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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned at the Library

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 2, 2010


            Neal Gaiman (whom I have never read) is a very popular English writer of science fiction and fantasy. He is best known, perhaps, for The Sandman series of graphic novels. “Libraries are as important as anything gets,” Gaiman once told a press conference, and in appreciation, perhaps, the librarians of America named him Honorary Chairman of National Library Week in the United States (which actually was last month, April 11-17, to be exact). Gaiman also once described himself as “a feral child brought up by librarians”. Such is a thought with which I identify, more than a little.

 

            I wasn’t raised by librarians; but growing up (and in the years since, too, actually) I have been in their presence quite often. Thinking back at my childhood and adolescence, there were those “sacred places” where I spent an awful lot of my time-- besides safely at home, of course (and I probably too much time at home, and in the house—in front of the television, to be precise). There was school, naturally. And there was church (it really was a focus point of my family’s life; we spent a lot of time there; except for my father, whose religion was golf). Then, next on the list, higher than you might expect, and more than I realized at the time, there was the library. From almost as early as I can remember (from the time I was perhaps 11 or 12), in the summer, I was probably at the Harris Library in Woonsocket twice a week—and for hours at a time. I was there almost every Saturday, too, during the rest of the year. (Which tells you something about my social life, as well, but I digress.)

 

            I’d walk about a mile to Main Street, where the library was back then (in the same building as Woonsocket’s City Hall; an historic old building where Abraham Lincoln had spoken during his campaign  for President in 1860). I’d spend a couple of hours browsing around; break for a brown bag lunch-- outside, on a bench, right there on Main Street (or, if I was feeling flush, I’d go to the lunch counter at Woolworth’s and spend maybe a half dollar on a hot dog or a tuna salad sandwich with chips and pickles). Then I’d go back upstairs, look around some more, and finish off the day by checking out whatever the maximum number of volumes you could borrow was (I’m thinking maybe four or five; that exact detail escapes me).

 

            I can still remember the day I got my adult library card (I think you had to be thirteen). It was, by far, a bigger event in my life than the day I got my driver’s license (and one for which the world as a whole ought to feel more gratitude, as well). That got me out of the kids’ section (where I had the feeling, at least, that I’d already read just about every book worth reading at least once). Now, I could get into the “big room” across the hall—where there were seemingly endless shelves crammed with volumes or every size and width and color; and newspapers from far-off places like Providence and Boston and even New York, in racks, attached to these long wooden poles. Newspapers  didn’t interest me (much) back then; but old men would pour over them for hours at a

time, it seemed. And there were marble (or maybe fake marble; this was Woonsocket, after all) busts of Famous Men, like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, on top of the shelves; and a statue of Minerva (the Greek goddess of wisdom) in the corner; and a large oil painting of Edward Harris, the library’s original patron (who had made a fortune in textile manufacturing in Woonsocket) on the wall. I think there was a painting of Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island, as well, but that is a detail I might well be imagining.

 

            It was something of a rarified atmosphere, right there on Main Street in Woonsocket (the least rarified of places, in many ways). As the French writer Marie de Sevigne put it: “When I step into a library, I cannot imagine why I ever step out of it.” It was an oasis of learning and aspiration and open-mindedness in a place that could sometimes be stifling and limited and even a bit bleak. As Oprah Winfrey wrote: “Books were my pass to personal freedom. I learned to read at age three, and soon discovered there was a while world to conquer that went beyond our little farm in Mississippi.” That’s how I felt at the library: as though there were all these new books to read, and new worlds to conquer. And I understood what Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

 

            (And you know, when they built the new library on the edge of the downtown in Woonsocket, sometime in the early 1970s—a much more modern building, with plenty of shelf space and better lighting and enough parking, and wall to wall carpeting (instead of the creaky wooden floors the old library had), I never felt at home there, in spite of all the modern conveniences. The books were still there (pretty much the same books, actually); but much of the character was gone (to me at least), as was that sense of history, of connection with a past that lives still (that, perhaps, only comes to us in older buildings that have seen their share of years come and go).

 

            What kinds of books did I borrow in my weekly allotment? All kinds of books. I remember the Berlitz introduction to Esperanto, which I decided I was going to learn. (The Harris library had a shelf full of Berlitz language books, on every foreign tongue I’d ever heard of, and a few I hadn’t, like Urdu and… Esperanto). I don’t think anybody every borrowed any of them, and I never learned Esperanto. But I learned about Esperanto, which is maybe just as valuable.

 

            I remember borrowing the entire Inside series by John Gunther, and polishing them off, one after another… Inside Europe, Inside Asia, Inside U.S.A., and so on. The information in the books was probably dated long before I ever read them (most were written in the 1940s and 1950s). I didn’t even care much who had been prime minister of the Netherlands in 1940. But from John Gunther, I learned that what we now call “history” was (not so long ago, really) what we’d call “current events” in our own time, and that we are all living history, every day and every year of our lives; that we are part of an indivisible human story, and that what we decide today shapes (to a large degree) the world that will come.

 

            From John Gunther, too, I learned that writing about history—or religion—or any human endeavor—doesn’t have to be dry as dust in order to be deep and insightful and profound. He dissuaded me forever from that school of thought (which still persists) which seems to indicate than unless what you write is so dense and so jargon-laced and so arcane as to be completely unfathomable to everyday men and women, that it must be shallow and superficial and unworthy of specialized thinkers.

 

            I think I learned a lot about writing from reading in general, and from reading John Gunther in particular. If anything I have ever written approaches one-tenth his clarity and interesting-ness and ability to engage people of widely different background, then it shall not have been in vain.

 

            It was from John Gunther, too, that I learned deeper lessons (you know, I hadn’t realized what an important influence he was on my way of looking at the world Gunther was until I wrote this sermon; it kind of pains me that he is, frankly, largely forgotten today). But the book by him that (maybe) more of you have heard of, or have even read, was his memoir about his son’s illness, Death be Not Proud. /i>John Gunther, Jr. (or Johnny, as they called him) was seventeen years old when he died of a brain tumor. His father’s memoir tells the story of his heroism and his tenacious struggle for life. It’s an inspiring story, and it was a book that touched me deeply, even as an adolescent. I read it over and over again (I could even recite lines from it for you now, years later.) Maybe because it was so deeply felt and well written; maybe because it dealt with a person who was about my own age; whatever the reason, it touched me deeply. But it also taught me that the power of our human story lay not only in the tales of presidents and kings and generals and conquerors. It lies also in the hearts of those who live their lives with courage and strength and face whatever hand life deals them squarely and heroically. Those are lessons that stayed with me, and it still amazes me how much I gravitate toward stories of ordinary men and women who perform extraordinary acts of courage and kindness. They are the true heroes of our human adventure (and I think there are a lot  more of them than we realize.)

            There were other books in that vein that I read, too. Another that I remember was Fear Strikes Out /i>a book by the former Red Sox outfielder, Jimmy Piersall, about his struggle with mental illness. (Piersall, I think, opened my eyes the reality that often lies hidden beneath the veneer of appearances, and the hidden struggles that people who seem to have “everything going for them” often struggle with.) There also were stories of everyday life like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Sam Levenson’s stories about growing up as part of a large Jewish immigrant family in New York. I wasn’t Jewish; I sure the heck wasn’t from New York; but Levenson’s stories (and the Life With Father/ Life With Mother books by Clarence Day, too) opened my eyes to the humor that is encapsulated in these lives of ours, and of how the ability to tap into that humor is the leavening which makes the loaf of life palatable and digestible. These lives we lead are tragic sometimes, certainly; but they are damned funny as well! That’s a lesson I learned from Mark Twain, too, of course.

            It was from Mark Twain, as well, that I learned the power of a well-turned phrase. I learned that from other masters of the written word, too, like Truman Capote. (Capote was a tragic figure in so many ways, but how beautifully he could use language to paint pictures in my imagination. I still think that, in terms of language and word choice, his A Christmas Memory /i>is the most perfect piece of literature I’ve ever read). From Mark Twain and Capote and Walt Whitman and Jack London and Harper Lee and so many others, I learned not to be afraid of language, and that the way I expressed myself didn’t have to sound the same as the way everyone else did—and that it shouldn’t.  Discovering our particular voice goes a long way toward helping us discover who we are, and what we have inside of us that is worth sharing.

            I remember reading an article once in the New York Times Magazine /i>about the noted historian Barbara Tuchman. Her favorite day, Tuchman said, was one in which she could go to the library with her sister, who is also an historian, I believe. All the way there in the car, Ms. Tuchman said, they would talk about the projects they were researching—like detectives working on solving a really tough case, or scientists searching for a cure to a hideous disease. Once there, they would go their own ways and not speak to each for hours, each lost in her own section of the stacks. Then, all the way home (and into the evening), there would be the animated discussion of what they had discovered. That would indeed be a day well lived,  she said—one that would reverberate for the rest of the week.

            “Nothing sickens me more than the closed door of a library,” Barbara Tuchman once wrote. She also said: “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation is at a standstill. They are engines of change, windows erected in the sea of time.” “Books are humanity in print,” Ms. Tuchman also wisely stated.

 

            “When I get a little money, I buy books,” said the philosopher Erasmus, “and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

 

            But why buy it, when you can get it at the library instead? That’s a lesson some of us have learned again, in these tough economic times.

 

            Libraries are the depositories of our heritage. They are as critical to our communities as schools and banks and shopping centers-- and even churches. They are the place in our community where we can be transported beyond the limitations of the present, into the possibilities of what can be. “Libraries are as important as anything gets.”

 

            “A good book is the precious life-blood of the master spirit,” said John Milton. And, for some of us at least, the ability to read is perhaps the choicest gift God has given us. “Just the knowledge that a good book is waiting at the end of the day makes that day happier, ” wrote Kathleen Norris; and, as Jean Fritz said, “When I discovered libraries, it was like having Christmas every day.”

 

            Maybe, it’s even better.

 

 


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