In the past week, I’ve been really thinking a lot about libraries, those bastions of knowledge and our love of learning and reading that, many feel, are under siege by the proliferation of e-books. Three things popped into my life concerning libraries:
First, while reading a scene in Roadshow, the outstanding travel memoir of Rush drummer Neil Peart, I was reminded of the time I spent in a couple of Carnegie libraries in New York. As part of his enormous philanthropic work, 19th century American industrialist Andrew Carnegie created 2,500 libraries when there was no library system in the U.S. He launched libraries in this country as we know them today.
Second, I read two conflicting articles, by two newspapers of conflicting political views. One said that libraries were about to die by the sword of electronic publishing and a lack of deep thinking and learning in the U.S. The other said libraries were thriving like never before. As one who taught writing workshops for four years in a small, vibrant rural library (Crittenden County, KY) with a staff that radiated love of reading (and whose head librarian, Regina Merrick, is a novelist), I’m here to say the latter article is more accurate.
Third, I read an article the other day from the Independent, the United Kingdom’s largest online newspaper, entitled, “Will the Home Library Survive the e-Book?”
This article gave me pause: Can the home library truly be endangered? The answer is, yes and no – depending upon the value you place on good old-fashioned book learning, how much you and family members enjoy curling up or stretching out with a good book, and on the worthiness of books as a reflection of who you are. With Amazon selling more e-books on Kindle than physical books, and Barnes & Noble also claiming higher e-book sales, the very satisfying and rewarding experience of going to an independent bookstore, buying a book, reading it and placing it on your home shelf appears to be in some danger.
Appearances can be deceiving. For example, since I now promote books via social media and publish e-books, among other things, I could be considered the enemy … until we start talking about the 3,000 books in my home library. Some of these books were the first I read, or that my mother read to me: Babar the Elephant, Make Way for Ducklings, Burt Dow Deep Water Man. Others serve as literary benchmarks of my school years: Johnny Tremain, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Old Man and the Sea, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Then there’s my rebellious bohemian side, told in a tale of New Journalism titles: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Pump House Gang, In Cold Blood, Trout Fishing in America, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. An entire bookshelf captures my love of poetry as a reader and writer, with works by more than 200 different poets. And the spiritual titles, ranging from Christian works to Autobiography of a Yogi and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Often deep flirtations with the Space Age, movies, sports, nature, ecology, sustainable living, organic gardening, travel, military subjects, running, nutrition, foreign languages, mind-body learning and so much more cover a roomful of shelves, presented as novels, memoirs, topical non-fiction, essays, short stories and travelogues by writers from legendary to one-book wonders, from globally known to regional heroes and heroines.
Then there are the collectibles, the old hardbacks, the books that sit prominently, some behind glass cases, to be seen but not necessarily touched: the transcript of the Apollo 11 moon landing and walk; Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, with pencil illustrations by Picasso; Steve Garvey’s life lessons learned as a Dodger batboy, before he became a star first baseman, with his autograph to me “from your fan, Steve Garvey,” a nod to the years I covered Garvey while a sportswriter; first editions of Mark Twain books; and my priceless treasures, the poetry and children’s books written by my great grandmother and great-great aunt.
I’ve tried many times to downsize my library. I can downsize furniture, clothing, dwelling size, DVD collection and other possessions … but unless I’m passing along books to a public library for safekeeping, I just can’t part with them. That’s because each book on that shelf represents a slice of life, an experience, a moment in time shared by the words on those pages and the inquiring or imaginative mind inside my skull. Furthermore, I put notes, related articles and other slips of paper in these books, further footnoting them for posterity.
Whenever I get around to writing life stories or a memoir, you can bet my library will be a major character. It has accompanied me through thick and thin for 45 years and counting.
My experience is shared by millions of others who have home libraries of all shapes, sizes and designs (and home library design also reflects the style of the owner). As Alice Azania-Jarvis, the writer of The Independent article, noted, “But it’s not just a matter of which books we display that’s interesting – how we choose to do so has become an equal point of fascination. ‘They can almost sculptural in that they offer a physical presence,’ explains (household stylist Abigail) Hall. ‘It’s not just about stacking them on a bookcase, it’s how you stack them. I’ve seen books arranged by color, stacked on top of each other. Once I saw a load of coffee-table books piled up to become a coffee table in themselves.’
Do you think people like this – people who truly love to read, to present their libraries as a statement of taste and love of learning – will let Google come in and scan out their collections? Do you think they’ll buy a bunch of storage drives and relegate covers, paper and all their visceral experiences to electronic files? Will you?
I didn’t think so. To me, the home library is like the public library – an institution running a very close second in sacredness to your place of worship. For many, the library, home library or bookstore is a place of worship. My library is the living, breathing lungs of a life dedicated to writing, learning, and helping others bring their stories to life.
Here’s hoping your bookshelves receive the same love — and reward you with the joy of all those stories, words, and memories of your life at the time you read them. In fact, dust off one of your older books, one you haven’t read in many years, then sit down and re-read it. As you do so, enjoy this present experience and literary adventure, but also recall the events of your life the last time you flipped through these particular pages.
Deeply enriching and revealing, isn’t it?