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.