Signature Memory Quilt: Notes, Ideas, and Thoughts on a Retirement Gift

This month, one of my favorite library coworkers is retiring. I decided I needed to make a quilt for her as a retirement gift. I wanted it to be a sort of memento to represent all of her years at the library, personalized by as many coworkers as possible. At first I thought of gathering favorite quotes from coworkers about books, reading, libraries, friendship, memories. I imagined formatting them all in Photoshop and then having them printed on cotton and…it seemed that would be lovely but overwhelming, and coupled with the fact that this coincided with me transitioning to working full time and, yeah. I abandoned that idea.

Instead I started with this sketch:

Signature memory quilt sketch

So, my basic idea was a center panel of books, with rows of book spines, some of them of printed fabric, some of them signed by coworkers.

And here's how it ended up turning out:

Signature memory quilt front

I cut a bunch of 7.5" x 2.5" strips. I was working with a vague idea of how it might all actually come together, so I estimated I would need 50 6"x7.5 squares, (2 printed strips surrounding one white one with the signature(s) of coworkers). I ended up needing way more, which I added to the sides of the center panel. I think I ended up with 75 signed strips.

I made the books in the center panel using the Book Nerd pattern from Angela Pingel.  It is a paper piecing pattern and these blocks were super fun to put together. I changed the pattern by enlarging it overall and then making the books wider. For these books, I tried to pick fabrics that both represented things my friend loves (the ocean, sewing, books, travel) and fit into the general scrappy-pastel color scheme. The fabric with images from Utah was a last-minute discovery from Joann and I was so happy to find it! (Even though I don’t, I confess, often use fabric from Joann, as the last time I did the result was a dye-bleed disaster.) I meant to make two rows of five books but the addition of the spines on the side meant I just had room for three.

When I finally got everything ready and put it together, I did have to take away some of the colored strips to have space for all of the signature strips. I was planning on the quilt being 60" wide but it ended up at 64" (ish), which is close enough. It took some scootching and some of the spines are trimmed down, but I think that’s OK because of course all book spines aren’t the same width.

One of my friends who also quilts, and who also used to work with us at the library, made the five appliqued squares: two plants, a lamp, a cup of tea, and a framed picture. That kind of square is NOT my forte so I was so happy to have her addition. I think they were the perfect finishing touch to bring everything together.

A few process tips for making a signature memory quilt:

  • Prewash the plain cotton you want people to sign. This will help the ink saturate the fabric more deeply.
  • Use a high-quality cotton. I used Kona Snow for mine. Avoid fabric that has much obvious texture as it will make the writing bumpy—the smoother the better!
  • Use NEW markers. I used Micron Pigma pens because I have two quilts my mother-in-law made for my boys, and she signed them with these markers. Dozens and dozens of washes later, her signature is still there. You might have some lying around, especially if you do other crafts, but get new ones for the quilt. They write so much easier and darker when they are new.
  • Heat set every block before you sew them all together. The heat will also help set the ink.

I backed the quilt with this fabric. Isn’t it perfect!!! (Another confession, I might’ve made the whole quilt simply because I wanted to use THAT fabric for a friend who loves books as much as I do.)

Signature memory quilt back

It’s called Book Shelves, by Caitlin Wallace Rowland/Dear Stella and of this writing it’s still available. I got mine at Hawthorne Fabrics. 

The quilting was done by Sew Shabby quilting. I was worried about this part because I thought the words people had written would be covered by the quilting. She arranged it perfectly, though, so you could still read all of the words. She has a lovely wool batting so I had her use that. It’s light and fluffy and I love it!

This was the first time I’ve made a memory quilt like this. Some things I learned:

  1. I was pretty terrified when I washed it that the signatures and notes would fade away, but most of them were OK. I had a variety of pen thicknesses, but if I do another quilt like this I will only have .5 and .8 pens. The thinner ones did get a bit harder to read when I washed it. I also learned that fine-tipped Sharpies are OK for this kind of project.
  2. I had the 6 x 7.5 squares already sewn together, so the left and right seam allowances were already taken care of. Even though I told people to write at least ¼" from the top and bottom, a few people bumped into the seam allowances. Next time I’ll draw pencil lines on all of the signature strips to help out with that. Also, I had a spare piece of the white cloth for people to practice writing with the pens, which I think helped. Writing on fabric is not like writing on paper!
  3. I wanted to collect signatures and notes from coworkers who don’t work at the library anymore, as well as current ones. This was a lot of mailing, worrying about mail, and one that didn’t get back in time. I definitely did NOT allow enough time and it was a little bit stressful in the end to make sure it was finished by the time of the retirement party. But, it was really fun to see and communicate with people who I hadn’t in awhile.
  4. I was surprised at how many people were very reluctant to write anything more than their name. I tried to just give them space so I wasn’t reading over their shoulder when they wrote. I also told them it was SO not a big deal if they messed up. That’s what seam rippers are for! I also encouraged them to not worry about their handwriting. As long as it is legible, it is great!

