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Sneaking Into the Library: Confessions of a Library Addict

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Some of my library books – I hope I get to read them all

I apparently sneak into the library, grab my books, use the self-checkout service and quietly steal out without ever speaking to a soul. It’s a furtive habit. Blink and there’re books missing from the shelf and a digital update on the library system.

It’s sad, if you think about it. I could spend an entire, productive day – on the phone, on the computer and using self checkouts – and never speak to a real person. And I am a heavy library user. I order countless books and movies, frequently make purchase suggestions and get a good number of books through inter-library loans, often getting them from across the country.

But one day I needed to go up to the desk and speak to the librarian and when I gave her my card she scanned it in, looked at my information and turned to me and said,

“Oh, you’re Christina Wehner!”

It turned out that they’d noticed I used their library services a lot and she said it was nice to meet me and put a face to the name.

I now speak to my librarians more and it is amazing how much it takes you out of yourself. I used to go into the library focused on what I was doing, hardly noticing other people because I was so busy thinking. But to stop and speak to someone, you notice them, you notice others, you learn things and you leave with a lighter spirit, feeling more connected to the world around you.

I am, in truth, addicted to using my library, especially the online catalog. It’s a compulsion, an obsession. I can’t stay off it. Some people check their facebook account; I check my library account. Is my book in? When’s my book due? Can I renew? This book looks interesting! I have no time. Oh well, maybe I’ll find time. Let’s order it anyway. Why are there fifteen books for me to pick up? I”ll need a wheelbarrow to get them to my car. Who knew books were so heavy? I’m always staggering to and from the library carrying books piled up to my eyebrows.

“Do you have enough books to read?” One fellow patron asked me last time I was there.

The result is that I am always so busy reading my library books that I never have time to read the books I actually own. I’ve had books I really do want to read sitting on my shelf for years looking at me reproachfully. I promise myself that as soon as I finish the current batch of books from the library, I’ll stop borrowing and read them.

It hasn’t worked yet. They say the first step towards fixing an addiction is admitting you have a problem, but I’ve been admitting my problem for years and I still do it.

There’s just something about contemplating all the things I could read that is so exhilarating. All those stories, all that knowledge, all that could be mine! Sometimes it’s more fun to contemplate reading than it is to actually read. My special joy in life is, when I get home from the library, to flip through and read the introductions of the various books.

The trouble is my eyes are bigger than my brain. Every time I watch a movie I want to read the book that it is based on and I order it. Some novels and movies get me interested in a time period or subject and I order some history books. Sometimes, a history book or biography will spark an interest in a tangential subject. While reading Bob Hope’s biography by Richard Zoglin, I realized I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War and ordered a book from the library. I read an article that casually mentioned Sophocles’ Antigone and I ran to my computer and ordered the book.

“You must be a voracious reader.” One librarian remarked last time I was at the library and strategically arranging my pile in a paper shopping bag. I wish I could lay claim to the identity of voracious reader. My sister is a voracious reader. We both keep lists of the books we read every year and if you look at her list it looks like my library account. All the books I meant to read are there. At least one advantage is that she tells me about what she reads and I get all the advantages of knowledge without the expense of time. I call it vicarious reading. It’s amazing how many books one can vicariously read through other people. It’s an underestimated form of reading.

But whether skim reading, potential reading, vicarious reading, fun reading, serious reading, studious reading, I’d like to thank all the librarians of the world for making it possible!

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2015 in Books

 

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“When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” by Molly Guptill Manning

91VwThQMaLL._SL1500_When Books Went to War is a book that makes you want to voraciously read every book in sight, just out of gratitude that it can be done. The book is generally the story of the role books played during WWII – the Nazis burned them and the Americans struggled to send enough books to the millions of men serving – but it is most specifically about the unprecedented printing of over 100 million Army Service Edition books that were shipped overseas and became as necessary to the men as cigarettes, candy bars and letters from home.

Author Molly Guptill Manning begins her book in 1933, when Nazi students burned books in a giant bonfire in Berlin. It was estimated that the Nazis destroyed around 100 million books, in Germany and in other countries. Any books written by Jewish authors (Albert Einstein, Heinrich Heine), Communists or socialists (Karl Marx, H.G. Wells) and even authors like G.K. Chesterton and Helen Keller were banned and ordered removed from library shelves.

America took the opposite tack in fighting WWII. It was not done consciously as a response to Nazi book burning, but is highly illustrative of the two governments. It first began with the Victory Book Campaign. Organized by the American Library Association and encouraged by the government, the VBC worked to get people to donate 10 million books for servicemen. For many men, there were no other forms of recreation and relaxation available, especially overseas, and there was a surprising hunger for books.The VBC was a beginning, but ultimately they could not muster the number of books needed for so many men and the books were often large, hardback copies, not practical in wartime situations.

