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July 2006 Message from Dan

Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:

Recently I’ve experienced the return of an old, early love from a previous period of my life. There’s no real excuse or reason why the original relationship ended – or at least entered an unnecessary hiatus – other than that shameful common experience of one’s life having moved on, tastes having changed with age, the tyranny of habit, and – yes, I admit it – the comfort of being able to buy and own and consume things at the expense of a simpler and more pure relationship.

Obviously I’m talking about the public library and my recent rediscovery of it.

Years ago I asked Stephen King his definition of being rich and he answered without any hesitation – “It’s when you can go out and buy the new hardcover version of a book whenever you want without having to wait for the paperback to come out.”

There is wisdom there. And I confess that I’ve been successful enough at my work to become rich by Stephen King standards and my relationship to my local public library has suffered in recent years because of that extravagant wealth. I got used to going into a Borders or Barnes and Noble or the Boulder Book Store or Denver’s Tattered Cover and just purchasing the books that interested me. Well, I never got used to such extravagance – I was always aware of what a luxury it was and always will be – but it did become a habit.

Lost, for a while, were the weekly or biweekly trips to the Public Library – even though our town here in Colorado has an exceptionally good library, superior to the rather superior-acting down-the-road-aways Boulder Public Library in every way, I think, and even though my wife in recent years has headed up the Friends of the Library and even though she is currently on the Board of Directors of the Public Library and even though Tony Brewer, our soon-to-retire library director, is the wisest priest to our temple of texts of any library director I’ve known in my 51-years of library going – and, despite all these incentives to remain faithful, like a Catholic who forgets to go to Mass, I lost the habit of going. Lost with that habit was the whole dynamic of wandering the stacks and then lugging home ten or twelve heavy tomes, hoping against hope that I’d get them all read in the three weeks before they were due. (I hate renewing things.)

Also lost, I told myself at the time, was the literal physical displeasure of opening a book to find it underlined by an idiot, or to find food spilled on it, or the spine all but broken, or – worst of all – the stench of cigarette smoke pouring out of it like a mustard gas attack on the Western Front. New books from bookstores are . . . well . . . new. They have the literary equivalent of that aphrodisiac of all aphrodisiacs, the New Car Smell that brings us back to auto showrooms as soon as we have two nickels to rub together.

But the most grievous loss of all was the depth and sense of serendipity that constant library borrowing and reading give. Bookstores today tend to be clean, well-lighted places, filled with the ambrosial odor of coffee brewing (“sell them legal addictive stimulants” says the Joe Fox character played by Tom Hanks in “You’ve Got Mail,” explaining the secret of success of his family superchain of Fox Books in grabbing customers and putting small independent bookstores out of business), but today’s bookstores, for all their well-lightedness and scent of coffee, lack depth. It’s hard to find even a decent stock of the classics there, much less the odd little fiction or nonfiction book that’s long been out of print, or the quirky biography (Borders Books doesn’t even have a formal biography section), or the lovely book of botanical prints that was last checked out in 1941.

So I’ve returned to the library and with that return has come a wealth of memories and riches, many of them very specific to summer.

#

I recall my first trip to a public library. It was in Des Moines, Iowa, and I went to third grade during the one year we lived there, and the library excursion occurred shortly after school began in the fall.

I went to the library – insisted on being brought there – because of my obsession that summer and early autumn with busting rocks open. (We had moved to Des Moines early that summer and would be moving away early the next summer. My dad’s job had us moving frequently.) Our house on University Avenue not far from Drake University was magical in 1956. Behind our backyard lay several hundred acres of private forest owned by a certain Mrs. Brenner who, the local kids told my brother Wayne and me, was a witch. At the very least she didn’t allow trespassing in her forested and flowered, arch-bridged and garden-filled mystery forest. It was my luck to make friends with Mrs. Brenner that year and she allowed us to roam at will through her amazing acres of deep woods and flowered meadows.

