Fridays are my long days at the library, and yesterday I worked an extra hour. That really shouldn't feel that difficult but man, nine hours felt long even in a space I love.
As the day progressed, though, I found myself paying attention to the good vibes I was feeling. Someone thanked me sincerely for helping him print his document. A cute little girl in a black Friends t-shirt waved at me and said "I love the liberry!" The morning light through the east windows was perfect.
Despite it being a long day, it was also full of lovely little moments, so I thought I'd jot them down.
I helped a patron who needed some copies. He had one of those open and energetic vibes, and he told me several stories about his life adventures. He looked nothing like them, but reminded me so much of my dad and his brothers. They were always ready with a story to tell, and told it with the assumption that A---you knew exactly who they were talking about and B---they were the most interesting stories ever. (Quiet often they were!) And they could always talk about art. This gentleman had that same spunk & spirit & innate storytelling vibe. I enjoyed his stories and I enjoyed feeling that connection to my dad.
I helped another patron find a book in Spanish...in Spanish! My Spanish is definitely not the greatest but when I manage to help someone in the language they understand best it makes me feel accomplished and somehow more...welcoming, I guess.
Our library tarantula, Libby, is a little bit anti-social and spends a lot of time in her burrow. She was out today though (I think she likes Fridays because when I see her out it is almost always on a Friday). Whenever she's actually out, if there are kids downstairs I'll let them know. One little girl was looking in the terrarium while her mom used the computer, so I walked over to point her out. When she spotted her—a little bit behind a leaf—she grabbed my hand and squeezed because, as she said, "I've never gotten to actually really see her in real life yet!" So cute!
An old family friend—she has known me since I was four—came into the library today and we had a really lovely chat. She told me that she always checks my staff displays and takes home at least one. A few months ago she took The Awakening and she told me it gave her so much to think about in relation to her decisions within the church. As I feel like every LDS woman in Utah County should read it simply for that reason, this made me feel super validated. Also I just really love it when people tell me they like my suggestions!
Another patron this afternoon asked me what the name of the statue by the reference desk is, so I told her the name ("Incoming") and the story of the piece. In another life I'd like to be a museum docent, please. Preferably in Italy. I love talking about art (even if my knowledge is limited) because I LOVE art!
I survived my long day by just paying attention to the little good moments!
A page putting books on the shelf. The creak of a cart wheel. Two patrons in the cookbook section, laughing quietly. Another walking towards the art section, a thin stream of music coming from her headphones. One patron types rapidly on the computer behind me, another hesitantly at the catalog. The buzz of someone's cell phone quickly silenced, the slam of an office door, the ding of the elevator as its doors open.
When I tell someone I work at a library, I am often met with a similar response: "Oh, it must be so lovely to work somewhere so quiet." (There is also the assumption that librarians just sit around reading books, which would be lovely but, alas, no.) The shushing librarian is an archetype, that, once studied or actually lived, falls apart quickly. We try to keep the noise levels manageable, and often the library is quiet, but not really.
The library is a place filled with books and formed by the shapes needed to house them, but it really is a place of stories.
I didn't really expect this when I started working as a librarian nearly twelve years ago. I didn't understand how bartender-ish it can be, working as a librarian. How people tell you their stories, or small parts of them, either overtly through their requests for help finding books or directly, by just starting to talk to you.
It's also a place where stories happen. In interactions between patrons and librarians, between patrons and other patrons. Sometimes between librarians. People come to a library needing something. A book, a computer, some free wi-fi. An escape from their husband or kids or mother or annoyingly loud neighbor. Sometimes, they just need a place to sit out of the rain. To be a person who needs something can be a vulnerable position to be in, and that is often where the stories happen.
Just thought today I would share a few I took part in.
Even though the library where I work has been open for almost the entirety of the pandemic (we were closed for about seven or eight weeks but then opened with varying levels of modification), there is always someone angry or annoyed by what we aren't doing. Right now, we are open for our normal hours, and we have started putting back some of the furniture. No comfy chairs, but there are chairs at the study desks. The study rooms are not open and probably won't be for some time yet.
I had a patron this morning come to my desk and demand a study room. "I need a room right now, and the wireless password." I took a breath before responding because I could guess, by his body language and voice tone, how this would go. I explained that the study rooms are not open yet, but he could use one of the laptop bars if he wanted. He pushed back and insisted: "your colleague on the other side told me I could have a room, so I want a room." I apologized and he walked away, muttering.
He walked back across the bridge that connects our two wings. He shouted at the librarian at that desk. She called me and I said the same thing: tell him the rooms are not open. (I also said "I'm sorry he's being such a jerk" but quietly, so he didn't hear me). Then he stormed back across the bridge toward my desk. I looked right at him, daring him to catch my eye. He didn't, but he walked by and muttered something that included "pandemic" and "fucking ridiculous."
And I'm just now SO looking forward to working next week, when the statewide mask mandate will be lifted but not in city buildings. It took a pandemic to teach me that some people really are asses.
Downstairs, I helped an older woman. She needed to save and then email the Word doc she'd been writing, but wasn't sure how to on our system. She very apologetically asked me for help. I always try not to read the documents a patron has created. It's none of my business and they can have their privacy, but it's impossible not to see a few words. Her document, which she explained was a letter to her brother, included the words "funeral," "mom," "inheritance" and "lawyer."
I helped her save and then showed her how to attach the document in her email, then left her to write whatever else she needed to. When she was done, she came over to thank me for helping her. It's never required to thank your librarian, but honestly it is awfully nice when someone does. She told me her document was "a very important one during a hard time for our family" and then got a little teary but didn't actually cry, and I just said "you're welcome, you enjoy the beautiful day" and she smiled at me with her eyes.
Two different people. Each needing something. But how they each approached the experience was totally different. The woman's heartfelt "thank you" contrasted with the angry man's swearing...that is the realness of the librarian experience, not sitting behind a desk in a cardigan and bun, shushing people. It is talking about books, sometimes. Often it is talking about printing or other basic computer skills. But always it is about interaction. Not all of them are positive, but I am grateful for the ones that are.
