It Ain’t All Wishbone and Books Folks
25 January 2018
"And Knowing is Half the Battle!", "Knowledge is Power", Aplasia, Call of Duty, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, censorship, Chernobyl, Chernobyl Diaries, Chernobyl Ferris Wheel, Communism, history, journalism, Libraries, Long term effects of radiation, Medical abnormality, Michael Berryman, Othering, Politics, Radiation, Russia, Soviet Union, Svetlana Alexievich, testimony, U.S.S.R., Ukraine, Voices from Chernobyl, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster
My personal Chernobyl tragedy was seeing something fun in the whole mess.
Like many young men of this generation I received the Modern Warfare Games for a Christmas present and spent most of the morning beating the campaign mode. I won’t try to lie and say that I was repulsed at the piss-poor narrative, or nauseated by the fact that all of the villains in the story tended to be either black, Latino, or Russians. The fact of the matter was the game was fun to play because it was just a fun story and a wild ride that, in hindsight, becomes more and more ridiculous once you got into the whole Ghosts storyline.
In the first game however there was one mission where the player has to play as a young Price, the grisly, no-nonsense, bearded patriarch of the series who’s always speaking about Pripyat with a cigar between his teeth. I’m tempted to say that the whole game series was perhaps a homage to The A-Team, but at least in that show there was a black character who wasn’t a nameless bullet sponge. The mission is to assassinate a terrorist leader who is setting up an arms deal in the ruined city of Pripyat, the now iconic city (it’s the Ferris wheel) that suffered the worst of the nuclear fallout falling the explosions of the reactor in Chernobyl. Whether it’s hiding from an entire squadron of Russian troops in your ghillie suit, fighting off wild dogs that will literally eat you, or else blowing off Zakiev’s entire arm, the mission is fun. But what is arguably the “coolest” part is the fact that you get to run around the abandoned city and see how much emptiness there is apart from the wild savagery.
This is the tragedy that would be followed up just a few years later by the film The Chernobyl Diaries. The narrative of that particular film is that a group of young tourists interested in an “adventure” hire a guide to walk them through the city of Pripyat, and because it’s a horror story the group is attacked by humanoid mutants. The implication is of course that these were once citizens of the city who were twisted and mutated into monsters by the radiation of the surrounding territory. If this sounds like the stuff of bad “othering” the reader is correct, but the truly worst offense of the film is the fact that this is just a blatant rip-off of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. If you’re going to tell a story about humanoid monsters who became such because of radiation at least pay some lip-service to the man who helped establish the American horror genre.
Or at the very least have the good grace to hire Michael Berryman for a goddamn cameo.
These opening examples however serve a real purpose because hopefully the reader can see there’s something about the Chernobyl tragedy that has captured the imagination of humanity. Chernobyl has become not just a noun, but almost an adjective for everything that could possibly go wrong or be wrong. To put it another way, Chernobyl is synonymous with the word “fuck-up.”
It’s for this tragedy that when I saw a copy of Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster at Barnes & Noble I picked it up, mildly curious as to what it was about.
Obviously, I have trouble reading subtitles.
I wish I could say this book came recommended to me either by friends, teachers, co-workers, or even Goodreads, but it didn’t. I was just casually browsing the history section after one of my Coffee with Jammer sessions and was captured by the cover. I like books that are black and white, and when I saw the gold “Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature” I knew I had to read it.
Svetlana Alexievich, the author, went to Belaruse and Russian to discuss in person the many individuals who were impacted by the tragedy, along with a few government workers who have either repented their pathetic handling of the situation. Alexievich doesn’t proselytize, nor does she offer up her own assessment. Instead her mission is purely interviewing the people and recording their exact impressions, thoughts, reflections, and experiences with Chernobyl. Rather than reporting the facts and figures and digging through government files, Alexievich provides an important cultural document. The voices and testimonies of the victims of tragedy are always the most important and books like Maus by Art Spiegelman are a reminder of this. Voices from Chernobyl humanizes the tragedy because the reader is able to see real people’s tragedies rather than cartoon impressions.
The reader who picks up Voices from Chernobyl should be prepared because the book is written as a series of personal testimonies and as such most of them are tragedies, one of which remains the most distinct in my memory. It’s the story a mother who gives birth to a child after the explosion:
My little daughter—she’s different. She’s not like the others. She’s going to grow up and ask me: “Why aren’t I like the others?”
When she was born, she wasn’t a baby, she was a little sack, sewed up everywhere, no a single opening, just the eyes. The medical card says: “Girl, born with multiple complex pathologies: aplasia of the anus, aplasia of the vagina, aplasia of the left kidney.” That how it sounds in medical talk, but more simply: no pee-pee, no butt, one kidney. On the second day I watched her get operated on, on the second day of her life. She opened her eyes and smiled, and I thought she was about to start crying. But, God, she smiled
The ones like her don’t live, they die right away. But she didn’t die, because I loved her. (81).
I left out the quote where the mother informs Alexievich that she has to physically push the waste out of her daughter because of this condition. I left it out because this grotesque reality is everything and more that is the cultural horror that is the Chernobyl disaster and also out of a personal sense of ethics. There’s already enough of a “freak-show” atmosphere with Chernobyl, and this mother and child’s troubles are only a minor part of the larger problem.
Of course, the pro-longed exposure to radiation was going to create visible distortions in the population in terms of genetics. I recognize that not every reader is thoroughly versed in the specific details concerning how radiation affects genes, but I can rely on the fact that most readers will understand that the invisible rays that emanate from nuclear reactors and waste can create horrors like giant ants, lizards, and of course a praying mantis. And if the reader is a person like me, they surely realize that such developments, though tragic, will lead to awesome badass monsters like Deathclaws or Mireulek Queens which will have to be killed with miniguns that shoot flaming bullets while also wearing suits of power armor decorated with the Nuka-Cola logo.
The monster movie connection aside though what’s important about this passage is that while it seems common knowledge that radiation can create havoc with a person’s genes and body, this information was largely repressed by the Russian government and returning to the same mother the most pernicious element of the disaster takes shape:
She doesn’t understand yet, but someday she’ll ask us: why isn’t she like everyone else? Why can’t she love a man? Why can’t she have babies? Why won’t what happens to butterflies happen to her? What happens to birds? To everyone but her? I wanted—I should have been able to prove—so that—I wanted to get papers—so that she’s know—when she grew up—it wasn’t our fault, my husband and I, it wasn’t our love that was at fault. [Tries again not to cry] I fought for four years—with the doctors, the bureaucrats—I knocked on the doors of important people. It took me four years to finally get a paper from the doctors that confirmed the connection between ionized radiation (in small doses) and her terrible condition. They refused me for four years, they kept telling me: “Your child is the victim of a congenital handicap.” What congenital handicap? She’s a victim of Chernobyl! (83).
A similar event takes place just two pages down:
Here’s what I remember. In the first days after the accident, all the books at the library about radiation, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even about X-rays, disappeared. Some people said it was an order from above, so that people wouldn’t panic. There was even a joke that if Chernobyl had blown up near the Papuans, the whole world would be frightened, but not the Papuans. There were no medical bulletins, no information. (85).
The great philosopher G.I. Joe used to elocute so confidently after the kids would say “And now I know” that “Knowing is half the battle.” I also distinctly remember Saturday Morning Cartoons when School House Rock would proudly declare that “Knowledge is Power” thus introducing millions of young kids to a quote that, some would argue, was once attributed to Francis Bacon. Cartoons and sixteenth century writers aside however I go back to these two accurate platitudes because as always there’s truth beneath the cliché. Knowledge is the way to combat ignorance, and knowledge is always going to ensure that individual people will be able to overcome challenges. Likewise if a populace is educated about the events and details of a disaster they’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether or not those in power are accurately and correctly responding to said disaster.
