Sunday, November 27, 2011

`A Book With a Local Lineage'

At thirty-seven thousand feet, with snow-covered mountains glowing below us, and books from a public library in Washington and a university library in Texas stacked on my tray-table, I read these cheering words:

“If the idea of a public library was civilizing, so was the place, with its comforting quiet, its tidy shelves, its knowledgeable, dutiful employees who weren’t teachers. The library wasn’t simply where one had to go to get the books, it was a kind of exacting haven to which a city youngster willingly went for his lesson in restraint and his training in self-control. And then there was the lesson in order, the enormous institution itself serving as instructor. What trust it inspired—in both oneself and systems—first to decode the catalogue card, then to make it through the corridors and stairwells into the open stack, and there to discover, exactly where it was supposed to be, the desired book.”

That's Philip Roth, from an op-ed piece he published in The New York Times in 1969. In the wake of the riots that gutted the black neighborhoods in Roth’s home town, Newark, N.J., in 1967, the city council voted to remove from the budget $2.8 million already allocated to maintain the city museum and public library. Public protest, including Roth’s letter, eventually persuaded council to reverse its decision. The letter is collected in Roth’s Reading Myself and Others (1975), which I was reading in a copy borrowed from the King County Public Library in Bellevue, Washington.

I think of public libraries as the frontline of American democracy, places where any of us by virtue of simple citizenship can read any book we wish, without a penny in our pocket, pursue any bookish whim, meet the great minds that shaped us, no college degree or bank statement required, and become better citizens. Roth ups the ante by adding civilization to democracy. I first read Roth in a library, even before he published Portnoy’s ComplaintGoodbye, Columbus in the Parma Heights Public Library. 

Sometimes I think the direst threat facing public libraries comes from within. I refer to administrators who cull from their collections books they’ve never read, while stocking video games, Desperate Housewives DVDs, books about zombies and vampires, and collections of criticism devoted to writers whose books are not on their shelves. I’m not convinced it’s even possible for most of us to achieve full literacy without access to well-stocked public libraries (including interlibrary loan). Without them, my hunger for books might never have evolved, let alone ever had a chance of being satisfied. Roth writes: 

“For a ten-year-old to find he actually can steer himself though tens of thousands of volumes to the very one he wants is not without its satisfactions. Nor did it count for nothing to carry a library card in one’s pocket; to pay a fine; to sit in a strange place, beyond the reach of parent and school, and read whatever one chose, in anonymity and peace; finally, to carry home across the city and even into bed at night a book with a local lineage of its own, a family tree of Newark readers to which one’s name had now been added.”


jim prentiss said...


Those days are long gone. When I go to the library, I past people who are on a computer playing video games, checking their Facebook account or watching videos from YouTube. It seems it is the older generation checking out books to read. I think most people do research by a Google search (which I happen to enjoy), not at the public library. I still use my library card regularly and enjoy my trips to the downtown library.

Anonymous said...

Eric Hoffer was self-taught in much the same way that Lincoln was. In his book, Truth Imagined, Hoffer tells of his life as an itinerant laborer: "I rented a cheap room near the Los Angeles Public Library and spent every minute reading. It did not occur to me to explore the city. I lived frugally." Later, in 1931, he became a migrant farm worker, and in the years up to World War II, followed the crop harvest throughout California. He had library cards in every place where he worked.

I requested that the large public library system in my area purchase a copy of Cynthia Haven's "An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz". They informed me that the book was too esoteric for purchase by the library.


Stefanie said...

Thanks for such a lovely post. Due to changes in economics, the advent of the internet, and people no longer reading like they used to, libraries have had to change with the times. It's hard enough keeping the doors open as it is. Those computers, video games and DVDs help the general public stay interested in funding libraries. Librarians don't like getting rid of old books, nor do they like turning down a patron's request to add a particular book to the shelves, but they are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place; cater to the majority who uses the library for mostly entertainment and be more likely to get funding to keep the doors open, or stick with being a "traditional" library and risk having the budget cut even more than it already has been. It isn't pretty and librarians are constantly struggling to find a balance.