Making me a More Courteous Reader: A Lesson in Library Redemption
As someone who grew up Catholic, in an ethnic neighborhood dominated by Catholics, in a school populated almost exclusively with Catholics and run by men and women in religious orders, I became well schooled in tales of religious redemption. Akin to this experience, it shouldn't come as any surprise that whenever I think about urban libraries from this same perspective, I identify much of what I experienced in them as the ultimate lesson in urban redemption.
It didn't start out this way. But as a kid, I associated our public library with two things that were seemingly unrelated but equally significant to me. One was perfect penmanship and the other, chocolate.
Now, at first glance, this may not add up. But when I was a kid growing up in an enclave of recent immigrants from Poland and Italy on the East side of Detroit in the late 60's, among multiple generations of my large extended family, strong penmanship was clearly a precursor to the good life. Why? Because the nuns who taught me and my siblings at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School said so. (I'll get to how chocolate figures into this in a minute).
Minimally, good penmanship could spare you a lot of grief up to and including a serious slap on the wrist with a yardstick or pointer. But it could also curry favor with the nuns and get you special out-of-class opt-out assignments. Good penmanship put you in good standing in the hierarchy of grade school at Holy Name Elementary. The Vatican may have had Papal Infallibility, but it was really the nuns who ran the tight ship of state that constituted parochial school in those days. And if they weren't infallible, the nuns certainly made clear they were The Law. They brought draconian discipline to three things when I was a kid—perfect penmanship was the first. The other two were reading, and multiplication tables.
With the U.S. military, we are often treated in movies to scenes of sergeants asking new scribes in formation to drop and give them 50 push-ups. In much the same way, at any point in the life of a Catholic elementary school student, you could be asked to get in line, move into perfect formation, boys on the right, girls on the left. Walking quietly, hands at your sides, you could be spotted whispering to a colleague one minute. In the next instant, regular as a heartbeat, you'd be stopped suddenly and asked by some vigilant nun what 7x9 was.
Or once you were in your seat back in class, the nuns might ask you to rise, walk to the front of the room and write the alphabet in cursive on the chalk board. Sister Marie Blanche, my fourth grade English teacher, insisted that the consequences of not forming good letters were just as clear—all we had to do was check out the public school kids down the road. According to her, juvenile delinquency and prison were two possibilities. So I guess we might reasonably conclude if we weren't going to display to future employers that we were bright, smart, hard-working, honest and industrious, at least we could assure them through our strong penmanship that we were neat, orderly and law-abiding, as evidenced by our impeccable handwriting. Sister Blanche also made sure we were always carrying something to read with us where ever we went.
"Children, whenever you have 4 or 5 minutes of idle time, please remember that wasting it is a sin against God. After all, you can always be practicing your multiplication tables in your head, and if you have a book, you can always find something to read."
Over the years, demonstrating competency in any of these arenas—reading, multiplication or perfect penmanship still continues to inspire a tremendous sense of child-like pride. Even as a writer using a word processor for the past three decades, I still take amazing satisfaction whenever I write out a personal letter or card to someone, clear that my expressions of support or congratulations are far superior when penned in person.
As for reading, thinking back to my childhood in our small bungalow at 7590 Tappan Street, there were few books lying around the house. We weren't exactly poor, and my mother often read to us, but there were other sources for books that didn't cost money. Right after the Race Riots in Detroit in 1967, the Detroit Public Library expanded its book mobile program in our neighborhood. So every other Saturday a book mobile parked itself in the church parking lot off Van Dyke at Holy Name. My mom subsequently sent my brother Raymond and me down there to check out books.
I’ve had this conversation with my long-time friend, Juliet Machie at Detroit Public Library over the years. She never tires of hearing it. If the nuns taught us to pursue reading with ruthless and unwavering discipline, it was the book mobile librarian from Detroit Public Library that actually inspired a love and excitement for reading. As we soon learned, we could check out any book we wanted. No restrictions, except we had to return it in two weeks before we were allowed to check out another. We were given a library card, and the equally important responsibility of bringing it with us when we checked out our books. How fun. How liberating. How exciting.
So one day I was in the book mobile looking for something that might peak my interest. My previous pick was a bust. It was a bit beyond me, truth be told. We had watched the movie A Night to Remember directed by Roy Ward Baker at home with my parents. I was mesmerized by the story of the Titanic, and wanted to check out the book by Walter Lord. A copy of it wasn't on hand in the book mobile, so the librarian asked me to fill out a hold request slip. In the back of my mind, I heard Sister Blanche admonish me to print slowly and neatly. Perfect penmanship had appeared once more.
