I can't resist an essay, or any piece of writing really, that has to do with books, libraries or reading. Although a well written essay can be about anything at all and I'll likely find it interesting (like David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster) it's nice to read about something I love and can easily relate to--books being a sure topic. I can't remember who suggested I pick up Barbara Kingsolver's High Tide in Tucson (thank you by the way), but I knew she would have something more to say about reading. I enjoyed her essay "What Good is a Story", which I read earlier this year, though I didn't entirely agree with her conclusions. While she may have a breezy, chatty style of writing in her essays, don't be fooled as she seems a formidable writer with very high standards for herself and her readers.
I sometimes think librarians should be sainted folk. Really, the service they render students and readers in general is immeasurable. They match the right book to the right reader, steer them in the best direction and help inspire them. In "How Mr. Dewey Decimal Saved My Life" Kingsolver begins with "A librarian named Miss Truman Richey snatched me from the jaws of ruin, and its too late to thank her." Kingsolver grew up in a small town in Kentucky in the sixties, where educational spending didn't amount to much. There were no fancy classes and students didn't have much to look forward to except four years of Home Ec for girls and Shop for boys.
"And so I stand today, a woman who knows how to upholster, color-coordinate a table setting, and plan a traditional wedding--valuable skills I'm still waiting to put to good use in my life."
Rather than spreading out all the good classes over her four years she used them up right away, so had nothing to look forward to except study hall and advanced Home Ec.
"We did have a school library, and a librarian who was surely paid inadequately to do the work she did. Yet there she was, every afternoon, presiding over the study hall, and she noticed me. For reasons I can't fathom, she discerned potential."
Mrs. Richey set Barbara the task of organizing the books in the library "nobody ever looked at" according to the Dewey Decimal System. It might be boring and she might look surly while she worked, but it was better than advanced Home ec.
"She (Mrs. Richey) just smiled. She with her hidden agenda. And gradually, in the process of handling every book in the room, I made some discoveries. I found Gone with the Wind, which I suspected my mother felt was kind of trashy, and I found Edgar Allen Poe, who scared me witless. I found that the call number for books about snakes is 666. I found William Saroyan's Human Comedy, down there on the shelf between Human Anatomy and Human Physiology, where probably no one had touched it since 1943. But I read it, and it spoke to me. In spite of myself I imagined the life of an immigrant son who believed human kindness was a tangible and glorious thing. I began to think about words like tangible and glorious. I read on. After I'd read all the good ones, I went back and read Human Anatomy and Human Physiology and found I liked those pretty well too."
The thing is, Kingsolver grew up in a house with books and was early on encouraged to read and used the public library. Her parents so much wanted her to be a reader that when their television broke, she joked, it took about twenty years to be fixed. But there comes a time in every young adult's life when the decision and choices need to be their own and not a parent's or teacher's. The very book thrust into a young adult's hands is likely a book that will be scoffed at and turned down.
"What snapped me out of my surly adolescence and moved me on were books that let me live other people's lives. I got to visit the Dust Bowl and London and the Civil War and Rhodesia. The fact that Rhett Butler said 'damn' was a snoozer to me--I hardly noticed the words that mothers worried about. I noticed words like colour bar, spelled 'colour' the way Doris Lessing wrote it, and eventually I figured out it meant racism. It was the thing that had forced some kids in my county to go to a separate school--which wasn't even a school but a one-room CME church--and grow up without plumbing or the hope of owning a farm. When I picked up Martha Quest, a novel set in southern Africa, it jarred open a door that was right in front of me. I found I couldn't close it."
Kingsolver began making connections between what Lessing was writing about and how people in her own community lived and where treated and she was aghast. I wonder how many students have that moment of epiphany? Hopefully we all do at some point in our lives. Books take us outside our own lives and show us lives of others. Reading opens our eyes and shows us the rest of the world and broadens our experiences and "blends us more deeply with our fellow human beings". If there is a danger in reading, as some people might see it, this is where it lies. When students start questioning rather than following blindly. "How Mr. Dewey Decimal Saved My Life" is Kingsolver's homage to all the librarians and writers who saved a surly student.