I got to give the quilt to my friend last Tuesday. I think she loved it and I hope it helps her remember how loved and valued she was at the library. And how much she will be missed.

(And, I have to say: I’m pretty proud of myself for getting an entire quilt finished while I was also working full time and recuperating from surgery. I can do difficult things!)


Book Review: The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

I felt fine. No; I felt like I’d woken up after a long sleep and had a good workout in the fresh air and a really nice stretch and was now contemplating with interest the idea of a hearty lunch. Sitting on edge in a classroom for hours surrounded by fluffy peeping freshmen waiting for one mal to pop out at me: nightmarish. Summoning a river of magma to instantly vaporize twenty-seven carefully designed attacks at once: nothing to it.

Last graduateThe Last Graduate, the sequel to A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, picks up right where the first book left off. We are still in the Scholomance with El and her burgeoning friendship (minus a few seniors) and she must immediately begin working on surviving her senior year. (No summer holiday at this magical school.)

I think writing in interesting ways about second books in a trilogy is one of the hardest things to do. You don’t want to give any spoilers for the first book and you don’t yet know how the third book will end things. (Although: I have my suspicions!)

So instead of writing much about the plot and characters, what I will say about The Last Graduate is how it spoke to something I have been wrestling with in my current life.

The recent dissolution and/or alteration of one of my longest-held relationships has made me question every aspect of myself as a decent, functioning human being with value to the world.

So reading more of El’s adventures, as she discovers that some of her “evil sorceress” traits might actually be helpful? Well, that gave me a pause in my self-loathing. It made me take a little breath and ease up on berating myself; it found me some space to question whether I am the abhorrent problem or if this is something else.

And that is something I love about reading speculative fiction. Sure, it’s all a made-up, impossible world, but the good ones aren’t just about magic or fairies or doors between worlds. They are about how wherever you find yourself as a human being, you are a human being (even if you are potentially able to destroy the world with your evil-sorceress panache). And, in this case, figuring out how your true self can (or cannot) interact with people you want to trust.

Plus it was just a good story, and El’s machinations for saving other students, her process of learning how to work with other people within the scope of her own El-ness, gave me a sense of courage I didn’t have before.

And that cliffhanger!

I’m excitedly anticipating the end to this trilogy this autumn.


Book Review: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

She says it's too easy to call people evil instead of their choices and that lets people justify making evil choices. Because they convince themselves that it's okay because they're still good people overall inside their own heads. And yes, fine. But I think that after a certain number of evil choices, it's reasonable shorthand to decide that someone's an evil person who oughtn't have the chance to make any more choices. And the more power someone has, the less slack they ought to be given.

Deadly educationI’ve been anticipating Naomi Novik’s Scholomance trilogy since, oh…spring of 2020 I think. (Masks & hand sanitizer & nose swabs & terror & sweet, sweet anticipation of a favorite author’s upcoming release all combined!) I didn’t, at first, realize that it actually would be a trilogy, but once I did I reluctantly decided to wait a bit. I just get annoyed with starting unfinished trilogies and then having to wait and even eventually reread the first book so I understand the second and…

And thus I didn’t read A Deadly Education until last month, when I was lying around with stitches and an elevated foot (yes, again, sigh). Because then I could immediately start in on The Last Graduate and only have to wait until September for the third book, The Golden Enclaves.

Perfect!

This trilogy is set in a world where some people are wizards, and once they are old enough, they begin attracting the attention of evil, destructive beings, and so must be sent to school to learn how to fight the beings, control their power, and hone the use of mana, which is the energy that magic comes from.

El (short for Galadriel) has been prophesied to be a dark sorceress capable of destroying entire enclaves (the places where the wizards live). Her mother, however, is a benevolent witch who has taught her to examine things from different angles of morality, and so El is fighting hard against her own nature. She is cranky, difficult, and solitary, as she didn’t grow up in a wealthy enclave but in a small house with her mother in Wales.

At the Scholomance, the students can ask for spells from the nether that surrounds the building, and if they have enough power or energy, they receive them, but they are customized to each student’s magical strengths. So, for example, when El asks for a spell to light her room, which she receives is one for eternal flame (responsible for burning down the Library at Alexandria); everything the school (which is sentient to some extent and responsible for all of the actual teaching) does reinforces her potentially-evil nature.

The severely divided class structure complicates El’s problems, because—as  she’s not an enclaver—she doesn’t have an unlimited source of mana but must create and store it on her own.

She’s a loner just trying to survive a school full of creatures trying to kill her while she struggles to subdue her powerful nature.

When Orion Lake, the school’s hero, saves her from a Soul-Eater, the rest of the students start to think that they are dating, and slowly El gains some social capital. Friends, even. Which is good because the influx of evil creatures and terrifying monsters seems to be growing.