But beyond Mrs. Brenner’s forest was a forest preserve, half a mile wide and extending literally forever – or at least to the edge of the city limits. Wayne and our friends and I were Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn every day of that year. Out on the edge of the private forest and forest preserve, above the gulleys, beyond the old homes, new subdivisions were being put in. Everywhere there were big rocks. Boulders. Stones. It soon became my self-appointed job to lug these rocks home – the house we were renting had a little room in the basement with real shelves, real glass cases, perfect for a rock collection! – and I soon realized that some of those rocks, when broken apart with a sledgehammer I was just able to lift and wield at age eight, contained incredible treasures: veins of crystal and mica, odd hollowed centers, interiors of wildly different colors, and once, astoundingly, a geode.

I just didn’t know the names of any of those wonders, nor the kinds of rocks that might offer the best chance of yielding more such treasures. So I talked my mother into taking me uptown – the downtown of Des Moines lay in one direction, past the university, but the local uptown was only two blocks away, and there was a library there.

So my mother brought me uptown to the little library and I came home that September day with eight books about rocks. But I had a library card. I’ve never not had one since that day in 1956.

I love the story that Carl Sagan told in his TV series and book Cosmos about how when he was a wee lad in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, he occasionally – in winter – got a glimpse of the stars. He wondered what they were, so he asked adults around him. They replied, “They’re lights in the sky, kid.” So Sagan did what so many of us did when disappointed with the lacunae in the wisdom of adults around us – he got a library card, for a library on 85th Street he thinks (outside the boundaries of his child’s world, which ended at the elevated railway on 86th Street – beyond that point there be dragons) – and he had his mother take him to that library and once there he asked for a book about stars.

He writes – “[The librarian] returned with a picture book displaying portraits of men and women with names like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. I complained and, for some reason then obscure to me, she smiled and found another book – the right kind of book. I opened it breathlessly and read until I found it. The book said something astonishing, a very big thought. It said that the stars were suns, only very far away. The Sun was a star, but close up.”

And so an astronomer was born.

No geologist or rock expert was born in those first months of my love affair with libraries, although I read every book about rocks that little library had on its shelves, but the love affair with the library itself was well and truly born. The miracle of bringing home, even for such a limited time, books full of very big thoughts – all the myriad right kinds of books – was dizzying to me then and remains dizzying to me now.

Years ago I read an early 1970’s interview with an author I’m inordinately fond of – John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Daniel Martin) – and in the interview, Fowles was telling the American interviewing him that we Americans wouldn’t understand why the sales of his books were greater in America than in his home country. “In England,” he patiently explained, “we have these very common things called lending libraries . . .”

I’d hoped Fowles was being ironic, but he wasn’t. He hadn’t twigged to the fact that the United States has more libraries per capita for its geography and population than any nation on earth. I’m sure he’d heard of Andrew Carnegie, but Fowles almost certainly had no idea of Carnegie’s philanthropic push to put a library in every crossroads and village in America. (I love the architecture of the smaller Carnegie libraries and go out of my way to see them in my road trips across the United States – in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and Hays, Kansas, and small towns in Wisconsin and Iowa and Pennsylvania and Alabama. We had one here in my town in Colorado and it still served as a library until the 1970’s, about the time I arrived.)

An aside here . . . I’ve never understood, as a teacher or just as a person, the current insistence, especially by minorities and liberals, on the idea that young people can learn only when they have “role models” of their own race or ethnicity or gender to teach them and to lead them. This makes no sense to me . . . not if the young person’s community, whether it be a tiny town in rural Georgia or in today’s Bensonhurst or in a Muslim neighborhood in Detroit . . . has a public library. James Baldwin and Richard Wilbur have written eloquently about this, as has WEB Dubois and William F. Douglass and so many others. What’s needed to escape any local arbitrary limitations on imagination and destiny and to enter the world of personal intellectual enrichment is the ability to read.

And a library card.

Instantly, whether you’re a poor-white kid like me in the 1950’s (there were very few books in our home – my father had been forced to drop out of 8th grade to make a living as a young man on his own, my mother had gone to business school but, other than her beloved Gone With the Wind -- reread every year, reread literally to tatters, despite my later arguments to her that it was racist trash -- we had only a few Reader’s Digest Condensed Books in the house) -- or whether you’re from some other group or family where books do not surround you, access to the library immediately leaves family and street friends mostly behind and your acquaintances and mentors and role models become Shakespeare and Montaigne and Hegel and Twain and Melville and Austen and Dickinson. (All right, agreed, your first literary playmates may be Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Bobbsey Twins and the Holt science fiction series with the symbol of the rocket and atom on the spine and the great endpapers with the robot shooting deathrays from his visored eyes, but you’ll quickly find new intellectual neighborhoods, especially if your interests lead you to the stars . . . or even to rocks.)

