Monday, May 14, 2007

Irony: Libraries and Classics

The April 1, 2007 issue of Booklist just landed on my desk. Because I am not a book selector any more, I generally look at Will Manley's column and browse the table of contents before I pass it on. In this issue, Will title is "Libraries, Bookstores, and Classics." It is an interesting and thoughtful look at trends in public libraries and bookstores over the past couple of decades. He talks about the irony of the changes.

"The Back Page" is by Booklist editor Bill Ott. His topic is irony, and how he has to work hard to determine irony.

I found the juxtaposition of the two items ironic.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Fahrenheit 451 - Eau Claire Big Read

I was asked to speak at the Friends of the LEMPL Annual meeting. In addition to introducing myself, I was asked to speak about Fahrenheit 451, the Big Read book for Eau Claire. Afterwards several people (including several Library Trustees) suggested I post the full text of my remarks. So, here is the text I used to talk about the topic.

Friends of LEMPL

Annual Meeting 2007

I was born in a log cabin….no, wait that’s not true. I was born in Westchester County New York and grew up in Central Massachusetts as the eldest of eight children. I graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies. I went directly to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (I actually registered for classes one week after the graduation ceremony). From there I moved to Tucson Arizona. I worked for the Diocese of Tucson and in the Central Reference Department at the University of Arizona. I went back to school and earned a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Arizona. By the time I finished that last degree, I had gotten a job at the Tucson Public Library as a Young Adult Librarian. I was quickly moved to be the Business Librarian at the Main Library, where I remained for the next two and one-half years.

When I was offered the position as the Head of Technology and Business Department of the Bridgeport Public Library, I leapt at the chance to be closer to my siblings. I worked at Bridgeport Public for two years before becoming the Library Director at the Wilton Library. The Wilton Library is one of the public libraries in Connecticut which is an “association library.” While it provides public library service to the town, it is not a town department but is a separate non-profit organization. In my time, the town provided only about 78% of the budget, the rest needed to be raised through various fund raising activities. I was there for almost 10 years.

I then became the Executive Director of the Southern Connecticut Library Council, an organization serving the 300 plus academic, school, special, and public libraries in the 38 towns of Greater New Haven. It was a great ride for just over 5 years.

However, when the job as City Librarian in my adopted home town was advertised, I applied and I got the job! For just over 6 years, I served as the City Librarian. One of my most important accomplishments as City Librarian was the establishment of a Friends group. Twice before, Friends groups had been established, and each time they eventually folded. In beginning the new group, I carefully looked at what had not worked in the past. I am pleased to say that the group has just celebrated its 4th anniversary and is going strong after its first major change in leadership.

So, congratulations to the Friends of the L E Phillips Memorial Public Library on a successful twenty years. It is my goal to celebrate many more of these anniversaries with you!

I now have been in Eau Claire for four and a half months, and am having the time of my life! Thank you to all who have welcomed me.

But you did not come to hear my life story. You came to hear more about Fahrenheit 451.

Why is Eau Claire reading this book? It is part of a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was inspired, in part, by their 2004 study called Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America. That report indicated a dramatic drop in reading by the American public. Having read the study, I am concerned that the narrow definitions used in the survey done in 2002 do not accurately reflect the amount of reading which we all do. However, I am pleased that they are sponsoring programs which emphasize not just reading, but also discussion of the important ideas included in some of the great works of American literature.

But why was I so excited about Eau Claire’s participation in the Big Read? Well, Bridgeport in conjunction with some of the surrounding communities is also participating in the Big Read this spring. The Library played an active role in preparing the application. One of the requirements is that the book must be selected from a list, and included in the application. I really wanted people in Bridgeport to read Fahrenheit 451. I argued strenuously that this was a critical time to talk about the ideas Bradbury presents. However, I was out-voted, and Bridgeport is reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a great book, but not Fahrenheit 451. When I arrived Bess Arneson told me that Eau Claire had received the grant, and that the book was Fahrenheit 451. I don’t remember what I exclaimed, but it sure made an impression!

Fahrenheit 451 and I share one thing in common. For the last six months whenever someone has asked me how old I am, I have answered “My age and birth year are the same.” I usually pause, and wait for the blank look…So for those of you who are still puzzling, the answer is 53. And 1953 is the year when this book was first published.

So what would make a teenaged boy in the late 1960s pick up a book like Fahrenheit 451? Well, I had started working in the public library, thanks to the wonderful Library Director, Miss Betty Osborn, and started reading all the mysteries and science fiction – alphabetically by author, of course, since that is how they were arranged on the shelves. Through high school, I continued on this path, and pretty much finished the science fiction. Well, on the shelf next to the Martian Chronicles was Fahrenheit 451. So I read it. I also re-read it this past winter in preparation for these events.

There are lots of visual images which spring from this incredible work. The first thing that struck me is the twist which Bradbury gives to the term “fireman.” Certainly, when I first read the book, I knew of “firemen” (and I am sorry to say that in those days they were all men). The fire house was across the town green from the Library. You could see the fire house from the back entrance to the Library, the entrance to the Children’s Room. These were the guys who were there to put out fires. They certainly did so for the fire which had occurred next door to my home when I was about 10. Bradbury took this and turned it on its head…firemen did not put out fires, they start them.

Another striking image which I did not perceive in my first reading, was Bradbury’s foreshadowing. Think about Mildred’s parlor with three walls of screens, and all she wants is the fourth wall. Now go look at some place like Best Buy where you can get a 60 inch or larger flat panel screen. Fifty-three years later, we are almost there. And what is on those screens? “The Family.” Aunts, uncles, cousins, living a life, or, actually letting people watch them living a life. Isn’t that reality TV. Then there are the “seashells.” Aren’t those iPods, the successor to the walkman? And then look at Bluetooth technology where all you see is this curved item sticking out of someone’s ear as the appear to talk to themselves. Both of these are well presented in the movie (which I will mention again later).

Later in the novel, there is the chase scene of the mechanical hound chasing our hero Guy Montag. For me, reading that today reminded me of the helicopter scenes of the white Bronco driving slowly down the freeways of Los Angeles. One crucial difference is related to the control of information. The ending was scripted by the authorities. It was both final, and untrue.

In the opening of the novel, Clarisse appears. She sets Guy Montag on his new course. One of the images which struck me was the description of the houses. The houses so close together, yet so far apart. Clarissa and her family actually sat on the porch and talked, how often do we see that today? How often do you see a house porch being used? Certainly, in urban areas today, you rarely see that, even in the neighborhoods which have older homes with wonderful porches.

Fire itself has a hook – I remember the days of burning raked leaves in the back yard. It always draws a crowd. Certainly my camping experience with both boy scouts and girl scouts is that the fire always attracts us. I have spent many happy hours sitting around the fire on a chilly or cold evening, enjoying the warmth of first the fire and then the embers, and sitting having wide ranging conversations. In this novel, fire destroys, and tries to destroy ideas.

Fire Chief Beatty is an interesting character. He has a collection of books, and clearly has read them. He is familiar with the ideas, but has been turned off to the power of books. He is an example of political correctness taken to the ultimate and I have an example of this happening in our society now. Just this past week, a friend of mine went to look at an art exhibit at her University. She had submitted a piece for the show which was sponsored by the University’s Women’s Commission. She was shocked to find that her work was incomplete. It had been censored. Why? Well the University has ruled that exhibits in public spaces cannot offend anyone. So instead of asking her first, the curator censored the work so that no one would be offended. Why are books banned (or destroyed)? Because they offend someone or, worse yet, make someone think.

I’m not sure how many of you are aware of the controversy this winter surrounding the latest Newbery Medal winner. This is the greatest honor in the children’s publishing world, and is awarded by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. This year’s winner is The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (a librarian for Los Angeles Public Library). The controversy is or was because on the first page of the book the word scrotum appears. It is part of a story that Lucky, a young girl and the protagonist, overhears. It is part of a story where the dog of the narrator is bitten on the scrotum by a rattlesnake. Not horrible language, but what a firestorm it created in some circles. Those who want to censor, think that using appropriate anatomical terms and improving the vocabulary of readers is a problem. I don’t!

