How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.

Photo: Artwork by Ayatgali Tuleubek

In late November, the Justice Department unsealed indictments against eight people accused of fleecing advertisers of $36 million in two of the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered. Digital advertisers tend to want two things: people to look at their ads and “premium” websites — i.e., established and legitimate publications — on which to host them.

The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist. Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.” Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.

The metrics are fake.

Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures. In October, small advertisers filed suit against the social-media giant, accusing it of covering up, for a year, its significant overstatements of the time users spent watching videos on the platform (by 60 to 80 percent, Facebook says; by 150 to 900 percent, the plaintiffs say). According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site, and the number of video views in Instant Articles.

Can we still trust the metrics? After the Inversion, what’s the point? Even when we put our faith in their accuracy, there’s something not quite real about them: My favorite statistic this year was Facebook’s claim that 75 million people watched at least a minute of Facebook Watch videos every day — though, as Facebook admitted, the 60 seconds in that one minute didn’t need to be watched consecutively. Real videos, real people, fake minutes.

The people are fake.

And maybe we shouldn’t even assume that the people are real. Over at YouTube, the business of buying and selling video views is “flourishing,” as the Times reminded readers with a lengthy investigation in August. The company says only “a tiny fraction” of its traffic is fake, but fake subscribers are enough of a problem that the site undertook a purge of “spam accounts” in mid-December. These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views — 30 seconds of a video counts as a view — for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a “click farm”: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.This is obviously not real human traffic. But what would real human traffic look like? The Inversion gives rise to some odd philosophical quandaries: If a Russian troll using a Brazilian man’s photograph to masquerade as an American Trump supporter watches a video on Facebook, is that view “real”? Not only do we have bots masquerading as humans and humans masquerading as other humans, but also sometimes humans masquerading as bots, pretending to be “artificial-intelligence personal assistants,” like Facebook’s “M,” in order to help tech companies appear to possess cutting-edge AI. We even have whatever CGI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela is: a fake human with a real body, a fake face, and real influence. Even humans who aren’t masquerading can contort themselves through layers of diminishing reality: The Atlantic reports that non-CGI human influencers are posting fake sponsored content — that is, content meant to look like content that is meant to look authentic, for free — to attract attention from brand reps, who, they hope, will pay them real money.

click farm

The businesses are fake.

The money is usually real. Not always — ask someone who enthusiastically got into cryptocurrency this time last year — but often enough to be an engine of the Inversion. If the money is real, why does anything else need to be? Earlier this year, the writer and artist Jenny Odell began to look into an Amazon reseller that had bought goods from other Amazon resellers and resold them, again on Amazon, at higher prices. Odell discovered an elaborate network of fake price-gouging and copyright-stealing businesses connected to the cultlike Evangelical church whose followers resurrected Newsweek in 2013 as a zombie search-engine-optimized spam farm. She visited a strange bookstore operated by the resellers in San Francisco and found a stunted concrete reproduction of the dazzlingly phony storefronts she’d encountered on Amazon, arranged haphazardly with best-selling books, plastic tchotchkes, and beauty products apparently bought from wholesalers. “At some point I began to feel like I was in a dream,” she wrote. “Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.”

The content is fake.

The only site that gives me that dizzying sensation of unreality as often as Amazon does is YouTube, which plays host to weeks’ worth of inverted, inhuman content. TV episodes that have been mirror-flipped to avoid copyright takedowns air next to huckster vloggers flogging merch who air next to anonymously produced videos that are ostensibly for children. An animated video of Spider-Man and Elsa from Frozen riding tractors is not, you know, not real: Some poor soul animated it and gave voice to its actors, and I have no doubt that some number (dozens? Hundreds? Millions? Sure, why not?) of kids have sat and watched it and found some mystifying, occult enjoyment in it. But it’s certainly not “official,” and it’s hard, watching it onscreen as an adult, to understand where it came from and what it means that the view count beneath it is continually ticking up.

These, at least, are mostly bootleg videos of popular fictional characters, i.e., counterfeit unreality. Counterfeit reality is still more difficult to find—for now. In January 2018, an anonymous Redditor created a relatively easy-to-use desktop-app implementation of “deepfakes,” the now-infamous technology that uses artificial-intelligence image processing to replace one face in a video with another — putting, say, a politician’s over a porn star’s. A recent academic paper from researchers at the graphics-card company Nvidia demonstrates a similar technique used to create images of computer-generated “human” faces that look shockingly like photographs of real people. (Next time Russians want to puppeteer a group of invented Americans on Facebook, they won’t even need to steal photos of real people.) Contrary to what you might expect, a world suffused with deepfakes and other artificially generated photographic images won’t be one in which “fake” images are routinely believed to be real, but one in which “real” images are routinely believed to be fake — simply because, in the wake of the Inversion, who’ll be able to tell the difference?

Our politics are fake.

Such a loss of any anchoring “reality” only makes us pine for it more. Our politics have been inverted along with everything else, suffused with a Gnostic sense that we’re being scammed and defrauded and lied to but that a “real truth” still lurks somewhere. Adolescents are deeply engaged by YouTube videos that promise to show the hard reality beneath the “scams” of feminism and diversity — a process they call “red-pilling” after the scene in The Matrix when the computer simulation falls away and reality appears. Political arguments now involve trading accusations of “virtue signaling” — the idea that liberals are faking their politics for social reward — against charges of being Russian bots. The only thing anyone can agree on is that everyone online is lying and fake.

We ourselves are fake.

Which, well. Everywhere I went online this year, I was asked to prove I’m a human. Can you retype this distorted word? Can you transcribe this house number? Can you select the images that contain a motorcycle? I found myself prostrate daily at the feet of robot bouncers, frantically showing off my highly developed pattern-matching skills — does a Vespa count as a motorcycle, even? — so I could get into nightclubs I’m not even sure I want to enter. Once inside, I was directed by dopamine-feedback loops to scroll well past any healthy point, manipulated by emotionally charged headlines and posts to click on things I didn’t care about, and harried and hectored and sweet-talked into arguments and purchases and relationships so algorithmically determined it was hard to describe them as real.

Where does that leave us? I’m not sure the solution is to seek out some pre-Inversion authenticity — to red-pill ourselves back to “reality.” What’s gone from the internet, after all, isn’t “truth,” but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be. Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real. Fixing that would require cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world, but it’s our only choice. Otherwise we’ll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.


By , December 26, 2018, first appearing on New York Magazine: Intelligencer

Other Duties as Assigned

Front-line librarians on the constant pressure to do more

Librarians interviews for this story, clockwise from bottom left: Graham Tedesco-Blair, adult services librarian, Newark (N.Y.) Public Library; Fobazi Ettarh, undergraduate success librarian, Rutgers University–Newark in New Jersey; Chera Kowalski, assistant to the chief of staff, Free Library of Philadelphia; Nicole A. Cooke, associate professor and MS/LIS program director, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Tom Rink, instructor, library services, Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Homa Naficy, chief adult learning officer, Hartford (Conn.) Public Library; Amanda Oliver, MFA student, University of California–Riverside.

Librarians interviewed for this story, clockwise from bottom left: Graham Tedesco-Blair, adult services librarian, Newark (N.Y.) Public Library; Fobazi Ettarh, undergraduate success librarian, Rutgers University–Newark in New Jersey; Chera Kowalski, assistant to the chief of staff, Free Library of Philadelphia; Nicole A. Cooke, associate professor and MS/LIS program director, School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Tom Rink, instructor, library services, Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; Homa Naficy, chief adult learning officer, Hartford (Conn.) Public Library; Amanda Oliver, MFA student, University of California–Riverside.

Maybe it existed only in our collective imagination—the era when librarians focused solely on providing access to written information, and when their greatest on-the-job challenge consisted of keeping the stacks in order. Whether that halcyon time ever actually took place, it’s definitely not here now. Social worker, EMT, therapist, legal consultant, even bodily defender: These are the roles that many (perhaps most?) librarians feel they’re being asked to assume.

American Libraries asked seven librarians—public, academic, and school; urban and rural—their thoughts about the many directions in which their profession finds itself pulled.

Chera Kowalski

Chera Kowalski

“At the end of the day, somebody is dying.”