If you’ve read my blog for very long, follow me on Instagram, or know me in person, you know I believe that books can save your life. I believe in the power of the written word to help a reader find her way, of story to educate, console, and transform, of metaphor to enlighten. I believe libraries are an important part of our society; like museums, they feed our cultural heart.
But I also understand the reality of our current situation, the fact that we are living in a pandemic.
On Friday night I had a…conversation? not really an argument, per se, because I did not lose my temper, but it was definitely a discussion. Let’s call it a debate. On Friday night I had a debate with a library patron that brought these two concepts into conflict.
The library where I work was one of the first libraries to open in Utah, and so, since Utah seems to have opened earlier than many other states, perhaps one of the first to open in the nation. We started with highly modified procedures and have gradually, over the months, relaxed the constrictions. Two weeks ago, we moved to being open for our normal hours. But we still require masks; we ask patrons to limit their visit to an hour, and there isn’t any furniture set out. You can’t linger in comfortable chairs, reading the newspaper. We want patrons to use the library to access materials—books, printers, the internet—and then go home. The library as a social gathering place is a concept for a non-pandemic world.
This particular patron was not happy with me when I told him about the lack of furniture and the one-hour time limit. Specifically, he wanted to sit somewhere comfortable and use his laptop. When I told him we weren’t set up for that, he grumbled that the library was “ridiculously Draconian.” I smiled politely and he wandered off.
Two hours later, I switched desks to the basement floor, where our computer lab is. Said gentleman was sitting in front of one of the computers, using his laptop. Mind you, this was two hours after I’d told him about our one-hour time limit. The other librarian had reminded him of the hour limit, but he pushed back.
I waited for another half hour, and when he still had made no progress toward leaving—and when there were other patrons in the area—I calmly told him that we are limiting the time for being in the library to an hour, and as he had been there for almost three, he needed to wrap it up. He again grumbled and rolled his eyes, and he snapped at me that he was “almost done.”
I said “OK, thank you,” and went back to my desk.
Ten minutes later, this patron walked over to my desk. He said “can I ask you a question?” and I said, “that is what I am here for.” I knew that of course he wasn’t going to ask me for a book recommendation (I mean, why would you ask a librarian sitting in the fiction area for a book recommendation? Clearly what happened was even better), but I never imagined what would happen next.
Twenty minutes of debating whether or not the library’s restrictions are necessary. He brought up so many Fox News talking points. I calmly refuted them, but inside I was fuming. Fuming. He insulted me several times, but more than that, I feel like he took a hammer to my belief in humanity. After my shift, when I’d closed up the library and was driving home, I felt the response in my body, as if all the negative emotions were objects bumping around in my circulatory system.
I’m aware that blogging about this incident doesn’t change it. It doesn’t change his opinions (talking about it face to face didn’t change his opinions). It also might stir things up at work that might otherwise remain unstirred. But writing and sharing has become a method for processing for me. Those feelings are still here, jostling around my body, and maybe writing about them will help. Here is a list of his objections and my responses:
“Why is the library being so Draconian?”
He must’ve said “Draconian” fifty times. He claimed other libraries in the county allow you to do whatever you want. (This is not true.) And he kept pushing that there was a secret reason for all our limitations, a secret that I knew because I’m in the “upper echelon of librarians.” (If he only knew how ridiculous that statement is.)
Finally I just said, “sir, I seriously do not know a secret reason. Why don’t you tell me what you mean?” and he said “the secret is that the library is afraid. They are basing all of their decisions on fear.”
Yes. We don’t want our patrons to get sick. We don’t want our coworkers to get sick either. If taking safety precautions as recommended by scientists, while simultaneously being the most accessible library in perhaps the whole state is making decisions out of fear, then, OK. That’s the secret.
(I did not say these thoughts. They are highly sarcastic and even with my iron-willed control of my emotions I could not have responded politely to that point.)
“Why does the library think it’s so special?”
His point here was that grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and schools are open during the pandemic. Why shouldn’t libraries also be open?
I love libraries. They have been my saving grace on many occasions.
But libraries are not literal health care. They can’t stop you from dying from a heart attack.
Books can feed your soul, but they are not literal food. They cannot give you calories you need to sustain your body.
Libraries and education work closely together. Students need access to a library. Currently, at our library, they have access. They can check out books and use a computer. Also, I think the way our society is treating teachers is downright shameful.
Finally, he doesn’t see the irony in standing in a library shouting at a librarian about “fair access”? You are in a library. You’ve been here for three hours. What more do you want?
“Why do you think you’re so special?”
“The grocery store employees are risking their lives and you’re sitting there behind your sneeze guard in a mask doing nothing. Why should they risk their lives but you don’t have to? Isn’t it a little bit cowardly?”
Seriously…this random dude called me a coward. He knows nothing about me. He doesn’t know what small and large courageous things I’ve done. Truth is: I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want the lingering effects that COVID can have. I don’t want two weeks of feeling horrible. I don’t want my family members to have it, either.
I’m not a coward. I am a rational person who listens to the people I know who have experienced the illness, as well as the reports of doctors and scientists.
I’m also a person who is out in public taking care of patrons. Taking care of that patron arguing with me. How am I making myself “special”?
“I mean, it’s not like you have any risk factors. You’re young, you’ll be fine.”
He doesn’t know I have restricted lung function after having whooping cough.
He doesn’t know I have a husband and a child with heart issues.
Also he clearly doesn’t know that sometimes people get sick and even die without risk factors.
(I told him this, very politely. He looked abashed. Then he got in my face about sending my kid to school if he has risk factors. WHAT.)
“Oh, so doctors can risk their lives, but you can’t?”
Well, I chose to not become a doctor. I’m not medically certified. I didn’t go to school for eight or ten years like doctors do. I also don’t make a doctor’s salary. Whilst standing by my “libraries are important” belief, I also believe that libraries are far less important than doctors.
When I told him this, he said “well, you’re far less educated than a doctor. You probably don’t even have a Bachelor’s degree.”
Actually, I have two, but thanks for making my point for me. Yes: I know I don’t matter to society as much as doctors. That is exactly my point. They deserve to make more money than I do. But that also comes with personal risk.
“Besides, it’s not like this is as scary as everyone thinks. More people die from the flu. It will all go away after the election.”