On my next visit, the book awaited me, and I left so excited, the anticipation building on the near mile walk home. But it turned out to be a huge disappointment. The book had few pictures, and I lost my way in the rest of the narrative, and gave up trying to finish it shortly afterwards.
For my next selection, I decided to ask the librarian for help in picking out something more suitable. Happy to oblige, I can't remember exactly what she asked me. However, I do have a vivid recollection of what she handed me: A copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
To this day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still stands out among the best books I've ever read. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory transported me to another world, much like the Harry Potter franchise does for many young readers today.
Imagine living in a small home with your grandparents, who once worked in a factory, and walking past their plant en route to school every day. Hmm. This was a picture all too familiar to me. It wasn't much different than the trek we made to Holy Name Elementary each day with the stacks from Chrysler's Lynch Road Assembly Plant where my grandparents both worked billowing huge clouds of dark industrial smoke in the background.
Once transported inside Willy Wonka's factory, I still remember Charlie, slightly hungry after a Spartan meal of watery cabbage soup, walking past the chocolate factory and literally drinking in huge breaths of the most wonderful chocolate aroma in the entire world, gulps of that smell sating his young and voracious appetite.
It is not hard to imagine a harsh and punishing world redeemed by the virtues of an endless stream of chocolate. From there, the world of reading expanded for me. I went on to read other Roald Dahl stories, and by the time I left our old neighborhood a decade later, and became the first generation in my family to go off to college, my love of reading translated directly into my chosen major in English literature, and my career choice. Right after graduation, I went to work in the educational publishing industry.
But as I grew older, not surprisingly my reading tastes changed. What I didn't realize until recently however, was how, in fact, my reading habits actually changed significantly too, as my life took me away from the library.
I suppose I'm not unlike a lot of people for whom the library was absolutely central growing up, but faded in importance after college. Much of that, I suspect, is economic. As our means improve, convenience trumps the abundance of selection that initially has us spellbound at the doorstep of our first encounters at the library. We get comfortable wanting exactly what we want when we want it. It's easier to go to Barnes and Noble or Amazon online, than to wait several weeks for a popular bestseller on the holds list at the local library.
What further complicated my reading habits though, was working in marketing for Border Books and Music in the mid 90's. In that role, books were as bountiful for me as chocolate was to Charlie.
Publisher's sent me endless samples, signed copies and galleys. In addition, authors also came out to promote their books. While meeting them in person often enhanced the experience, it also complicated things. I remember pulling an all-nighter on one occasion to finish a galley. Ann Patchett was coming to town from Nashville, and we had events lined up for her latest book, The Magician's Assistant. My wife and I also hosted a book club discussion at our home for Ann.
After reading her earlier book, The Patron Saint of Liars, I was super motivated to read her newest work. However in my marketing role, it wasn’t always possible to share the same enthusiasm for every author that crossed my desk. That didn’t stop the galleys and signed editions from arriving.
Soon enough, I found my reading habits diverging wildly from my wife Kay's. Whereas she would finish every book she started, even those that proved to be disappointing, my reading attention span plummeted. If a book didn't grab my attention immediately, I moved on. If I made it to a certain point and the story sputtered, I moved on. Again, so many books, so little time.
Kay found this practice a bit stunning. At one point, we went to our couple’s book club one month, and as the discussion got underway, I expounded at length on the book we had selected. Others agreed with my perspective. But Kay, in complete exasperation, looked at me and said, "How do you know that's true? You never even finished the book!"
Everyone broke out laughing. Clearly, I wasn't at a loss to talk about books. But the sad hollow truth was I hadn't actually read many of them, so the experience was somewhat lacking.
Last fall, this odd self-limiting behavior ultimately began correcting itself. I'm not suggesting it's horrendous to talk about books you haven't read. That's been the job of booksellers since I first became one in 1982. It's only missing something if your own experience with stories is cultivated entirely through the collective views of others, and not shaped by your own immersion into the experience of reading it yourself.
Sometime last August, Kay and I decided to attend the Celebration of Learning Event at the Columbus Metropolitan Library at the invitation of the Executive Director, my friend Pat Losinski. The featured author was Isabel Wilkerson, a New York Times correspondent who had recently published her first book on the African American migration entitled, The Warmth of Other Suns.