Chera Kowalski
Assistant to the Chief of Staff
Free Library of Philadelphia

Chera Kowalski has received national media attention for her administration of the overdose reversal drug Narcan to six patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s McPherson Square branch. Kowalski has since moved out of her role as the branch’s teen/adult librarian and into a position as assistant to the library’s chief of staff.

In the community I was in, administering Narcan was something that needed to happen. My profession went out the door when an overdose was going on. At the end of the day, somebody is dying, and it doesn’t matter what your title is.

I’ve been criticized for this. People ask, “Why do you feel we need to do this? This isn’t in our job description.” I understand those criticisms, and I’m willing to listen to them. It’s something I’ve been very clear about: Learning to administer Narcan was voluntary; I made this choice, and it shouldn’t be forced on anybody.

But as a professional, if you see certain needs, it’s your responsibility to at least connect with people who can meet those needs. You can’t just say, “Sorry, no.” This may not mean having Narcan at your desk. But I think if people are overdosing in your space, you at least need to have a plan in place beyond “call 911.”

It’s interesting to see where the arguments against administering Narcan come from. Some of them are clearly coming from a personal stigma against substance use disorder. An overdose is a medical emergency, just like a heart attack would be, just like an epileptic seizure would be. We can’t deny services based on things that make us personally uncomfortable.

What if you’re concerned you don’t know how to administer Narcan properly? I have said this to a room full of librarians: You’ve been trained to find accurate information on just about anything. That is your role. If you cannot do that, you really need to reevaluate the field you’re in. Now, you might not want to do it, even once you have the correct information about it, and that’s fine. It’s a personal choice at the end of the day. But you can’t hide behind an argument of misinformation.

I think the libraries that are adopting Narcan are being conscientious about the effects on their staff, and that’s why they’re making this training voluntary, because overdoses are upsetting to witness. I’ll admit it: I got burned out. I was working in direct public service, and that can be difficult regardless of the community you’re in.

When people are deciding to go into public librarianship, they really need to think about what that can mean. You have to go into the field knowing what you’re signing up for. I hate to sound condescending. But that’s what being an adult and a professional is.

Tom Rink

Tom Rink

“There are other options to protect your patrons.”

Tom Rink
Instructor, Library Services
Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

Former police officer Tom Rink speaks to the question: Should librarians be expected to carry firearms on the job?

I was a police officer for 25 years. I got tired of the grind, of always seeing the bad side of things, so I took a career exploration class and decided to get my library degree, which was a truly unexpected result.

Carrying a firearm, for me, is no big deal; I’m retired law enforcement. But we have a “no guns on campus” policy at Northeastern State University, and you have to honor the wishes of your organization.

My main concern is that response times from police departments aren’t always timely. Also, all the bad guys know these are gun-free zones, so it’s a target-rich environment. My opinion is that if there’s someone on campus who has a concealed-carry permit and has the proper training to use that firearm, then they could mitigate an attack by stepping in and halting it with fewer injuries.

However, I understand that this creates an inherent danger for the campus police, because they don’t necessarily know who the bad guys are or who the good guys are. If you know that employees aren’t allowed to carry guns on campus, then you know that anyone with a gun is considered a bad guy.

I do support the Second Amendment. I do believe people have the right to arm themselves. But at the same time, people who get a concealed-carry permit do not receive the extensive amount of training that law enforcement officers receive.

The patrons who come inside your library doors—you’re responsible to a point for their safety. But how far do you take that responsibility? There are other ways that the general public can be protected. Have you heard of ALICE active-shooter response training? ALICE stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate. It’s training on how to mitigate the fallout from an active-shooter scenario. We’ve had ALICE training in the library, so we’re aware of the best way for civilians to respond when this type of situation happens. There are other options to protect your patrons besides having a gun and going blasting.

Homa Naficy

Homa Naficy

“It’s all just different pathways to attaining information.”

Homa Naficy
Chief Adult Learning Officer
Hartford (Conn.) Public Library

At the Hartford Public Library, Naficy directs The American Place, a program for immigrants and refugees who seek immigration information, resources for learning English, and help preparing for US citizenship. In 2013, the Obama White House declared her a Champion of Change.

We offer a slew of programs, and they have expanded over the years. We are located next to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Connecticut field office, and we’d have people constantly coming into the library searching for information. We started with English classes and citizenship classes. Then we started expanding into formal citizenship classes, which resulted in demands for support with citizenship applications. That prompted us to go after accreditation, so we could provide legal services.

Our next enhancement came from funding from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. It wanted to fund a program to create a pathway to a career. So we targeted the immigrant population, and we are now offering training in food handling and food safety in institutional kitchens, because those are benefited positions. The trainings are contextualized ESL. We also tell them about their rights in the workforce. We’re providing them with critical information, which is our role as a library.

It’s all just different pathways to attaining information, and that’s our industry. It’s not even a question. That’s what we do; we help people. It’s not about the issue [of immigration]; it’s about our mission, and our mission is to help people meet their informational needs.

Graham Tedesco-Blair

Graham Tedesco-Blair

“You can’t save everybody.”

Graham Tedesco-Blair
Adult Services Librarian
Newark (N.Y.) Public Library

Graham Tedesco-Blair has spoken at the annual Association for Rural and Small Libraries conference on the topic of libraries and rural poverty.

In a lot of rural areas, the work left and never came back. We get a number of library patrons who are homeless or semi-homeless. We have people sleeping under bridges or by the side of the Erie Canal. Thankfully, we don’t have anyone coming to the library to shoot up—there are enough abandoned buildings in town that they don’t need to come to the library to do that—but we have had Narcan training. We figured better safe than sorry.

Yeah, this is what libraries have turned into. You could describe it as mission creep, but I guess I would put it this way: I would love to be one of those 1920s librarians who got to look up poetry or read philosophy all day, but that’s not the world we live in. My father was a social worker and my mom was a special-ed teacher, so I’m very used to working with those who need help. You see a problem, you work to fix it. You don’t ask, “Why is it my job?”

You have to do the job that’s actually there, not the one that exists in your head. I absolutely adore when a kid needs a book because they’re doing a report on dinosaurs, or someone wants to learn about the Civil War because they finally retired, and this is their hobby now. But those aren’t the only patrons who deserve my attention. We’re here to serve the community. And what they need, that’s what we’re going to do.

Burnout and empathy fatigue are definitely a huge problem. You have to not be so hard on yourself. Just admit that you’re not going to solve all the problems. You can’t save everybody, nor is it your responsibility to. If you’re doing your best, if you’re trying hard, it’s okay to leave work at work. At the end of the day, go home, put on your favorite TV show, eat a little bit of chocolate, hug your partner if you have one. If you need to take a vacation, that’s why you have paid time off.

Amanda Oliver. <span class=

Amanda Oliver. Photo: Emma McAlary

“I called 911 once a week.”

Amanda Oliver
MFA Student
University of California–Riverside

Amanda Oliver worked as a school librarian, then a public librarian, but burnout—and an erroneous but terrifying shooting threat—led her to leave the profession.

What happened was, the Washington, D.C., public school for which I worked was very close to Howard University. Howard thought it had a shooter who had run into the immediate vicinity, and we were the immediate vicinity. Our security guards must have seen something on the news, and in a panic went to the pre-K and kindergarten classrooms and told them there’s a shooter. Our PA system did not work.

I got a text from a colleague, and all it said, in all caps, was ACTIVE SHOOTER. I was standing in the library, and the moment I read the text, the door opened, and there were 22 2nd-graders. We got all the kids into the library, we locked the doors, and we covered the windows with paper. I’m looking at the windows thinking, “If the shooter knocks the glass out, what are my options? How many kids can my body protect?” I don’t even remember how we put together that everything was okay. It turned out that someone had seen someone with a bag holding golf clubs and had mistaken it for a gun.

We just sort of glossed over it. It was an epic failing of the school administration. I had been wanting to leave for a while, but that sealed the deal. I didn’t want to be in a system where there was no process for anything like that. When you have too many roles and too many things to do, things fall by the wayside, and this horrible incident was never properly handled.

By the way, I never in one million years would have shot a gun in front of my students at someone. Never. I would never add to their trauma. I can’t imagine the school librarian whipping out a gun in front of 6- and 7-year-olds. Even if I had had a gun, I don’t trust that I would have known how to properly use it or that I would have sprung into action in time.