#

I’m convinced that summer reading has a different flavor to it.

Readers, of course, read all the time . . . real readers do. In every habitat and during every season and most of us during all hours: while we’re eating lunch alone in a creepy cafeteria or in an echoing airline terminal, before we go to sleep, later when we can’t sleep, over breakfast and during cracks and intervals in our workday, hell . . . during our workday itself . . . but I’m convinced, although I have no proof, that summer reading has a different flavor and quality and satisfaction and pleasure to it.

Now, I’m not talking about The New York Times beach-reading idea, reading that smells of Coppertone. Truth be told, I spend, on average, 0 days a year at any beach, and beach reading has never been a serious part of my life. I’m afraid that’s true for too many of us, not just locked in the central-continent hinterlands, but those of us to whom the word “vacation” might as well be as remote as “Paradise.”

I’m just talking about summer reading – out on the porch, in bed with the windows open late on a hot night with night sounds and scents coming through the screens, or, with a little bit of luck, on a chaise longue in the backyard or while swaying in a hammock.

Perhaps the reading is different, longer, slower, more luxurious somehow, because the days are longer, slower, and more luxurious. All that twilight by which to read. All those unearned but patheticially welcome evening hours.

Do you have certain books you prefer to reread in the summer? The newspaper supplements in May or June are always full of the Summer Blockbusters you will be privileged to read as soon as their publishers bring them out, or – on occasion – they ask various Important Local People what they’ll be reading this summer, but, no offense meant, who gives a damn? Those aren’t the important summer books and never have been. They’re just the poolside or backyard or Coppertone-blobbed beach equivalent of the bestseller you hurriedly buy in an airport kiosk to kill time on the next uncomfortable flight you have to suffer through.

Real summer reading is part luxury, part nostalgia, part reaction to the heat and humidity and long evenings and heavy light and luxuriant foliage and even to your own memories. In one novel I wrote, summer, to a kid of about eleven, was said to stretch out in front of us like some wonderful banquet with all the time in the world to savor the many courses. (Almost none of us have this true freedom of summer anymore, of course, even the retired folks among us – duties, deadlines, responsibilities, business, busyness, have all stolen that and will until we die – but the reader part of our brain doesn’t necessarily know that.)

Some of what I used to love to reread on hot summer days and evenings reflect summer itself – J.G.. Ballard’s The Drowned World, for instance, with its heat-induced ennui and the return of the Paleozoic swamps and swollen sun. Or The Long Summer of George Adams by an author whose name I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten but who perfectly captured not only the secrets of childhood but the heat and lethargic intensity of a small Kansas town. Or The Grapes of Wrath, which isn’t really set in summer months but which I first read, in part, during breaks in mowing a really large midwestern lawn, so along with the weary Okies and skies filled with orange dust, the pages bring back the Indiana humidity and scent of new-cut lawns. Or Catch-22, which I can no longer reread (although I will always be grateful for the time I spent near Joseph Heller some years ago when we were both guests at the French Salon du Livre) but which is still a book whose summer’s reading spell still hangs over me.

I was in junior high school (that thing that existed before today’s stupidly structured “middle schools,” where real children are thoughtlessly thrown in with the terminally puberty-stricken) when I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and I devoured it during a series of late Midwestern nights when lightning and thunder flashed and blasted each night like a Dolby soundtrack to the pages. (When I was tracking the historical Vlad Dracula through Romania and Transylvania decades later, midnight thunderstorms there over the Carpathians brought back the memory of those late-night readings.)

Both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are quintessential summer books to me – Twain understood the perfection of summer the way he understood the secrets and silences of childhood, and my actual pilgrimages to Hannibal and the river and islands and hills and caves nearby have never disappointed me – but Robin Hood actually brings back visual and tactile memories of the physical book and of me reading it on my parents’ bed in our home in Des Moines when I was 8, the leaf shadows from the trees in Mrs. Brenner’s forest literally dancing over the illustrated greenwood and leaves on the cover art of the book itself.