(Please imagine me sitting in my tall chair behind the library desk, in my orange cardigan. Please imagine how high my eyebrow shot up. Please imagine the internal swearing that was happening inside my head.)
Well, I guess the doctors, nurses, grocery store employees, and teachers aren’t putting their lives at risk then, are they?
The worst thing, somehow, is at the end of this debate, he thanked me. He actually thanked me for having “an intelligent conversation” with him. I don’t know why that felt awful, but it did. Maybe because as a library employee I have to walk a fine line: I have to defend myself, but I also can’t be blunt and say what I really think. Maybe because I found it fairly surreal to be supporting restrictions that, in all honesty, I find to be not restrictive enough.
Or maybe just because I know I didn’t change his thought process one bit.
But I do feel better, having written this. If nothing else, I can stop having imaginary conversations with this guy in my head. Having written, I can now move on.
One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, said “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future." I wonder...how much of this idea did that patron understand? He wasn't objecting to the library restrictions because he was worried about how it might impact anyone other than himself. He feels entitled to sit at the library for hours on end with his laptop, but it didn't matter at all to him that others actually have access to books; what mattered was that he couldn't have it exactly the way he wanted it.
And here's the irony in this whole situation. He didn't say this, but the conclusion I drew from his words is that he considers the library, and thus by association me and all other librarians, as being selfish. Thinking only about themselves instead of what their patrons might need, considering their own fears more important than his right to a comfortable place to sit.
And I, quite frankly, consider him to be selfish, thinking that his rights are more important than other people's health.
I didn't tell him that, of course. I did strive to remain professional during this interaction. But now that it is past and I am trying to process the experience, that is what I come back to. I don't want to believe that Americans have allowed our independent spirits to morph into selfishness. I want to believe in the good of humanity.
But that interaction left me much less able to hold on to my belief.
[This is a two-part blog post. You can read the first part HERE.]
“Yes, but it’s just an English degree. What can you do with that except teach high school?”
“It’s not like you had to work as hard as your sister did in school. Science degrees are way harder than English degrees.”
“Degrees in the humanities are worthless.”
“Oh no, if you were an English teacher you must be judging my grammar!”
“If you want to get a Master’s degree you should do it in something more practical than writing. Do you know how few people are actually successful writers?”
“Books are for prisoners.”
“Wait, you work at the library? I thought all libraries were closed because people just read digital books now.”
“The publication industry is dying. Why do you care so much about writing a book?”
“We don’t need librarians anymore because we have the Internet!”
“I don’t read fiction because it’s a waste of time to read made-up stories.”
“I don’t have the time to read very much now in terms of the books.”
All of these statements are things people have said to me in real life, except for the last one which comes from our esteemed president, whose dislike for and discomfort with books is evident on so many levels.
It’s not like I need my friends and family, not to mention doctors and that runner I talked with once on a race bus, to educate me on the futile uselessness of my interests. The world does that already. I mean…just consider my career. I can work as a librarian only because my husband’s job can support us. If I had to support a family on my own, even working full time, I couldn’t do it on my own as a librarian. This isn’t because I work for a miserly city with unfair pay policies but because society doesn’t deem librarians worthy of a sustainable wage. (As with teachers and social workers and police officers, of course, but everyone knows that. No one pays attention to the librarians.)
That random runner on the race bus was right: publication is a hard industry to be successful in, and the vast majority of people who manage to land an actual, printed book don’t make much money on it. (Six-figure advances make the news, of course, and there are outliers like King or Rowling or Grisham or Patterson, but many, many writers don’t make sustainable wages.) This is partly because society values quickness, a 20-minute video game, a sitcom, a 100-minute movie. Books take time, effort, and concentration to enjoy (which, apparently, only prisoners have).
Or, think of it like this: I bet you could tell me who starred in the last movie you watched, but likely you have no idea of who wrote the movie. You know—the person who created the world of the story. That person rarely gets noticed (except for in the credits), while the actors seem to make the movie.
Books, reading, valuing a well-written sentence or cleverly constructed paragraph, the meanings and use of words, novels, essays, poetry—oh, God, don’t even get me started on the average American adult’s lack of interest in poetry. These things matter deeply to me, but to the world in general they are kind of pointless.
But I think they are essential. Essential.
Especially right now.
I have to tell one more story to make my point. A few weeks before the news erupted with the pandemic, I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than a year at Costco. He is a trump supporter, but we have always managed to keep our conversations civil and respectful—he has done enough damage, I don’t want to allow him the destruction of friendships on top of it all.
So as this friend shared his opinion of the impeachment trial, I mostly just listened. But when he said “I don’t always agree with the way he handles stuff because his style is pretty outrageous, but I think he’s done great things,” I had to disagree.
I think it does matter how the president acts. Whatever the issue, whatever party you support, the president sets the tone for the country. So the current resident of the white house, with his mania and inanity, his relentless, misspelled tweets, his pandering to dictators, his unintelligence and his unfathomable speaking patterns, his disdain for reading—that influences everyone. “What if he could accomplish the ‘great things’ without acting like he does, though?” I asked my friend. “Wouldn’t the country be better?” [Please note that I did not ask about these supposed “great things” because really…I cannot think of one good thing he’s done in his tenure, but I do know that a friend bringing up things like Supreme Court judges and immigration issues would likely raise my ire higher than I could contain.]
This question gave him a pause. “I haven’t ever thought of it like that,” he said.
I haven’t ever thought of it like that.
Sure: I can tell you when to use every day versus everyday. I can usually think of a little snippet of a poem to go with nearly every situation I find myself in (I don’t often share these, though). I can talk literary theory with the best of them. I can discuss the way the feminist movement influences and is influenced by the sphere of literature. All of those skills and pieces of knowledge I’ve gained over a lifetime of loving and interacting with books, history, art, music, criticism, newspapers, literary magazines, university courses and professors and assignments—all of it is valuable to me.
But what I treasure the most is the ability to think about things in different ways. To know that my perspective is not the only one, my way of being in the world is not the only right choice but just one choice in a myriad of them. When I read something and I think I haven’t ever thought of it like that, I get excited. I ask myself why I haven’t thought in that way, what it says about my thought processes and how this new thought might change me. If I don’t know, I figure it out.