But, let’s return to our novel. The last part of the novel has the impending war as a background theme. The book was written during the Cold War years, and certainly for much of the 1950s and into the 1960s there was a certain fear of possible atomic or nuclear destruction. While we no longer worry excessively about nuclear destruction of the planet, certainly the specter of war hangs over us today.

Bradbury has created a bleak world. That bleakness is very much reflected in Truffalt’s 1966 film version. While the movie is not completely true to the book, the bleakness and deadness in society is clearly represented by this renowned filmmaker. Some of Truffalt’s presentations conflict with my mental images from the book, but the combination of the actors, setting, and especially the music leave a haunting impression.

How bleak will we let our world become?

In 2001, I was working less than 75 miles from New York City one of the sites of the terrorist attacks on September 11. In the aftermath of those atrocities, Congress passed legislation called the USA PATRIOT Act – war was used as an excuse to take away liberties.

Among the provisions of that law, is the expanded use of something called National Security Letters (NSLs). As a leader in state and regional associations, I began speaking out against the law immediately after its incredibly rapid passage. In 2003, I was elected to serve on the ALA Executive Board.

Let me talk a moment about the National Security Letters. NSLs include, among their provisions a gag order that means that once served, you can never talk about any of the information included in the NSL. This is a permanent gag order, with no right of appeal, and no review by a judge.

In the Spring of 2005, an NSL was served in Connecticut on a librarian (actually a group of librarians). In August, the lawsuit “John Doe v. Ashcroft” was filed in Federal Court to challenge the legality of the NSL and the gag order provisions. When it was announced that the case would be heard, it was to be heard at the Federal Court House in Bridgeport. Since I could see that building from my office, many people jumped to the conclusion that I was “John Doe.” For the next 18 months, or so, I spent a large amount of time trying to convince people that I was not. After all, if I were, I could not have said anything. [Just for the record, there are three federal court houses in Connecticut. When cases are assigned, they are assigned in rotation, and for this case, it just happened to be the turn of Janet Hall, who “sits” in Bridgeport. It just as easily could have been heard in New Haven or Hartford.]

I am proud of my colleagues George Christianson, Peter Chase, Barbara Bailey, and Janet Nocek and their willingness to take a stand. Judge Janet Hall heard the case on August 31, and issued a ruling on September 9. The federal government appealed, and the case, now called “John Doe v. Gonzales” was heard by the second Circuit Court in New York in early November. I attended that hearing and was not impressed with the US Attorney’s case. I am distressed to have to report that ALA and the ACLU were unsuccessful in getting the Supreme Court to hear the case on an expedited basis (Justice Ginsberg declined to hear the arguments), and that before the 2nd Circuit Court ruled, the Federal Government withdrew its appeal and allowed the John Does to speak. Unfortunately this means that the legality of the gag order has yet to be decided by a court. Isn’t this reminiscent of the world which Bradbury showed us

So, what lessons can we draw from Fahrenheit 451? I would draw several. First is that while you can squash the product, can’t squash the ideas. You can burn books, but people will keep the ideas alive. At the end of the novel, Montag and Granger and the other outcasts have gathered to remember different works.

Second is that the reason why the firemen were successful was that society structured to keep people apart, because when people gather, people talk. When people talk, people share ideas. When people share ideas, people go against the rules.

My third moral comes from an interview about the writing of Fahrenheit 451, where Bradbury said, “My educator… is the library ... and the library is in danger.” I don’t think that the Library is in danger in Eau Claire; I think that with support of groups like the Friends, we will find the Ray Bradbury of the next generation. Remember that “Imaginative books are dangerous books.”

Finally I suppose that the greatest irony of all is that Bradbury has stressed the importance of the oral tradition by putting it on paper.

Thank you for your welcome, and thank you for listening to my thoughts on this, one of the great books of the 20th Century.