The Library Book

“Members of the German Student Union carried out the book burning with enthusiasm. At Opera Square, the students formed a human chain, passed the books from hand to hand, and then cast them into a pile. Estimates of the number of books in the bonfire pile range from twenty-five thousand to ninety thousand. As each book was thrown in, a student announced the reason this particular book was being ‘sentenced to death.’ The reasons were stated like criminal charges. …The Feuersprüche [Fire Incantations] had a party atmosphere with dancing, singing, and live music. At midnight, [May 10, 1933] Goebbels appeared and gave a raving discourse known as the Fire Speech. That same night, similar events were held in Munich, Dresden, Frankfurt, and Breslau….” The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

Calling all book and library lovers and their friends! (Especially print book lovers.) If you’re looking for a last-minute Christmas gift for the reader on your list, stop by your local bookstore and pick up a copy of The Library Book.

While she was writing The Library Book, author Susan Orlean lit a match and burned one of her tattered old paperbacks – just to see what it felt like to burn a sacred object and how easily a book could be set alight. It didn’t feel good, she said, but it was easy to burn once the book reached 451 degrees, the temperature at which paper burns: Fahrenheit 451 vanished in a small conflagration. 

One of the most riveting parts of The Library Book is Orlean’s description of the 1933 Nazi-instigated book burnings in 34 university towns and cities, conducted in part by a minority of college students who called themselves the German Student Union. I’d always imagined small bonfires sacrificing a few hundred books. Maybe because I find book burning incomprehensible, I never conceived of the vast numbers burned – up to 90,000 in one fire! –  or the live music, enthusiastic crowds, and tragic number of libraries destroyed in World War II and other wars, both deliberately and collaterally.

“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: it is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.” 

Susan Orlean is one of the most brilliant contemporary American writers of nonfiction. She writes for The New Yorker and has authored many books; I’ve read only one other: the quirky The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, which was made into the movie Adaptation (starring Meryl Street, Nicolas Cage, and Chris Cooper.) The book is strange and marvelous, and the movie is even stranger – perhaps not to everyone’s taste. If you love books, though, you’ll find The Library Book more accessible yet equally as passionate. Orlean is a book-lover from way back and writes movingly about her childhood library visits with her mother, who always said that if she’d had a career, she would have been a librarian.

Susan’s private book burning and those of the Germans echo and deepen The Library Book’s central plot, which involves the tragic burning of the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It burned for seven hours; over 400,000 books were destroyed and 700,000 more damaged. No one is sure whether the fire was arson or an accident. The prime suspect, Harry Peak, a compulsive but likable liar and something of a tragic figure, changed his story every time he was questioned by the police. Woven into the story of the burning and resurrection of the LA Public Library is Orlean’s love letter to books, reading, libraries, and librarians.

Susan writes of her own motivation to write, one of the most eloquent and true statements I’ve ever read about why someone would devote oneself to this painstaking labor:

“I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten – that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed…..But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose – a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” 

Isn’t this why we haunt libraries and bookstores, to find those singular voices, many from the past, that for whatever reason speak to us so personally and vividly?

“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.” 

Like Susan, I’d never heard about this:

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it – with one person or with the larger world – on the page or in a story recited – it takes on a life of its own.”

These excerpts don’t even begin to address Orlean’s fine chapters about libraries,  librarians, their history, and their future. Having been a book editor and a (medical/academic) librarian, I’ve heard more than once from people who are quite sure  books will disappear and that we no longer need libraries. To them, I’d say: fake news, conspiracy theories and the disruption of democracy. I’d point them to these and many, many other links:

Helsinki’s New Library

Seoul, Korea’s newest library

Dr. Google is a liar

Free Narcan to libraries

The New York Public Library website – check out the education and research pages alone

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

I leave you with this arresting image from The Library Book, which takes place around the clock in my hometown of Cleveland:

“The lobby of the OverDrive headquarters [in Cleveland] is huge and high. A ten-foot-square screen that displays a world map dominates the center of the lobby. Every few seconds, a bubble pops up from somewhere on the map, showing the name of the library and the title of the book that had just been borrowed. The screen is mesmerizing. If you stand there for a few minutes, you will see that someone at a small library in Arles, France, has just checked out L’Instant présent by Guillaume Musso; that someone in Boulder, Colorado, has borrowed Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling; and that in Mexico City, someone has claimed a copy of El cuerpo en que nací by Guadalupe Nettel. It feels like you’re watching a real-time thought map of the world.”

By the way, the American Library Association maintains yearly lists of books that have been challenged, restricted, removed, or banned.

Up next: My best read of 2018 – a fat volume of fiction several inches thick, with a cover that is a work of art. Wondrous and important.