One individual human lifetime is small. So small. We get our years and our places and then we are gone. But with books, we can know larger parts of humanity than just our own. With knowledge we can see how we have changed and how we haven’t, how to do better and just how large our potential is (for both creation and destruction). I know just enough to know that I don’t know very much…you can read your whole life but still have a whole world left to discover. Just this spring, I read Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, where I learned about something I had never heard of, the Tulsa race riots and burning of Black Wall Street. And then our country erupted in protests, and a political rally was scheduled in Oklahoma, and suddenly people were talking about that moment in history. “Why didn’t we learn about that in history class?” people asked.
The why is because of systemic racism, but it is also about you. If you decided to stop learning about history, culture, science, ideas, philosophy and everything else simply because you graduated from high school or college, the problem is now in your hands. If you have decided that your way of looking at things is the best way, or the only way, the problem isn’t with your tenth-grade history teacher, but with your own lack of progress.
So as the United States starts to change (hopefully), what I keep coming back to is how the lack of imagination stifles progress. Reading lets you see that there are many worlds, and that many of them have more potential than the one we have created right now. It teaches you that the world has not always been the way it is now, and that there are many other experiences beside your own.
We are living in a country that is led by a man who is, I believe, corrupt to his very core. There are enough obvious examples, but for me, it boils down to this:
He doesn’t read.
He doesn’t see the value in the written word, be it a novel or a biography or a political treatise or even the daily reports. This means he is incapable of seeing from any other perspective than his own. He is a small man who lacks imagination, and thus knowledge, empathy, and self-awareness.
But it isn’t only the president. It is, as my family and friends and podiatrist and the runner on the bus have told me, deeply held within the nation. Books are a luxury, books are only for people with too much time on their hands, books are a waste of time, books are just stories. Basketball players and actresses and Instagram influencers matter, fluff and noise and nonsense deserve our attention.
Our country is beset by a huge variety of issues and problems, so the solutions will not be simple. But I believe at the very core of each solution lies knowledge, critical thinking, history, imagination, intelligence, empathy. All of the things, in other words, you get from the seemingly-useless humanity degrees. From books.
None of us should ever find ourselves at the end of our searches for knowledge and truth. These help us to see our place in the world, to realize both how small our lives are and how enormous our possibilities become when we understand that one way of seeing things is too narrow.
We must all cultivate the skill of altruism.
My sister Becky and I were talking a few days ago about my job. She wondered if I ever just wander the library stacks, picking out books at random, just because I’m just there, all the time, at the library.
And here is the truth about being a librarian: You lose some of the magic of libraries when you work at one.
Not all of it. I still sometimes have to pinch myself when I realize: I WORK AT A LIBRARY! I get to order books and take care of books and help people find books and talk to people about books.
Being a librarian is, I've decided, a calling more than it is a job. And many librarians are kindred spirits.
But when you love books and then you become a librarian, even though you gain many things, you lose some things, too.
When books are your job, it becomes impossible to separate reading from your work. (Because librarianship is a calling, remember?) Even when you just want to read a book, there is a part of you thinking about that book’s place in the library. Who might you recommend it to? What book list would you put it on? How could you tell more readers about it?
When you work in a library you can't smell the library smell anymore.
And because I have a to-be-read list that is unimaginably long, I never wander the stacks just looking to see what I might find. I no longer read books serendipitously.
Sometimes, if it's slow at a reference desk and I'm at the end of my librarian patience, I might wander over to the stacks, pull out a book I love, and then read a few pages.
But a TBR this long isn't going to make itself. (Nor are any of the one million tasks librarians do going to do themselves.)
Here's another thing, though. When you work at a library, you see so many books. You discover books while you’re working on your collection. You read book reviews and book websites so you can stay on top of what people are reading. You learn as much as you can about as many different kinds of books as possible, because there’s no way to read every book (nor do I want to), but you do want to help every patron find the book they need or the one they will love.
So all that reading about and researching books? Means as a librarian (a person who already loves books and reading) you fall in love with so many books. And I don’t know if this is true of all librarians, but for me, I want to take them all home. (Even though I know I cannot possibly read everything I want to read.)
I got my current library card in July of 1992 and since then I've checked out almost 8500 items.
I REALLY wish I would've noticed how many I'd checked out when I started working here in 2008, but I bet that two-thirds of those check outs have happened in the past twelve years. Maybe even three-fourths.
Of course, not all of those items are books. I check out a lot of movies and CDs, too. But it’s mostly books.
But here’s another truth about being a librarian: sometimes I get tired.
Really, “frustrated” or “annoyed” might be better words. In some ways it is sort of a stressor: knowing what all of the new and hot books are, and the feeling of wanting to read them (again, not all of them, because I still have my own tastes) and join in on the online/social media conversations. So I bring home more and more books, or my hold list grows longer and longer, and I read two or three books a month and then take the rest back.
(And that’s not even considering the books I buy!)
It is illogical, bringing books I never finish back and forth from the library. Just because I love them. Just because I want to read them. Just because everyone else is reading and talking about them and I want to be included in that conversation.
“I read the first three books in that series and loved them,” I texted him. “But I didn’t finish them.”
My dad and I read the first three books together. I mean…we had our own copies (I think I still have mine), but we read them at the same time and would talk about them. He was delighted by the series and his enthusiasm made reading them even better. He especially liked the lobstrosities and sometimes he’d just say “ded a chek?” to me out of the blue.
After the third book in the series, The Wastelands, King took a break from the series. This break coincided with my wedding, working on my degree, and becoming a mom. My dad picked up the fourth book but I didn’t—I felt like I wanted to read other things then. (OH how I wish I had just read those with him, too.)
I told Nathan that at this point, I haven’t finished the series because it makes me sad to read them without my dad. His response?
“Maybe you can read them with me this go around.”
(He is a good kid.)
The next day, I put all of the books I had checked out, except two, onto my TBR list (I keep mine on an app called Libib) and then returned them. I suspended all of my book holds (I have 43 on my list, shhhh, don’t judge) and gave myself stern instruction to not add any more. (I have since added more…but only three.)
I set myself a goal: when I finish the two books I am reading right now, I’m going to read The Dark Tower series. I’m going to clean out the cupboard where I think my copies of the first three books are, and buy the rest, and then read them. And talk to Nathan about reading them.
I’ll still pay attention to new releases and hot books and what everyone else on bookstagram is reading.
But I really want to take control back in some way. To not have my reading controlled by what comes on hold for me, or what everyone else is talking about.
Books are about story, of course. About going somewhere in your imagination, about becoming friends with created beings. But they are also about relationships. With the story and the characters, yes, but also with the other people who read them. And they are about making connections with yourself, too—understanding something, or sometimes just something as pleasant as a sentence that makes you feel less invisible in this world.
I want to reconnect, somehow, to that primal love of reading I had when I was reading The Dark Tower series with my dad. Before I learned about literary theory and critical thinking and textual evaluation. I want to be able to read outside of being a librarian, but just as myself.
Reading them with Nathan seems like just the thing.
“Can you see if you have this book?” a patron asked me one night last week.
Obviously I get asked that question often, but this interaction is lingering in my memory.
“Sure,” I said. “What are you looking for?”
She asked for the sequel to Rachel Hollis’s self-help book.
As I looked up the title and put her on the hold list (16 other people were waiting to read it that night), I listened to her gush about how Girl, Wash Your Face had changed her life, and how excited she was to put what she’d learned into action, and how certain she was that the sequel would be even more helpful.
And then she asked me the question I was hoping she wouldn’t. “Have you read it? Didn’t you just love it?”
I told her I had read some of it, but didn’t finish it, and tried to leave it at that, but she insisted. “You’ve got to check it out again!” she said. “It will change your life. I can’t believe everyone’s not reading it!”
She left the reference desk feeling happy, even if she did have to wait, partly because I'm a professional librarian. I knew that telling a Rachel-Hollis fangirl how I really feel about those books would’ve been a disaster. Pointing out the flaws in the book to her would've only annoyed her, because if she can't see them herself then it's just my opinion.
To be fair, I only read the first chapter of the first book. I didn’t continue for two reasons: 1. The writing tone. I couldn’t spend hours and hours with that chirpy, upbeat, faux-hood writing style. 2. The message itself. I went to a couple of Amway meetings in my 20s. That was enough. The focus on getting and spending—the expensive bags, the second house in Hawaii, the trendy shoes—is not how I choose to focus my efforts in my life. Her message is that the lies we tell ourselves hold us back, which is true, but I think “having expensive possessions brings happiness” is also a lie. I realized with that first chapter that I have no interest in getting coached by a person whose basic values are vastly different from mine, who earned her expensive purses through party planning, who actively self identifies as a “lifestyle influencer.”
But I didn’t share any of that with the library patron that night, not because I don’t feel passionately about it, but because I have come to understand that not many people are able to read critically. (I also understand that for many readers, this isn’t the point of reading.)
By “critically” I don’t mean “in a way that expresses disproval.” I mean the second definition, “analysis of the merits and faults of a work of art, literature, movie, or music.”
Merits and faults.
One of the reasons I love reading, and continue to read, is critical thinking. It is one of the things I loved about teaching: having a group of people to interact with in a discussion about a book, an essay, a poem. I like reading for story, of course, and to get to know characters and to enter a setting. But I also like thinking about (and writing about and, if we’re ever at a meal together, talking about) what the story means, how the characters make mistakes, the way the book influences and changes me. Not in a get-more-expensive-purses kind of way, but in a understand-something-difficult-about-the-world kind of way.
In essence, that is why I can’t bring myself to read books like Rachel Hollis’s: because they are obliviously lacking critical viewpoints. They are unable to allow for differences in life experiences, desires, and opportunities. They assume that everyone wants a Hollywood kind of life.
But Hollis’s books aren’t even the reason I sat down to write this today. They are just an example of why critical thinking is important to me.
Because I feel like it is time to bring some of those critical thinking skills to my own life, not just to the books I read.
As I wrote in my last post, I am trying to experience this autumn season with intent. I want to feel things and to experience them, rather than only looking as if through a window. “Looking as if through a window”: this is how I feel I have been living my life for many years. It has to do with the choices I’ve made, the people in my life and their choices, the ways I have chosen to wall myself off. It is about how I feel like I always have to acknowledge: yes I know I am different from you. It comes from seeing my differences and feeling ashamed of them, wondering why I don’t fit in, instead of being able to be who I am.
I want to be who I am.
The God’s honest truth is that I haven’t been really, honestly happy in…I’m not sure how long. I love my people but I keep bumping up against the reality that my life doesn’t feel like the life I need. And when I write something like that, I am flooded with doubt. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to be selfish. I love my children and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I love my husband. But there are flaws here. And I am realizing: life is short. Life is so, so short. I’m nearing fifty and I still haven’t done many of the things I intended on doing.
And of course I can just continue here. I can keep on with my average life. I can do it until I die.
But deep down, I want change. I am craving change. I am wanting to be more than the quiet, stunted person I’ve made myself into, the one pretending. It isn’t only about church anymore. It is about everything. Maybe it is because I am at the end of my years of mothering. I still get to have an influence on Kaleb for a few more years, and I am learning how (thank goodness) being a mother doesn’t ever, in a sense, really end. But the hardest years of daily care are past, and now, for the first time since I was 23, I can ask myself: what do I want?
What shape do I want the rest of my life to take?
I can’t find the answer in a self-help book. I can’t even find the answer in the fiction and poetry I love.
I can only find the answer by myself, and that is both liberating and terrifying. I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get it within the current shape of my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don't want to burn it all down. But I am also starting to realize that I can matter, too. Is that selfish?
Here I am: a frumpy woman with stiff knees, nearing 50. What have I done with my life? What will I do with the life I have left? I suppose everyone faces and answers that question every day of their lives. I have answered it so far in part by doing what other people told me I should do. Which is like reading a book and loving it only because the story was good, rather than for the wrestle with new thoughts it caused. And I’ve been doing that for too long.
It is time to wrestle.