It’s disgraceful that a mother in such a position would have to fight for four years just to get a doctor to acknowledge the possibility that her pregnancy had been corrupted due to radiation poisoning. Likewise it’s horrific that a government would intentionally remove books from libraries simply to ensure that no one could question whether or not it was handling the events of such a catastrophe properly.
The latter point is especially revolting to me largely because I work in a library and understand that removing books is one of the most obvious and cruel means of censorship.
Voices from Chernobyl is as much a criticism of the government of Russia at the time as it is an opportunity for survivors to tell their story about the tragedy. In the historical context all of this desire for secrecy makes sense. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power as the Premier of the Soviet Union and was pushing for reforms in the country in his desire for perestroika. If the reader is unfamiliar with this concept it was a political philosophy introduced during the eighties to try and allow more market opportunities within the Soviet Union and also allow more independence to the nations that were under the control of the Soviet Union at that time. Some have argued that this policy hurt the U.S.S.R. more than it helped, and in fact there is some debate as to whether or not it actually caused the downfall of the Soviet Union. Whatever the case there was a desire on the part of the Soviet government to appear strong and unified less the United States, the central philosophic and economic rival of the U.S.S.R, use the disaster as a way of showing their superiority. Pride is unfortunately the downfall of many great peoples and countries, and so the Chernobyl disaster remained hidden and mismanaged largely because the Russians did not want to appear weak.
The attempt to silence voices will always reek of political corruption, but coming to the end of my reflections on this book I still stand where I did originally in the position that Voices from Chernobyl serves a far more important function than simply revealing a cover-up. The books means to humanize a people who have been dehumanized because the fault of those above them.
Alexievich records many voices and individual people who suffered, or knew people who suffered from the disaster, and the common sentiment that runs through all of these testimonies is that after the disaster the people that lived in or around the site of the explosion have become a sort of “other.” Historians, journalists, and tourists to this day come through hoping to catch some sight of the lingering damage, and the people who have to try and make a life in this space are looked on in a kind of sick wonder mixed with pity.
Voices from Chernobyl offers a different and far more valuable look at how the people of Russian and Belaruse were impacted by this disaster. These stories and testimonies offer a wide range of personality types that are times sympathetic and sometimes infuriating. These are people, not cartoon characters. And as the reader listens to these stories they will hopefully recognize not only something of themselves in these people, but more importantly they’ll discover some empathy. And that is key. It’s easy for human beings, for the sake of comfort, to ignore tragedy for fear they might somehow be implicated in such a travesty, or else that they may become unhappy from listening to someone else’s tragedy. However Alexievich’s book is in the tradition of demonstrating that listening to the voices of victims, even at its most horrific, is the way humanity learns from the mistakes of the past.
A nuclear explosion is the stuff of nightmares, but it can’t drown out the voices that linger through the fallout and remind us that some have endured.
All quotes from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster were taken from the Picador paperback edition.
I’ve provided a few links below to articles about Alexievich and Voices from Chernobyl.
Academic Book, Academic Libraries, Black Colleges, Book Review, books, Cleopatra, Frederick Douglass, history, Jim Crow Laws, Julius Caesar, Libraries, Library History, Library Philosophy, Library: An Unquiet History, Lighthouse of Alexandria, literacy, Matthew Battles, My Fair Lady, Politics, race, race inequality, racism, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Rex Harrison, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Why Libraries Matter
We get it, my reader says before I start. Libraries matter, let’s move on to something else. Like when are you going to start that multi-part review of The Sandman Series? And why isn’t there a review of Lolita yet? You keep talking about Christopher Hitchens’s book god is Not Great and yet you haven’t written to B—– to discuss why that book is so flippin important. And why why why haven’t you sat down yet and written your review of The Martian Chronicles, A Contract With God, Middlesex, and the second half of Gay Macho? Huh? Tell me that?
Well before I begin I probably should say it’s unusual to object to my reader before I’ve even started, but kudos for demonstrating initiative. And for the record all of these arguments have great merit. There is a large pile of books to my left which haunts me daily because it’s a reminder that I haven’t been writing many reviews lately. You see the last six months have entailed me realizing that I don’t want to be a teacher (I had one semester and it just about broke me), a long period of nervous break-downs which almost cumulated in a suicide attempt, a deep and profound existential crisis, a return to editing a novel I wrote when I was 19 years old, and the sudden appearance of a job at the library which, if I can be dramatic, has literally saved my life and inspired me to live life and actually enjoy myself.
That’s a long way of saying I apologize to your initial rebuttal, but libraries really do matter. But not simply because working at one kept me from shooting myself.
My wife tells me I need to stop saying things like that. Sorry wife.
I’ve written over the last few months about what social function libraries play in society and culture, and what libraries have meant to me personally. Ever since I was a kid I loved going to the library and disappearing into books and being in a nice quiet place where I could read, and now that I work at one (I’m technically not a librarian because I don’t have an MLS degree, I’m an Information Access Associate) I realize that the library remains a vital hub for the community and for literacy. Because I’ve covered so much ground already of what libraries can mean, it may seem pointless to discuss it any further. However, a book like Library: An Unquiet History comes along and adds a new dimension I hadn’t really considered while I was wandering through my romanticisms.
I bought the book while I was still teaching a college class. A few of my friends worked at the library, and so I began scrolling through books on Amazon about libraries (their history, their theory, their social function) working out some unconscious desire on my end to join them in that happy space. The book had good reviews, and a fair number of the people writing said reviews had nothing but good things to say and so I plucked it up. I wish I had a better intro story about this book, but that’s what it is. My mind was looking to escape into the idea of the library to save itself from my current reality and I guess it worked, eventually.
Matthew Battles, the author, is a fellow at the Berkamn Center of Harvard University where he also worked as a librarian. His initial experience is a beautiful lesson which, I’m sad/happy to say, I’m repeating myself:
When I first went to work in Harvard’s Widener Library, I immediately made my first mistake: I tried to read the books. (3)
The reason for this mistake is the fact that, as he explains later, contemporary human beings armed with processors, blogs, texts, tweets, online messages, and, of course, actual published books produce more written material in a day than has existed in the entire collected history of human beings. The problem then facing a librarian is: what do we keep? This question yields to a far more important question: what exactly is the role of a library, and what is the philosophy that governs it? These aren’t simple questions because a quick analysis yields to problems.
I’ll run a quick hypothetical:
Do you only keep religious writing, and then how do you define religious? Would you include materials written by Atheists or Muslims or Hindus? If the answer is no, and you decide to only service Christian writing how do you define Christianity? Do you include a Joel Olsteen beside the writings of St. Augustine? And if you decide to only keep work published by a particular denomination of Christianity how do you define your library because at that point you’re almost certainly not a public institution, nor are you really an academic one?
These questions are ultimately like a hydra’s head for the moment one is answered new ones spring up and so Battles’s book manages to chronicle how humans have shaped the idea of the library to fit the various models.
He continues in his introduction saying:
Each sort of library is also an argument about the nature of books, distilling their social, cultural, and mystical functions. And what the Word means to society—whether it is the breath of God or the Muses, the domicile beauty and the good, the howling winds of commerce, or some ambiguous amalgam of all these things—that is what the library enshrines. (9).