 

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Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you find some good books under the tree. Woodblock prints by @blueberry_hills.

 

 

Great Tide Rising

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The Oculus, World Trade Center, next to the Freedom Tower. The Oculus structure, said to resemble a bird or a dinosaur, symbolizes rebirth from the ashes. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore writes that we are shutting down the Cenozoic era. What will arise in its place?

 

“He was a huge man – I’d guess six-five. Shaved head. Big black overcoat reaching below his knees. Big black dress shoes with rubber soles….

This is my chance, I said to myself, to relate to an oilman in a personal way, and perhaps even learn a little about his heart.

‘So,’ I said, “Do you have children?’

He knew where I was going with that. He turned to face me straight on. ‘Don’t you ever,’ he said, ‘ever. Ever. Ever.’ He paused. ‘Ever underestimate the power of the fossil fuel industry.'”  –  Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Climate Change, by Kathleen Dean Moore

GreatTideRisingThis is the scary, provocative, grieving, truthful, and energizing book to read if you want to come to grips with climate change and decide what, if anything, you are going to do about it.

Great Tide Rising is not filled with climate science and facts about global warming and how to “solve” it with know-how and technology. In her book, Kathleen Dean Moore, an acclaimed nature essayist, philosopher, and environmental leader, frames climate change and habitat destruction as moral and ethical questions, guiding readers toward possible answers. Two of the gravest moral questions we face are:

Why is it wrong to wreck the world?

What is our obligation to our children, our children’s children, and the future?

Moore writes:

“I object…to the language of the sixth extinction and will not use it. The current extinction is something morally different from the first five. For all their horror, for all their calamitous power, the early extinctions were natural Earth processes, what the insurance industry calls ‘acts of God,’ beyond human control or culpability. This current great wave of dying is the direct result of human decisions, knowing and intentional, or willfully and wantonly reckless. That’s a difference of moral significance. It changes a calamity into a cosmic crime, a perversion of human power….To call this just the sixth in a long series of extinction cycles is what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’; it’s not the same thing. Extinctions one through five call us to awe. Number six calls us to rage – rage against the dying.”

For me, Great Tide Rising is a kind of primer, or bible, for our time. A bible in the sense that it contains Moore’s eloquent, clarifying language, as well as the wisdom of our greatest environmental prophets, including Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Joanna Macy, and even the poet Mary Oliver.

A bible, too, because it urges us to bear witness to that which must change, and then to act. By “act,” Moore does not mean switching to eco-friendly light bulbs; she means for us to seek a larger purpose and vision for our lives in light of the disaster we face. Great Tide Rising is a kind of bible because it can be turned to often for wisdom and guidance as we head into a treacherous future.

“It’s a… stunning thing that we face climatic changes that will undermine the lives of our children – and very few people are talking about it….most likely it’s a variety of what American intellectual Lewis Mumford called a ‘magnificent bribe.’ The bargain is that each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education’ – on the condition, I would say, that they never ask where it came from, or at what cost in human suffering, at what cost to the future, or to what long-term effect. That’s the deal: If they ask, they have to turn away from their glittering lives.”

Great Tide Rising refers not just to sea level rise, but to the growing groundswell of people questioning our way of life and committed to a profound shift in thinking. Joanna Macy calls this The Great Turning. In Macy’s words:

“The Great Turning is a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization…A revolution is under way because people are realizing that our needs can be met without destroying our world….Future generations, if there is a livable world for them, will look back at the epochal transition we are making to a life-sustaining society. And they may well call this the time of the Great Turning. It is happening now.”

Macy, Kathleen Dean Moore, and other environmental leaders do not know if humans and other life forms will survive what is to come, even if we take massive action. The deal is, we are to bear witness and act regardless of the outcome.

For Great Tide Rising, Moore interviewed Mary Evelyn Tucker, a professor at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who spoke of the human instinct to create. Her words compose one of the most beautiful and hopeful passages in the book:

“Humans desire, more than anything else, to be creative, and we desire to participate in the creative processes, in the future and in life – that’s what having children is about. But we can be life-generating in a variety of ways – creative, participatory, oriented toward something larger than ourselves….

Our work is to align ourselves with evolutionary processes instead of standing in their way or derailing them. So our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves. Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways congruent with Earth’s patterns. We need the variety of ecological understanding so we can align ourselves with the creative forces of the universe.

Something is changing; an era is changing. If we are shutting down the Cenozoic era…the great work is to imagine how the new era can unfold. Our work in the world is not just a stopgap to extinction….We are part of the Great Work, as Thomas Berry would say, of laying the foundation of a new cultural era.”

I have only touched on highlights of Great Tide Rising. There is so much more, including a special appeal for grandparents to act on behalf of their grandchildren and future generations.

 

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Times Square and a mantra for our time, maybe one that needs to change.  I brought Great Tide Rising on a trip to New York City last week and read it in the evenings. I visited the photography studio where my son works and, walking around Manhattan, I saw many promo posters for The Americans (a favorite series) with photos taken by Pari, my son’s employer. This is why I will always love great cities, especially New York, where I once lived: they nurture and embody the human desire to be creative that Mary Evelyn Tucker speaks of in Great Tide Rising.

 

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I found this stunning High Victorian Gothic library in the West Village. Jefferson Market Library, part of the New York Public Library System, was once a women’s prison. It is now a quiet, beautiful city space. Perhaps cities will save us. Some environmentalists predict that more people will live in cities, leaving vast tracts of nature to heal and regenerate.

 

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The library is tucked in alongside Jefferson Market Park. I enjoy seeking out small secret gardens in urban places. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, thousands of acres of parkland were added, nearly 2000 parks were redesigned or upgraded, and a million trees were planted.

 

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A view from the High Line, a repurposed elevated rail line nearly two miles long on the lower West Side. An enchanting garden, especially at dusk, that did not exist when I lived in New York. My son and I walked the High Line, between Tenth and Twelfth avenues, on the way to dinner. Green spaces like this one could be part of the future livable city Mary Evelyn Tucker speaks of in Great Tide Rising.

 

This post is written in memory of David Buckel, a civil rights lawyer and environmentalist who took his own life in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in April. He self-immolated with fossil fuel to protest its use and left a note: “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”

New Orleans

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A whimsical front yard in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans

Making our way across the country, we spent two days in New Orleans – Halloween Eve and Halloween night.

The revelry was, as you can imagine, over the top both evenings. There were lots of children trick or treating. In the French quarter, there were parades galore and every elaborate costume you could imagine. The nights were warm and pleasant, and we enjoyed walking and watching the spectacle.

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One morning, we took a ferry ride across the Mississippi River to the quiet neighborhood of Algiers.

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The streets there are lined with quaint shotgun-style homes, many being renovated.

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Letters

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There is a Carnegie library in Algiers….

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…with a seed library in an old card catalog.

We loved the garden district, too. Great little shops, and the homes were old and stately, with lots of character, plenty of wrought iron, and well-tended gardens.

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A vintage shop in the garden district and a pumpkin-hued dress perfect for a Halloween ball.

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Lafayette Cemetery with 19th century tombs

Hop on the trolley with me in the garden district:

Back in the French Quarter, I inquired about dipping pens in Papier Plume on Royal Street. I don’t have the faintest idea how to use them, but it’s part of my art exploration project. I was able to try out writing with various pens and nibs. A wonderful staff person analyzed how I hold the pen – I’m left-handed –  and recommended a set of nibs. He gave me a quick lesson on making strokes of various widths, too. I bought a pen, three nibs and sepia ink, and I can’t wait to try them.

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I found a shop, Papier Plume, that sells journals, stationery, wax & seals, dipping & fountain pens, inkwells, and calligraphy sets.

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I bought this set, made in Venice, with three nibs and sepia ink.

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On Halloween night, we had beignets – warm, light as feathers, covered in powdered sugar – and café au lait at Café du Monde on Decatur Street.

Coming up: Next on our journey we encountered great beauty, as well as something quite the opposite.

Shop local for Christmas

Corner Bookstore

shelf-sacrifice n: to selflessly give away a book from one’s personal library for another person’s benefit – Powell’s Compendium of Readerly Terms

In our village on the Erie Canal, we have a number of small nonprofit businesses run by volunteers, including a craft shop, a second-hand tool thrift store, and The Corner Bookstore with used and collectible books. All donate their profits to good causes. The bookstore proceeds support programs at our public library.

I love shopping at these small businesses. (The tool shop not as much, but we did buy an old-fashioned push lawn mower there. When my brother-in-law visited us a few years back, we lost him for a couple of hours, only to find him browsing in the tool shop.)

A number of clothing consignment shops are scattered around our village as well. I’ve been thinking about challenging myself this year to buy exclusively (or almost) from stores I can walk or bike to. Our farmer’s market runs from May to November, so it wouldn’t be difficult to purchase a good portion of our fruits and vegetables there, supplemented by our small backyard garden. (Our town has a community garden, too.)

Shelf-sacrifice is what The Corner Bookstore is all about. It’s an elfin wonderland of used and vintage books lovingly displayed in diminutive groupings: children’s books, poetry, graphic novels, history, fiction, local authors, and more.

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The cookbook section has used cookbooks nestled in gift baskets along with vintage ice cream sundae glasses, martini glasses, and miniature ceramic casserole dishes. I found a blank recipe album with Bible verses and beautiful cover art in pristine condition. For my son, I found a Vietnamese cookbook – he loves Asian food.

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In the local authors bookcase, I spotted Reunion in Sicily by Jerre Mangione, a scholar of the Sicilian-American experience, according to Wikipedia. Jerre is the uncle of jazz musicians Chuck and Gap Mangione, who are from Rochester. Flipping through the pages of the book, which was published in 1950, I saw that the author visited Sicily in 1936 when Mussolini and the Fascists were in power. Mangione was watched closely by the police and interrogated more than once as to the purpose of his visit.

Reunion in Sicily

Mangione was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship after WWII so he could return to Sicily to learn more about Italian politics and culture of the times. Reunion in Sicily is not listed in his Wikipedia entry; I’m interested to see what I can learn from the book. My father was Sicilian-American and a WWII veteran with extended family in the Old Country. The war, of course, essentially split Italian and Italian-American families in two, at least for a time.

Another great find was The Fragrant Garden, a beautifully slipcased anthology of garden writing and art, the kind of book you can display open on a small easel. When I noticed the subtitle, Penhaligon’s Scented Treasury of Verse and Prose, I realized that a faint floral scent emanated from its pages. Upon reading the prologue I discovered that, indeed, the endpapers are scented with Penhaligon’s Gardenia perfume. Gardenia is one of my all-time favorite floral scents; I had a gardenia in my bridal bouquet.

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The volume was edited by Sheila Pickles (check out her Goodreads Page) and published in 1992. Never having heard of Penhaligon’s, I had to look that up, too. It was established in London in the late 1800s. There are shops in the US, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to visit the London shop? They have a blog, and here is an enticingly sensuous excerpt from it about the men’s perfume Endymion:

“….a complex blend of sophisticated scents, it opens with the orangy warmth of bergamot and mandarin wrapped in delicate lavender and sage. The dark coffee heart is rich and powerful giving way to the spicy velvet base of creamy nutmeg, vetiver, cardamom and a hint of leather. It is strong and romantic and very masculine.”

I’ve never heard of vetiver, have you? I had to look that up, too.

Wasn’t that fun? All this from a Christmas shopping trip to The Corner Bookstore.

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Don’t overlook the independent bookstores and shops near you as you go about your holiday shopping. It’s a good way to support your local economy, and you’re much more likely to find unique gifts and treasures.

Do you have any independent bookstores that you like in your town?

Library window with Erie Canal mural

Our public library on the Erie Canal was recently renovated. Since 1938, it has boasted this mural by Carl W. Peters, created as part of Rochester’s WPA Murals project.

Lift Bridge

Our one-of-a-kind lift bridge spans the Erie Canal. It is an irregular decagon (10 sides), no two angles in the bridge are the same and no corners on the bridge are square. It is lifted by a 40 hp electric motor. When the kids were little they loved watching the bridge being lifted so boats could pass through.

 

Writing (and reading) can be dangerous

I wanted to share a post I love written by Valerie Davies of New Zealand, an accomplished writer and journalist who left blogging for a while and has now returned, to the great pleasure of her many followers.

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Valerie writes about reading aloud to your children in front of the fire or under the covers on a cold winter night….David Copperfield (Did you read it at a young, impressionable time in your life?)….a Queen who couldn’t stop reading….what Stephen King says about writing truthfully….the dangers of reading and writing….what some brave bloggers are doing….and for good measure, a recipe.

Click on the link below to read Valerie’s post:

The dangers of words.

The Uncommon Reader book cover

Twelve blogs for Christmas: Word by Word

Partridge in a pear tree

I thought it would be fun to feature twelve of my favorite blogs, one each for the twelve days of Christmas. These are among my favorites because the authors are passionate about something – books, gardening, nature, cooking, art, spirituality – and they consistently draw me in, even if I know nothing about the topic. Always, I find renewal and a deeper appreciation for life thanks their insights and unique perspectives.

On the first day of Christmas I’ll highlight a book blog, Word by Word. Claire never fails to come up with a book I know I’ll love. Often it’s a book off the beaten path, one I wouldn’t encounter on my own, and her reading is international in scope. She lives in France, and I enjoy when she tells us about the literary scene in Paris, London, and other places she visits. Often, I learn something new about a writer or a moment in literary history.

I’ve never been to the Cité du livre, which must be a book lover’s dream. In this post Claire offers us a tour.

(“Partridge in a Pear Tree” photo by Cindy Mc is licensed under CC-by-NC 2.0)

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