This week is National Library Week. I'm glad such a thing exists, considering all that our president has done to try to de-fund libraries (did you know that every single budget he's created has tried to take away the funding for the IMLS, which is the primary source of money for libraries and museums? While Congress isn't always known for doing the right thing, at least they've made sure to continue to support libraries, but a president who doesn’t think libraries are worthwhile is not something I’d ever believe would exist.)
I didn't set out to become a librarian. I got a degree in English because while science was interesting enough, I'm not really brilliant at it, and while I can get along in math OK it's not pleasant, but learning about books, words, writing, poetry, fiction, literary theory, grammar, and everything else that goes along with an English degree felt like the only reason to go to school. (I wish I had taken more history classes, though.) There've been several people in my life who have told me that I "just" got a degree in English, or that while, sure, I did graduate from college, it's only in English. Other people have told me that while science, math, and/or technology degrees are difficult, and require a certain type of mind and thinking skills, an English degree requires talent.
Maybe both are true, but my English degree did help me land my job as a librarian, even if I got that degree because I wanted to be a writer. (Doesn't every bibliophile want to be a writer?) I’ve been a librarian for almost eleven years, and I confess: I still get a little thrill when someone asks me where I work and I get to say “at the library.” I love being a librarian.
I love being a librarian. And I love libraries.
But I’ve also learned that not everyone understands the importance of our communities having good libraries.
Like the old friend I bumped into once who started laughing when I told him where I work. “So you spend your days just checking in books and putting them on the shelf?”
Like a podiatrist I went to once, who, when I answered “I work at the library” when he asked me what I do, said “Wait! The library is still open? I didn’t think people used the library anymore because of Kindle books.”
Even like library patrons themselves, some of who come into the space annoyed and entitled, who complain about what we don’t have for them, or about fines and fees, because books are too graphic or too cautious, because we have R-rated movies, because we don’t have enough movies, and who quite often end their complaints with some version of “I’m a tax payer and you are wasting my money.”
And, yes, like the president not wanting to fund libraries.
Try to imagine American society without libraries. Our libraries hold our collective history, the creative visions of our (and the world’s) writers. No libraries would mean that many people would have much less access to our literary richness. Throughout our entire life, access to the library gives us access to tens of thousands of books, from board books to picture books to chapter books to novels. Dictionaries and cookbooks and poetry, memoirs and science and history. Without libraries, only the wealthy could afford access to so many different books, and so libraries are one of society’s great equalizers.
Numerous studies have shown that readers are more empathetic human beings. I am glad data supports this, because it is a thing I unequivocally believe. Through reading you become larger than your own experiences; you learn that there is more than one way of thinking about the world. You start to understand something about the trials of being human: both that your troubles are smaller than many other people’s and that you are not alone in your troubles. You get to go places you otherwise couldn’t, discover things that you didn’t learn in your high school history class. Puzzle out mysteries, weep over characters’ losses, struggle with moral dilemmas.
Books create a life that is bigger than any individual. And libraries facilitate that largess.
Even when I wasn’t a librarian, even when that career path hadn’t even entered my thoughts—even then I loved libraries. If I left the library tomorrow (which I’m not doing of course), I’d still be an advocate for libraries. They are places full of books, and stories, words and images. They are more than just books on shelves, too. They are places where people gather, find information in many different ways, make friendships, stay warm in storms. They aren’t only about books.
But for today, I’m celebrating the books that libraries give us access to. They are worthwhile for so many different reasons.
And libraries are worth whatever funding we can give them.
Today at the library, I helped an older patron who was trying to figure out the best way to download audio books. Specifically, he wanted "access to all of the good books and none of the bad ones." I resisted getting drawn into that conversation (good or bad is so subjective, and it depends entirely on your personal and idiosyncratic needs as a reader; many times books I find horrendous are other patrons' favorites), but then he asked me what we call that.
"If you listen to a book instead of reading it,” he asked, “do you call it reading? Did I read that book? Or just listen to it?”
Which really is an interesting question. “To read” is defined as the act of receiving or understanding something, especially by way of letters or numbers. So in theory you don’t really “read” an audio book. But you do receive or understand the story, just through your ears, not your eyes. And when the person performing the book says the story out loud, he or she is reading it. So in theory, you do “read” an audio book.
I guess it doesn’t really matter if you say you “read” an audio book or you “listen” to it. You’re ingesting story, you’re making your life more interesting, you’re using your imagination and your brain cells and your intelligence.
I do think I have a different experience with the books I’ve read in print versus those I read in audio. (As audio?) I’m even pickier with audio books than I am with print books. The reader’s voice has to be exactly right for me to enjoy it. One of the first audio books I tried listening to was Swamplandia!, for example, but I only lasted about ten minutes as the reader’s voice was so overpoweringly little-girlish I couldn’t stand it. And I recently attempted The Witch Elm but that reader’s voice was just far too smug. I mean: the main character himself might also be smug, but I was overwhelmed with the smugness.
Last year, I read half of The Power as an audio book. My Overdrive checkout ended when I was halfway through, and I was desperate to find out how it ended, and luckily there was a print copy at the library. So I checked it out and finished it. I loved experiencing that story in that way. There are two readers for the story, and their voices were both perfect, powerful and with a hint of an accent I couldn’t quite describe. Their voices stayed with me as I finished the print copy and it made the entire reading experience much richer somehow.
Some books I can finish easier when I listen to them; if there’s something frustrating or annoying about the book, I can deal with it easier by listening (so long as the voice feels right to me). What Should be Wild is a book I’d likely have started but not finished in print, but it matched the atmosphere of when I was listening to it (late October) so well that I continued until the (fairly disappointing) end.
Last year, when I was training for my marathon, I decided to listen to The Hunger Games trilogy during my long runs. I got so sucked in that I also listened to them while I was gardening, cooking dinner, and a few times even hiking. Maybe this is my favorite way to read audio books, as stories I’ve already read in print version. I know the outcome, so I can follow the story much easier, and then I start to notice different things. I’ve read that series three or four other times, but listening to it made me feel things I didn’t expect. The violence seemed more startling, the wrenching decisions more difficult. In fact, when I listened to the very beginning of the first book, when Katniss takes Prim’s place, I had to stop running because I was crying so hard.