This is the end of the Romantic history and Philosophy for my review because I’ve covered this idea in previous essays and reviews. Battles’s book is first a history of libraries around the world, and through his narration he manages to demonstrate how libraries lie at the philosophic and historical heart of societies, and for this reason they have tended to suffer for it. In fact, let’s be clear, sometimes the library been outright abused for its very existence.
Battles begins with the famous tale about the burning of the Library of Alexandria. The tale goes that a Muslim conqueror by the name of Amr, heading the will of a Caliph Omar, burned the library of Alexandria and the thousands of scrolls contained there because these writings did not reveal the nature of god and were nothing but pagan trash. As such the library was destroyed. This is a story I had heard before, on numerous occasions, even once in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and so I was rather surprised when Battles points out that this story is rooted mostly in folklore. He writes:
When Julius Caesar came to the aid of Cleopatra in her war against young Ptolemy III in 48 B.C. (by which time the libraries were already nearly three hundred years old), he burned the ships in Alexandria’s harbor to prevent his enemy from taking the city by sea. According to Seneca, some forty thousand books were lost in the ensuing conflagration, though other authorities hold that only a few books, stored in the warehouses awaiting shelving, were burned. (23-4).
I’m tempted here to raise my first and shout, “Damn Damn Damn Damn, Damn You Rex Harrison!” But I doubt many people would get that I’m making a My Fair Lady reference and a Cleopatra reference at the same time, so instead I’ll just note that in typical fashion that Julius Caesar remains a dope.
Battles does an excellent job in his book of correcting numerous stories like this, explaining the early history of libraries, how the concept of private and public libraries developed to prominence during the Renaissance and later Neo-Classical period, how Dewey established the Dewey decimal system and created the “ideal” of the library that currently exists, and finally ends with the rise of industrialization and how the mass production of books created new implications for libraries in general. And all of this, it should be noted, is written in readable language. Rather than taking a theoretical or “academic” approach Battles’s aim is always to simply educate the reader and tell the story of how libraries have changed and altered over the course of their existence, while also highlighting how the society that entertains them and establishes them comes to think of them. It may seem strange to observe that, but the way a society views libraries matters a great deal to how they operate.
My title alone suggests this. Despite the flag-waving, and calls for liberty that takes place within the United States, one of the most consistent public battles is literacy, specifically what should the populace be literate about. Topics like global climate change, the history of slavery and abuse of native Americans, queer identity, and evolution are consistently viewed as suspect and certain powers object to books relating to this topic existing at all in the library. And of course there’s Nazis, but more importantly, Jim Crow laws.
Battles at one point discusses the history of Nazi Germany and the book burnings that take place there, but honestly one of the most horrific stories told in Battles’s book is not the atrocities of Nazi’s, but in fact libraries in the United States.
Destroying a library, however, is merely the crudest form of editorializing. Libraries left intact can become tools of oppression and genocide, too, since they offer canons that reflect the conceits of mystical nationalism and the will to purity. As Richard Wright relates in what is perhaps the climactic scene in Black Boy, his wrenching autobiography, libraries in the Jim Crow South not only deemed some books off-limits; they supported the notion that some people were unsuited to be readers. If the new library offered great progressive hope, so could it deliver unbearable pain in withholding that hope. (180).
This is a side of libraries that most people, particularly in this country, probably would like to ignore, or else pretend didn’t exist. And because of this impulse I find it’s far more important to discuss it than what took place in Nazi Germany. Growing up I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and being told stories of World War II, and learning of the Holocaust and the travesties of book burnings, but growing up I never really learned much about the real travesties facing African Americans. I learned about slavery, I read some books about Jim Crow, but no one had ever taught me about the fact that even libraries could deny people access to books. It seems ridiculous now that such a practice would be allowed to exists, especially in a country that prizes freedom of the individual above everything else, but this idea of open literacy is one that has been noted before.
In his memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass relates how the mistress of the plantation that he worked taught him to read and write. The scene has become iconic in its own right, and the passage remains one of the most powerful portions in the book, for amidst the physical pains slaves were expected to suffer through, Douglass notes how powerful was the punishment of illiteracy. His master discovered these lessons and noted:
“Now,” said he, “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. (338).
Reading this passage, I was reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa explains to Homer why intelligence is making him sad. She simply says, “As intelligent increases, happiness tends to decrease.” This same idea was expressed in an episode of SpongeBob where Patrick’s head is accidently replaced with brain coral and he becomes hyper-intelligent. While these are both cartoon examples they still feel terribly relevant as I look over Battles’s book, and this small passage from Douglass’s memoir. Moving past the cartoon reality towards our own the lesson does remain valid. Reading regularly makes one aware of the world and how it operates. It’s unfortunate but true that when one educates oneself, one begins to learn that people in society can cruel, apathetic, and lazy in general. That knowledge can sometimes make one feel isolated, and isolation is one of the roads to depression.
Battles’s doesn’t exactly help as he points out further:
Black colleges often had made their library resources available to the community, and they sometimes trained librarians for public library service. But even in those states most amply furnished with libraries, public accommodations of blacks was nearly nonexistent. George for instance, had fifty-three libraries in 1936, only five of which served blacks; out of forty-four public libraries in Florida, blacks could use four. (183).
My reader may at this point wonder why they should bother with the book. If it’s nothing but a long history of the terrible things that have happened through libraries, along with the history of how libraries have grown and changed over time, why they should they care? This is an age of e-books, blogs, facebook, twitter, and reality television. What relevance does a library have?
This is a fair point, especially given the fact that I’m writing for a blog. My writings here will almost certainly never appear in print, so how or why should somebody care about a library?
To this question I answer, from my own experience working in a library, that even if society is moving to a paperless milieu, that society will still require some means of organizing, compiling, and arranging those materials in such a way so that the common public can access them. And Battles himself argues such:
The bibliographer of the digital age returns to the revelatory practice of her medieval forebears. Librarains, like those scribes of the Middle Ages, do not merely keep and classify texts; they create them, too, in the form of online finding aids, CD-ROM concordances, and other electronic texts, not to mention paper study guides and published bibliographies. Digital texts have followed the same deeply grooved arc of other forms of writing. […] Already we call our databases and online catalogs “digital objects”—a reflection, perhaps, of our nostalgia for the dusty physicality of our books[…]. (211)
Rather than leave the reader with some sentiment about the idea that books will last forever, or that there will always be some kind of physical record, my lasting impression of Battles’s book was the idea that libraries exist to ensure there is a space where human beings find information. The library is not just a dusty building full of books, but as Battles’s books demonstrates it’s a highly political space where the negative actions of human society, whether it be war, genocide, racism, sexism, classicism, etc. can all, and very quickly, usurp the space polluting the original idea of what that space was supposed to be.
And, if I can play with the abstract a little bit here, Battles’s book is a highly readable history about the idea of what libraries actually were. What were their focus, how did technology change their approach to collecting and gathering information, how did power and economics influence these decisions, how have they survived and protected information in the face of political and physical violence towards their space, and finally how do the people who subscribe to the idea of the library try to defend and shape that space to their own ideals?
Library: An Unquiet History may sound at first like an abstract, academic book but that’s only because I’m a shit writer who gets wrapped up in his own head when he writes. This book was good, damn good reading, because even people who couldn’t give three diddly fucks about the history of libraries could come away from the reading with a bounty of information and something to give a passing shit about. In an age when we have to defend the very existence of the libraries themselves it speaks to the power of a book, and its writer, that it could pull off such a miracle.
