The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives. We work at home and count on digital connections with relatives and friends. It is scary not to be able to walk to a coffee shop and mingle comfortably with strangers or friends. And it is disturbing to go to a grocery store only to find shelves empty of our favorite comfort foods.
But if we tear ourselves away from the endless flow of news, we can find a few unexpected pleasures. Rather than paying attention to current news, it is better by far to stick to the books that take us away from our immediate surroundings. My library, the San Francisco Public Library, has closed all branches, but it has a large collection of ebooks and audiobooks that can be downloaded directly to our living rooms. Every day I can download several mysteries and browse through them at my leisure to decide whether to spend the evening with Maisie Dobbs or V.I. Warshawski or any of my other favorite detectives. It’s not the same as browsing along the shelves in the library, but it gives me almost the same thrill of discovering new adventures and new characters to take my mind off viruses and politics. And one bonus of borrowing digital books from the library is there is no need to return them. Each one magically disappears from my Kindle when my borrowing time is over.
Of course, you don’t have to confine your reading to mystery stories. You can organize an impromptu reading group and discuss books with friends. I’ve heard of people who have decided to read and discuss War and Peace during breaks from their work at home. That sounds a bit over-ambitious to me. I’d prefer to read and talk about a shorter classic. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Fromewould work. I’m sure every public library in the country has copies of those. And they offer lots of ideas to talk about with friends.
This digital life offers surprises that turn old pleasures into new ones. For years I’ve gone to concerts, sometimes in great concert halls, sometimes in university auditoriums, but I have always had a seat far in the back of the hall or in the balcony. Now I’ve discovered the special joy of watching a concert streamed online. Amazon Prime, of all places, offers a variety of choices from Bach to Mozart and dozens of other composers. The music is the same as in a concert hall, but the extraordinary photography makes an amazing difference to me. I can watch a close-up of elderly hands hovering over the piano keys or see the glances between two musicians as they coordinate their entrance into a piece. Watching them gives me a new appreciation of what it must feel like to be part of a musical group, something I have never been privileged to experience before.
During this mandatory shelter-in-place life we are allowed to go outdoors for a walk in the fresh air. I am lucky to live only a few blocks from the beach and have always enjoyed watching the ocean as it moves relentlessly along the shore. No matter what comes along in life, the repetitive motion of the tides reassures us that nothing lasts forever. As the tide ebbs out, leaving stretches of beach marked only by seaweed, plastic bottles, and perhaps a few quivering jellyfish, we can be sure that in six hours and thirteen minutes the high tide will be back. The world goes on and so will we.
Recently I came across a small relic of my teenage years–a reading log that was given to me the Christmas before I turned fifteen. I kept it faithfully all year long, recording the books I was reading outside of school—all 46 of them. I wonder how it would compare to a teen’s reading today.
My usual opening of the evaluation section was pretty undiscriminating: “This is a swell book…” which was used for a book about the St. Louis Cardinals as well as for Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. I managed to change that a little when I described David Copperfield as “A fascinating book—long but not boring”, which is probably the way many kids today would describe the Harry Potter books. It’s a good thing no teacher was grading the comments.
Another interesting item in my log was the entry for who recommended the book. In my case that was sometimes my father, who kept mentioning books he was reading, or Seventeen magazine, but most of the books were recommended by May Lamberton
Becker. That’s a name that is not heard very much anymore, but she was an influential critic of young people’s books back in the day. My mother picked up a copy of Becker’s Adventures in Reading at a secondhand bookstore and I used it as a source of inspiration for years. I am forever grateful for her introduction to some of the books I still love.
Like most teens, I read books of all kinds—bestsellers, classics, mysteries, humor—that’s the way people become readers. You have to sample everything before you know what you like. And the source for all these books? The public library, of course. There were no bookstores in our neighborhood, and we wouldn’t have been able to buy all these books anyway. The only way kids can become avid readers is to be exposed to lots of books from which they can pick and choose. Later on perhaps people can buy the books they love, but for young people school and public libraries are the way to go. Long live libraries!
As a change from all the news stories we’ve been watching about the immigrant crisis on the border between Mexico and the U.S., perhaps it’s time to celebrate some of our immigrants. Not all of them entered the country willingly or even legally, but many of them have enriched our society.
This week some newspapers carried the story of the death of Zoia Horn who died at the age of 96 in Oakland, California. In the 1970s her actions started a movement that has revitalized the library profession. During the hectic anti-Vietnam War period, she refused to testify or give out information about the library borrowing records concerning an alleged plot by antiwar activists, including Daniel Berrigan. She was surprised and shocked to discover that the FBI had been tapping her phone to try to find out whether she knew about the plot. For her refusal to testify, Zoia Horn was imprisoned for a short time, but more importantly she made people aware of the danger of government intrusion into the privacy of communications between individuals.
Although the American Library Association did not support Zoia Horn’s refusal at first, the organization later honored her for her work in supporting intellectual freedom. Libraries have been in the forefront of institutions that defend the privacy of their clients and refuse to make borrowing records available to government agencies. Today we worry about large tech companies that are under pressure to share information with various governments. Libraries have shown the way in which institutions can protect citizens against unwarranted intrusion. They have led the way by erasing records of past library use as soon as they are no longer needed and by refusing to be bullied into removing useful materials that may be offensive to some members of the community. The stereotype of the mousey little librarian has been disproved over and over again by the steadfastness of library support of intellectual freedom over the years.
For the last thirty years Zoia Horn worked in the cause of intellectual freedom. She has been honored by the California Library Association which named its intellectual freedom medal after her. You can find the autobiography of Zoia Horn in the Open Library of the Internet Archive. It makes lively reading for anyone interested in the history of the twentieth century. Horn tells the story of how she and her family left Russia and emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. Their final destination was the United States and they found a friend willing to smuggle them across the border. Their entrance into the country was not quite according to immigration laws, but their lives enriched America. We should keep that in mind when we consider how immigrants at our borders should be treated as they try to find their path into this country. Many of them would surely become valuable citizens and make our lives better just as Zoia Horn did.