At any rate, I told the patron that yes: he can say he reads audio books. He seemed relieved, as if there was a subtle sense of shame at the fact that he was listening. And while audio books will never take the place of regular print books for me, I love having access to them. Reading, after all, is about stories, and humans have told stories aloud for far longer than the printing press has been around.
What format do you prefer?
Back in the fall of 2017, when I reread the book It, I realized (yet again) how my worldview is shaped by the books I read. I read It when it first came out, in 1986, and one of the things I discovered in rereading the book is how deeply rooted in friendship the story is. It gave me the idea that when you need a group of friends, the universe will provide one for you. I found myself thinking about this idea quite a bit after I finished the book, and I realized that this is a trope in many books.
It made me look back over my life and consider my friendships, and how they have come to be. As a little girl, I was painfully shy; add in the fact that my family didn’t really fit in to the approved social group where we lived, and yeah: I was kind of a lonely kid. Back in 1986, when I was 14 and reading It, I had two groups of friends, my gymnastics friends and my school friends. I counted on my gymnastics friends for some things, and my school friends for others, but I was unquestioning in my belief in their support for me. Over the next years, I learned to question. I learned that friends can betray you in a myriad of painful ways and that there are actually very few people you can trust implicitly.
But I also learned that those few are immensely valuable in your life.
As a young mom, I had a group of friends who were also young moms. We played Bunco together, took our kids to the park, gave each other nursing advice and newborn gifts and caffeine on exhausted days. I loved that group of friends, but I always kept myself a little bit shielded. Then, in 2000, my world was totally rocked when my husband was laid off from his job. Everything changed in the next 18 months, and one by one, almost every friend in my little group fell away. We couldn’t relate or connect anymore; they were worried about stuff like when their hairdresser could fit them in next and how they could buy another Dooney & Burke without their husbands getting annoyed, and there I was, worrying about whether or not we’d lose our house.
The few people who stuck by me during that time are still my friends, but I learned it again. Maybe in books people have life-long friends who never betray them, maybe in novels the Universe or God or Whomever makes sure you have support during difficult times…but in my real life, it wasn’t happening.
I have individual friends but I’ve never had a tribe.
I’ve also never read a novel that told my story: how introverted people who are guarded because of previous experiences create friendships. Maybe that’s a story no one wants to read, and that’s OK because sometimes my life feels pretty pathetic. Like, if I died tomorrow, who’d come to my funeral?
Cue the pity-party music.
When my mom died, though (and, really: will I ever get to a space when I can write something that doesn’t refer to my mom’s death?), I had another realization about friendship within the context of my life. I do have a tribe. Some of them came to her funeral. Some of them came and took her fabric. Some of them brought me meals. Some of them sent me flowers or cards; some of them just hugged me, or silently squeezed my hand.
And all of them work at the library.
Librarians have a sort of strange reputation as dry, dusty, boring people who dress in cardigans and sensible shoes and care about uptight things like grammar and properly organized books on shelves and straight, tight buns without a strand of hair out of place. And, yes, OK, we do care about those things. (Although I actually prefer a loose, messy bun.) But really, we are a vibrant and eclectic group of people. We love national parks and traveling and hiking. We bike, we run, we waterski. Not every librarian I know shares every one of my hobbies, but every one of my hobbies is shared by at least one librarian I know. (Except for scrapbooking… I’m still on my own in that craziness!) Many librarian friends quilt, others bake, others love flowers and gardening. A couple are runners too. Another librarian friend is my favorite person to send hiking photos to when I’m out on a trail, because she can’t hike right now (knee problems) but she loves seeing me do it. So I sort of take her with me.
This week at work, we had our regular staff meeting in a bigger room than normal, because there was going to be some kind of training and other people would be coming. I went to the meeting, sat chatting with my coworkers until it started, and the one of the librarians said “We’re not actually here for extra training, but to celebrate Amy!” and I looked around the room thinking “Oh, cool, I love Amy Monroe, she’s awesome!” and then I thought “wait, Amy Monroe isn’t here” and then I realized, “oh, wow, they mean me!”
Our library does this thing called the “You Rock” award. It’s a trophy sort of thing with a big rock engraved with the words “You Rock” and then as it is given to different librarians, their names are added. I’ve gone to many meetings where other librarians were given this award, but I’ve never really considered it as something I would be given. Because look at all the names on that trophy, names of smart, creative, wise, visionary librarians. I’m just me doing my little part-time work.
I was totally, completely surprised!
A few people at the meeting said some really kind things about me. And as I looked around and saw their faces, and thought about the other librarians who have left but whose work and friendship have influenced me in many ways, it really, really hit me.
Yes, we librarians are generally an introverted bunch. Maybe we’re a little bit boring. We like to talk about things like literary theory and the evolution of television drama. We can quote weird things no one else has ever heard of.
But we are also kind, passionate, intelligent people who are deeply committed to living life. Books help us do that. And other librarians do, too.
The universe really did bring me my tribe.
Some days, my work feels mundane. I love what I do, of course, but the negative of working somewhere you love is that the place loses some of its magic. This afternoon, for example: I spent time reordering damaged books, pulling new teen books for a YA display, and talking to patrons. Good, happy work, but what is usual.
But some shifts feel numinous, somehow. The library can never feel for me the way it felt before I worked here (I can't smell that library scent anymore, for example), but as I come to understand the library's moods, its weather patterns and shifting people, I find a deeper, more connected sort of magic. That is how this morning felt, so here is a story told in vignettes that perhaps will mean something only to me...
Before the library opens, I take thirty seconds to stand at the tall windows and look at the mountains in the morning light. The air is finally starting to get a little bit clearer here, and the middle parts of the mountains are starting to turn orange in spots; this view of Cascade framed by the library windows is one of my favorites. I turn on computers and set out newspapers and wipe down keyboards. Then I clean up the blue toner powder that someone must've splattered last night onto the black-and-white printer, and then I unlock the doors.
