For the Love of Libraries

At the Corky Gonzales Branch of the Denver Public Library, I just added a fifth to my collection of library cards. This place is welcoming, convenient, big and air conditioned. Another no-sweat afternoon, despite the Colorado heat. I can see the mountains, lush green trees and a blue and white sky. Sigh, all this and a new building full of green energy and good books.

I’ve loved libraries since I was seven and Grammy Cole took me to the tiny Harmony RI library, one room at the back of the fire station. Now Harmony has a proper library in what was once the elementary school. In my tiny Maine high school, our library doubled as the principal’s office. I was sent there often, not because I misbehaved, but because I was the only college-bound senior and had to listen to recordings of Chaucer that would have driven my classmates to despair. For a time in college I had a job shelving books in the University of Maine Portland library. One summer my friend Marcia and I did library tours. We visited at least half a dozen, noting the amenities and the layout.

My local library, the Mamie Doud Eisenhower in Broomfield CO, has outgrown its space and I long for the day when we can expand. Meanwhile, I use any available library as a refuge from the heat and the hustle. Thursday at College Hill Library in Westminster CO, I plunked down in front of a west facing window, my back to the other patrons, just to sit and admire a view of the Rockies, and to browse through a Simone De Beauvoir book from the sale table, The Woman Destroyed, a great buy at 50 cents. Then I headed to the stacks and there! Facing me, a book on my wish list, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk–a birthday gift in July although I was born in December.

Given the joy of libraries, I should sing hosanna to Benjamin Franklin, who started the first such thing the colonies. He established in 1731 The Library Company of Philadelphia, originally a subscription library in which he and friends pooled their books and shared the purchase of new reads. He hired our first librarian, Louis Timothy, who was paid to work a few hours twice a week. We had a library before we had a country. I hope Ben is looking down from his cloud and marveling at what’s ensued. Thanks, Ben, many thanks.

Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Chasing Rainbows

Yesterday on my way home from dinner with friends in W. Kennebunk, I was awed by a double rainbow, one of which was the biggest, brightest I’ve ever seen. So entranced by keeping it in sight, I made my way to Rte 95, also known as the Maine Turnpike, paid my dollar and realized that, horrors, I had gone through the south-bound toll booth, when I needed to drive north. By the time I reached the next exit where I could turn around, the rainbows were gone and I had to take a stretch of Route One in order to get back on the north-bound highway.

Why am I telling you this? Because chasing rainbows is a bit like chasing my imagination. I had a draft for today’s blog, but I worried that its truth would sting people I love. Writers are truth tellers, right? Rock hard truth tellers. But what if the truth is like throwing rocks at people who don’t deserve such an attack? So I have let that true essay fade. I got back on the right road and it feels so much better than trying to wow the world with clever words.

One of my early readers, a fine writer and teacher named Merrell Knighten, had no problem challenging me about my writing: “It’s clever but is it good?” Good means taking full responsibility for the aftermath of publishing something as ephemeral as a blog. Be careful where you travel, you will want to go home again and not find the door locked.

Reader’s REvision

magusSince my first year in grad school I have read John Fowles’ The Magus repeatedly. I’ve read the original version and I’ve read the revised version he published twelve years later. There’s no counting the copies I’ve owned, including at one time a first edition and a signed paperback. They have all gone away, sold or donated or lost. I think with each reading that I’ve sucked out all the juice and don’t need the book anymore. And I’m always wrong. After a year or two, I drift back and realize that I want to read it again. That happened within the past couple of months, so I picked up a used paperback with ugly, forbidding cover art and opened it. Immediately I realized that the font was too small and that I had to hold it at arms length or suffer the consequences.

Because here’s the rub: pulp paper in newspapers and cheap paperbacks triggers asthma-like attacks where I cough uncontrollably. I got about ten pages into the book and had to give up, wrap it in a plastic bag and vow never again to be careless about buying a book. But I needed to read The Magus again, so I ordered a hardback, used but in very good condition. It’s on my coffee table with a book mark at Chapter 16. I’m going slow, savoring it. And making this copy uniquely my own. And finding new things to ponder and admire.

Back in love with the story and the style, I have penciled in an asterisk where Fowles quotes a brief passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That bit of poetry is crucial to the arc of the story. I’ve adding underlinings, squiggles in the margins, and dots to mark phrases I like. No one else will want this book. There’s a stain on the first page of the introduction where I dropped salad dressing. I think I’ll keep this copy. It’s still juicy and feeds the reader/writer in me.

Please, Read for Equality: catalog of unabashed gratitude by Ross Gay

BETA READERS APPLY HERE

I’ve been on a mini sabbatical, letting the ms in progress marinate in its own juices. Tomorrow I’ll do a blitz read through to mark the places that need attention. I think there’s plenty of work left to do. Then I’ll put the book into readable form and start looking for beta readers. If you’re not familiar with that term, it just refers to the folks who agree to read a nearly finished ms and respond in some detail as to what they think of the book.

As with so many things in life, the 80/20 rule seems to apply here. With the previous novel, only a small percentage of those readers who agreed to help actually did so. But feedback is important before the work goes public, so I’m compiling my list of potential betas. (No, not the Siamese fighting fish, humans who read novels.) Betta_spawningI have many friends who write and I will certainly welcome their opinions, but I also want those of readers, the people who settle in with a book in hopes of enlightenment, entertainment, distraction–whatever makes them turn the pages. If folks reading this post are interested, please look up to the menu bar here on the blog and let me know via the “Get My News” link. In the space with your name add the word beta. Sometime next month I will distribute the ms electronically and hope to have the feedback not later than mid-March.

The Courage of Writers

This week I sat in a local diner with other writers who impressed me by their willingness to approach tough stuff. One had the courage to describe his mother in more or less balanced terms without the sentimentality or vitriol that inherently sneaks into this mother of all topics. Another wrote about her insecurity and hesitancy to publish what she believes is the real value of her independently owned business, and a third dared to say that she’s out to change the world. Then there was the story of a childhood hurt that reduced the writer to tears. Such courage!

Truth abounding. And Truth is not beauty, no matter what Keats claimed. It’s temperamental and often ugly. It was ugly in Paris last week. It will be so again and again. But the writers I know and admire, either through their published work or their work in progress, wrestle with this harridan and sometimes they pin her to the mat. They force her to hold still long enough for us to see her complexity. This struggle is not, unfortunately, a given in the world of books. Many authors write to publish and ignore the struggle. They rely on formulas that fatten their wallets but do not nourish us or help heal our wounds.

So here I was this morning, in my green pajamas, noodling in my journal, remembering a time when even with personal writing I drew an innocuous picture of who I was, imagining a ghostly reader who would otherwise point out my flaws and ridicule my aspirations if I wrote the truth, even in my journal. No more of that.  Truth is no easy ally, not willing to bend or change her stance to suit my tender ego. But, Truth, you are my best teacher. I’m glad we’ve finally met. I’ll try to be faithful.