiled Wright's life made their way into her clever books in which a blonde cloth doll named Edith embarks on adventures with her toy pal, Little Bear. The pictures of Edith's miniaturized world are expertly set-designed and posed—Wright was a talented photographer and seamstress—but also rather creepy by today's sensitized standards for child sexuality. In one disturbing image, Edith ends up gagged and trussed to a tree; more than once, she receives spankings from Mr. Bear. After the death of her mother and beloved brother, Blaine, Wright slipped into a slow, steady decline, forgotten by readers and publishers alike. Only lately have used copies of her books become hot collectors' items. Nathan's marvelous tribute to the troubled author includes some amazing photographs, including a chilling shot of Wright's mother, Edie, smoking a cigarette and sporting cat glasses as she suns herself in a deck chair—she looks exactly as spiderish as Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (By Jean Nathan; Picador; 308 pages paper)
—Michael S. Gant


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