This book had a surprising spark for me. By principle, I avoid novels that focus on characters with wealthy families. Which maybe isn’t fair of me, but it’s just not something I enjoy, the escapes of the rich and powerful. I can relate much more to the underdog, the character who comes from a place of poverty, the unpopular one. The one who has to scrabble.

This book made me push back against that tendency. It made me wonder about myself—am I a reverse snob? Prejudiced automatically against the wealthy, unable to feel compassion or empathy for them because of my own bitterness?

El herself has to learn that the wealthy kids from enclaves, who come armed with literal vats of mana, spellbooks passed down through families, and instant allies—they aren’t completely selfish and uncaring (at least, not all of them).

She has used bitterness, meanness, and aloofness as shields, and when she starts to form relationships she has to figure out how to be more raw in the world. More vulnerable. Even with the wealthy enclave kids.

I’m not sure everyone will enjoy this book. The storytelling style is very interior, deeply within El’s perspective, and while she is so vividly drawn I feel like I’ve met her (maybe also because we share more than a few traits) she isn’t always a pleasant, fun lens to view the world through. It is heavier on description than dialogue and has a lot of inner monologues. None of which are negatives for me but I know not everyone will love that style.

Sometimes it’s easy to be disappointed by a favorite author’s newest offering, especially when you’ve prolonged for so long the turning of the first page.

But I was not disappointed. A Deadly Education was a perfect companion for a couple of recuperating-from-surgery days for me.


Ten Things I Loved about Being a Reference Librarian: A List

Today marks my last day working as a Reference Librarian. Monday will find me full-time in the library’s Programming department, where I am excited to learn new skills, interact with new coworkers, and have new experiences.

But before I leave Reference, I just want to write this list:

TEN THINGS I LOVED ABOUT REFERENCE LIBRARIANSHIP

  1. Talking to patrons about books. In more than 14 years, I never got over the thrill of a stranger asking me for a book recommendation and the feeling of helping them find just the right thing. Over the years I have had so many great conversations about books, literature, genres, poetry, the publishing industry, ebooks vs. print books, audiobook narrators, recipe books, self-help books, graphic novels. How books can change your life. If it’s OK to not finish a books. The book that made me want to throw it across the room. What kinds of books teenagers should read. Why books aren’t rated and why I don’t think that should change. Recently, book banning and censorship. Someone’s favorite book from the third grade. That I got paid to talk to people about books is just astounding.
  2. Seeing people’s reaction to the library’s art. We have an amazing collection and people respond to it. My favorite is a sculpture called “Incoming.” Some children are terrified of it,
    Incoming sculpture at the orem public library
    One view of the sculpture.

    some find it fascinating. Some just giggle because he’s naked. Children’s responses were my favorite, but I also loved talking to adults about it. Often they would say “Oh, it’s The Thinker!” No, we definitely don’t have a Rodin in our library. This piece is about war and it is a companion of mine. I do tell it hello most days I’m in the library.
    Incoming sculpture at Orem Public Library
    The view of the statue from my desk. Amazing how the color of the stone shifts!
  3. A patron who loves poetry as much as I do, or one who WANTS to learn about it. A patron who discovered Margaret Atwood because of The Handmaid’s Tale and wonders if I could tell her what to read next. One who hopes we might have quilting books? Someone in awesome Dr. Martens who notices my flower ones and then we spend twenty minutes talking about boots. Someone who just happens to ask me (I don’t work in media for a reason!) if the library has an alternative music CDs. These very personal connections are the best.
  4. Library stories. I’ve shared a bunch on my Facebook feed over the years. My favorite might be the time a little girl came into the fiction section, took a big, appreciative sniff, spun around in her dress, and said “Oh I LOVE the liberry. It is my very favorite berry.” (The child who warned her brother that librarians in basements are actually witches is another good one.) Not every shift had a story but a lot of them did and I loved getting to experience them.
  5. Favorite patrons. I don’t know if there’s a rule somewhere that states you can’t have favorite patrons, but I don’t care. I do. I got to see one of my favorites, a patron who is in her 80s but seems more like early 60s, always put together and very intelligent about books, this week. She’d been ill with COVID and I was so happy to see her back again. I think other, more loquacious and outgoing librarians than me have a bigger fan base, but I have six or seven patrons who I’ve developed a lovely library friendship with.
  6. Developing our library’s book group collection. This was something I inherited pretty quickly after I started working here. First I just managed the reservations and then I started doing the collection development (meaning I decided which books to buy). This assignment worked with my strengths so closely. It gave me an opportunity to interact with patrons in other ways (many of my favorite patrons are book group users), to use my writing skills (I also created the discussion guides), and to look at books from a unique perspective. I fought really hard to be allowed to keep this collection when I switched departments but I lost that battle, and I’m still very upset about it.
  7. Walking with books. This might seem silly. But I loved that I got to just walk up and down shelves loaded with books. To be among books. Surrounded by them. Reading isn’t just sort of a little hobby I have. It’s integral to my very identity, and so I don’t love books just as mechanisms for getting to a story, but for the books themselves. The covers, the smell, the heft, the type. The spines all lined up on a shelf.
  8. Quiet shifts at the desk. People always say “Oh, you work at the library! It must be so peaceful there.” Truth is, it is often the very opposite of peaceful. I have had patrons scream at me, tell me I’m stupid and worthless, shout across the floor to get my attention. Couples have arguments in the stacks, people talk loudly on their cell phones. They cough and sneeze, snore and, yes, fart. (I pretend not to notice.) Often there’s a phone ringing and a patron who needs help printing and another one who wants to complain about taxes or inflation or what a disappointment Joe Biden is. (Sorry, you picked the wrong librarian for that conversation.) All at the same time. So my introvert self deeply appreciates the quiet shifts when the library is slow and I can work on whatever projects I had, in peace, surrounded by books.
  9. A display shelf. This is another thing I will desperately miss, my staff favorites display. This is where I put four or five of my favorite books, making sure to rotate through everything that I loved. Not everyone wants to ask a librarian for recommendations and this was a way to connect with people who didn’t want to talk. I loved that I could influence what people decide to read without ever even talking to them. Since my tastes lean eclectic and unusual, it felt like being a champion for the books that likely wouldn’t get checked out much. A way to kind of pay it forward for my favorite authors and the work they do. Plus, a couple of times patrons in the wild recognized me: “Hey! I know you from your library shelf! I read [insert random title here] because it was on your shelf and I loved it!” (I generally do NOT love being recognized by patrons while not in the library, especially the problematic ones, but that interaction is OK.)
  10. “Always put the most important thing last” is a basic tenant of good writing, so this one is number ten: My coworkers. Not all of them have been my friend or mentor, but the majority of them have. There is just something about working with book people when you, yourself, are a book person. I mean. Two librarians talking about books together? It can get gloriously intensely booknerdy. Plus, when you love books you look at the world in a different light. Many of my coworkers have been, to borrow Anne Shirley’s words, kindred spirits. They were the best part of a job that held a lot of goodness.

