‘Twas in the weeks before Christmas when I learned about the Chicago Public Library cutbacks—apparently in the time period I’d been out of town in October, Grinch Rahm Emanuel had decreed “bah, to reading” on the public’s dime.
I’d recently chatted with a young woman on the no. 3 bus who was enthralled with Michigan Avenue nowadays, “the lights, the shops” as she shimmered in the reflective light. “The Chicago Public Library!” she extolled.
“In Florida” she spat out with clear disdain, “the libraries are empty of books! I went into one to do some research. You know, how you go up and down the aisles...pulling down this one, which leads you to that one. But there was NOTHING on the shelf to peruse. When I complained to the librarian, she said ‘well, you CAN always go to a Barnes & Noble you know.’
A few years back, before the economic doldrums, my newly settled Swedish friend showed me about Charlotte NC with mustered pride. That is, till we got to the library. “Closed on Sundays you know,” she said. “Can’t buy a drink, can’t get a book—such is Charlotte.”
Congratulations to Chicago, we’re becoming as dumb as Florida and Charlotte NC.
A librarian friend of mine is appalled by how the public uses the library where she works. Parents come in looking for “that movie of Pride & Prejudice, not the long one—that short one with the anorexic girl.” Can’t have their little darling spending time reading the original for a school assignment, even watching the six-hour A & E version is too time-consuming.
I get it. I confess. I too used Cliff Notes, though I don’t remember my parents buying the cheat for me. But in a world where knowledge is power, where the educated get the jobs—I would think the library—that bastion against the stupidity of humanity—would be valued.
Maybe it is the influence of Stephen Greenblatt’s book “The Swerve: how the world became modern”--the tale of a man in search of one very special and influential book. The tale all bibliophiles can relate to if you’ve ever gone in search of some impossible to find book. And one I can relate with having found through public libraries in Connecticut and Chicago the original source material for films “A Christmas Story” and “Kind Hearts and Coronets”.
I’d say I can’t relate to life without a library—but I can, having lived for years abroad in Third World toilets where libraries were an empty joke—literally. If there was a library, there was virtually nothing in it. In those years I schlepped books back in suitcases—the good old days before the airlines were quite so weight limit sensitive. No Virginia, there were very few options to getting books in those pre-Kindle, pre-iPad app days. I had tolerated a lot to living abroad. The loneliness and isolation from my culture and family, the scorpions and rats entering the house via our toilets, but life without books—was no life at all.
I still have fond memories reading an annotated Sherlock Holmes by kerosene lamp in Asuncion, Paraguay. It seemed very in the fashion of the time written about. But that was then. This is now. This is a land that claims to be First World, while the infrastructure crumbles like Christmas marzipan. What is next Chicago? Shuttered libraries?