All quotes from Library: An Unquiet History comes from the paperback W.W. Norton Edition. All quotes from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass comes from the Signet paperback copy of The Classic Slaves Narratives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
biography, Book Review, Brett Witter, cats, Christopher Lloyd, Deathclaw, Dewey, Dewey Readmore Books, Dewey the library cat, Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Fall Out 4, Farm Crisis 1980s, Farm-Aid, history, Libraries, Library as Civic Center, Library's Social Function, Pea Picker Books, Spencer, Spencer Public Library, The Pagemaster, Vicki Myron
I’ve given up hope trying to buy my wife gifts, specifically books. I suspect that all bibliophiles have the same problem when they try to shop for their loved ones. They assume that their wives, husbands, parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, etc. love to read as much as they do and so when they find a book that covers a topic that their loved one is fascinated with they snatch it up, alongside three or four books they tell themselves they’ll save for Christmas. It eventually happens that said loved ones will open the present, have to quickly hide their dissatisfaction, and then wait until you’ve left to place the book on a shelf somewhere wondering why you didn’t just take the hint and buy something off of their Amazon Wish List. Much like this rotten scenario I decided one year that
I would buy my wife a birthday present, but being a self-centered man I figured that she would enjoy a book. I was buying my father, mother, and sister a book for Christmas though in my defense they actually want books for Christmas. There’s a local bookstore in Tyler known as the Pea Picker. It’s a little hole in the wall place, half the store is nothing but Harlequin romance paperbacks, but there’s a real charm to the store and I’ve spent hours and several paychecks supporting this local business. After scouring through the classics section I decided I would look for something for my wife, and while I scanned the shelves an image of a cat struck my eye and I plucked the book up at once.
On the cover was a handsome ginger cat that reminded me of my own previous cat Sylvester, and later of an actual ginger cat my wife would adopt after he literally walked up to our front door. I read the title Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. It was enough for me, so I bought the book, wrapped it up, gave it to her, and watched as the book collected dust on the shelf in our living room for close to two years. I didn’t realize then that my wife no longer reads books, but chooses instead to read articles, blog posts, Tumblr posts, and scientific essays on her phone instead. As such Dewey remained on the shelf, unread and unappreciated until a few month ago when I picked the book up.
While I’ve finally gotten a job teaching English at a local college, over the last month I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the local library and how much I would actually love working there. Part of this is gross romanticizing on my part, I grew up watching The Pagemaster and almost every weekend my mother would take me for story-time, but I do believe the great appeal of working there is the opportunity to participate in my community and help the library grow into something relevant and important. I love the library and what it can be. Perhaps this desire and ambition is what led me to pick up Dewey; I’m preparing myself and trying to understand what it is that a library actually does and what I would actually be doing if I actually got the chance to work there.
And what better way to find out than reading a story about a cat?
Dewey is mostly about Dewey the cat but it’s also largely about the author Vicki Myron. In the small town of Spencer, Iowa she worked as a librarian for about 25 years, and one morning while she was walking into the library a coworker mentioned hearing sounds coming from the book depository. It was the coldest day of the entire year and so they tried to be quick about their investigation. When they opened it up they found a small kitten
It was huddled in the front left corner of the box, its head down, it’s legs tucked underneath it, trying to appear as small as possible. The books were piled haphazardly to the top of the box, partially hiding it from view. I lifted one gingerly for a better look. The kitten looked up at me, slowly and sadly. Then it lowered its head and sank down into its hole. It wasn’t even trying to appear tough. It wasn’t trying to hide. I don’t even think it was scared. It was just hoping to be saved.
I know melting can be a cliché, but I think that’s what actually happened to me at that moment: I lost every bone in my body. I’m not a mushy person. I’m a single mother and a farm girl who has steered her life through hard times, but this was so, so…unexpected. (10).
This is largely the reader’s introduction to both Dewey as well as Vicki and from there the relationship is established. The reader might immediately question why they should care about a cat who lived in a library or a book which seems already to be a poorly written sentimental sob story, but I would caution them against judging the book on this initial impression.
I’m tempted to tell the reader, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” but that’s just…too…well, yeah too pathetic even for my humor. Besides the cover is a picture of Dewey who was a cat
It’s true that cats have skyrocketed to the top of culture in the last decade largely due to the internet, but trying to ignore them, or their impact upon culture is a mistake for as long as humans have kept the company of domesticated animals, cats have held some spiritual, religious, or philosophic significance to said community. It’s this last observation that makes Dewey the odd and wonderful book that it is.
Cats, much like libraries, are unique creatures, and they occupy an odd territory in the community that houses them. Dewey is a book that, while it does chronicle the life of the cat who took up residence in the Spencer Public Library, it’s also often an autobiography of Vicki Byron who in her time saw trials and tribulations both for herself as well as her community. Near the start of the book she describes the Farm-Aid crisis:
Those who lived in larger cities may not remember the farm crisis of the 1980s. Maybe you remember Willie Nelson and Farm Aid. Maybe you remember reading about the collapse of family farming, about the nation moving from small growers to large factory farms that stretch for miles without a farmhouse, or even a farm-worker in sight. For most people, it was just a story, not something that affected them directly.
In Spencer you could feel it: in the air, in the ground, in every spoken word. We had a solid manufacturing base, but we were still a farm town. We supported, and were supported by, farmers. And on the farms, things were falling apart. These were families we knew, families that had lived in the area for generations, and we could see the strain. First they stopped coming in for new parts and machinery, making do with bootstrap repairs. Then they cut back on supplies. Finally they stopped masking mortgage payments, hoping for a booming harvest to set the account books tight. When a miracle didn’t come, the banks foreclosed. Almost half the farms in northwest Iowa went into foreclosure in the 1980s. Most of the new owners were giant farming conglomerates, out-of-state speculators, or insurance companies. (22-3).
The casual reader hoping to open the book and find nothing but cute pictures of Dewey the adorable ginger library cat must have been stumped when they were greeted with the history of a local economic agricultural disaster, and later when they read about the storm of locusts that descended on Spencer and the fire which burned down most of the town in June of 1931 they may wonder what these events have to do with Dewey the cat. If it’s not clear at this point Dewey is not a book purely about a cat, it’s in fact an autobiography of a woman who is also chronicling the history of the town in which she grew up and prospered. Spencer is a town which, were it not for the book and Dewey himself, might have largely gone unnoticed to the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world for that matter. The crises that affect that community become something important to read about because, rather than just following Dewey, the reader is able to appreciate the struggles that face small agricultural based cities in the Midwest; communities that, it should be noted, often are left unobserved by the culture of the nation because they are “out there” and “away” from the glamour of big cities.
And, if I can segway back for a moment, Myron does an incredible job of demonstrating how similar that apathy for that Midwest small town mirrors apathy to the library and why that apathy is misplaced. She says in a later passage:
A great library doesn’t have to be big or beautiful. It doesn’t have to have the best facilities or the most efficient staff or the most users. A great library provides. It is enmeshed in the life of a community in a way that makes it indistinguishable. A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and it always has what people need. (116)
Further on in the book Myron continues this point:
A librarian clerk’s job used to involve filing and answering reference questions. Now it’s understanding computers and imputing data. To keep track of usage, the clerk working the circulation desk used to make a hash mark on a piece of paper every time a patron entered the library. You can imagine how accurate that system was, especially when the library was busy and the clerk was answering reference questions. Now we have an electronic clicker that records every person who comes through the door. The checkout system tells us exactly how many books, games, and movies come and go and tracks which items are the most popular and which haven’t been touched in years. (163)
I could, and will at some point, gush on and on about the benefit a library has to its community in terms of resources and morale boosting, but that would be getting away from Dewey and Myron who, as I read the book one chapter every morning before work, began to grow on me. Each morning I could look forward to reading small anecdotes of Dewey eating rubber bands or Arby’s sandwiches, pointed with small sections like the previous quote which would remind me why libraries matter so much, especially to small communities, and finally there was a simple joy in reading the life of Myron who suffered with her own demons including an early marriage to a man who suffered from chronic alcoholism. Along with this Myron also eventually underwent a hysterectomy (Removal of the uterus).