Here’s to the ending of one chapter and the start of another in my career as a librarian!


Book Review: The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. by Lee Kravetz

I will tell them stories from the life of a master curator: the pilfered Bruegel Ten, the mishandled matchbook, the stolen Bible, the exploited final chapter of a famed novel, the busted typewriter, the poet’s lost note, and the stolen notebooks of The Bell Jar—disparate objects, each one solely possessing the power to absolve us of our unforgivable sins against them.

Last confessions of sylvia pI’ve written about how discovering Sylvia Plath changed the trajectory of my life more than once. Like many Plath lovers, I was and continue to be entranced as much by her life story as I am with her poetry. She will always be an interest of mine.

But if I’m totally honest, there are more poems by another confessional poet, Anne Sexton, which are touchstone poems of mine. “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward,” “Her Kind,” “The Truth the Dead Know,” “The House,” “Sylvia’s Death” and many others have given me courage, helped me feel less alone, and given me literary understanding of what feminism means.

And yet I’m not sure Anne Sexton and I could’ve ever been friends. Especially after reading her daughter’s memoir, I’m not sure she was a fantastically kind or even moral person. (This begs the question if Sylvia Plath and I could’ve been friends and I think the answer is probably not, but for different reasons.)

Can you separate the artist from her art?

Should you?

But the truth for me is that both of these writers—who both died before I could read—have had an immense impact upon me. I wouldn’t be the same person without them.

So I approached Lee Kravetz’s novel, The Last Confessions of Sylvia P., with immense caution.

This is because the story of Sylvia Plath’s life is intrinsically woven with her death, and because it is easy to sensationalize or romanticize it. Easy, and done, and I won’t engage with that, even if her suicide is what drew my attention to her in the first place.

But it is also a novel about two writers whose work I love.

So I went ahead and read it.

The book isn’t really about Sylvia Plath, but about some of the people whose lives intersected with hers: her therapist and, yes: Anne Sexton. In a sense, this is much more the last confessions of Anne Sexton, who is called Boston Rhoades in the novel. And she is not painted in a flattering light. In fact, I’d say the Anne Sexton you find here is more a caricature: obsessed with fame and with beating Sylvia Plath in popularity. While I’m certain that the real-life Anne Sexton would not be a bosom friend, I am also certain she was more well-rounded than the novel presents her as.

The book also tells the story of Estee, who is an curator for an auction house; the last object she is going to curate before retiring is a handwritten copy of Plath’s The Bell Jar.

These three women rotate around Sylvia Plath’s story in interesting ways.

It was an intriguing book: a good mystery around where the handwritten notebooks came from and how they got there, an exploration of the midcentury social experiences women writers had, a study of how mental health therapies have changed.

Despite my initial hesitation, I am glad I read it. It reminded me of how it felt when I was 19 or so, delving headfirst into the worlds of poetry and feminism. I have lost some of that enthusiasm and wonder along the way, and this book nudged me to find it again.