There are many adult-level books also redolent of summer to me; they call to me even more during the long, warm twilight evenings, and these range from the philosophy of Hume and Kant and Hegel to Montaigne’s essays (although they are equally beckoning during the long winter nights) to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels and James Dickey’s terrifying Deliverance and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, and,, oddly, both Henry James’s later stories and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

It’s an indulgence to go on this way – and irrelevant, since each of you reading this has your own favorite summer reading topics and titles – but reading, while essential to us, is also (for most of the population) an indulgence, and summer reading is an indulgence wrapped within an indulgence with a slathering of indulgence-sauce smeared on.

#

The library where I lived in Brimfield, Illinois, (the “Elm Haven” in several of my books and stories) from 4th through 8th grade was white and about the size of a small chickencoop, but the books I brought home from there were wonderful because of their age – original editions of Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and Tarzan and John Carter, Mars hardcovers with their original pen-and-ink illustrations.

The Brimfield library, such as it was – one room with walls covered with shelves and one freestanding line of shelves bisecting the tiny space – was where I discovered gender discrimination. The librarian was an old, scrawny, not-very-nice lady who always had her friend, also old, very heavy, also not-very-nice, sitting with her, winter and summer. It was tolerable in the winter but in the summer, the friend took up too much space and air in the hot, closed confines of the library/chicken coop.

One day, just after I’d checked out my batch of books, the librarian called me back to her tiny desk – she and the other woman were cackling like the hens that had probably once filled the little building – and asked sharply, “Do you have a sister?”

“No, ma’am,” I said.

“Are you sure you don’t have a sister?” the heavy crone-friend asked.

I was puzzled. Everyone who knew our family in the little town – Pop. 650, Speed Electrically Timed – knew it was just my parents and my little brother and me. “No, ma’am,” I said. “I mean, yes, ma’am. I’m sure. No sister.”

Both old women laughed and waved me away.

I realized months later that the little interrogation – or exercise in prairie-Illinois irony was more like it – was because of the books I’d been checking out for months. The Nancy Drew mysteries, every one of them. The old Bobbsey Twins books, the original ones wherein the family rode in buggies and the black maid was pure stereotype. Little Women and Little Men . . . dear Christ, Little Women.

I didn’t care. I would have read every book in that stupid chicken coop of a library – that blessed, beloved chicken coop of a library – if I’d lived in Brimfield a couple of more years. What are gender boundaries to a reader? What are “age-appropriate” guidelines to a reader? (I also checked out and read John Hershey novels when I was in fifth grade there.) What is anything to a reader but the book itself, and the place and time in which we read and savor the book?

Libraries change our lives, of course. In the 1970’s, while living in Kenmore, New York – an old suburb of Buffalo – I went on a mountain-climbing-reading binge, I can’t remember why, and the Kenmore Library there fed my cravings. For a while I commuted the seven hours to the Adirondacks to hike and climb, but soon enough I decided to move out to Colorado to be closer to the real things. W.H. Auden points out that “Art makes nothing happen,” but I would contend that libraries do.

I’ve always pitied the poor schlumps who go to public libraries primarily to check out media, CD’s or DVD’s, or to use the library computers. I hate the presence of too many computers in a library, just as I dislike and distrust the digital “card catalog” at the expense of the real card catalogue, that boon to researchers and serendipitists alike, the product of centuries of information technology evolution (the Dewey Decimal System was nothing to sneer at and some of us, academics, researchers, and novelists, mourn its abandonment). But those poor folks using the library just for “information” at the computer become just one more lump on the fleas on the roadkill on the Information Highway as they look up the value of their used Dodge at Kellybluebook.com or whatever . . . while the real library users head for the stacks. The place where they keep the books.

Libraries, despite current misinformed opinions (even by librarians) to the contrary, are not about mere information. This is an age where we can’t escape information vomiting at us from our TVs and cell phones and iPods and radios and print ads and commercials and computers. Let the Internet handle the shallow job of shoveling “information” at people like so much unfiltered sewage. Libraries are for and about books. Libraries have a sacred trust and a unique role for civilization; they have been and must continue to be clean, well-lighted places where books are preserved and lent out – the greatest and most successful act of trust, perhaps, in modern American society -- and read, sometimes read right there, in the comfortable and companionable silence of the place. All the rest, as Ezra Pound said, is dross.