Myron doesn’t hold back her feeling as she describes this last event and she describes giving birth to her daughter and the complications that ensued:
I had always wanted a daughter named Jodi Marie. I had dreamed about it from a young age. Now I had a daughter, Jodi Marie Myron, and I was dying to spend time with her, to hug her and talk to her and look into her eyes. But the surgery had knocked me flat on my back. My hormones went haywire, and I was racked with headaches, insomnia, and cold sweats. Two years and six operations later my health hadn’t improved, so my doctor suggested exploratory surgery. I woke up in the hospital bed to discover he’d taken both ovaries and my uterus. The physical pain was intense, but worse was the knowledge that I couldn’t have any more children. I had expected a peek inside; I wasn’t prepared to be hollowed out. And I wasn’t prepared to enter sudden and severe menopause. (88)
As a man, there are ailments that I will never understand. This does not mean I don’t try and develop empathy however, and this impulse has helped me in life. Working in the Writing Center at UT Tyler, most of my co-workers, in fact nearly all of my co-workers were women and so between the sessions when it was just the tutors, conversations would spring up and sometimes the issue of periods and menstruation came to dominate the conversation. Unlike most of the men I have met in my life who practically shriek at the mere mention of menstrual blood, I simply don’t care, and this in turn allowed me to listen as my female coworkers discuss the “pain in the ass” or actual physical and psychological pain associated with their vaginas and the complications other women have. It doesn’t hurt either that my wife reads me testimonies of women online who discuss freely and frankly their personal horror stories with uterine problems, often when I’m trying to kill raiders or Deathclaws in Fallout 4.
This is all a way of saying reading this passage I was properly horrified by Myron’s personal loss and didn’t just tune out because it was “lady-problems.” Myron’s book, as I’ve said before, is a personal biography of what the library, and what a stray cat she found one morning while working at the library meant for her. Though I recognize my reader is getting impatient and has to ask the inevitable question.
So what? Why should I spend my time reading about a cat and a woman from the Midwest who worked in a library that nobody ever heard or cared about?
The problem dear reader is that the world did care about it. Dewey became an international celebrity and Myron describes tourists from Japan, Germany, and even parts of the United States who came to the Spencer Public Library because of the story of Dewey. In his time the cat became a celebrity and brought attention to a small town that otherwise would have just become another part of “Out There” for the rest of the United States. And if I can reflect some of this back at the reader, the very attitude reveals a larger fundamental problem. Libraries, and the people who work there, fill a real social function, and for most of their efforts they largely go underappreciated. It took a cat, granted a gorgeous charismatic one, but a cat nonetheless for people to give a shred of a shit.
As humans have evolved, certain organisms have evolved alongside us shifting and changing their biological niche to fit their environment. Dewey, much like Vicki Myron herself, and much like libraries in general come to embody the fundamental component of life which is change. Change is neither good nor bad, it all depends on the method and ultimate result of change. Dewey is a book that is worth the reader’s time because it a great personal narrative about how a life can undergo dramatic and minuscule changes.
And really, I should be as real here as humanly possible, Dewey is a largely sentimental book about a cat in a library in a small town, and while I detest sentiment as an aesthetic tool, Dewey is rich with small moments that leave the reader feeling generally happy. One such moment is when Myron describes Dewey waving at her whenever she would arrive at the library:
Every morning since his first week in the library, Dewey had waited for me at the front door. He would stare at me as I approached, then turn and run for his food bowl when I opened the door. Then, on one of the worst mornings of that terrible two years, he started waving. Yes, waving. I stopped and looked at him. He stopped and looked at me, then started waving again.
It happened the next morning, too. And the next. And the next, until finally I understood this was our new routine. For the rest of his life, as soon as Dewey saw my car pull into the parking lot, he started scratching his right paw o the front door. The wave continued as I crossed the street and approached the door. It wasn’t frantic. He wasn’t meowing or pacing. He was sitting very still and waving at me, as if welcoming me to the library and, at the same time, reminding me he was there. As if I could ever forget. (192).
Normally somebody telling another person about the eccentricities of their cats is the stuff of nausea and bad sitcom writing. Social media and the internet is inundated with pictures of cats, and gifs (jif? gif? xif?) of cats performing outrageous stunts, and yes we have all seen the video of the kitten having his tummy tickled. Despite all of this, life is built up of small, seemingly random and meaningless experiences that collect over time to build a life. Take a moment to appreciate something like the story of a cute ginger cat being saved outside a library, or the life story of a woman who overcame great personal loss to find meaning in her life, or else just reading about how a library came to mean so much to the people of the world who often forget about the small little towns is worth your time.
Little moments in libraries can endure in memory and lift us when we need it most. And if your grandmother gets you a book about a cat who lived in a small library in Iowa for Christmas instead of that new Galaxy phone that you wanted, don’t be in such a rush to shelve it and forget about it. You might discover like I did what your true calling may be.
Beaver Dams, Beavers, bibliophilia, Book Review, books, C.S. Lewis, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Children's Book, Christopher Lloyd, Film, film review, Hocus Pocus, imagination, J.K. Rowling, Jumanji, Leonard Nemoy, Libraries, Literature, Matilda, Mr. Dewey, Neil Gaiman, Novel, Roald Dahl, Speech, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Pagemaster, We're Back, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013
Before I go any further, I need to confess that before I wanted to become a writer I really wanted to be a beaver.
Neil Gaiman has the wonderful ability to remind me how much I want to be a writer. My constant or at least steady reader may object, point to the one publication credit I have along with this site, and say I’m already a writer so perhaps I need to clarify. A writer is not just someone who writes and publishes work regularly, or irregularly, or prolifically, or never at all, or once and then never again. A writer to my mind is someone who through their writing creates a unique and unmistakable voice. A writer is also inspiring another person who reads their work and feels as if they are reading more than just a story or essay, but rather really experiencing the honest mind of another person. In my own mind Neil Gaiman has certainly accomplished this through his writing and more, because as I’ve practically devoured the essays and speeches found within The View From the Cheap Seats I’ve been left with a wonderful reinvigoration of spirit because it feels as if I’m reading the thoughts of a friend.
Where does the Beaver part come in? My reader asks. Well I’m getting to it. Please be patient and remember that I like long lead-ins.
When I was younger I had a fondness for building “clubhouses.” These “clubhouses” were only in fact houses or clubs in the academic sense because they were really just furniture with a blanket thrown over it, and inside I created small world that was entirely my own. I would have my Pokémon action figures, a few Lego figures, and maybe an extra blanket to wrap around myself, and being completely honest here maybe a Playboy I might have stolen from my dad. The individual totems varied, but what was always present in those clubhouses was my stuffed tiger Hobbes and a few books. It didn’t matter if they were my Calvin & Hobbes books which were really my moms, or else my Captain Underpants books; the reason I retreated into those often cramped spaces was to disappear from the world and exist entirely in my own world. I’m sure in hindsight that these pockets of refuge are created by children everywhere at some point in their development, but I mean it when I say, I escaped into those pockets sometimes really feeling as if I’d built a new world for myself or else a pocket in the larger world. And that’s when beavers come in.