As had become my habit, I went to research the author enough to "pass" in any conversation at the event. However, when I discovered the book was almost 800 pages, I decided to check it out at my local library.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Ann Arbor District Library. Although I've been working with libraries for over a decade, I had to admit to Josie Parker, the library director, that this was the first time in what seemed like forever that I actually checked out a book. OMG! It's so much easier than I remember it. I can type in my email address online, get into my account, place a hold and ask them to send it to the branch of my choice. Ann Arbor has a branch right around the corner from my Kroger store, so I can pick up and drop off books on my way to grocery shopping. But something far more profound happened on the way to getting my book from the library.
I actually finished The Warmth of Other Suns from cover to cover. More to the point, I was so entranced by Isabel's account of African American life in the Jim Crow south, that once I finished it, I found her website online and wrote her a fan letter. A week or so later, Isabel friended me on Facebook, and we began corresponding regularly. For months after reading The Warmth of Other Suns, I talked and posted about the book constantly, and how I loved Ida May Gladney, Bob Foster and George Starling, the three characters whose family odyssey shape the narrative. During a visit to the New York Public Library, I even started talking with my cab driver about the book.
At one point, the driver stopped the car and asked me to write down the title and the author, so he could buy it for his grandchildren. At the same time, he started telling me about his grandfather, whom he had met only once in his life, a farmer who lived in the Deep South in rural Alabama. He said, he always wondered if something had driven his mother and grandfather apart, because she never took him south to visit his grandfather, even for his funeral. As it turned out, his mother told finally confessed, “I brought you up north so I could raise you to be a stand-up guy who could think, and speak and fend for yourself. And if you acted like that where your grandpa lived, you’d be killed for it.”
I sat there writing out the title and author of the book in stunned silence.
The experience with Warmth of Other Suns has turned out to be so personal in so many ways. Something more profound happens when you get your books from someone at the library. First of all, you connect with the person who recommended it, and in some cases, to others who are part of the story. Isabel Wilkerson has linked me with my common past, and all those who migrated to big cities like Detroit. Ultimately, reading reminds us we have but each other and our stories to share.
Sari Feldman, director of the Cuyahoga County Public library recently suggested that in order to promote reading in her community, she asked staff to share what they were reading as part of their email signatures. I started doing this, and the response has been incredible. People have begun asking me about the books I’m reading. Some responses even show up with an addendum about some favorite recent pick. Kim Fender, executive director at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County recently recommended In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson after finding out how much we both enjoyed Devil in the White City.
So I guess my selections are formed by better intelligence now—rather than choosing from a slew of books sent along by those publishing and promoting them. It’s as simple as returning to the basic practice of choosing books based on what those who love books are saying about them. Similarly, my son Will has become friends with Marcia Warner, director of the Grand Rapids Public Library. As a special treat, Marcia occasionally puts books or DVDs on hold for him that she thinks he’ll enjoy. Amazing.
By the way, I’m not suggesting that I finished The Warmth of Other Suns because I checked it out of the library rather than buying it online. But at the same time, I am. You not only get more connected to the selection in the first place, but there is a big connected world of book-reading, make-a-difference-in-their-part of the-world people out there with whom I’m getting acquainted through books. The library is simply extending the invitation for me to join their party already in progress.
Not only that, I’ve noticed other behavior changes. Because I still read a lot of front list fiction and non-fiction, my selections are usually in high demand. This prompts me to be more conscientious about returning books on time, or even a few days earlier. Who wants to be a delinquent dilettante in your own community? And I’ve finally owned the fact that I really don’t do well reading a lot of books at the same time, so I only check out one item at a time. I am also more conscious of the next book I want to tackle, so I spend more time reading blogs and other community information sources in advance to scope out my next selection. An ultimate perk of a job working with libraries is taking full advantage of the opportunity to ask more librarians what they’re currently reading. Their choices always get my attention, even the ones that don’t sound particularly suited to me. All these changes from my frenetic past practice have me feeling like I’m returning to those simpler book-enjoying days on the East side in my old neighborhood, courtesy of the Detroit Public Library bookmobile.
Overall, that’s a good thing. But it occurs to me I’m overdue writing out personal thank you letters to Isabel Wilkerson and Pat Losinski, Juliet Machie, Sari Feldman, Marcia Warner, Kim Fender and Josie Parker and the legions of other library do-gooders out there. Maybe I’ll put a chocolate bar in with my letters. It’s clear the combination of chocolate and good penmanship continues to ignite bright magic.
Ron J. Stefanski
Currently reading The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, just completed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson