by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don't be afraid to go in your library and read every book..".... .... Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Commentary of the Day - September 20, 2006: You Can't Take That Away From Me. Guest commentary by Jane Goodwin.
On these hot summer days, all I have to do is go outside and hear one mourning dove and suddenly I'm nine years old racing around the neighborhood on my bike and eating snowcones and wearing a swimsuit all day and truly believing that life will be like this forever.
I'm not sure I would recognize a mourning dove if I saw one, but that sound sums up summer and childhood in four soft notes. Throw in some lightning bugs and the scent of honeysuckle, and I might even forget the chiggers.
I'd remember them when I got back inside, though.
Back then, the public library was the only air-conditioned building in town. Do you suppose that had something to do with the fact that most of the kids in that generation hung out there a lot and became readers in the summertime?
The library also required silence and decorum, and we kids rose to that occasion, too. Nowadays, even the adults don't know how to behave in a library.
Even now, I remember every detail about that library of my childhood. I would recognize the smell. I remember especially the spiral staircase in the very center of the main room, just behind the checkout desk. That staircase led upstairs, where the grownup books lived.
I wasn't sure what a grownup book might be, but I knew it must be something wonderful, something thrilling, something completely out of my realm, because no one under the age of twelve was allowed near that staircase. Once in a while, one of us would try to sneak over there, just to touch it, but we always got caught and threatened with that most terrifying of threats: "Don't make me phone your mother!"
I have never seen another staircase like that one. I couldn't tell you what material those steps were made of, only that they were sort of black, yet sort of transparent, with what looked like a shoeprint on both sides. The railings were metal, and always cold, even on the hottest of days, and even before the air-conditioning was turned on for the summer.
On my 12th birthday, I approached those stairs legally, held my breath in anticipation, walked upstairs with my eyes shut tight in anticipation, to find. . . . pretty much the same stuff that was downstairs. Sigh. Another dream shot. But that was okay, because going upstairs at the library was considered, by the junior high group, every bit as awesome as getting a driver's license was, by the high school group. I never tattled on the boredom, lest another child be disillusioned. None of us ever told; that's how the legend endured.
Those were the days. I practically lived on my bicycle, and almost every day that bicycle was parked outside the library for an hour or so, while I cooled down from my frantic exploring of my little world, and explored the worlds of other people. I was lost in an aura of wonder and respect for the many worlds that library contained.
I have never lost that aura of wonder and respect. But I seldom go to the library now, for it is no longer that cool haven of quiet peace. Now, the library seems to be a big day-care/recreation center, full of loud disrespectful adults and children who are not required to behave properly in a public place.
Back in the day, the librarians kicked people out if they chose to behave like barbarians. Nowadays, I guess that would be politically incorrect. Too bad.
The books aren't even quiet nowadays.
When did it happen, that books had to sing and dance like TV for a person to give them a second look?
Many books for kids have a lot of buttons to push and little interactive conversations to listen to. Novelties abound. Heh.
But literature? Oh, it's still there. It might be a little dusty, but it's there. Hurry down to your library and check some out before it's all put in the 'Monthly Book Sale' to make room for more cheap, huge-print, limited-vocabulary, condescending, thirty-page, talking, jingling, squeaky-clean, politically correct "novels" for children.
I can remember that there were so many books in the children's and young adult's sections, that the librarians had to put a whole series on top of the bookcase sometimes. Nancy Drew was always on top. I could spot those bright yellow spines from across the room; we kids would make a mad dash for them. Now, there are empty spaces in the bookcases, and the kids are making mad dashes for the computers.
To make it all even worse, our children's and young adult's books are being changed. Modernized. Edited, so anything that might pass for 'politically incorrect' might be eliminated.
Nancy Drew isn't even safe. She's been modernized and revised so many times, the original Nancy wouldn't even pass the time of day with this new Nancy. I find it horrifying that editors are changing many of the children's and young adult classics in order to modernize them.
What the Disney studio does to age-old fairy tale classics is bad enough; please, editors, don't do it to any more of our wonderful literature for young people. Kids understand about the context of the times; you might be surprised.
Political correctness? A little of that goes a looooong way in the world of books. How about we all try to use our brains instead, hmmmmm?
I drove past our library this afternoon. The weather has been lovely and cool here, and all the windows were open. I could hear the chaos from the street. I could feel my heart break a little bit.
I still have that cool, quiet library full of actual books and people who knew how to behave themselves in my dreams. They can't take that away from me. (cue Gershwin)
© 2006 Jane Goodwin.
Jane Goodwin taught middle school in Indiana for 26 years, and now teaches writing courses at a community college.
The IP comments: You would be surprised at how many students we have in college these days who can't read. Perhaps it's all those dumbed-down, limited vocabulary books they have grown up with. What might surprise you even more is the number of recent college graduates who are functionally illiterate.