At the church I went to as a child there was one summer when Vacation Bible School was themed around C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. There was always a different “theme” every summer and for the record that was the last interesting one. Because I was around seven or eight my group were the beavers. I didn’t really know much about beavers, in fact I knew didly squat about them. But still I wanted to learn more and damn it my mother was the kind of woman who made sure that when her child asked a question he received an answer. That answer came in the form of a visit to the library. It was there that I found books on animals and in those books I found information about beavers which were furry rodents that ate trees and made dams. These dams could only be accessed by swimming into the water and from there entering a special hole which lead directly into the water. After that, whenever I built my clubhouse there would always be a small, near impossible entrance that I only I knew about.
This beaver desire on my part, which is a rather horrible sentence when read out loud or of context, leads me back to my childhood and ultimately to the library. I’ve noted in a previous essay that my desire to work at the local library in my hometown is most assuredly influenced by some romanticism because the idea of being surrounded by books all day is not only pleasant it’s a dream come true.
However, I am a realist.
Libraries are not simply about putting away books and introducing people to wonderful literature that will in turn lead them down a path to literacy that will make them become the next Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling. In fact, the roles and responsibilities of librarians are often similar to those who work in a service industry or public bureaucracy. Librarian patrons are often those one might observe in a customer service line of work, and while there are people who come to libraries for books, a great number of people are far more interested in books on mental health or the new James Patterson…we’ll call them novels because the English language has yet to come up with a better word for monstrosity. This doesn’t mean that libraries are not opportunities for magic, it just means that such moments will be more powerful for their serendipity.
I felt such a moment the other day when I bought The View from the Cheap Seats and read the first article Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013. This speech has profoundly affected me, for apart from making me weep, it brought back the idea of what a library can and should be. In one early passage Neil Gaiman lays out a beautiful philosophy for fostering literacy:
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them. (3).
This is a beautiful quote that has inspired countless memes, and lord knows it made me weak in the knees when I read it, but after this passage there was a bit that was more relevant to my reflections on the library:
I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old. (9-10).
Like Gaiman, I’ve been lucky to know a few amazing librarians. Virtually all of them have been women, one of them is a good friend, and what all of them have in common is a genuine interest in encouraging people to read, to find books that match their particular aesthetics. Since I was a kid creating his little beaver dams, the library became a space which seemed defined by its constant opportunity. Reading the stories, and renting the videos, and listening to librarians read stories to us kids there was always this wonderful sense that I could be whatever I wanted to be in the library. More importantly, the library fostered that feeling and in effect told me that I could be and read whatever I wanted to be. I could also meet whoever I wanted to.
Reflecting on this passage by Gaiman I thought immediately of two other works who also fostered this image of libraries and librarians as bastions of opportunity: Matilda by Roald Dahl and The Pagemaster. These were both 90s movies, and without sounding nostalgic it’s something to acknowledge that that particular time for cinema was magical. It was magical because most of the children’s movies in the early to mid 90s were usually centered in or around New England and usually dealt with children encountering the supernatural. Movies like Jumanji, Hocus Pocus, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and We’re Back all seemed to create this wonderful magical realism that has yet to be replicated successfully in my estimation. The Pagemaster is really an entire essay unto itself, but the lingering impression of film is the introduction the librarian gives to Richard Tyler.
Christopher Lloyd will forever live on as the librarian I would want to be and his character, a man who I had no idea was named Mr. Dewey, emerges from the shelves pushing a cart of books. He spots Richard Tyler, played then by the young McCauley Caulkin, and gives a speech that possesses a spirit that, while it is hyperbolic and dramatic, catches the feel for that desire to instill in young people the desire to read. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying it’s magical introduction to an unforgettable character.
Mr. Dewey: Welcome to the library, young man. Don’t tell me. You’re here for a special book.
Richard Tyler: Mister…
Mr. Dewey: Stop stop stop. Allow me to guess. I have a talent for guessing what people need. You’re in need of a fantasy! Brave knights, mythical fairies, ferocious dragons!
Richard Tyler: Look, all I want is…
Mr. Dewey: Adventure! Of course! You’re a boy who loves adventure, brimming with wicked demons, cutthroat pirates.
Richard Tyler: No, no, that’s not it.
Mr. Dewey: Horror! Oh, horror! Evil demons, wicked monsters, haunted houses, graveyards. Yes, it’s horror for you, boy. I’m sure of it. Your library card, please.
Richard Tyler: I don’t have one.
Mr. Dewey: [pulls out a brand new one] You do now. Sign here.
[Richard signs it]
Mr. Dewey: Richard Tyler, consider this your passport to the wonderful and quite unpredictable world of books.
Now technically after this Richard tells Mr. Dewey that he doesn’t want any books, and so there is nice blend of idealism from an old man and the cold cynicism that dawns on him after Richard has made his point. Still this scene, and the rest of the film which is a fantastic introduction to many classic works of literature (including an appearance of the voice of Leonard Nemoy for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) helped me establish the library as a place where my imagination could wander and I might dream up some new worlds of my own, or else find the imaginations of others.
The Pagemaster was a film that helped me establish the aesthetic of the physical library as a place to incubate imagination, but Matilda offered up something far more personal. I’ll admit with some shame that I didn’t actually read the novel by Roald Dahl till I was a teenager. I much preferred watching the film made by Danny DeVito, because like Matilda I often was a rather lonely child. I had friends, and while I would go to play dates and have a “best” friend here and there, I was often possessed by a firm conviction that I was a kind of oddity and that what I saw and appreciated was somehow different than my compatriots at school. I’m sure this is actually a common phenomenon for children, but watching and then reading Matilda years later I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this girl and I were kindred spirits of some sort.
My concern is libraries though, so I should get back on point.
The novel Matilda is about a little girl in England who is born from parents who really don’t care much about her. Her father is a used car salesman who often scams his customers and her mother is an empty headed woman who is often out playing bingo leaving Matilda home alone. Matilda develops an early fascination and love of reading, so much so that she one day dares to walk into the heart of the village in which she lives in order to find the Public Library. Once there she meets a woman by the name of Mrs. Phelps who opens her world up to new ideas. Matilda quickly reads all the books in the children’s section and asks Mrs. Phelps for a book for adults. A famous grown-up book in fact.
Mrs. Phelps looked along the shelves, taking her time. She didn’t quite know what to bring out. How, she asked herself, does one choose a famous grown-up book for a four-year-old girl? Her first thought was to pick up a young teenager’s romance of the kind that is written for fifteen-year-old school-girls, but for some reason she found herself instinctively walking past that particular shelf.
“Try this,” she said at last. “It’s very famous and very good. If it’s too long for you, just let me know and I’ll find something shorter and a bit easier.”
“Great Expectations,” Matilda read, “by Charles Dickens. I’d love to try it.”
I must be mad, Mrs. Phelps told herself, but to Matilda she said, “Of course you may try it.” (15).
Because Dahl’s book is a children’s book, and because Matilda later turns out to possess magical powers we might refer to as telekinesis, the fact that Matilda being only four and able to read Charles Dickens is a little easier to swallow. To this day I remember the shock of hearing my father tell me that he was forced to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne in sixth grade. It’s bad enough a teacher thought Hawthorne was a good idea, but the idea of giving sixth graders that kind of material is just absurd.
I’ve begun wondering if I’m not just a realist but also a cynic on some level.