In William H. Gass’s essay “A Defense of the Book” in his wonderful collection of essays, A Temple of Texts, (available at your local public library), the novelist and essayist writes –

“The aim of the library is a simple one, to unite writing with its reading . . . yes, a simple stream, but a wide one when trying to cross. The library must satisfy the curiosity of the curious, offer to stuff students with facts, provide a place for the lonely, where they may enjoy the companionship and warmth of the word. It is supposed to supply handbooks for the handy, novels for the insomniacs, scholarship for the scholarly, and make available works of literature, written for no one in particular, to those individuals they will eventually haunt so successfully, these readers, in self-defense, will bring them finally to life.

“More important than any of these traditional things, I think, is the environment of books the library puts visitors in, and the opportunity for discovery that open stacks make possible.”

All readers, all real readers, discover the infinite power and allure of the open stacks. I did so while an undergraduate at Wabash College, wandering the floors of the Lilly Library, literally lost back in the stacks like an explorer who has surrendered his sense of direction to the deep forest, pulling and reading books almost at random. If there is a Borgesian order to the universe – and he argues well that the universe may be one infinitely large library – that order shows itself, like the face of God, in the serendipitous connections one makes while wandering the stacks. We connect with books the way growing synapses connect and reconnect in an infant’s developing brain; there can be no digital plan or program for this. It is the neural network of expanding consciousness, extending the isolated human brain to the larger network of other minds, most of which perished in time long ago but whose thoughts wait there on the shelves, still alive and vibrant to connection. The stacks are the dendrites of organized thought itself. Wandering the stacks is the essence of a connection as intimate as sex, and surrender to serendipity – the reader’s equivalent of a saint’s trust in the Holy Spirit or Jung’s belief in synchronicity – can be the only guide.

The heart of the heart of all libraries, I would submit, are the great novels. And they are not information. They are not mere clusternodes of data. I knew that when I was eight years old.

As my hero, Cynthia Ozick writes in her essay “A Din in the Head” (available in a hardcover collection of essays by the same name from your local library, and, I might add, wonderful summer reading) –

“The novel has not withered; it holds on, held in the warmth of the hand. ‘It can do simply everything,’ Henry James wrote a century ago, ‘and that is its strength and its life. Its plasticity, its elasticity, is infinite.’ These words appear under the head ‘The Future of the Novel.’ There are advanced minds who may wish to apply them to the Internet – with predictive truth, no doubt, on their side. Communications technology may indeed widen and widen, and in ways beyond even our current fantasies. But the novel commands a realm far more perceptive than the ‘exchange of ideas’ that, in familiar lingo, is heralded as a communication, and means only what the crowd knows. Talk-show hosts who stimulate the public outpourings of the injured are themselves hedged behind the inquisitive sympathy of crowds, which is no sympathy at all. Downloading specialized knowledge – one of the encyclopedic triumphs of communications technology – is an act equal in practicality to a wooden leg; it will support your standing in the world, but there is no blood in it.

“What does the novel know? It has no practical or educational aim; yet it knows what ordinary knowledge cannot seize. The novel’s intricate tangle of character-and-incident alights on the senses with a hundred cobwebby knowings fanning their tiny threads, stirring up nuances and disclosures. The arcane designs and driftings of metaphor – what James called the figure in the carpet, what Keats called negative capability, what Kafka called explaining the inexplicable – are what the novel knows.”

Summer is the time for poetry and for the novel, not for self-help books or for holy scriptures or for autobiographies of celebrities who couldn’t write a paragraph about themselves or anything else if their shallow lives depended on it. Summers, especially summer nights, are made deep and sweet for the novel and for the occasional verse, pages slowly turned by you and slowly turning into you as certain and right as the slow succession of long, calm, achingly sweet summer days and lingering summer twilights.

I’ve shared this Wallace Stevens’ poem with you before, I think, one of my daughter Jane’s favorite verses, but it’s time, here in the heart of this summer, to share it again.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

I wish you rich days and evenings of summer still ahead and good reading through then and beyond.

Sincerely,

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