But I continue to remain annoyed by the title. I think the author understands that a certain demographic will read anything about Sylvia Plath, but this isn’t Plath’s story.

Instead it is a story about how Plath influenced others.

And I can absolutely relate to that.


Book Review: Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

Suddenly Ellen was angry. She was angry because she had not guessed that it was Otis instead of Austine who untied her sash. She was angry because she had slapped Austine. She was angry because Austine had not explained what had really happened but, most of all she was angry because she and Austine had not made up. The quarrel had lasted so long that Ellen supposed now they would never make up.

Ellen tebbitsThe other day when I was covering a desk for the children’s department, I walked past a book shelf in the junior fiction section. Then I turned around and went back, because I had just spotted something I hadn’t thought of (consciously, at least) in decades:

Ellen Tebbits by Beverly Cleary

This funny little book tells the story of Ellen, who becomes friends with Austine after they discover they each share a secret: their mothers make them wear winter underwear.

I glanced at the cover and the feeling of the book flooded back to me: something about a girl hiding in a broom closet so the other ballet-class friends didn’t see her embarrassing underwear. And something about brownies. And friendship. And a beet???

I took it home and reread it. And laughed so hard.

I loved Ellen Tebbits as a kid. I still love her and can totally relate to her struggle with underwear. (Thank God we’ve both moved past that little fun bit.) I had forgotten bits of her story, but my body still remembers how reading it made me feel. As a shy, anxious kid (we didn’t call it “anxious” back then though; I was “nervous” a lot), I had a hard time maintaining friendships, and Ellen’s friendship with Austine helped me at least know that all friendships had times when the other person ignored you and talked about you behind your back. And that everyone goes to school knowing it will be a lonely day when no one really talks to you.

(I wish I could hug third-grade Amy and somehow let her know it would all be OK.)

Reading a book written in 1951 in 2022 (and that means it was already almost thirty years old when I read it as a kid!) was an interesting experience, and I couldn’t feel the same way I did as a kid. Mainly this time I noticed the mothers, and how different they are from each other. And how integrated sexism was in the story (all of the kids who get a speaking part in the play are boys, and Otis Spofford is definitely graced with the benevolence of “boys will be boys”).

But I also found a little lost piece of myself in its pages, so close I could almost hug her.


Book Review: Braver Than You Think by Maggie Downs

Beyond that, I wonder if this is even my tragedy to understand. The struggle of my own mortality feels selfish in the face of those trying to reconcile their humanity, and I have no right to stake a claim in their personal suffering. I can’t escape the fact that I am a foreigner here, and I always will be. I can grieve here, but what right do I have to feel so sad?

BraverI think to some extent, reading is about recapturing the way a certain book made you feel. You read a book and love it, and then you want a different book that makes you feel the same feeling.

This is true for the book Braver than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime by Maggie Downs. I read it because it is a book about a woman dealing with her parent’s Alzheimer’s, but mostly I read it because I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on The Pacific Crest Trail and wanted to feel something similar. Something about how travel can transform you.

They are not the same book.

When Maggie Downs was little, her mom spent many hours with her, reading National Geographic and imaging the places she would visit. But she never had the opportunity; not long after her children were grown and out of the house, she developed early-onset Alzheimer’s.

So Maggie decides to take a year-long trip like the one her mother wanted to take.

She travels to many different parts of the earth, Africa to South America to Asia. This trip coincides with the first year of her marriage and the year her mother dies, so she is torn. Is she selfish to be traveling rather than spending time with her (dying) mother and her new husband?

But she continues on.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons. I learned a lot about different areas of the world (although very few of her experiences made me want to travel the way that she traveled). Since my dad died of dementia, I could relate to many of the struggles she tried to work through (although sometimes it felt like she was angry at her mom for her disease, as if she couldn’t remember her daughter anymore out of a spirit of malice). The loss of a parent is something I am still trying to come to grips with, so many of her responses helped me.

But I didn’t love it like I wanted to.

Partly because I had a hard time forgiving her for something she does on the Nile. One of her excursions is to white-water raft the headwaters of the Nile, and when she survives it, she drops her orange peel in the water, imagining it swirling all the way down to the Mediterranean, someone finding it and wondering about its origin. This kind of arrogance offends me: a river isn’t about your need to leave a mark on the world (but the orange peel probably could exist for that long, which is why you carry out what you bring in), and it illustrates that she and I don’t look at the world in the same way.

Mostly it’s because she writes like a reporter writes (which makes sense considering she is a reporter) rather than like a poet would (which is the kind of writing I respond to the most).

Even though it didn’t evoke the same response for me that Cheryl Strayed’s travel book did, I am glad I picked this one up. It sparked some new travel interests for me, and reminded me of a story in Paris that I still would like to turn into an essay, and reminded me that it is OK I am still grieving for both of my parents’ deaths. And other, newer losses in my life, honestly. “I’ve had to cultivate a certain amount of faith to continue moving through the world,” Maggie writes, and I have to nod my head. That’s a tidy summary of life as time moves forward. It takes more and more faith—not in God, necessarily. In yourself.