The Army Service Edition (ASE) of books came into being when a group of men from many of the big publishing companies came together to talk about what they could do to help the war effort. They began with radio programs, but eventually had the idea to publish small, light and portable paperback editions of books for the servicemen. They got funding from the military and within 7 months were shipping out their first batch of books, containing 30 different titles by authors like Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Herman Melville, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, C.S. Forester, Joseph Conrad and Ogden Nash. The council tried to make their monthly selection a blend of contemporary fiction (which made up the majority of the books), classics, biography, history, essays, poetry and technical books.

The editions themselves came in two sizes and were specifically designed to fit in a serviceman’s jacket pocket or pants pocket. They were bound with staples on the short side of the book, with printing in two columns on the page for easier reading. They were said to be the most comfortable style of book to read while lying on your back in a hospital.

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Books were printed in twos and then cut apart. These two ASEs were not separated, however – source: wikipedia

The books were a sensational success. Men loved them. There would be new titles printed every month and the military did their best to make sure men were supplied with them. Whenever a box of books arrived, men would swarm around them like they were candy. They would read and pass the book on or get in waiting lines for popular books or trade cigarettes and candy bars to move up in the line. Men who had never read before were suddenly reading insatiably.They talked of how it was their one means of escape from the terrible conditions they lived in: it made them laugh, reminded them of home, gave them courage, gave them hope, talked of how they identified with certain characters and it gave catharsis from their experiences that they could not talk about. 

The most popular ASE was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, followed by other slightly surprising authors like Katherine Anne Porter and Rosemary Taylor, who wrote A Chicken Every Sunday. They were books that reminded them of home. One soldier even compared reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to receiving a letter from home and another wrote Smith to tell her how reading her book while in a hospital helped him out of depression and restored his ability to feel and care again. Soldiers would write to their favorite authors and often the authors would respond, especially Betty Smith. She not only wrote back, but even corresponded regularly with them.

Other books that were popular were Forever Amber and Strange Fruit, partly because of the more explicit than usual sex scenes they contained, (though Strange Fruit was a book about interracial romance and lynching, was recommended by Eleanor Roosevelt and was not just a tawdry tale). The men were particularly gleeful about reading Forever Amber because it was banned in Boston. It became something of a joke about books banned in Boston.

The ASE’s made lifelong readers out of men who had scarcely ever touched a book before. And it inspired many men to go to college after the war and pursue different careers they had read of or were interested in. One solider wrote Helen MacInness to tell her that her book While We Still Live was the book that turned him into a reader and when he went on to earn a PhD he dedicated his dissertation to her.

You can tell I loved this book. There are so many stories of how books affected the lives of the men reading them and it made me inexpressibly grateful for the access I have to books. It is also extraordinary to read how authors, who weren’t necessarily setting out to write great classics, could have such a profound affect on others. War is such an unmitigated tragedy that it is lovely to read about one thing that was done well during the war – the printing of the books and the council’s broad choice of titles and decision not to censor them – and to read of one thing that was an unmixed good.

For further information on ASEs and a list of all the titles printed, see armedserviceeditions.com.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Non-Fiction

 

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The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) – Robert Louis Stevenson

illustration by Charles Raymond in the 1904 edition of the book

illustration by Charles Raymond Macauley in the 1904 edition of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I have a habit of reading three or four books at the same time and I will sometimes sit on my bed, reading one with all the others are lying around me, calling me to pick them up again. I can cycle through several books in one sitting, unless I reach a particularly pressing moment in one that demands to be seen all the way through.

Recently, I’ve been reading: Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, George Bernard Shaw and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m not sure, in hindsight, if that was the best thing to do because I feel like I’ve been bombarding my senses with glorious descriptions, long sentences, vocabularies a little beyond my own, unique plots, colorful characters and I can’t help coming away with the sense that all modern writing – including my own – is pale, flat, unimaginative and colorless in comparison.

It’s not necessarily true, but it’s a bit like trying to eat rice after having stuffed yourself with chocolate truffles.

Stevenson, in particular, has a real gift for description. Most description I read doesn’t really do anything for me, but Stevenson can make me feel his atmosphere, as well as see it. In his short story “A Lodging for the Night,” about the 15th century, real-life poet and thief Francis Villon, Stevenson describes Paris in the snow:

The air was raw and pointed, but not far below freezing; and the flakes were large, damp, and adhesive. The whole city was sheeted up. An army might have marched from end to end and not a footfall given the alarm. If there were any belated birds in heaven, they saw the island like a large white patch, and the bridges like slim white spars, on the black ground of the river. High up overhead the snow settled among the tracery of the cathedral towers. Many a niche was drifted full; many a statue wore a long white bonnet on its grotesque or sainted head. The gargoyles had been transformed into great false noses, drooping towards the point. The crockets were like upright pillows swollen on one side. In the intervals of the wind, there was a dull sound of dripping about the precincts of the church.

