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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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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.