It is a Friday morning, so my father's old friend Craig stops by. We talk about hiking, and of the peacefulness of being in mountains that no one goes to. He tells me, as he does every Friday morning, how he misses my dad and wishes they could go on a desert walk with him again. "Of course, we were always looking down at the ground, watching for flakes of arrowheads," he says, because twenty years ago you could wander the Utah desert and find arrowheads. "I know now it's illegal and wrong to take them," Craig says, "so now I leave them. But when I find one I always think your dad lead me to it." I think about the morning we buried my dad, when I didn't want him to go into the dark without anything but his clothes, so I put one of his illegally-procured arrowheads in his pocket, and how the muscle of his thigh was also a stone. For a moment it is entirely absurd that my father's friend Craig, walking carefully and slowly with his cane on his stroke-twisted legs, is here in the library talking to me about books, hiking, and arrowheads, and my dad is...where, I don't know for sure, but his body is in the ground and in his pocket there is a stone.
I help an older woman learn how to download e-books onto her iPad. At first she is unsure but as we move through the steps she starts to understand. I think about how baffling our world can be to someone raised in the 50s, when refrigerators were finally affordable enough that middle-class families could have them, washing machines were becoming popular, and the credit card was just becoming a reality (but only, of course, for men). Our technology now is nearly ephemeral...you don't really hold an e-book, you never touch an e-audio book, but it still gets you to a story. I can't help wondering, every time I help someone who is initially baffled by—or actually a little bit afraid of this technology—what the world will be like in another twenty or thirty years. What else will we invent before I am dead? And will I be the brave sort, always trying new things, or the kind who is afraid?
I help another older patron who tells me that she hates fiction, especially that "wild, made-up sciencey stuff" but she wants to read something from the Great American Read list. (Which doesn't have any non-fiction.) After we talk for a little while, I get her three books in large print: Anne of Green Gables, which she'd never read but enjoyed the movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, which she'd read "years and years ago" but would really like to read again, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she'd never heard about but agreed sounded like something she would love. I always ask the patrons on crutches or with canes if they'd like me to get their books for them, and she says she would love that. I do this to help them, but also as a sort of good-karma thing for myself, as one day I will be an old woman but still need books, and hopefully there will be someone in the future who will help me access them if I can't get to them myself.
I check people in to use our study rooms, I help a woman figure out how to see the order of a series, I tell another woman where to find Colleen McCullough's novels, and I walk an elderly gentleman over to the biography section. I have a conversation with a man who has the same name and spelling as my husband's deceased brother; we talk for a bit about how much more difficult it is to trace back Scandinavian names as the change from -sen to -dottir and back again through the line. I confess I don't know as much as I should about my husband's line, but I can trace my McCurdy line all the way back to the Scottish MacCurdy clans.
I read my email and get caught up on book group reservations.
A small blond girl in a pink dress, perhaps two, has wandered over the bridge to my side of the library, without her mother. I watch her for a minute to see if anyone is coming to look for her. She stands calmly by one of our sculptures, which is of a crouched man. Done in alabaster that looks like the flesh of raw muscle, this sculpture is either terrifying or fascinating to our little patrons. She just stands and looks at it, carefully touching the ear. I walk over to her and ask if she knows where her mom is. She pops her binki out of her mouth, shrugs, and says "nope. Let's go find her." She puts her binki back in her mouth and reaches up to hold my hand. Her tiny fingernails are painted turquoise. We wander over to the children's section and in a few minutes find her mom, who didn't realize her daughter Kate (she told me her name with another quick binki removal) was missing. As I walk back to my desk, I remember my own days of bringing my kids to the library. I can almost feel how it felt to have their little hands in mine, and the sound of their voices, and the deep, lovely exuberance they brought to finding books at the library. For a moment I feel like all of my life has already been lived, and that every sweet, gentle moment is behind me; I swallow that familiar lump and get on with it, as there is no crying at the reference desk. (Except I cry all the time at the reference desk. Reticently.)
I go to the circulation office to see if there are any books to take downstairs with me. One of the librarians there tells me that she just last night read my essay in Baring Witness . She tells me that it's as good as anything she's read by Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard, which makes me laugh because of course it's not, but I am flattered anyway. I think about the night I did a reading with other writers whose essays are also in that book, and the way I got to a part of my essay that at first seems funny but then turns dark, and how the audience laughed and then went silent, how I felt them turn with me into the darkness, and how exhilarating it was to be, just for that moment, a person leading other people into the darkness of human nature, and how that is the one time in my life I have really, really felt like a writer.
The general reference desk is usually a little bit quieter than the fiction desk, and this proves true this morning. When I switch desks there is a barrage: two guest passes for the internet computers, one patron needs help with printing, another can't find Fahrenheit 451 even though it's supposed to be on the shelf (it was; she thought it would be thicker so she didn't notice the slim spine), another can't decipher her own handwriting and wonders if I can figure out which author's last name she wrote down (we finally figure out it was Wingate, Lisa Wingate...I'm not sure I could recreate the steps it took me to get there). A patron needs headphones, another is turning in her headphones, another tells me her story of being annoyed by the process of getting a Utah driver's license. Two different patrons ask me where the YA section is, and another can't find the Brandon Mull book he's looking for (it's upstairs in the junior novels). In an hour I don't get any work done, other than helping patrons, which is fine because that's the point.
Just before I leave for lunch, a teenage patron comes to the desk. She should be in school right now, but instead she's here, asking me for a book. "A good book," she says, "but it can't be all cheery and happy and hopeful." She looks, walks, and dresses absolutely nothing like I did at her age, 16 and feeling like the world made no sense anywhere, but a little bit of sense (and peace, and streaming light, and quiet, and books) could be found at the library. But for just a second I am looking back through time at myself, angry and wild and rebellious and always wearing black, so I show her some books that I would've liked when that was me (The Infinity of You and Me, And We Stay, Belzhar, and The Carnival at Bray; good, but not happy). I think about how long the library has been a place of solace for me, a place of framed views, of artwork, of quiet, of refuge. A long time; perhaps all my life, or at least as long as I can remember. And today I also remember this: it is a place of connection, a place where the layers of time slip a little, when all of my ancient Scottish ancestors catch a brief glimpse of the old woman I will become in the future, when my dad's hand holding an arrowhead reaches out for my teenage wrist with its ankh bracelet, where I can see my daughter's small fingers, nails painted pink, pulling a book from the shelf, where nothing is commonplace.
A place where magic happens.