12 Things You Didn't Know About Sarah Vowell 


As told to Erin McCarthy

The author of seven nonfiction books, most recently Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (she was also the voice of Violet in The Incredibles) tells us about her musical beginnings, dirty laundry, and love of index cards. 

1. When I was growing up, I wanted to be Louis Armstrong.
My childhood dream was headlining at the Blue Note with my trio. I quit the trumpet when my teacher told me I wasn’t good enough. After my musical career fizzled, I studied art history and started writing for my college newspaper.

2. I come from a Protestant background, and we love our work ethic.
Music—especially jazz and classical music—lends itself to teeth-gritting, mind-numbing applying yourself. That kind of discipline leads to success in anything, I think.

3. Even as a small child, I was fascinated by the past.
Some of my family are Cherokee Indians and ended up in Oklahoma because of the Trail of Tears. And some of [my ancestors] ended up there because they were Swedish immigrants. History was in my DNA.

4. There weren’t a ton of books around when I was a little kid.
I lived out in the country and went to a small-town school. There was no library. The Bible was the main event, and then stories of American history, so it makes sense that I would end up writing them.

5. When I meet someone new and they ask me what I do, I say, “I’m a writer,” and they say, “What do you write?”
I say, “I write books.” They say, “Oh, novels?” I say, “No, narrative nonfiction books about American history,” and then, usually, there are no follow-up questions.

6. I’m curious about a lot of things.
Right now I’m reading a book about a Japanese garden designer and a Danish crime novel, and I’m rereading the poems of Richard Hugo. I was thumbing through Hemingway’s short stories yesterday, and the day before that I woke up at 4 a.m. and decided to reread Robert Frost.

7. When I’m starting to research, I sit around reading old letters, and diaries, and books about dead people.
I love that part because it’s just about learning, which is—and I hate to admit this in public—my favorite thing in the world. I spend way too much time researching, and then the jig is up, and I’ve got to scramble.

8. I think the rule to nonfiction is that there is no one rule.
Every story deserves to be told differently. I have an index card for every plot point, every quotation, every observation, every joke, every thought, every analysis. I arrange these cards on my living room rug and try to come to some cohesive semichronological trip through the topic.

9. I want the reader to learn along with me.
I let it all hang out. I air my dirty laundry. I will tell a reader about the moment I learned something.

10. If I have a notepad and a pencil, that’s all I need.
I don’t even need a table—I wrote a lot of this most recent book sitting in a big rocking chair.

11. My latest book is two books under one cover.
One is about the Marquis de Lafayette and how he personified the alliance with France. There’s this second book swimming underneath about who we are as a country and how we’ve never gotten along—and how, even though this hinders us and makes us less efficient, it’s also our strength.

12. Writing is a job.
Basically you’re just sitting in a room by yourself doing homework for the rest of your life. But I do have nightmares about having to get a regular job that you go to and put on shoes for. That is my biggest fear, that I would have to do that again.

Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Qatar National Library's Panorama-Style Bookshelves Offer Guests Stunning Views
Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The newly opened Qatar National Library in the capital city of Doha contains more than 1 million books, some of which date back to the 15th century. Co.Design reports that the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) designed the building so that the texts under its roof are the star attraction.

When guests walk into the library, they're given an eyeful of its collections. The shelves are arranged stadium-style, making it easy to appreciate the sheer number of volumes in the institution's inventory from any spot in the room. Not only is the design photogenic, it's also practical: The shelves, which were built from the same white marble as the floors, are integrated into the building's infrastructure, providing artificial lighting, ventilation, and a book-return system to visitors. The multi-leveled arrangement also gives guests more space to read, browse, and socialize.

"With Qatar National Library, we wanted to express the vitality of the book by creating a design that brings study, research, collaboration, and interaction within the collection itself," OMA writes on its website. "The library is conceived as a single room which houses both people and books."

While most books are on full display, OMA chose a different route for the institution's Heritage Library, which contains many rare, centuries-old texts on Arab-Islamic history. This collection is housed in a sunken space 20 feet below ground level, with beige stone features that stand out from the white marble used elsewhere. Guests need to use a separate entrance to access it, but they can look down at the collection from the ground floor above.

If Qatar is too far of a trip, there are plenty of libraries in the U.S. that are worth a visit. Check out these panoramas of the most stunning examples.

Qatar library.

Qatar library.

Qatar library.

[h/t Co.Design]

All images: Arend Kuester, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Reading Aloud to Your Kids Can Promote Good Behavior and Sharpen Their Attention

Some benefits of reading aloud to children are easy to see. It allows parents to introduce kids to books that they're not quite ready to read on their own, thus improving their literacy skills. But a new study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that the simple act of reading to your kids can also influence their behavior in surprising ways.

As The New York Times reports, researchers looked at young children from 675 low-income families. Of that group, 225 families were enrolled in a parent-education program called the Video Interaction Project, or VIP, with the remaining families serving as the control.

Participants in VIP visited a pediatric clinic where they were videotaped playing and reading with their children, ranging in age from infants to toddlers, for about five minutes. Following the sessions, videos were played back for parents so they could see how their kids responded to the positive interactions.

They found that 3-year-olds taking part in the study had a much lower chance of being aggressive or hyperactive than children in the control group of the same age. The researchers wondered if these same effects would still be visible after the program ended, so they revisited the children 18 months later when the kids were approaching grade-school age. Sure enough, the study subjects showed fewer behavioral problems and better focus than their peers who didn't receive the same intervention.

Reading to kids isn't just a way to get them excited about books at a young age—it's also a positive form of social interaction, which is crucial at the early stages of social and emotional development. The study authors write, "Such programs [as VIP] can result in clinically important differences on long-term educational outcomes, given the central role of behavior for child learning."

Being read to is something that can benefit all kids, but for low-income parents working long hours and unable to afford childcare, finding the time for it is often a struggle. According to the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, only 34 percent of children under 5 in families below the poverty line were read to every day, compared with 60 percent of children from wealthier families. One way to narrow this divide is by teaching new parents about the benefits of reading to their children, possibly when they visit the pediatrician during the crucial first months of their child's life.

[h/t The New York Times]


More from mental floss studios