This was Plan B for last night’s lecture at the Brentwood Library
I want to thank Marilyn Prosser, Kathleen O’Dell, and Lorraine Sandstrom for inviting me here to the Brentwood Library. And I want to say what an honor it is to be on a panel with two excellent scholars with such fine books. Of books, I think I have a rather specialized sense of the value of a good one. In the daylight, I am the assistant director and marketing director at the University Press of Mississippi, a publishing house where over 200 author creations each year are acquired, edited, designed, and disseminated in hardback, paperback, print-on-demand, and/or electronic form. And these two books by my fellow panelists are superb examples of what university press books are at their very best. I envy my friends at Oxford University Press and my many close friends at University of North Carolina Press the joy of bringing these two books to market.
Books are not just stored in libraries. Books start in libraries. And this library, Brentwood, was my home library. All the more sweet then to be welcomed back to it in that I was once banned from it. Yes, banned.
I tell you this story because the statute of limitations has surely passed for me and for the story’s heroine, my mother. Let’s hearken back to Springfield of the mid and late 1970s. We did not then have 24/7 news networks. We were not so strident and frightened a people. Parents did not worry about the lurking menaces of sexual predators or drug dealers or wild-eyed, wealth re-distributing lerbrals. It was to our perception a simpler, safer time. And so if one were blessed with a bookish and intense but usually benign child, one could turn said charge loose in a library and proceed to such chores as grocery shopping at nearby Consumers, banking, posting the mail, gassing the Buick, and so forth, secure that the young scholar, I was nine or ten, would be about his business, which was even then books. My library card was perpetually maxed out. And so guiding me to a carrel, and learning what I intended to study my mother would slip away, and accomplish tasks for which I did not make a tolerant companion. Then she would return to fetch me and take us home where, wanted or not, she would receive a report about yellow diamonds in Arkansas, or the Children’s Crusades, or the moons of Saturn, or lampreys and their gruesome rituals.
For my chums, my contemporaries this would have been a gruelingly boring punishment. For social workers and parents of today maybe it would be considered reckless child abandonment. For me, it meant unmolested hours of free rein in Heaven.
There was, my mother and I discovered, a policy against this, but it was nowhere posted back then. And my mother for all her savvy and necessary conformity, has never been one to let conventional reason or the supposed wisdom of the masses get in the way of a clearly superior arrangement. She taught all of us children to be confident in our productive idiosyncrasies. The daughter of St. Louis German bankers and paper manufacturers, she defended the right to perceive and secure the best possible deals in life, even if how you got them made you seem odd or ran you afoul of local customs.
Through this very creative temporary daycare, I came to know this library thoroughly from 000 Generalities to 900 Geography and History. The card catalog laid the place bare to me, and I had no need to trouble the busy Swiss Guards of this Vatican, the librarians. A maxed out library card became no obstacle, because here I could plan my treasure hunts for those books that did not need to come home. I marveled at bindings and adjudged printing qualities of various publishers. I learned that books speak to one another on shelves, that a book on Peter the Great lived in a fascinating neighborhood where there were also residents of the Crimean War and veterans of exotic excursions into Turkey and the Balkans, that the company of Tyco Brahe traveled with the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire and led to Copernicus. I took home fiction, The Collected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, The Red Badge of Courage, and an Ozark favorite Where the Red Fern Grows. Books saluted other books in carrying within amazing lists called bibliographies, and some books revealed themselves best from the last pages in a thing called an index. I was weird, I was enthralled, and I mark this abandonment in the Brentwood Library among the greatest gifts my mother gave me.
Already the librarians here are seething, I’m sure. There may be en loco parentis in our schools but there never has been en liber parentis. I came to hold a proprietary feeling about the books and these shelves. And I found it quite troublesome when a particularly juicy book about space aliens abducting a husband and wife or about crypto zoologists chasing the Loch Ness monster was missing from its assigned spot, lost into the hands of persons unknown who might never properly appreciate the diary of Napoleon Bonaparte or the Adventures of Young Millard Fillmore. I found it an affront to my purposes that these books would disappear and reappear. And then it came to me that others, astonishingly, might use the Dewey decimal system as well, might check out and thereby detain these books. An outrage, a hostage crisis if ever there was one!
It was then that I struck upon a logical way to keep my books from the hands of these clawing, Dewey decimal-wielding interlopers. Mother was soon to arrive I knew, yet I had not finished my investigation of Joel Arem’s superb book Rocks & Minerals. And so I determined to place it secreted in 147 Pantheism and Related Systems where I alone could return to the stone and mine it. Take that, prying patrons. The magic of selective reshelving.
Alas, I did not know the limits of this magic. Upon my return to Pantheism later that week, I found nowhere in evidence my stashed copy of Rocks & Minerals, nor did I find it in its proper place. Gone, in the hands of some disappointed and misguided fan of the gods of ancient Egypt. I saw no recourse but to consult with one of the vaunted angels of this Heaven, a librarian. And, confident in my resourceful idiosyncrasy, I proceeded to the checkout counter. There, on tip-toe and with no small passion, I described to the bearded, spectacled, kindly librarian my quite reasonable and natural method of retaining books for later use, my particular needs for Joel Arem’s Rocks & Minerals, Dewey decimal 549.1 for your reference, sir, and my offense at it not being where I so wisely placed it. Since the idolatrous seeker in ancient religions could not possibly so need Rocks & Minerals, I demanded to be put immediately in touch with this hapless patron and so relieve him of his unwanted mystery, my book. Undaunted by the librarian’s expression, which had steeled by several ingots during my petition, I demanded the use of a telephone and this poor patron’s phone number.
To lift a phrase from Dr. Fuller’s beautifully written book, with glum satisfaction the librarian asked me plainly, “Where is your mother?”
Now as a lad I was often in my own world, but I was not so insensible as to miss a harbinger of trouble. I answered him with equal plainness: “She is nearby.”
This did not amuse. A policy was explained to me. I was not to be unsupervised here while my mother was grocery shopping. It was of no avail explaining to this librarian how little I benefitted from retail experiences nor how great an asset the library was to me. I was made to sit in a tiny wooden chair in a room where to my horror books freed of their shelves waited on triage wagons. Twice I had to be told not to bother this backroom system for Rocks & Minerals or any other gem trapped therein.
Upon her arrival my mother found me detained there. “What is the matter?” she asked. “Are you ill? Why are you not with your books?”
Sensing our arrangement in jeopardy I told her only that the librarian with the beard and glasses and steely blue eyes desired a word with her. A long pause came over my mother, an assessment, a readying for combat that I had witnessed many times. She secured me in the Buick, ordered that I stay, and composed herself. Then she returned to meet our librarian. Oh, the Teutonic fury I knew I was to miss, and the poor librarian! A man righteously backing a good and sound policy was about to face the fire of German St. Louis against which reason would win him no peace. These brown brick walls must fairly have shaken. Her scholar was thwarted! An outrage!
After a long while, she returned to the Buick unharmed, but I could sense the smolder of sulfur and cordite in the way she gripped the steering wheel. “We will not be returning to the library for a time,” she reported. “You have books at home to suffice?”
“Yes, but we will eventually have to return them,” I said.
She nodded. “We most certainly will be back to return them. And to get you more. You may have to tolerate my waiting with you while you study,” she said. “And you will no longer be assisting the librarians in the shelving of books. Agreed?”
And that is how I was banned from, and by my mother, who waited with me from then on, redeemed at the Brentwood Library. Mother, would you please stand and receive either a terrific library fine or some applause.
Thank you. Parents, be like my mother, abandon your children, within the bounds of existing policy, of course, to the wonder of this place, a place that made me and nurtured the curiosity that created this novel Morkan’s Quarry. And whatever the storm or the politics in vogue, fight for your children and fight for their libraries.