A Librarian's Thoughts on Book Banning

I am highly offended by the books of Anita Stansfield, who is an author who writes Mormon fiction. Having read about several of her books, and listened to other readers talk about them, and read one myself, I find her work problematic. It encourages a false perspective on how following the rules of the LDS church will eventually lead to a miraculous intervention that saves the day and thus encourages destructive magical thinking. I want to protect all readers from that thought process, and so I am suggesting that her books be banned from all libraries in Utah, where the population is particularly likely to think in this way.

For added measure, perhaps we could burn the books while we're at it. 

20220414_105436

I try to stay on top of knowing about the recent bout of book banning, library meddling,  ridiculously-long (and actually out-of-date) lists of books politicians think shouldn’t be in libraries, and actual book burnings.  

This feels important to me as a librarian, a former educator, and a person with a child still in the public education system.

More, it feels important to me as an educated, functional human being in a society increasingly threated by right-wing wackadoodles.

As a librarian in a conservative area, I come across people objecting to books often. I once had a patron proudly return (as in, made a point to personally hand it to me) a book club book where she’d blacked out the three swear words she found in the first chapter. She hadn’t finished the book, of course—too many swear words, obviously, for her book club to read—but thought she’d done a service for the community. (The book in question? Blessings by Anna Quindlen. Ah, yes, Anna Quindlen. Such an offensive writer.) I have had patrons tell me our shelves are full of smut (ie: romance novels). Patrons object to one of our statues on a regular basis (not as often as people confuse it with Rodin’s The Thinker, but still.) Last year one of the city council members objected to our Pride display; my favorite was his thought that “graphic novels” were, like, books with sexually graphic scenes. 

I’m not unfamiliar with the arguments and issues of the more conservative-minded people in our communities.

The problem is, this demographic almost always misunderstands the point of libraries in the first place.

Yes, libraries are funded by public tax dollars. They are a service that our community has long held a valuable one, worth the money and infrastructure.

But they don’t exist just for one group of people. They exist for the community. And communities (even those as homogenous as Utah County) have a variety of people. Races, nationalities, religions, sexual orientation. Even down to the microscopic level of individual reading tastes: communities are not full of photocopied people, exactly the same.

The problem is that whatever group is the majority tends to think that everyone thinks like them.

An example. A few weeks ago, I had a patron call and ask me to recommend “a few good books.” Being a professional librarian, I understand that everyone’s definition of “good” when it comes to books is different. So I asked her “what do you mean by ‘good’?”

She got very flustered. I asked a few more questions and it turns out, for her a “good” book is one that doesn’t have any sex, swearing, or violence. I proceeded to give her a few suggestions, but before I could get very far, she cut me off.

“I’m surprised you would ask me what ‘good’ means,” she said. “They teach us about goodness in church every week.”

That is the perfect story to illustrate the thought process of a person who thinks it’s necessary to only have the stories of white, cishet, Christian  perspectives on library shelves. It is thinking based on so many assumptions, the biggest one being that everyone thinks, believes, and acts the way she does, because she is the standard of normalcy and goodness.

Anything else is abnormal and thus shameful, and so not worthy of reading about.

And so I started this blog post with a writer that many people in Utah County love. I chose her work on purpose: to illustrate how ridiculous book banning is, how it is centered in one individual's opinion rather than the community at large. I actually do despise her work. As a reader who values intellectual honesty, curiosity for other ways of living, and beautiful writing, I am not going to read Anita Stansfield’s work. (One was enough.) And I do think it creates a harmful image of religion leading one to a God who dispenses blessings based on righteousness—insert your obedience, grab your sweet, sweet blessing!—which I haven’t found to be true in my experiences.

However, I would never suggest that we shouldn’t have her books on our library shelves. This is because as adult human beings, we each get to choose what we read (or watch or listen to). We all need different things from books: every book has its reader just as every reader has her book.

But the conservative thought pattern cannot seem to allow for that. In the book-banning perspective, there is only one way to think, to believe, to act, or to be in the world. And instead of simply just being like that (which is a fine choice if that’s what they want) themselves, they want to make sure everyone else is exactly the same as them.

“But Amy!” you might be saying. “That’s fine for public libraries. School libraries shouldn’t have books with LGBTQ stories in them!”

To which I answer: “Why?”

Age-level-appropriate books on all subjects should be available to public-school children of all ages. This is because, as with “adult” society, there is a wide range of types of children. Should parents discuss such issues at home? Absolutely. Do all of them? Absolutely not. And policing morality isn’t even the point. The point is that even children should see themselves represented on library shelves, and, as with society in general, there are kids who come from all sorts of backgrounds.

And I also believe that children should be encouraged to understand that the world is wide. They have only experienced a miniscule portion of it, but books help them understand that there is so much more. 