Still this passage is a great reminder of the sentiment Gaiman expressed about the librarians who helped him find wonderful books. A good librarian offers up opportunity and recommendations not just so that a person will actually read a book, but because they recognize in the book their offering some intrinsic merit. I suspect on some level it might also be an attempt to bridge the gap that exists between people. Finding out that you love the same book as someone else can be a glorious sensation.
Mrs. Phelps doesn’t just offer good books to Matilda however, she also imparts an important lesson about reading period. Mrs. Phelps eventually creates a list of books for Matilda to read and as the girl pours through them they begin to discuss the books:
“Mr. Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,” Matilda said to her. “Especially about men and women. But I loved them all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.”
“A fine writer will always make you feel that,” Mrs. Phelps said. “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”
“I will, I will.”
“Did you know”, Mrs. Phelps said, “that public libraries allow you to borrow books and take them home?”
“I didn’t know that,” Matilda said. “Could I do it?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Phelps said. “When you have chosen the book you want, bring it -to me so I can make a note of it and it’s yours for two weeks. You can take more than one if you wish.” (18-9).
My reader, patient as ever while resting in their red leather-bound arm chair and sipping their Scottish Breakfast Tea (they really shouldn’t have drunk that at 11 PM, they’ll be up all night) at lasts interjects and asks the important question. So what? What does this matter? Gaiman’s speech is lovely with sentiment and Matilda and The Pagemaster paint just as idealistic portraits of libraries as bastions of creativity and bibliophilia. What relevance does this have to the real world? Why should I care?
To this dear reader, I go back to my beaver dams.
Those dams were always accessible by a hidden hole that could only be found in the water and I pictured the interior with fireplaces and arm chairs and beds, and always always always with books. It was in books (children’s books, graphic novels, novels, books of poetry, etc.) that I managed to find some sense of purpose and identity, and considering my abstract imaginations of these dams they wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t had librarians who had pointed me to those books where I learned about dams in the first place. I do believe that my desire to work in a library is to create that damn again, to find myself in a space where I might help build, organize, and help shape the world of the knowledge that exists in this new information age.
My childhood dream was living in a library because the people who worked there, and let’s be honest when you’re a kid you think adults who aren’t your parents live in whatever place they work at, seemed to live in a clubhouse, in a beaver damn, that was full of books. They knew the titles of books and where to find them and so when I needed to check out Bootsy Barker Bites or George and Martha for the 30th time, they knew exactly where to direct me.
Libraries matter in our society because, even if it is an idealistic or romantic sentiment, there are some children who will come wanting to learn and to find books so that they can escape to other worlds or try to understand other human beings. Being a librarian can be the opportunity then to expose children to books and what they can do and what they can be. It’s a way of helping the next generation discover imagination and solace in reading. And of course, it can be a great opportunity to help children learn about animals, like beavers for example.
I’ve given up hope of becoming a furry rodent who chews wood for a living, but there’s still a chance to be the weird library guy who offers kids Charles Dickens books and points them to the pay phone when they’re not interested. Though for the record my local library doesn’t have a magic mural which transports children into the world of imagination and fiction through a creepy paint serpent. Too many parents complained.
As with the previous essay, if you’re interested in reading the entire speech of Why our Future Depends on Libraries I managed to find a website which transcribed it and published, it online. I should forewarn the reader that it is an edited version so it may be different than the version published in The View from the Cheap Seats. If you’re interested just follow the link below:
Shortly after beginning this essay a friend of mine confirmed that my volunteer paperwork was finally processed and so now I can say that I’m actually working for a library.
Shortly after writing the previous note, and I swear I couldn’t make this up if I tried, a man came into the library and actually bought a book about beavers. There are moments of serendipity which can be both heart-warming and truly frightening.
****Writer’s FINAL Note****
In case the reader is at all interested here’s a link to a video from the movie Matilda, specifically the early discovery of the library. I share this in hopes that the reader might remember their own love for libraries, and also might remember that they can’t watch this scene without balling like a little punk. Enjoy.
authorial freedom, Book Review, Bootsy Barker Bites, Coffee With Jammer, Coraline, Democracy, Education, Essay, Freedom, freedom of information, imagination, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, Libraries, Library, Literature, Neil Gaiman, Non-Fiction, Political Apathy, Politics, Sandman, Speech, Stranger Things, The Graveyard Book, The Tragical comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, The View From the Cheap Seats, Where the Wild Things Are, Why Libraries Matter, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013, Writing
It’s not just because I want to work at a library. It’s because I hate Neil Gaiman. I hate the man because he is everything that I want to be. Not just an accomplished author with a few books under my belt, but a writer who has really altered the creative landscape for being nothing else but what they truly are. An author who creates, not simply for creation, good creation, is never simple it just looks like it, but an author who creates purely in their own style so that it is impossible to picture it presented any other way. Gaiman is a writer who, no matter what he is doing, always manages to make the work his own.
I should stop kissing ass and actually get to the library essay. Speech actually.
I try once a week to have coffee with one of my friends who hasn’t left Tyler yet and just talk about everything and anything and these coffee dates have become a weekly series I refer to as “Coffee with Jammer.” I’m currently in talks with PBS about turning this into a series but they keep telling me there isn’t enough gratuitous nudity or shit blowing up. That and Charlie Rose is starting to call me and leave threatening messages. I keep this standing appointment because, even though I do consider myself an introvert and am often far happier sitting at home reading my books and writing these essays, social interaction is important. Keeps the voices at bay. Talking with my friends, who will deny it vociferously, I find they are often far more intelligent than me and they often have interesting things to talk about which in turn inspires new ideas for the work I produce for White Tower Musings, so you might also say that there is some selfishness on my part.
Still the most recent “Coffee with Jammer,” which was interrupted only three times by Mr. Rose’s violent text messages, took place with my fellow gentleman scholar Seth Wilson who actually has contributed an article for WTM. The coffee was lovely, and between the jokes about “Roll a D20” and “Alan Moore’s hilarious/tragic psychosis” we managed to talk a great deal about Stranger Things and writing in general. When we parted I decided to hang back and look around because “Coffee with Jammer” always takes place at the local Barnes & Noble and so after the long conversations where I’m usually intellectually stimulated I try to calm down by looking at the books. This unusually backfires because I wind becoming more and more excited by all the new books and old books and books period, and while I was passing by one table I literally swung on one foot and looked down.
The name Neil Gaiman is always enough to capture my attention because he has a consistent track record of reminding me that he’s not just talented but exceptional. With books like Sandman, Coraline, American Gods, The Tragical comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, and The Graveyard Book Gaiman isn’t just a writer that you read and then drop his books back beside the can. His books have a real soul and power that just so completely absorbs you that it’s impossible to simply put them down. The book on the table wasn’t even all that eye catching. It was just Gaiman sitting in the back of a movie theater. In script that mimicked old abandoned typewriters it read The View from the Cheap Seats.
The title didn’t catch me as much as the subtitle: Selected Nonfiction.
Over the last two years I’ve found myself reading more and more nonfiction and, because I’m finding myself comfortable with the title of essayist, I’ve been trying to see what others have done with the form. This wasn’t enough to sell me on the book though, it was when I opened it and read the title of the first work in the collection that I snapped it shut and headed for the cashier.
Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013 has rather long title and so I’ll just shorten it to Why Our Future Depends on Libraries. I’ve mentioned it at the start but to say it once again I’ve recently begun to realize that I would like to work in a library. While part of this is just some childish romanticism thanks to The Pagemaster, the realist in me has begun to read books about libraries, watch TED talks from librarians, and actually dig into firsthand testimony by librarians about what the job entails, and after all this research I still want to work at one. Libraries are not simply book depositories and long shelves full of dusty books tended to by sexless grandmothers and men who wear sweater vests. They are in fact real cultural hubs where communities can find free and available resources for everything and anything.