I was so stunned at how evocative it was, I had to read the paragraph a second time.

illustration by Charles Raymond Macauley

illustration by Charles Raymond Macauley

I also just finished reading Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was published in 1886 and is more of a novella than a novel. Most people are familiar with the story, even if they haven’t read the book. It has been turned into plays, movies, TV shows, a musical and entered into popular culture and even the dictionary (I checked and the term “Jekyll and Hyde” really is in my dictionary – it means to have two sides to your personality, good and bad).

It’s actually written like a mystery and is almost entirely from the perspective of the lawyer, John Utterson, who is a friend of Dr. Jekyll and is trying to discover what hold the mysterious man, Edward Hyde, has on the doctor. Utterson thinks blackmail, but the truth is far more than he ever imagined. In fact, the reader never does find out what Utterson thinks because he is given a manuscript to read, written by Henry Jekyll and containing his confession, and the story ends with Jekyll’s account. What Utterson does with the truth is left to our imagination, perhaps because the truth was so horrible that its affect was devastating to Utterson just as it was to another of Jekyll’s friends, Dr. Lanyon.

One of the supreme ironies is that the term Jekyll and Hyde should mean two sides of the same person, good and evil, because Dr, Jekyll fails in proving this out. Dr. Jekyll says that he believes in two sides and that if he can find a way to separate the two selves, then the good side can go on its way, unimpeded by any evil. However, all he really does is create a receptacle for all his evil impulses that he can indulge in without consequences. His original self remains as is, with the same conflicted nature.

Henry Jekyll admits that his experiments failed. However, he argues that the reason Hyde emerged as the second self is because Jekyll went into the experiment with the idea that he could create a means of indulging his pleasures without sullying his good name, instead of sincerely trying to free his good self from evil. The implication Jekyll makes is that if he had had altruistic motives for his experiments, then an angel instead of a demon might have emerged. We don’t actually know if that would be true, however. It depends on how deeply rooted you believe evil is in people.

illustration by Charles Raymond Macauley

illustration by Charles Raymond Macauley

According to Robert Louis Stevenson, in a letter to a friend, the reason that Hyde came out was because of Jekyll’s hypocrisy. Jekyll himself writes to Utterson that although his pleasures were not really that bad, he desired so much to be thought of as, not just good, but exceedingly good. And in order to maintain his reputation, he created Hyde so that he did not have to give up his vices. The trouble is that in unleashing and feeding Hyde, Hyde grows stronger and takes him over.

The theme of Jekyll and Hyde, in a way, is not really about the dual nature of man, but about a man who wants to have a dual nature so that he can enjoy the best of both worlds. There is also an interesting theme about removing inhibitions and the almost primal animal evil it releases. The idea – I’m not sure if this is coming from Stevenson or simply my own interpretation of the story – is that civilization and the desire to be thought well of doesn’t really make people better, but what it does do is prevent people from acting as they would if there was nothing to prevent them.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also has its share of stunning descriptions. The scene that most stood out to me is in the manuscript, written by Dr. Lanyon to Mr. Utterson, explaining the mystery that Jekyll is really Hyde – the Hyde who has committed a terrible murder – and how the horror of seeing this unnatural sight of Hyde transforming into Jekyll before Lanyon’s eyes has so shaken his soul that he feels himself dying.

He [Hyde] put the glass to his lips and drank at one gulp. A cry followed; he reeled, staggered, clutched at the table and held on, staring with injected eyes, gasping with open mouth; and as I looked there came, I thought, a change – he seemed to swell – his face became suddenly black and the features seemed to melt and alter – and the next moment, I had sprung to my feet and leaped back against the wall, my arm raised to shield me from that prodigy, my mind submerged in terror.

“O God!” I screamed, and “O God!” again and again; for there before my eyes – pale and shaken, and half fainting, and groping before him with his hands, like a man restored from death – there stood Henry Jekyll!

The reader knows what’s coming, but it’s still a powerful scene, nonetheless. I particularly liked how he describes Jekyll as having come back from the dead. It is a powerful visual, as if Jekyll is dying every time that he is submerged into Hyde and resurrected every time he comes back, but each time he comes back, there is a little less of him, as though a bit of him dies every time Hyde is released. It’s a very chilling thought, in a thoughtfully chilling book.

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Fiction

 

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