The interesting thing in all of this? Most people who object to books, or get on the “let’s ban this” bandwagon (and there are so many, many wagons these days), haven’t even read the books in question. Do you honestly think that Texas State Representative Matt Krause has read all of the 850 books on his list?   Of course not.

So here I am. A librarian, a liberal thinker, a person who loves books and art and music. A bibliophile who cherishes beauty in artistic expression but who also believes that art should portray the ugliness and horror of humanity, too, and that we as readers shouldn’t turn away from it. A reader whose definition of a “good” book is both wide and deep but doesn’t allow for shoddiness of craft or of thinking.

What am I to do in the face of so much narrow-minded thinking?

Sign petitions. Make noise on social media. (Write blog posts no one will read!) Make sure the collections I am responsible for at work have a wide variety of choices for all readers. Hope that when I ask “well, what’s ‘good’ to you?” it might sometime be a spark that lights the darkness.

Keep reading, keep talking, keep sharing books and poems and ideas.

Keep writing politicians.

“We must always take sides,” Elie Wiesel wrote. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It might not change much but I will continue using my voice to remind the world that all readers deserve representation on all library shelves everywhere.


Book Review: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.

Between the world and meLast week I had the opportunity to lead the book club discussion at the library I work at. I chose the book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. A few weeks before the meeting I was talking to a colleague about it, and it hit me: this could actually be a really, really difficult discussion because of where I live. (Deep in the heart of Utah County, where people say things like “all lives matter” without even flinching, where that trumpy way of thinking about race—oh, all those Black people are just overreacting and it’s not like slavery is still a thing so can’t we just move on?—is very prevalent.) Plus, what was I thinking, a white woman in a white community trying to a lead a discussion about a book that explores how racism impacts people of color?

But I had picked it because it still feels important to me, for all of us to have these conversations, even if my community doesn’t necessarily share my values.

There were no fireworks at the discussion, but it went about as I had expected. One member loved the book like I did, but the rest were some varying level of that trumpy thought process. One woman said something that’s stuck with me, about how the author seems to have a chip on his shoulder and is making himself miserable. If he’d just focus on what has changed instead of worrying so much about how things used to be, he’d be so much happier. He’s impacted by racism because he chooses to be, and if he just chose something different he’d be fine.

I didn’t say what I really felt about that, which is that that is a way she looks at the issue is also a choice. We all bring ourselves, our race and culture and religion and experiences, to every choice we make. I strive to choose to look beyond myself, to allow that others’ experiences are different than mine and that my role isn’t to tell them how they should feel or act or choose, but to listen and try to understand. (Actually, what I really thought was it doesn’t seem like you understood the point he was making but I remained professional and didn’t say that.)

Another question I asked, which is something I ask in all the book group discussions I lead, was “what other books by people of color have you read that have impacted your understanding of racism?” I listed some of mine: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Beloved, An American Marriage, Audre Lorde’s collected essays. Then: crickets. No one had a response to that question. Then one of the group members asked “but isn’t that racist? I don’t read books based on the race of the author.”

Sigh.

Sometimes life contradicts imagination. There was a part of me (the hopeful part that chose the book in the first place) that imagined a great discussion about what these white people learned about living as a Black person in America. But that conversation still can’t be had, at least not here.

I don’t know how to write that without sounding like I’m judging, or like I think I’m smarter or better than others, and that’s not my intention. I just don’t think in the same ways most of my community does, and I am so hungry for discussion that makes me feel seen instead of strange.

All of which is to say: Recently I reread Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I read it when it was fairly new, and my memories of it were vague. I read a library copy before, but this time I bought my own, and it is full of underline and comments. While I don’t think Coates’s philosophies are without argument—he takes an awfully long time to realize that “the bodies of women are set out for pillage in ways I could never truly know.” But I disagree heartily with the book club member’s idea that he should, basically, “just get over it.” “Look on the bright side” is, to my mind, a particularly Mormon way of thinking, and while yes, it is not great to always be stuck in the darkness and misery of human life, not looking at what is real is equally, if not more, damaging. It’s not about carrying a grudge, it’s about hitting up over and over against the fact that as an African American, he is treated differently, and I appreciate him sharing the details of what that is like so that I, at the very least, understand that all perspectives are not the same as my own.

I’m glad I read it if only so I could be reminded of this metaphor:

The right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

And the rest of that concept speaks directly to the book club member’s perspective:

There is no them without you [remember, this is a book written as a letter to his son, so the “you” isn’t you the reader but you, the author’s son], and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream.

I’m not entirely outside of the Dream. (I’m not sure any white person can be.) But I am trying to be aware of how my life influences others in ways that lessen their divinity. The patron is still deep in the Dream and can’t (yet?) see that not everyone is there with her.