This was part of the appeal of reading Gaiman’s essay, but by the end some of that romanticism I cautioned myself against had come back, and in my defense it’s difficult to avoid this when the man writes passages like the following:
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. (7).
I’ve never read or watched a speech delivered by a real person that actually made me cry. The only actual speeches that have brought me to tears were those delivered by President Bartlet on West Wing, and let’s be fair here that man had the benefit of pre-cocaine Aaron Sorkin to help him out. I can honestly admit without shame however that Why Our Future Depends on Libraries had me in tears by the end because it reminded me what words can actually do. Words and ideas can summon emotions, memories, feelings, passions, and dreams that have long been left buried in our hearts either because they were inconvenient, or else because we were afraid to simply speak them out or write them down lest be perceived as a fool. My emotional reaction to Gaiman’s beautiful speech is not the important idea that’s worth exploring here, although a bit of my past may help to offer some insight.
When I was a child my mother would regularly take me to the Library because every Saturday was “Book time” when one of the librarians would sit before a clustering of children and read out loud a randomly selected book, or books, to the kids, and once this activity was done there would be fun exercises involving coloring or drawing, but often what would occur is that the kids would scatter to the nearby shelves, pull out a book, sit in the big fluffy couches, and disappear into their selected paper-back tomes. I still remember the sensation of trailing my finger over the spines of books reading the titles until I found something I wanted. I remember the George and Martha, Frog & Toad, Jumanji, The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, Where the Wild Things Are, but mostly I remember a book called Bootsy Barker Bites. I must have checked this book out at least thirty times but it didn’t matter how many times I read this book I couldn’t get enough of it. Those Saturdays at the Library when I would gather whole piles of books to read at home, or have my Mom or Dad read them to me, remain so much a part of who I eventually became.
The Library fostered in me the idea that reading wasn’t just something you had to do for school, it could be fun. Once that idea was established, reading and books in general became more than just assignments, they became to learn more about other people as well as myself, and while I did have a brief period where my reading slagged off a bit, I never lost the idea that reading was an important skill not just for individual amusement, but also for the larger issue of citizenship.
Gaiman’s speech is not political in the sense of partisanship; it is only political in the fact that it declares it’s sentiments openly and without regard for criticism. Later on in the speech he exerts why he stands on the position that he does:
According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account.”
Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce. And while politicians blame the other party for these results, the truth is, we need to teach our children to read and enjoy reading.
We need libraries. We need books. We need literature citizens.
I do not care—I do not believe it matters—whether these books are paper or digital, whether you are reading a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.
But a book is also content, and that’s important.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens: we have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here. (12-3).
The idea that literacy matters to a republic is not novel, but it’s still a vital idea nevertheless, and one that I try to impart to students and friends who often admit freely that they don’t care about politics. I understand the sentiment completely when it is expressed, and given the current political climate it’s any wonder that the people who care about politics are able to still find something worth talking about at this point, but after the flash and pop of the superficial campaigns and the passionate shit-storm that is discussing President Obama at Thanksgiving, politics is something vital and important and literacy is at the heart of that idea. Governments can only rule by the consent of the governed, but if the citizenry of a republic cannot even read the law for themselves then how can they make an informed decision about whether to support said laws or the politicians writing them. I recognize that I run the risk of sounding like a first year political science student who’s just read Common Sense for the first time, but I hope the reader is able to look past this.
Libraries are at the core of the idea that a democracy can only work if everyone, regardless of race, religion, class, or ethnicity can have access to reading and writing and thus offer up their own voice. Gaiman offers a more eloquent explanation than I could in a rather long quote. He talks at first about being a young man who was often “left” at a library, which for the record parents shouldn’t do because librarians are not babysitters, but it was because of these librarians that he was able to discover the importance of literacy.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the twenty-first century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to fundamentally miss the point.
I think it has to do with nature of information.
Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.
In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.
Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.
I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content. A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now. Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood. (9-11).
We’re living in a different age than our fathers and mothers. A former professor of mine would remark to us that we had no idea how easy our jobs as students were. In the past, and he admitted this freely, he wouldn’t actually try to find articles for papers because there was just no way to do it without spending hours in the library digging through journals trying to find one quote to validate an argument. Now whole volumes of journals from a wide variety of subjects, fields, and specifications are available by selecting the right options in a drop-box. Rather than mourn this bounty of information as the death of the local library, more than ever it’s important to relish in this freedom of information and to trust libraries to provide access to it.
Despite appearances libraries are political institutions, they are often spared the partisan bullshit (though there are some horror stories) and in it’s place is a philosophical politics. As long as a society holds to the idea that everyone deserves the same opportunity to learn and participate then libraries will exist to ensure that a citizenry has access, not only to books, but to the internet, adult education, children books, books clubs, local archives, access to microfiche and local histories, and if nothing else, a space in the community where they may enjoy a few moments of quiet comfort reading a book.
Why our Future depends on Libraries is a speech that is too important not to be read, because our future really does depend on the freedom of information. The way to ensure that the next generation of readers, writers, and citizens contribute to their culture and society is by making sure there is a space that fosters intellectual curiosity and growth. Neil Gaiman growing up had a library that helped him grow as a reader, and because the UK is seeing a dramatic reduction of the number of small libraries, and as the United States drifts more and more towards a reality where libraries are seen as backwards, provincial, and useless the vital question becomes: Why do libraries matter?
Hopefully that question has been answered by now, but Gaiman’s speech offers up the only answer that leaves one satisfied.
Libraries matter because they inspire. Reading a book is a political act, it is a personal act. Once a child recognizes that they can read a book, it’s only a matter of time before they realize that they can write a book. And once that thought is implanted a voice is created which will alter the discourse of a community, or country, in ways that cannot possibly be explained except by the writer who dares to do so.
If you’re interested in reading the entire speech I managed to find a website which transcribed it and published, it online. I should forewarn the reader that it is an edited version so it may be different than the version published in The View from the Cheap Seats. If you’re interested just follow the link below:
Banned Book Week, Banned Books, Book Review, Catalyst University, censorship, Education, Fahrenheit 451, ignorance, Jammer Talks About, Joshua Jammer Smith, Libraries, literary education, Novel, Politics, Ray Bradbury, science fiction, The Illustrated Man, Video lecture, YouTube
It was recently Banned Books Week and so I thought I would do my part to cover a novel which I’m rather partial to. Fahrenheit 451 is a novel I was exposed to because one of the best teachers I’ve ever had assigned the book The Illustrated Man for class. Ray Bradbury, along with Stephen King, became an author I adored and so I picked up Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451 on her recommendation.
This novel is a science fiction masterpiece, but also one of the most misunderstood books in my opinion because everyone likes to focus on the book burning aspect of the plot rather than the deeper theme of combatting ignorance. Bradbury isn’t just writing about censorship in order to say censorship is bad. The problem with censoring books is not just that it stops people from reading a book, the problem with censorship is that it stops people from reading a book and then thinking about it and the questions it asks.
Banned Books week is more than just an opportunity to read naughty books in order to feel rebellious, it’s far more personal and political. Reading Banned Books is a chance to counter ignorance because the only way to become smarter is to admit to ignorance so that someone can help you learn more.
I’ll leave it at that and let my reader see the video for themselves and come up with their own opinion. Because, after all, that’s the point of reading in the first place.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for watching.
TO WATCH THE VIDEO FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW: