a reckoning at the library

In an effort to save both trees in the forest and space in the house, I’ve been trying to borrow instead of buy my books. Unfortunately, the public library doesn’t always cut it, so I decided to renew my visitor library card at our local university. It’s a pretty familiar place. I earned my MA from this school and eventually worked there as an adjunct after the phd.

As an esteemed alumnus, I get a discount on the card. That’s a fair trade, right? A 50% discount ($50 annual savings) for me, in exchange for the thousands I spent taking their graduate classes–which, in turn, prepared me to teach GenEd English classes at a 75% discount for them. I wonder how many years of visiting-library-card-savings I’ll have to accumulate before I break even?

But really, I’m not here to gripe. It’s all about the library today. When I go in there, I remember why the university held me captive for so long. I can smell the ideas that linger on the shelves; I can hear them scratching at the dust that gathers like fleas about their necks. They’re waiting for me to come and collect them, I know it.

Of course, the time came during the phd when the library began to feel like a dungeon–a place where I sat hopeless, shackled, and plain old missing so many beautiful spring days. The sun beckoning on the back of my neck, the breeze wafting just so, the blue sky singing, and I’d disappear through those doors under the weight of some drummed up deadline. Why did I take it all so seriously!?

When I walk into the library now, it feels fresh and promising again, the way it did in my early graduate school days. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I can ride up on my bike, drop off my books, and ride blissfully off into the dazzle. No deadlines. No obligations.

Well…there was one small obligation today. After I renewed my visitor’s account a few weeks ago, the librarian discovered a fine left over from my last account. She informed me of this today. It seems I owe late fees on the books I borrowed during the final weeks of dissertation writing…nine years ago! For a minute my heart stopped. How many thousands would I owe now? I prepared to run, lamenting my decision to lock up my bike.

Shockingly, the total came to only $25. That couldn’t be right, could it? Of course, I didn’t argue. I figured I would count it toward the years of “free” teaching I did for them.

I took out my wallet to pay, then thought to ask: “Could you tell me: what were the books?”

She printed out the list. And there they were, as if time hadn’t passed: Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pictures of Innocence by Anne Higonnet, and Ronald Reagan the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin.

Michael Rogin. Once a name I muttered regularly through gritted teeth in my sleep, and I wouldn’t have remembered he existed if you’d asked me yesterday. I had used these books while finishing my introduction and conclusion (two chapters that I wrote at the same time – a great little trick if you’re still dissertating!).

Looking at the names now–so foreign, so familiar–I couldn’t figure out what I felt. Nothing? Nostalgia? Sadness? Anger? And how surreal to be standing here paying this fine so many years later. What would I have said if you’d told me when I dropped those books victoriously into the return bin that it would be nine years before I would return to this place that had been my home, my prison?

I think it would have been a devastating piece of news. In those weeks after my defense, I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground. I knew the job prospects were grim, but I let myself enjoy it anyway. I celebrated not only because I’d finished, but also because I really cared about my research on the trope of childhood innocence in American literature. Things had come together so well in the final weeks, and I believed I had written something that truly contributed to both American literary scholarship and to perceptions of national identity in the–

blah blah blah blah…

Yes, I really did feel those things, and maybe they were even true, or would have been if I’d contintued my career. But I didn’t, and perhaps nine years is enough time to come to terms with that, to recognize that things have turned out for the better. Perhaps nine years is enough time to be able to pay the fine with little more than a laugh, an eye roll, and the gumption to call it even.

Which leaves me alone in those stacks, so stuffed to brimming with words and theories and stories, to explore them at will, freed by the gift of nothing owed.

“you don’t have anything if you don’t have stories”

I know I just posted 1,131 words on how grief severed the cord between me and fiction, but if you must know the truth, I am prone to these crises.  In fact, they linger around me, like a nagging cough I just can’t shake.

Onset began in graduate school.  I would often become so engrossed in the politics of a thing, I would forget the thing (the book – its craft, its rhythm, its aesthetics). Two hundred pages of dissertation dedicated to this art form we call literature and nary a word on aesthetics.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised I got away with that.

Occasionally, that nagging cough would evolve into a full-on cold.  At those times, I would question my path, asking between tissues and sneezes: What am I doing? Why not study political science or sociology, or foreign affairs? Literature is not real – and so, not relevant.

Then a student would tell me “I love this class,” or “This class changed my life,” and the groove of my train wheels would click back onto the track with a clunk.

Literature matters.  I knew it, even if I couldn’t always explain why.

About a year ago, I realized that my literary hiatus would not end on its own–I found myself standing on a lonely platform, waiting for a book train that wasn’t coming.  If I wanted to get down the tracks, I decided, I would have to do it myself. So without any real interest, I went to the library. I did read a few books: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and Julia Alvarez’s Saving the World among them.  I read, but not with fever or purpose, or love. For example, I renewed the Alvarez multiple times, even returning it and checking out a different copy to extend my time because I couldn’t get through it. So sorry Julia!

Even reading Carol Shields’ Stone Diaries, an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner, I found myself thinking, “meh, not sure why this matters.”  Oddly, I just googled Shields’ name to double check the spelling, and one line of a New York Times book review popped up.  It said, “The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.”

Is that a sign or something?

It must be, because when I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior about a month ago, I found myself overwhelmingly reminded of something so important: the great power of the imagination.   I think Einstein planted this seed a year ago when I read his biography and learned of his infatuation with creativity and imagination.  He believed they mattered above all else, saying things like, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I’m pretty sure I felt something flutter in my brain when I read that.

Flutter turned fittingly to “flight” when I read the Kingsolver.  What was it about Flight Behavior that woke me up? For anyone concerned with climate change, it’s no secret that a decade of misinformation from the fossil fuel industry (among other groups) has successfully derailed efforts to educate the public about the current threat to our global health.  We cannot effectively manage the environmental crises we face because of the vast disconnect that exists between scientists and the doubting public.

Kingsolver addresses this problem.  Flight Behavior intertwines the plight of a small rural town with the plight of the monarch butterfly, localizing the vast implications of climate change and, ironically, making them feel more real and more intimate than Bill McKibben or James Hansen have ever managed, despite their very valiant and nonfictionalized efforts.

While the rest of us can’t figure out how to communicate about this crisis, Kingsolver sticks a scientist, Ovid, and a 20-something high school educated mother from Appalachia, Dellarobia, together on the side of a mountain and asks them to talk to each other.

Why didn’t I think of that?  The result is just brilliant.

No, it’s not real, but Kingsolver helps us believe that it could be.  She portrays Dellarobia as uneducated but intelligent, eager but trapped.  Conversely, Ovid is educated but uncommunicative, committed, but helpless.  Kingsolver throws them together, allowing them to form an unlikely friendship and a mutual respect.

With the help of their tenuous friendship, Ovid tells Dellarobia about carbon particles per million, greenhouse gases and melting polar ice.  Later, she tells him, “You guys aren’t popular.  Maybe your medicine’s too bitter.  Or you’re not selling to us.  Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it” (321).  In response to Ovid’s suggestion that her people simply turn their backs on what frightens them, she responds with certainty, “My husband is not a coward,” (322).

Kingsolver removes us from a public discourse that has grown hysterical in its panic and vitriol and helps us to imagine what it would sound like if two people from these opposing camps spoke to one another openly and respectfully about what matters to them.  She shows us that the people in these two camps need each other.  She helps us see a stark reality: to save ourselves, we must dispense with judgment on both sides.

I could not have imagined these conversations on my own, and I’d say Kingsolver’s portrayal has changed my judgmental view of climate deniers because I can see myself in Ovid.  I share his inability to understand the viewpoint of those in Dellarobia’s community.  Of course, Dellarobia is imagined, but her portrayal is reasonable, interesting, and completely unfamiliar.  Consequently, I found myself listening to her, and hearing her, right along with Ovid.

This is the kind of book you finish quietly, setting the volume carefully on your lap and exhaling in a long and thoughtful breath.  It left me feeling hopeful about our chances of bridging this gap between academics and regular folks.  I also felt inspired, for the first time in a long time, by a work of fiction.

I knew without question that this book mattered, and suddenly, I wanted to read again—in earnest.

With nothing new on the shelves and no time for the library, I scanned my bookcases for something interesting enough to reread.  I chose Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony because I am still scarred by the memory of being asked about its ending during my oral exams.  Having forgotten what happened (in my usual form), I had no choice but to admit, “I don’t remember it.”  Happy to finally fill in that blank, as well as to recommit myself to reading and valuing works of fiction, I settled in on the couch with my book and my tea.

I must be onto something, because I hadn’t passed page two before I came to this:

“I will tell you something about stories,                                                                           [he said]                                                                                                                          They aren’t just entertainment.                                                                                     Don’t be fooled.                                                                                                            They are all we have, you see,                                                                                        all we have to fight off                                                                                                 illness and death.

You don’t have anything                                                                                                    if you don’t have the stories.”