But I’m also glad I reread it, if just for what he wrote about writing. How writing is a way of thinking, of figuring out what you think about what you experience. And this line, which struck me hard not because I’m white and he’s Black but because we both love words:

All I then wanted was to write as those black people danced, with control, power, joy, warmth.

And this is me entirely taking out of context what he wrote. He didn’t write it for me, a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman. But as myself, I want that too. Not that I want to write like others, but that I want to do it with that control, power, joy, warmth. As an expression of who I am.

I’m glad and grateful that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this book and that I got to read it. (Reread, and also listen to him reading the audio.) It has helped me understand the world better, and that is a source of power.


Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

I’ve heard it said that the Holocaust has no survivors, that even those who managed to remain technically alive were so irreparably damaged, that their spirit, their soul, the person that they were supposed to be, was gone forever. I’d like to think that’s not true. But if it is, then no one on Earth survived this war. 

One of the cool things in my life right now is having an adult kid who likes to read (and has time to). My son Nathan and I have great conversations about books. I mean...I’ve always tried to talk to my kids about books and what they think about what they’re reading. Or to suggest things to them that I have loved. But it’s a different feeling when they’re adults and you don’t have to censor much, but can just talk about the issues. We recommend books to each other a lot, and it makes me happy!

World war zA few months ago he told me I had to listen to the audio version of World War Z by Max Brooks. It didn’t feel like holiday reading for me, though, and then I was just so stuck in the dark in the middle of winter that I couldn’t delve into a zombie war until spring had at least started to come our way. In fact, I started listening to it just a couple of days before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The audio of this is excellent. It has a whole cast, rather than just one reader. Nathan Fillion is one of the readers, which kind of made my day. (I love him.) The structure of the book is perfect for this kind of reading. 

Listening to a novel about a war—even if it was with zombies—while an actual war was starting in the world was a strange feeling. (I was also reading a book about World War II, Still Life, and I actually had to set it aside for a bit because three wars happening in my head were just too much.)  It really drove home all of the ways that humanity is horrible to each other (both WWZ and the current war have vacuum bombs, for example), the way that we take so long to figure out this war that we’re in because we’re still fighting the last one. How leadership quite often moves too slowly.

But also sometimes gets it right.

Unlike the movie, the novel World War Z is told not in a straightforward narrative, but as an oral documentation, ten years or so after the fight against the zombies is mostly over. So it is a collection of people’s stories from across the world, told interview-style, of what they did and how they survived the battles. The stories that really stood out for me were these:

Father Sergei Ryzkhov, from Russia. He describes being a religious person in an atheist country, and his realization that the soldiers who were infected had to kill themselves was, in his mind, offensive to God. So he takes over the task, which becomes the act of Final Purification. Even just revisting this to write about it brings me to tears. It is so awful and so—noble isn’t quite the right word, but close. But then it devolves into assassinations in the name of purification and there it goes again: humanity’s consistent turning to inhumanity.

The burning of Kiev. Even if I hadn’t read this when Kiev was literally under attack, it would have stuck with me: the enormous statue Rodina Mat falling, “her cold, bright eyes looking down at us as we ran.”

Jesika Hendricks, from Wisconsin. She is a child who flees north when the infestation starts, with her parents who think it will only be a couple of months. The choices they have to make, and all that’s contained in something she says: “By Christmas Day there was plenty of food.” The will to survive no matter what, the struggle of being a refugee, the degradation of the natural world. So much of her story hit me hard.

Maria Zhuganova, also from Russia. She was already in the army when this started, and when her group refused to shoot someone who was infected—a rebellion of sorts—the Russian army instituted Decimation. They were divided into groups of ten and each group had to kill one of its members. The rest of her story, where she ends up after the war and what she does, is equally awful.

I just realized that half of the stories that really had an impact on me are Russian stories. And Ukraine isn’t Russia but on its borders. Is this because I read the book while Russia was invading? Maybe. In the book, many countries do horrible things. But that way of thinking…that, to me, is one of the masterful parts of the book. That he manages to get inside the thought processes of so many different nationalities, to show us both the differences and the similarities.

World War Z is one of those books that there isn’t a word for: a horrible, devastating story but so well written it must be called excellent. But how do you call “good” something that lays out so clearly the worst of humanity? Even if there are a few good moments.

So I just keep coming back to the quote I opened with, which really is what will stay with me from this book. The idea that wars actually never end, but continue feeding and influencing the next ones. True in fiction, true in real life (Putin claiming the war is to “denazify” Ukraine is him dragging the impact of what happened in World War II into the present day is only one example). If I have learned anything over the past half-decade it is that humans are less loving, kind, and good than I thought. From politics to health to very personal relationships, my faith in humanity has been broken, and this book confirmed those feelings.

And yet I am still glad I took Nathan up on his suggestion. I am glad I read this book, and glad for the timing of it. Not because it gave me hope, it didn’t. But because it helped me see that we all continue to be a part of this world, impacted by history as we make what will be history. It is a process we have always engaged in and maybe that is what it means to be human. Or at least a part of it.