Aside from that incident, as a school librarian, I was pulled in a million directions. On top of a grueling teaching schedule, I was also responsible for maintaining a 15,000-piece library collection. If I was going to get it all done, I had to come early and stay late. By my fourth or fifth year, I started saying, “You have to give me a schedule that makes it possible to manage this collection.” That never happened.

I switched to a public library in D.C. Ninety percent of the patrons we saw on a daily basis were experiencing homelessness, addiction, and severe mental health issues. There was not a day that I did not witness a psychotic episode. I called 911 once a week. People say, “Other branches aren’t that bad,” and I’m not interested, because if one branch is like that, your system is failing, as far as I’m concerned. Every day I’d go: “I think I’ll have PTSD from this job.”

About a month before I left, I got my third manager in the eight months I was there. She told the library, “I’m not taking this job unless there’s a full-time police officer.” Once we got that officer, I realized one day, “I haven’t been screamed at in a week.” But I have a lot of issues with police in general, so I don’t believe that should be a solution. Is that what we have to resort to in order to keep order? I want to believe “no,” but it’s hard, because I did see a huge difference.

The funny thing is, I loved being a librarian. I loved providing a service to under-served people who deserve a leg up in the world. But there’s no possible way to do it long-term the way that I was. When I thought about what being a librarian would look like for me five or 10 years down the road, I was sick.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know how to fix these things. I truly don’t know, other than that society needs an overhaul for how we treat people.

Nicole A. Cooke

Nicole A. Cooke

“There’s only so much we can do in 16 weeks.”

Nicole A. Cooke
Associate Professor and MS/LIS Program Director
School of Information Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Nicole A. Cooke has directed the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s MS/LIS program since 2017. She responds to the often-heard statement: “I didn’t learn this in library school.”

I hear, “We didn’t learn this in our program,” and that’s true. There are lots of things I didn’t learn in my masters’ program. But now that I’m faculty, I realize I don’t know we could actually ever teach everyone everything they might need to know. To a certain extent our job is to teach the basics, the foundation. It becomes impractical to think we can teach students all the dimensions of their jobs.

I teach a class entitled “Information Services to Diverse Populations,” and in that class, we talk about homelessness, we talk about LGBTQ issues, we talk about some of the more recognized marginalized groups. In that class we have guest speakers who talk about their work with different populations. This is how we try to interject some reality into the courses. But there’s only so much we can do in 16 weeks.

I hear people asking, “Can we have a joint program with social work?” I’m happy to investigate that, but we have to get social workers on board as well in terms of what that might look like. It is difficult to get dual-degree programs up and running. We have to go through enormous amounts of paperwork even to get a new course. And then how do you assign the classes, how are they cross-listed, what’s going to be required from each end? The framework of higher ed does not make any of this easy. Then you have to weigh, particularly in this higher-education landscape, whether that degree would be worthwhile.

Sometimes folks think that LIS programs are being willful about not including things, and I think that’s not the case. We talk about these things all the time, and we try to incorporate them in our classes, but curriculum- and program-level changes are difficult. We are already covering so much, and we have accreditation standards we need to adhere to. Also, we may not have the necessary personnel, because you can’t just stick some random instructor into a class about diverse populations. I would like people to be aware of all the different moving parts that go into a graduate program.

Fobazi Ettarh

Fobazi Ettarh

“I want more people to be able to be librarians.”

Fobazi Ettarh
Undergraduate Success Librarian
Rutgers University–Newark (N.J.)

Fobazi Ettarh is author of “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” a paper that appeared in January 2018 in the open access, open peer-reviewed journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe.

Mission creep is definitely a major problem in librarianship. You start off with a certain set of duties, and then “other duties as assigned” become a bigger and bigger part of your job. Since your colleagues are doing this extra work, if you do only what’s in your job description, you’re seen as doing “less than,” even though that’s what you were technically hired for.

The most pressing example is Narcan. It is true that certain communities are having trouble with library patrons overdosing. You think, “Well, we as librarians try to mitigate community problems. Just like we have storytime, why shouldn’t we have this service, when it’s clearly needed?”

People also say, “I can’t stand by and do nothing.” But if you do something [administer Narcan] and the person still, God forbid, dies, then what? Or what if you help them and they sue you for emotional damages? We’re not trained to dispense medical anything. We’re also not social workers. When we take on this work, there’s no institutional support for the trauma counseling we might need afterward, or for knowing when to call or not call the police.

A two-day training is not the same thing as getting your master’s in social work. Just like we wouldn’t want some social worker with three days of library training to take over the library, we shouldn’t rely on these two- or three-day trainings. It’s not our job to become the catch-all for all social-service failings. If overdosing is a big problem in your community, instead of having librarians do a training, hire an actual social worker or medical professional, just like you would hire a children’s librarian if your neighborhood has a lot of large families.

Being stretched thin doesn’t allow any of us to do our jobs well. If we’re trying to be librarians and also social workers and also mental health professionals and also community centers, there’s no way that any one space can do all of that well, and so we’re doing all of that badly. I think it would make more sense for us to do the job we’re trained for: information specialists.

I really do love both my job and librarianship. I want more people to be able to be librarians, to be able to provide the representation and access and values that we espouse and are not currently living up to. It’s a lot easier to make the emotional argument: “Someone’s in front of me; how can I do nothing?” It’s a lot harder to take a step back and ask, “If we set this precedent, what will happen in the future?”


As told to Anne Ford, January 2, 2019, first appearing on American Libraries Magazine

The State of Net Neutrality

A coast-to-coast roundup of efforts to restore the open internet

net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Restoring Internet Freedom Order (RIFO) took effect June 11, 2018, overturning the net neutrality rules the agency established with 2015’s Open Internet Order. Since then, many individual states and other entities have taken it upon themselves to try to restore net neutrality protections. The following is a review of those efforts—successful, failed, and in progress—around the US.

More than 35 states have introduced legislation to protect net neutrality, although only four (California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington) have passed laws. Several governors have also issued executive orders related to net neutrality.

The details of state net neutrality actions vary significantly, but common provisions are:

  • prohibiting all internet service providers (ISPs) in a state from blocking lawful content, applications, services, or devices; impairing or degrading the speed of lawful internet traffic based on content, application, service, or device; engaging in paid prioritization of traffic; or unreasonably interfering with a user’s ability to select, access, or use broadband internet service
  • requiring ISPs to meet the net neutrality provisions above to be considered for state contracts (in some cases, these acts apply to contracts for municipalities as well)
  • requiring ISPs to transparently disclose their network management principles
  • establishing certification systems or registries of ISPs that meet net neutrality requirements
  • issuing resolutions urging the US Congress to implement net neutrality requirements but having no regulatory power on their own

“Having 50 different approaches to net neutrality is not optimal for anybody,” observes Larra Clark, deputy director of public policy for the American Library Association’s Washington Office and the Public Library Association. However, in addition to providing net neutrality in the states where they’ve been implemented, state activities are valuable in advocating for meaningful protections nationally.

“States taking these leadership roles makes it more likely that the FCC will come to the table and the telecommunications companies that have fought us on this issue will work to find a compromise,” she says.

State legislation passed


On September 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill (S.B.) 822, requiring ISPs in the state to comply with net neutrality principles and disclose network management practices. The bill goes beyond the Obama-era regulations by also limiting certain forms of “zero rating,” in which ISPs favor certain information by not counting content or websites they own against data limits.

The bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) called it “the strongest in the nation.” However, the US Justice Department filed suit against the law the same day Brown signed it. This suit has been postponed, and California has agreed not to enforce its law until the D.C. District Court decides on the state attorneys general suit on RIFO.

Brown also signed Assembly Bill (A.B.) 1999 on September 30, requiring broadband networks created by local governments to follow net neutrality.


Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill (H.B.) 4155 on April 9. The law prohibits public bodies from contracting with ISPs that do not abide by net neutrality.


May 22 Gov. Phil Scott signed S.B. 289, requiring state agencies to contract only with ISPs that practice net neutrality, directing the state Secretary of Administration to develop a process to certify ISPs that practice net neutrality, and directing the state attorney general to study the extent to which the state should enact net neutrality rules. It also requires ISPs to disclose their network management practices. The law followed Executive Order 2-18, issued February 15, that required state agencies to contract only with ISPs that follow net neutrality.

