Saturday, April 13, 2013

Things the Books Teach Me: An Education

(This was my speech for the library's annual volunteer appreciation dinner on 4/12/13. For last year's speech, click here.)

I wonder what it does to my brain, working around all these books.

I mean, have you noticed the way things change when they’re in sync? How longtime spouses grow to resemble each other, or your pets behave just like you, or how your best friend is always mistaken for your sibling? Well, sometimes, I think about my job, and how twisted and weird it is, and I wonder what this says about me. How much do I resemble the books I work with?

I often see books that resemble their topics. I’m not talking about your normal, run-of-the-mill book humor, here: Of course the book about do-it-yourself plumbing came back to the library dripping wet – it’s the sort of book one would take into a soggy environment! And of course the book about dog training was eaten by the dog, or the book about raising well-mannered children was returned with crayon damage! The uninitiated find this sort of thing humorous, but such a turn of events barely elicits comment in a librarian’s world.

No, I’m talking about the way perfectly normal books sometimes cause me to question things.

For example, I was once stumped by a Richard Scarry picture book about a character named Lowly Worm, who is just a worm. He wears clothes and a hat and a single shoe, but he’s a worm – no arms or legs. I caught myself wondering, “If he doesn’t have any hands, how does he tie that dapper tie?” and my mind has been uneasy about the subject ever since.

Another time a science book touted itself as “The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather.” I flipped through the book once, twice, a third time.
“What are you looking for?” a coworker asked.
“Hubris,” I said.

Other times the books literally ask me questions. One day, I was processing a book about women and money that, in bold letters on the back, inquired, “Why don’t women make what they’re worth?”
“Gosh,” I wondered aloud to Karyn, who was sharing the desk with me that day. “Why don’t I make what I’m worth? Could it be because I work at the library and there are budget cuts all around? Or because I work in, when you get right down to it, a nonessential service job? I mean, I love what I do and I believe in the power of reading and all that, but the fact is there will be little room for librarians on the colony ship to Mars.”
Karyn looked at me over the top of her reading glasses, eyebrows raised, but I carried on, “I’m serious. Librarianing is not an essential skill when one is populating a new planet. But those OCD housewives whose well-appointed homes are featured on all those decorating shows? They’re not getting on the colony ship to Mars either. I take great comfort in that.”
Karyn merely sighed and went back to doing actual work.

The books often cause me to imagine scenarios that otherwise would never occur to me. Once, while I was checking a book for damage before returning it to the shelf, a page fell out and fluttered to my feet.
“This book about snakes is shedding its skin!” I said.
Benjamin snatched the page from the floor. “Is it missing the page about venomous snakes?” he asked. “Can’t you just picture it?”
Without missing a beat, we dissolved into an elaborate game of pretend. I sank into my chair melodramatically. “I’m bit!”
“Quick!” Benjamin said, feigning panic, “'Which snake is the one that bit you?'“
“'I don't know!” I cried, frantically flipping pages. “It's not in the book!”
Our coworkers looked on, shaking their heads.

The books have exposed me to hobbies I never knew were hobbies. When once a giant coffee-table style art book was donated to us, I glimpsed the duck on the cover and assumed it was a book of wildlife photography, but closer inspection revealed it to be “The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys”.
“Hang on,” I said to Kathy. “There's a whole book for that?”
She shrugged and began to flip through it with me, admiring the flocks of wooden ducks, wooden geese, wooden swans, and one lone wooden owl. Noticing that the top of one page was labeled “Connecticut,” Kathy said, “Let's find the pages for Kansas!”
To our horror and dismay, the index revealed that the decoys were not sorted by species or habitat; they were, in fact, sorted by the home states of their famous wood carvers.
“Gracious me, these people are serious!” I cried.
It was at this point that we found the appendix of “Prices at Auction” and discovered that the rustic wooden duck on the cover could fetch a cool $300,000 in the right market.
We put the book back in the donate pile and tried to forget.

Just as informative are the things the books don’t tell us. For example, we have books on introverts but none on extroverts. “Guess they’re too busy to write one,” Benjamin mused.
And also, I don’t want to alarm anybody – I mean, it could just be a coincidence – but we have no books on the Illuminati. And it might be a conspiracy. I’m just saying.

We have a nonfiction book called Death for Beginners, about planning your will and such. It fills me with questions: Is there a Death for the Advanced Learner? How about Death for Dummies if Death for Beginners is too hard?

I’d like to ask, “What makes this author a qualified expert on death?” but for all I know, he’s been through it. We get books written by dead people all the time. Robert Ludlum has been dead ten years now, but we still get a new book by him every six months or so. Benjamin and I have more than once discussed the inevitable future of the publishing industry, how someday all stories will be written not BY different authors, but UNDER different authors. Every novel will be published under a name instead of a genre. The children of this dystopia won't say “Someday I’ll be an author,” or “I want to grow up to be a novelist.” They'll say, “I want to be a Nora Roberts.” or “I’m going to be a James Patterson when I grow up.” Instead of offering degrees in British Literature or American Classics, universities will employ stuffy professors of Lee Child studies or Clive Cussler technique.

I think about books a lot, and not just their weirdness. I think of their humor, their depth, their willingness to embrace adventure. I think about their possibilities and the daring spirit with which they question the way things are, their willingness to embrace the world both as it is and as it could be.

And when I lay in bed at night, wondering what the books have done to my brain, asking myself if the books have rubbed off on me, the answer is…
God, I hope so. 

No comments:

Post a Comment