More than the houses and apartments I’ve occupied, libraries are my true home, and that’s not just a figure of speech. I’ve lived in five states and in dozens of cities and small towns within them, and I’ve always colonized the libraries. I remember how books were arranged, the systematic vagaries of Dewey and Library of Congress ordering, in libraries that no longer exist. I remember the bottom shelf on which in the late nineteen-sixties I found Herbert Gold’s The Man Who Was Not with It (1956) in a red library binding and started reading it there on the floor on a rainy Saturday afternoon in Cleveland.
I’ve been looking again at one of Wright Morris’ pioneering “photo-texts,” as he called them – God’s Country and My People (1968). Morris is best known for his novels but was a superb photographer. The picture that grabbed me over the weekend is a close-up of two shelves, twenty-five books, in what appears to be a public library. It’s the “L” section in fiction, with titles by Sinclair Lewis on the top shelf – Dodsworth, Elmer Gantry, Main Street, Babbitt, Ann Vickers. All are worn from use, the bindings loose and lumpy. Many have had the title and author’s name written on the spine by a librarian.
On the lower shelf is a later novel by Lewis, Kingsblood Royal, from 1947, which helps date the photo. The dust jacket is missing but it appears in nearly mint condition: “Random House” is plainly visible. The one book lying horizontally on top of others was unknown to me -- Old Home Town (1935) by Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like Lewis’ novels and Morris’, its setting is the American Midwest. Also shelved are Josephine Lawrence’s If I Have Four Apples (1935), The Sound of Running Feet (1937) and Let Us Consider One Another (1945), and Jennette Lee’s The Mysterious Office (1922), among others.
In short, Morris has photographed a typical selection of popular fiction in an American public library, probably in a Midwestern town, circa 1948. It may also represent veiled autobiography. Morris was born in Central City, Neb. His earlier photo-text volumes – The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948) – are largely devoted to Midwestern scenes, as is some of his best fiction – The Field of Vision (1956) and Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960). Perhaps he’s taking his place among Midwestern peers but with a hint of pride, as his work surpasses the authors of the well-thumbed volumes in the photo, despite his critical and readerly eclipse since his death in 1998.
When I saw Morris’ photo I felt welcome, even if the titles pictured don’t reflect my tastes. The plank shelves are as worn as the books. A public library is a well-used public space, recognizably democratic and American, part of our informal education, so of course I was welcome. To borrow one of Morris’ titles, it's The Home Place.