Even though the scope of this law is narrower than California’s, industry groups filed suit to block it October 18 in the US District Court in Vermont.


Gov. Jay Inslee signed H.B. 2282 on March 5. The law requires ISPs to practice net neutrality and to accurately disclose network management practices.

Executive orders

In addition to Vermont, governors in the following states have issued executive orders related to net neutrality. Each of these orders requires ISPs to follow net neutrality principles to receive state contracts.


Gov. David Ige issued Executive Order 18-02 on February 5.


Gov. Steve Bullock issued Executive Order 3-2018 on January 22.

New Jersey

Gov. Philip D. Murphy issued Executive Order 9 on February 5.

New York

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 175 on January 24.

Rhode Island

Gov. Gina Raimondo issued Executive Order 18-02 on April 24.

Bills introduced but not enacted


Neither of the proposed bills requiring ISPs to practice net neutrality (H.B. 277 and S.B. 160), nor House Joint Resolution 31 and Senate Joint Resolution 12 urging the US Congress to overturn the FCC’s order, were acted on in committee.


H.B. 18-1312 would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality to receive money from the High Cost Support Mechanism, the state’s implementation of the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which provides funds for deploying broadband in rural areas. The bill passed the house but failed in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.


The senate passed S.B. 366, requiring ISPs in the state to practice net neutrality and disclose network management practices. However, the house did not vote on the measure. H.B. 5260 and S.B. 2, which would have required ISPs to adopt net neutrality policies to qualify for state contracts, both failed in committee.


Neither of the bills related to net neutrality introduced in the house or senate progressed out of committee. S.B. 310 would have required all ISPs to follow net neutrality, while H.B. 1066 would have prohibited the state from contracting with ISPs that don’t provide a certification of net neutrality.


S.B. 2644, which would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and disclose network management practices, passed the senate unanimously, but its house companion, H.B. 2256, stalled in committee. The similar S.B. 2088 was deferred in committee.
In addition to requiring net neutrality, H.B. 1995 would have established a task force to examine the costs and benefits of a state-owned public utility to provide broadband internet service. Two of three house committees recommended passage of the bill, but the Finance Committee did not act on it.


H.B. 425, which would require ISPs to comply with net neutrality, was not acted on in committee.


H.B. 4819, which would have required state contractors to comply with net neutrality and other ISPs to notify consumers of any deviations from those principles, passed out of the House Cybersecurity, Data Analytics, and IT Committee, but the house re-referred it to the Rules Committee and did not vote on it.

Two other measures did not advance out of committee: H.B. 5094, which would have required ISPs in the state to abide by net neutrality, and S.B. 2816, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality to qualify for state contracts.


Neither Senate File 2286 nor House File 2287, which would have required ISPs to provide service in accordance with net neutrality, advanced out of committee.


H.B. 2682, which would have prohibited state contracts with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality, died in committee.


The Small Business and Information Technology committee did not act on H.B. 418, which would have required state contractors to practice net neutrality.


H.B. 1654, which would prohibit state agencies from contracting with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality and require ISPs to notify customers about the types of personal data they collect and disclose, passed the house, but the senate did not vote on it. The similar H.B. 1655, which would also authorize local governments to grant franchises for broadband internet service, did not pass out of committee.

S.B. 287, which would require the state to only contract with ISPs that follow net neutrality, did not pass out of committee.


Senate Order S2263, establishing a special senate committee on net neutrality and consumer protection to review RIFO, was adopted January 18. The committee issued its report March 23 as S.B. 2376. This report accompanied S.B. 2336, a bill that would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality.

S.B. 2336 was replaced by S.B. 2610, which would direct the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable to create standards for a Massachusetts Net Neutrality and Consumer Privacy Seal to identify ISPs that abide by net neutrality and provide consumers with an easy way to opt out of providing third parties access to personal information. It would also establish a registry of broadband service providers in the state and list their network management practices and privacy policies. The bill passed the senate July 19 and has been referred to the House Ways and Means committee.

H.B. 4151, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality, was replaced by House Order 4684, authorizing the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy to study documents concerning several bills, including those on net neutrality. This order also covered H.B. 4222, requiring ISPs to follow net neutrality and establishing the Massachusetts Internet Service Provider Registry to provide service quality and pricing information to customers.


Two bills have been introduced in both the house and the senate that would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and prohibit state agencies and political subdivisions from contracting with ISPs that do not. None of the bills—S.B. 2880, S.B. 3968, H.B. 3033, and H.B. 4411—has been acted on in committee.


H.B. 1994, which would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and publicly disclose their network management practices, was not acted on in committee.


Legislative Bill 856, which would require net neutrality, was indefinitely postponed.

New Jersey 

S.B. 1577 and A.B. 1767, identical bills that would require all ISPs in the state to abide by net neutrality, have not been acted on by their respective committees.

A.B. 2131, which would prohibit the installation of broadband telecommunications infrastructure on public rights-of-way or underground facilities owned by public utilities or cable television companies unless the ISP follows net neutrality, was favorably reported out of committee. The senate has not acted on the identical S.B. 2458.

A.B. 2132, which would require state agencies to reject all contract bids from ISPs that do not follow net neutrality, was reported out of committee. The senate companion, S.B. 1802, has not been acted on in committee.

A.B. 2139, which would require cable companies that provide internet service to follow net neutrality principles, passed out of committee.

New Mexico 

H.B. 95 and S.B. 39 would amend the state Unfair Practices Act to require ISPs to follow net neutrality; both have been postponed indefinitely.

S.B. 155, which was similar to those bills but would also allocate $250,000 to the state attorney general in FY2018 and FY2019 to review RIFO and to file or join a lawsuit challenging the decision, was also postponed indefinitely.

New York

A.B. 8882, which would direct the state Public Service Commission to develop a plan for monitoring broadband ISPs and create a certification for ISPs that comply with net neutrality, passed the assembly June 19. Under this bill, only certified ISPs would be eligible for state agency contracts. The senate has not acted on its version, S.B. 7183.

Other bills have not made it out of committee, including: S.B. 8321, which would require net neutrality, provide regulatory control by the state Public Service Commission, prohibit zero-rating of certain content in a category but not the entire category, and require ISPs to comply with net neutrality to be granted permission to attach broadband infrastructure to utility poles; S.B. 7175 and A.B. 9057, which would require state agencies to contract only with ISPs that adhere to net neutrality and appropriate $250 million to a fund to establish municipal ISPs; and A.B. 9059, which would establish a commission to study and report on potential implementation of net neutrality rules.

North Carolina

Neither S.B. 736, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality, nor H.B. 1016, which would have applied only to state contractors, passed out of committee.


S.B. 1543, which would have required state agencies to contract only with ISPs that follow net neutrality and created a fund to support municipalities attempting to create their own ISPs, was not acted on in committee.


H.B. 2062, which would have required ISPs to abide by net neutrality, did not make it out of committee. The same fate befell S.B. 1033, which also would have prohibited state contracts with ISPs that don’t follow net neutrality and required ISPs to disclose network management practices.

Rhode Island 

S.B. 2008, which would have required state agencies to award contracts only to ISPs that follow net neutrality, passed the senate June 19. The House Corporations Committee has not acted on it.

That committee recommended that H.B. 7076, which would require ISPs to follow net neutrality and require the state Division of Public Utilities and Carriers to annually certify ISPs, be held for further study. It made the same recommendation for H.B. 7422, which would require net neutrality and obligate ISPs to disclose their network management practices.

South Carolina

Neither H.B. 4614 nor H.B. 4706, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality and disclose their network management practices, passed out of committee.

South Dakota

The Senate Commerce and Energy Committee voted February 6 not to send S.B. 195 to the full senate, killing the measure. The bill would have required ISPs to abide by net neutrality and disclose network management practices to receive contracts from the state.


Several bills were introduced but did not pass out of committee, including H.B. 1755 and S.B. 1756, which would have required ISPs to abide by net neutrality and disclose their network management practices, and prohibit state agencies or local governments from contracting with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality; S.B. 2183 and H.B. 2253, which would have prohibited state governmental entities from contracting with ISPs that do not follow net neutrality; and H.B. 2405 and S.B. 2449, which would have created a task force to study issues relating to RIFO.


H.B. 705, which would have required ISPs to practice net neutrality, stalled in the Commerce and Labor Committee.

S.B. 948, which would have required ISPs to practice net neutrality and prohibited them from knowingly disclosing personally identifiable information about customers, did not pass out of committee.

West Virginia 

Neither H.B. 4399, which would have required ISPs to practice net neutrality and disclose network management practices to receive state contracts, nor S.B. 396, which would have applied to all ISPs in the state, passed out of committee.


The assembly voted against taking up A.B. 909, which would have required ISPs to follow net neutrality and limited disclosure of personally identifying information. Senate counterpart S.B. 743 did not pass out of committee.

Neither S.B. 740 nor A.B. 908, which would have applied only to state contractors, were acted on by committee.



In February, Senate Resolution (S.R.) 74, urging the US Congress to reinstate the 2015 rules, passed.


Senate Concurrent Resolution 44, expressing the state assembly’s opposition to RIFO and urging the US Congress to enact legislation preserving net neutrality, passed the senate in January.

District of Columbia

A round table hearing was held in January 2018 on Proposed Resolution 22-0691 opposing RIFO. While it was cosponsored by all 13 members of the council, no vote has been taken.


House Resolution 1161, a resolution that would have encouraged state agencies to establish policies requiring contract recipients to adhere to net neutrality, was introduced, but it did not progress out of committee.


S.R. 1196, which would have urged the US Congress and the Trump administration to advocate for permanent adoption of net neutrality rules, did not advance out of committee.


S.R. 131, which would have urged the governor to issue an executive order requiring ISPs with state contracts to abide by net neutrality, has not been acted on in committee.


House Concurrent Resolution (H.C.R.) 84, which would urge the US Congress to pass legislation restoring net neutrality, has not been acted on in committee.

New Mexico

Senate Joint Memorial 17, urging the US Congress to review RIFO, passed, but the house postponed action indefinitely.


The Committee on Federalism and Interstate Relations did not act on H.C.R. 18, which would have urged the president and US Congress to protect net neutrality and open internet access.

 January 2, 2019, first appearing on American Libraries Magazine

‘JUSTICE’ Is Merriam-Webster’s 2018 Word Of The Year


Photo by WilliamCho on Pixabay

The dictionary publisher says the word justice is used in phrases such as racial justice, social justice and obstruction of justice — which has its own, popular entry.

December 17, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR


9 Books About the Contemporary Immigrant Experience in America

“No one gets to choose when or where to be born, but what happens after that is what you can imagine.” — Abdi Nor Iftin

The term “immigrant” did not come into being until the late eighteenth century, when it was coined to describe the situation in the new nation of America, where people were leaving their homelands to come to the American continent. In recent times, the terms “migrant,” “immigrant,” and “refugee” are no longer used as terms that imply respect for those brave enough to leave one land in order to find something else in another. Almost as soon as he became president, President Trump declared that immigrants from certain countries were not going to be allowed into the country. He has denounced entire countries and religions, as if each person in a country were represented by the actions of their governments. In just the last few months, we have seen immigration policies at the Mexican border that seem unimaginable; American border guards forcefully separate parents from children as a means of “discouraging” those whose desperation has led them to try to cross the border without proper paperwork. The cruelty of such a move is hard to fathom, and reports indicate that bereaved parents are committing suicide or falling into deep depression as a consequence.

My own parents brought me to America when I was a toddler. My parents came to this country when my father was twenty-four and my mother was just twenty — ages that startle me — because my father had decided that there were no opportunities for him in his homeland. From the moment they landed, like all immigrants who hold jobs, my parents paid into the Social Security system, paid their taxes, volunteered in their communities — my father coached boys who eventually played for the U.S. Olympic and World Cup soccer teams — and were good neighbors. While some may hold them up as “model” immigrants, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of immigrants act in these ways. While the president may point to the tragic cases where an immigrant has committed a heinous crime, those crimes are the exception.

Immigration is not easy. My parents’ struggles to adjust went on for years. There were not television shows about being a recent immigrant, and no literature existed that would have helped them to feel less alone. And yet, they didn’t return to where they had come from. They stayed here, raised their children here, learned to celebrate American holidays, and made American friends. For them, the overall experience of immigrating was an increase of joy in their lives, exactly what the immigrant wants: a chance to change their circumstances so that joy is possible.

The attitude of many Americans is that immigrants have to do all the work. They are the ones that have to learn our language, our customs, our culture, our political system. Despite the fact that, (with the exception of Native Americans, who were here first, and enslaved peoples from Africa brought here against their will), every other American is descended from someone who came to America looking for something. And yet, many Americans want to shut the door to anyone else who wants a chance to live here. And they don’t seem all that interested in the stories that immigrants can tell them not only about the lands whence they came, but also their perceptions of America.

Literature is a place where immigrants, and the children of immigrants, can tell their stories. Some of these stories reveal the horrors of war-torn lands left behind. Others chronicle the experiences of those who live in America and who work to reconcile the cultures they grew up in with their adopted cultures. No two immigrant stories are the same, even if they reflect common experiences. The books below offer stories that originate with people who decided to come to America. Their stories are poignant, exciting, adventurous, pious, and reveal to the reader vital truths about the human experience. Each book that chronicles the story of immigration adds to the American story.

The cover of the book A Place for UsA Place for Us
Fatima Farheen Mirza
Rafiq and Layla came from India to America, where they raised their three children. Their Muslim faith made up the roots that supported the children’s healthy growth. Layla raised Hadia, Huda, and Amal with a love that none of the children ever doubted. While the children know that Rafiq loves them, too, he tries to provide them with a paternal discipline that will allow them to grow up strong in their faith and good in their hearts.

As the novel opens, Hadia is getting married, finally, after rejecting for years the marriage offers her parents presented to her. Sister Huda has refused to marry until Hadia marries, and Amal, who has been estranged from his family for three years, shows up at the ceremony in response to Hadia’s invitation. As the night progresses, however, a lifetime’s worth of family secrets emerge, and by the end of the night, hearts will be damaged.

Fatima Farheen Mirza has written a tale of an American family where attachments among its members are tested by internal and external pressures. She captures, in gorgeous prose, the ways in which parents come to terms with the inevitable aging of children, and children struggle to interpret gestures that parents intend in love, but which injure growing hearts. Mirza writes from multiple perspectives within the family, giving readers knowledge that family members hide from one another.

It’s been a long time since a novel has inspired tears in me. But I found A Place for Us to be one of the most moving novels that I have read in a long time.


The cover of the book Citizen IllegalCitizen Illegal
José Olivarez
José Olivarez burst onto the poetry scene in Chicago with his participation in “Louder Than a Bomb,” the poetry festival for Chicago’s students. His poems range in mood — funny, angry, contemplative — as he details his life as the son of Mexican immigrants. The collection is a celebration of Chicano culture, and an exploration of the experience of occupying Mexican spaces, American spaces, and the spaces in which they merge.

His recurring poem “Mexican Heaven” offers various scenarios in which St. Peter greets the recently dead; the scenarios imagined by Olivarez made me laugh out loud. He offers odes to cheese fries and Scottie Pippen, and a poem about Vaporub that caused its mentholated scent to fill my nose. In “Mexican American Disambiguation,” readers get a lesson in nomenclature, the multiple ways that immigrants can identify themselves depending on who is calling their names. And readers are also introduced to the ways that his father tried to keep his son on the straight and narrow.

Olivarez offers a variety of instances in which he feels “seen” and “unseen.” In poems about family trips to the mall, he writes of the terror of being transparent when you’re trying to hide your identity. In Citizen Illegal, the title itself points to the double consciousness of the immigrant, which can both double a person or cleave them in half. His poems offer readers multiple ways to experience these feelings.


The cover of the book The Girl Who Smiled BeadsThe Girl Who Smiled Beads
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
Clemantine Wamariya was six years old when she and her sister, Claire, set off to escape the terror of seeing neighbors killing neighbors during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Over the course of the genocide, 800,000 Rwandans died, after months of radio broadcasts and other activities urged the elimination of their fellow citizens. For six years, she and Claire occupied various refugee camps throughout the African continent with no knowledge of what had happened to their parents.

At age twelve, the two Wamariya sisters were granted asylum. Clemantine went to live with an American family who tried to provide her with a space to heal and to grow. But Clemantine became aware that others’ perceptions of her were clouded by the events in Rwanda, such that they could only see her as broken and in constant need of assistance. She rejected the attempts to label her as a victim, and details the steps she took to reclaim her sense of her whole self.

She also provides views on words such as “genocide,” which she sees as a sterile word that cannot convey anything about what it signifies. She also writes of her encounter with Holocaust survivor and human rights campaigner Elie Wiesel, which led to an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, and the enormous changes in her life after that fateful appearance.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads breaks down the distance between American perceptions of the events in Rwanda and Americans themselves. She offers a view of the world that is at once hopeful and wise. And she writes of her relationship with her parents and what was lost when she was forced to leave her house and neighborhood.


The cover of the book The DisplacedThe Displaced
Viet Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer. In this collection of essays and stories by immigrants and refugees, he treats readers to a multiplicity of perspectives and amazing writing about the experience of needing to leave one’s home. Among the contributors are Aleksander Hemon, Ariel Dorfman, and Porochista Khakpour.

Khakpour riffs on William Carlos Williams’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to offer “Thirteen Ways of Being an Immigrant.” In her essay, she writes of being a small girl who desperately wants a “Cabbage Patch Kid.” She knows that Cabbage Patch Kids are out of reach for her poor Iranian immigrant family, until she receives a lesson in Americanness about what kinds of Cabbage Patch dolls are worth less than others. Hemon writes about what it is like to be from a “refugee nation,” and notes that nearly one-quarter of Bosnians have fled their homes. Each of those Bosnians have their own individual story, one that overlaps with other stories in places, but which remain unique in their totality. Hemon feels compelled to try to tell as many of these stories as he can.

Ariel Dorfman left his native Chile during a time when American interference led to the killing of many Chilean intellectuals. In his essay, “How Succulent Food Defeated Trump’s Wall Before It Has Been Built,” he details a trip to his local grocery store, where foods from nearly every country in Central and South America occupy space on the shelves. And it’s not just food that identifies itself on cans or bags listing a foreign country where it was created. Dorfman also talks about the foods such as potatoes, pineapples, and bananas that were originally “found” in South America by conquistadors, but which are as much a part of the American diet as the taco bowl Trump crassly used to celebrate Mexican culture.

Each story told by an immigrant helps to fill up the empathy chasm the Trump administration takes advantage of in order to separate children from their parents without mass protests. The more Americans realize that immigrant stories are American stories, the less the hate-mongers will be able to get away with. Proceeds from the book’s sales will go to support the work of the International Rescue Committee.


The cover of the book America Is Not the HeartAmerica Is Not the Heart
Elaine Castillo
The Philippines is a land of many languages, all of which make an appearance in Castillo’s marvelous family novel. In addition to both Spanish and English, Ilocano, Tagalog, and Pangasinan are also spoken in the Philippines. Multiple languages mean that there are multiple ways to have communication issues, especially when that communication is among family members or between lovers.

When Hero arrives from the Philippines to stay with her uncle and his wife in San Francisco, she leaves behind a history that she would prefer not to talk about. Roni, her young cousin, pesters Hero to tell her why her hands are ruined. What happened to her hands? And what happened to Hero? Her uncle doesn’t ask her those types of questions, but his American-born daughter has a different attitude toward what is appropriate for people to share with one another.

As Hero begins working at a restaurant, her world expands to take in a cast of characters who show her how to live as an immigrant. Soon, however, she learns the ways of love, and unexpected passion complicates Hero’s life further. Castillo depicts these changes in Hero’s life in close detail, bringing the reader into the life of a woman who has always pushed people away.


The cover of the book The Far Away BrothersThe Far Away Brothers
Lauren Markham
As stories continue to pour in about the heartbreaking situation at the Mexican-American border, where young children — as young as infants — are ripped out of their parents’ arms and sent to detention centers, it behooves all Americans to learn more. Last year, Signature reviewed Valeria Luiselli’s book about her experiences translating for unaccompanied minors in immigration courts. Now, Lauren Markham brings readers the individual stories of identical twins Ernesto and Raul. The Flores twins arrive in America after arriving from El Salvador, which they have left because the streets have become deadly for young men and young women. The boys have an older brother who agrees to care for them.

Markham presents readers with the details of El Salvador life, where gang violence and lawlessness have taken over the streets. The government has lost control, and Markham shows how U.S. involvement in El Salvador’s internal affairs in the 1980s has not helped in the establishment of a stable, effective government. The gang, MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles but then set up in El Salvador after its members were deported there, “selects” young people for membership. If those young people refuse, they are murdered.

The brothers arrive in the United States thousands of dollars in debt after paying a coyote to take them north. They get jobs with their temporary residency permits, and send much of it as they can home so that their parents may pay off the debt. Markham provides a close-up view of the brothers’ attempts to settle in the U.S., and what happens when they go to Immigration Court to see whether their petitions for asylum have been granted.

At a time when Attorney General Jeff Sessions declares that the draconian, inhumane policies toward immigrants will continue at the border; when Immigration Courts are overwhelmed by the large numbers of young people fleeing broken countries; and when the president stirs up his followers by lying about immigrants’ participation in criminal activities, Americans have a duty to learn the facts about the immigration process. Immigrants find themselves used as fodder rather than treated like human beings. Markham’s book provides readers with human faces to associate with the word “immigrant,” and gives readers knowledge in an age of disinformation.


The cover of the book The Incredible True Story of Blondy BarutiThe Incredible True Story of Blondy Baruti
Blondy Baruti with Joe Layden
Blondy Baruti’s story of coming to America is the stuff of movies, which is where he ended up after leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Baruti has appeared in films like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the story of how he arrived in America is remarkable. Baruti was born in Kinshasa, the nation’s capital. At two years-old, Baruti was felled by a virus that nearly killed him. His survival was considered a “miracle” by his family and by hospital physicians, who had not expected him to live.

Those familiar with DRC history know that for much of the 1990s and into the new millennium, the country was riven by a brutal civil war that claimed upwards of seven million lives. When Baruti was nine, the war came to his town. He and his mother and sister went into hiding, walking into the wilderness and following the Congo River. For months, they walked, covering hundreds of miles in their effort to reach a safe place.

How Baruti made the transition from child in the wilderness to Hollywood actor is a tale told with a great deal of enthusiasm. His is a happy story, and Baruti’s love for his adopted homeland comes through in his prose. For readers looking for a classic American story about overcoming adversity and achieving dreams, Baruti’s story of survival and success is a winner.


The cover of the book Half GodsHalf Gods
Akil Kumarasamy
Akil Kumarasamy chronicles the lives of three generations of a Sri Lankan family who come to America to escape civil war. The stories are not told within a novel, but rather, in linked short stories, which allows Kumarasamy to present snapshots of members of the family as they move through a variety of places. In “Shade,” a grandson rides with his Tamil grandfather in his truck as they drive to the seaside. The grandfather has lost a lung, but continues to smoke. The grandson tries to envision Sri Lanka, but his grandfather bats aside his questions, and frustration leads to a rebellious act.

Among other family members is an actor who reflects on the roles that he’s offered in films while out on a blind date with a woman his sister-in-law has fixed him up with. Mohinder, Dilraj, and Nalini conduct a ménage a trois until tragedy interrupts their happiness. And as Nalini’s mother lays dying in Colombo, she reflects on the violence she has witnessed, and thinks of what will become of the family members who have no choices.

These and other stories capture moments of great beauty in the family members’ lives. The fragmented nature of their story, symbolized by the multiple short stories, allows readers to appreciate the ways that dislocation from one’s native land can break up reality. It’s a kaleidoscopic view in which the picture changes depending on from whose perspective the story is told.


The cover of the book Call Me AmericanCall Me American
Abdi Nor Iftin
“No one gets to choose when or where to be born, but what happens after that is what you can imagine.” Abdi Nor Iftin says this in the epilogue of his book, a piece of wisdom he offers to the rest of us. Born in Somalia, he finds a new way to talk about the American Dream, the myth that anyone, anywhere, despite the circumstances of their birth, can make of themselves whatever they can imagine. Isn’t that what what those who argue for the “bootstraps” version of personal development are saying? So why would any American who believes this then want to deny immigrants the chance to pursue their own version of the dream?

Somalia has been a site of chaos for decades. It is contested territory, where various terrorist factions battle for supremacy. Young men born in Somalia are subject to the same pressures to “join” these groups as those born in El Salvador who are told they must join gangs like MS-13. Boys are approached from very young ages and are threatened if they do not join. Abdi Nor Iftin resisted, and when civil war broke out, he continued to attend school. His travails in the streets, his protection of his family members, and the constant presence of danger is eloquently conveyed to the reader.

He escaped to Kenya, continued his education — including learning English — and applied to come to the United States. Those who believe that the U.S. does little to stem the flow of immigrants will be surprised by his account of the multiple levels of criminal checks, background checks, and various forms of paperwork that piled up as this one young Somali man waited to hear.

His story is one of hope. But his hope is combined with doing everything “right” that America asks people to do if they want to come to the United States. Few communities in America have been willing to take in Somali immigrants, especially those who may require some transitional help as they become acclimated. To read Abdi Nor Iftin is to gain tremendous respect for someone so dedicated and driven, but it’s also a huge reminder that not everyone is endowed with his sense that if he stuck it out, good things would happen. And the truth is, even with all the good intentions and hope in the world, it still doesn’t happen for the vast majority of people who apply to come to the United States.

8 Books That Honor History’s Unsung Female Heroes

Cover Detail from Jefferson’s Daughters by Catherine Kerrison

To be a woman is to be a history maker. Although countless names and stories have been omitted, under-celebrated, or redacted from the official record due to the patriarchy’s dominance, the contributions that women have made to the world are impossible to overlook. From the persistence of Ida B. Wells and Ona Judge to the bravery of Harriet Muse and Harriet Jacobs and the intellectual prowess of Brittney C. Cooper and Isabel Wilkerson, history is filled with the accounts of women whose vision and rejection of convention serve as a timeless reminder of how radical living life on your own terms can be.

Take the time to celebrate the history of women whose names you don’t already know. Take the time to honor their truths.

The cover of the book Jefferson's DaughtersJefferson’s Daughters
Catherine Kerrison
Through Catherine Kerrison’s earnest exploration of the lives of Thomas Jefferson’s three daughters—Harriet Hemings and Martha and Maria Jefferson—readers are given an immersive look at the way race, class, and gender shaped colonial womanhood. Comprised of previously unseen correspondence between the Jefferson sisters, vivid illustrations, and captivating anecdotes informed by extensive archival research, Jefferson’s Daughters captures the complexity of one our nation’s most controversial figures and the family that called him father. With each page, Kerrison excavates Harriet, Martha, and Maria from the margins of history with tangible empathy and urgency. An illuminating title for any reader, Jefferson’s Daughters is a celebration of American womanhood.


The cover of the book TruevineTruevine
Beth Macy
Beth Macy’s Truevine unveils the often overlooked and unbelievable tale of the Muse brothers. Born on the edge of the 19th century to sharecropper parents in Virginia, George and Willie Muse were kidnapped as children by a sideshow runner who lured the boys away from their home with the promise of candy. Billed in circuses and showcases across America and overseas as “Ambassadors from Mars,” “cannibals,” and “freaks,” the Muse brothers, who were African American albinos quickly became celebrities in the eyes the public. Macy’s profoundly moving investigation of the Muse brother’s kidnapping and their mother Harriet Muse’s relentless struggle to get them back shines a spotlight on an underexplored chapter in American history. A story about family, race, and reclamation, Truevine is a stunning example of why freedom and love is worth fighting for.


The cover of the book Never CaughtNever Caught
Erica Armstrong Dunbar
National Book Award finalist Erica Armstrong Dunbar resurrects the captivating story of Ona Judge in the pages ofNever Caught. From beginning to end, Dunbar’s prose sheds unflinching light on America’s first president and how his unrelenting pursuit of Judge and refusal to follow the laws of his own nation led to an obsessive manhunt. Never Caught is a revealing portrayal of Washington and a stunning depiction of Judge’s resilience. A page-turner in the truest sense, Dunbar’s award-winning account dispels the myth of Washington’s morality, exposes the corrupt origins of the American patriarchy, and exalts the ingenious strength of Black womanhood.


The cover of the book The Warmth of Other SunsThe Warmth of Other Suns
Isabel Wilkerson
With heart and dignity, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson uplifts the pioneering spirit and legacy of Black Americans whose desire for true freedom sparked the Great Migration. Enriched by extensive research and a marrow-deep sense of empathy, Wilkerson’s widely celebrated title pays homage to those whose search for a better life could not be stopped by the scars of segregation, the weight of racism, or even the onslaught of redlining. Far too often highlighted solely by a handful of paragraphs in the history textbooks of American schools or reduced to an anecdote during Black History Month, the full scope of the Great Migration rightfully takes center stage in Wilkerson’s necessary and inspiring masterpiece.


The cover of the book Beyond RespectabilityBeyond Respectability
Brittney C. Cooper
In Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, Brittney C. Cooper writes, “In order to take… Black women seriously as intellectuals we must be willing to trust them. By trust I don’t mean always agree. I mean acknowledge, appreciate, struggle with, disagree with, sit with, and question. I mean take Black women seriously.” Throughout the pages of her book, Cooper celebrates Black women thinkers, educators, activists, and innovators whose contributions have remained relatively unsung—within and outside of the Black community—in comparison to the accomplishments of their male counterparts. Beyond Respectability is an invigorating testament to the pivotal legacies of changemakers like Pauli Murray, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell and why the intellectual work of Black women cannot and will not be forgotten.


The cover of the book Too Heavy a LoadToo Heavy a Load
Deborah Gray White
Although originally published in the late ’90s, Deborah White Gray’s Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 remains unarguably timely. Tracing a century worth of trials and triumphs through the biographies of trailblazers from Ida B. Wells to Anita Hill, Gray maps the way solidarity and community building among Black women challenged the sexism and racism of synonymous with American culture. An informative and invigorating read, Too Heavy a Load is a refreshing chronicle of perseverance, the transformative power of sisterhood, and the limitlessness of communal vision. A quintessential title for feminists and historians alike, Gray’s well-researched and heartfelt book is one to be read with vigor and revisited often.


The cover of the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave GirlIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Harriet Jacobs
Penned during the 1850s, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girlby Harriet Jacobs is one of the earliest autobiographical accounts of American slavery. Published after her death in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs’ heart wrenching yet crucial narrative gives readers an eye-opening portrait of her life on a plantation in North Carolina, the inhumane brutality of her owner, and the way motherhood inspired her to seek freedom for herself and her family. One of America’s first Black feminist texts, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an invaluable addition to the literary canon.


The cover of the book BelleBelle
Paula Byrne
Paula Byrne’s fascinating biography examines the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial daughter of Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman. Best known as she’s depicted in a double portrait with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, Belle was educated and raised by her great uncle William Murray who served as Britain’s Lord Chief Justice. Murray, who served as Belle’s surrogate father, was instrumental in multiple judicial rulings during the 1770s that ultimately led to the end of slavery in England. Through Byrne’s enlightening prose and thorough research, Belle and her family’s story reveals how revolutionary it is to be a Black woman during a turning point in history.

Your Favorite Classic Myths Reimagined in 10 Books

The only legend I have ever loved is

the story of a daughter lost in hell.

And found and rescued there.

Love and blackmail are the gist of it.

Ceres and Persephone the names.  

from “Persephone” by Eavan Boland

The first time I had a formal introduction to Greek, and to a lesser extent, Roman and Norse mythology, was as a sophomore in high school. Using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as an introduction, my classmates and I explored the stories told about the denizens of Mount Olympus and the plethora of immortals whose interactions made for great stories. Learning this mythology became the foundation for a year’s worth of reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, Sophocles’ Oedipus Trilogy, Euripides’ Medea,  Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and to finish the year, Beowulf.

I wanted to love mythology, but as a young woman, I found only a few stories that made sense to me. Demeter raging over the loss of her daughter, Persephone, and wreaking havoc against those who had allowed Hades to kidnap her was the first story where the actions of a female goddess made sense to me. And Antigone, whose story was told by Sophocles, was willing to die in order to defy an unjust civil law. She died a heroic death rather than allow her brother’s body to be defiled. Later in the year, the rage of Grendel’s mother against Beowulf was another example of a woman whose righteous rage matched my own sense of how women needed to act in a world that didn’t like them very much. But these were the few examples among the dozens of stories we read that year.

Thus, even in a pantheistic system full of male and female gods, it didn’t take long to figure out that goddesses took the hit for causing much of the sorrow in the world. While male gods, especially Zeus, caused harm to individuals, provoking a goddess or tempting a woman led to destruction on a massive scale.

Zeus was the Harvey Weinstein of the Greek pantheon. In countless stories, his persistence in wanting to have sex led him to dress himself up as a shower of gold, a swan, a bull, or whatever the situation might call for. Women who he desired might find themselves transfigured into cows or other creatures, so that Zeus might hide his infidelities from his wife, Hera.

Zeus never turns up in a white bathrobe, but he might as well. As an adult, reading Zeus reminds me of entitled men who are convinced that there is no greater thrill for a mortal woman than the opportunity to sleep with him. His wife, Hera, is portrayed as the jealous shrew who wants to spoil Zeus’s good time, often by punishing her husband’s lovers, many of whom had been given little choice about becoming mothers to Zeus’s children.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that I love reading new interpretations of these ancient stories. The release of Madeline Miller’s stellar Circe seemed like a good time to put together a list of some of the best of these re-tellings, which take place in a variety of settings.

The cover of the book Cassandra


Christa Wolf

This book, which appeared in 1984, was the first of these new interpretations that I experienced. Wolf gives a voice to Cassandra, the daughter of the King of Troy, who was claimed as the spoils of war by Agamemnon. Cassandra had the gift of prophecy, but she had also been cursed so that no one would believe her warnings. When readers first meet Cassandra, she is sitting outside Agamemnon’s castle, knowing that once she enters, her fate is to be killed by Clytemnestra for a crime Cassandra did not commit.

As an intellectual living in repressive East Germany, Wolf was all too familiar with silencing. In Cassandra, Wolf weights a vivid re-telling of the seer’s story with the burden of living in a land that forbids one to speak the truth.

The cover of the book The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

Margaret Atwood

At the end of The Odyssey, when Odysseus has made it home to Ithaca, he and his son, Telemachus kill all of the suitors who had besieged Penelope while her husband was gone. But, for reasons that are never made clear by Homer, they hang a number of Penelope’s servants and handmaids, ostensibly for the sin of having slept with the suitors.

Atwood gives a voice to Penelope, and then contrasts her voice with the collective voices of the dead maids, who plead their case and ask for explanations. Were they killed because they worked against Penelope while she waited for Odysseus? Did they sleep with the suitors in order to spy on them, thus strengthening Penelope in her resistance? Or were they treated by Penelope as some sort of scapegoat to absorb any suspicion that Penelope might have been entertaining suitors instead of remaining chaste? The songs of the doomed chorus haunt the reader long after the tale has been told.

The cover of the book Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

Jeanette Winterson

This re-telling centers on the lonely task of Atlas, who bears the weight of the world. How burdens re-make us is part of the story, but that’s only a part of it. Half-Titan, half-man, Atlas occupies a troubling space that literally weighs on him. Being forced to hold up the world is punishment, but Atlas also bears it as a commitment to duty. Winterson imagines both the terrible loneliness and the thwarted desire at the heart of the tale. Don’t be surprised if you can’t put it down.

The cover of the book The Watch

The Watch

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

In the story originally told by Sophocles, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the king who, without knowledge of his deed, had killed his father and married his mother. Years later, Antigone’s two brothers have gone to war against one another. Creon is about to welcome Antigone into his family as his daughter-in-law, but when Creon decrees that the punishment for her brother’s rebellion will be to leave his corpse to rot in the sun, Antigone defies Creon in order to give her brother proper burial rites.

In Bhattacharya’s re-telling, besieged soldiers in Afghanistan are confronted by the sister of a young man who has been killed in the fighting. She wants to be given her brother’s body so she may bury it according to custom, but the soldiers suspect that she could be a terrorist who wants to kill them. During the standoff, the soldiers will struggle to commit ethical actions in the midst of a war without rules.

The cover of the book Home Fire

Home Fire

Kamila Shamsie

In another re-telling of Antigone, Shamsie imagines the story against the backdrop of modern Great Britain and the United States. Isma and Aneeka are sisters who are pursuing their university educations when they meet Eamonn, the son of a politician who has made his reputation on being ruthless toward certain populations in Britain. Eamonn is ashamed of his father and hides his identity from the two women. But when circumstances lead to Eamon’s revelation, the political consequences will lead to a showdown with fatal results.

The cover of the book House of Names

House of Names

Colm Toibin

Toibin focuses his attention on the women left behind when the men went off to fight the Trojan War. Specifically, he recounts the ten years that Clytemnestra spends plotting to kill Agamemnon upon his return. Clytemnestra feels justified in her fury because of Agamemnon’s actions prior to setting sail for Troy. In an effort to appease an offended god, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia. He had lured his wife and daughter to the military camp by promising Iphigenia a wedding to the great hero, Achilles. Then, while her horrified mother had watched, Iphigenia had been killed in an effort to get favorable winds for his journey.

Toibin gives voice to Clytemnestra’s rage, through which a sequence of vengeance and revenge will be enacted that will leave virtually no one standing. Toibin’s retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is a brilliant examination of the costs of anger.

The cover of the book The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker

The opening line of the Iliad is: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation …” In Barker’s story, readers meet the woman, Briseis, who was a huge part of the events that inspired Achilles’ fury. In The Iliad, Briseis is a virtual trinket that inspires a conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. But Barker gives Briseis her own story, and she also gives voices to the other Trojan women who were captured by the Greeks and held as sex slaves and hostages.

The idea that Achilles would sulk in his tent because of a woman is treated by Homer as evidence of a great fault within the Greek warrior. Barker’s brilliant imagining of the years of siege outside Troy’s walls restores humanity to women who were treated like throw-away dolls. By presenting the Trojan War through the eyes of captives, Barker complicates notions of what defines heroism.

The cover of the book Circe


Madeline Miller

Circe was another demi-goddess who was minimized in Homer’s stories. In The Odyssey, Homer presents Circe as yet another lonely goddess who attempts to keep Odysseus from getting home to Ithaca. Miller gives to readers a complex Circe, the neglected daughter of the Sun. Circe learns skills of magic and healing and becomes a powerful force in her father’s court. It’s why he exiles her, afraid that his daughter will upset the balance of power.

When Odysseus washes up on her shore, Circe interacts with him on her own terms. Miller tells a story that re-empowers a character who was humiliated by her representation at Homer’s hands. Circe is destined to be a new classic.

The cover of the book The Bloody Chamber, Wise Children, Fireworks

The Bloody Chamber, Wise Children, Fireworks

Angela Carter

Angela Carter took on a lot of bad tellings of women’s stories. In the stories that comprise The Bloody Chamber, fairy queens and sleeping princesses—among others— no longer serve at the pleasure of men. They inhabit much larger worlds and wield more power. Carter’s women are not pushovers, and the sweetness and light of your average Disney princess is nowhere to be found. Anyone searching for a grownup re-telling of familiar fairy myths and folklore will find a treasure trove here.

The cover of the book The Mere Wife

The Mere Wife

Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf’s origins are unclear. It was composed sometime between the end of the 6th-century C.E. and the year 1000, and its setting is 6th century Denmark and Sweden. In the story, Beowulf hunts and kills Grendel, the monster, that lives in the lake. Grendel’s mother is never given a name, but it is she that seeks revenge against Beowulf.

Headley moves the story to present-day America. Dana Mills served her country in its war in the deserts of the Middle East. She is captured and her mock execution by her captors is watched by millions on YouTube. Years later, Herot Hall, a gated community situated at the base of a mountain, is home to people who fear living in the City, amidst its urban “chaos.” They have chosen the artificiality of a quiet life. Everything is serene until the day that Willa’s son, Dylan, makes friends with a “strange” little boy, Gren, who lives with his mother, the returned Dana, up in the woods behind the walls of the community.

Gren and Dylan’s friendship will disrupt everything around them, and it exposes how sterile and bleak the life that Herot Hall’s residents have deliberately chosen for themselves. Headley has crafted a story that operates on multiple levels. It is a feminist re-telling of Beowulf and a critique of late-stage capitalism. I found it one of the most provocative books I have read in a long time.

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