Libraries are a Bold Expression of the American Dream

“In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people.”-Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

I discovered via The Discarded Image (and a nice article there on libraries) that it is National Library Week.  As it is also National Poetry Month the best way to celebrate would be to go to your local library and check out a book by Natasha Trethewey.  (You did know she was the current U.S. Poet Laureate, right?)

The Discarded Image article, written by Mindy Rice Withrow, gives three reasons to support public libraries.  I would like to add one more:  It is in the library that you find the finest example of the American Dream, the ideal that every person regardless of his or her background or birth should have the tools to obtain a higher status, to learn, to invent, to create, to change the world.

The American dream is alive in libraries. The library is an idealistic expression of our value of true meritocracy, knowledge made available to anyone who wants it.No PhD required, no bank account, no credit score, only a curious mind.

Praise be to whatever higher power you believe in that the great thoughts of antiquity, high culture, modern information are accessible to anyone with a mind and a will to seek it out.
Glory hallelujah. Hosanna in the highest.

Public libraries, as we know them, are a distinctly American invention. There were manuscript archives before that, of course, but there was little need for libraries for the masses. The masses could not read, and there weren’t that many books to go around anyway. Until the middle of the 15th century, Europe was said to have produced no more than 1,000 hand-written books a year.

Medieval archives chained their books to desks like banks do with the pens. The idea that you might take a book home to read was impossible. Books, painstakingly reproduced by clerics with quills, were simply too valuable.

The printing press, of course, changed things a bit. In 1950, Europe produced 120,000 books, meaning a library that would once have taken a century to assemble could be collected in 10 months. Ten years later, the output of books had risen to 1,000 titles a day. In 1995, Book Industry Trends reported almost 2.3 billion books were sold in the previous year. There are now more than 1,000,000 books titles in print and the United States alone produces about 65,000 new titles a year.

It was that radical Benjamin Franklin who came up with the notion of the lending library. His model was a bit different than the modern library. It was a “social library,” which was a kind of book club. (They didn’t send you books you didn’t want if you failed to mail a card back.) You paid to join, but then you got to share books with a large group of other people.

Franklin’s Library Company, which he referred to as the “public library of Philadelphia,” was formed with an idealistic view to break down class distinctions and allow artisans to become as well-read as the well-born.

“These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps has contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privilege,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

As noble as his sentiment may have been, it would be a while before his concept caught on in a big way. Before 1876, about 3,000 social libraries had been founded mostly in the northeast United States. But most were small and short-lived.

The library movement started to grow as public schools were built across the country. People began to wonder, what good is it to learn how to read if you don’t have anything to read? Legislation in the late-1830s permitted school districts to levy taxes for school libraries. By 1850 Massachusetts had 2,084, while New York schools had some 1.5 million library books.

The patron saint of the American library system was the millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie poured his fortune into the construction of 1,679 libraries in the United States. The gifts came with the obligation that communities pay for their maintenance and support in perpetuity. Today, more than 1,000 of them are still in use as libraries.

“I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing,” Carnegie said in 1900. “They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring, and open to these the chief treasures of the world-those steeped up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower taste.”

Interestingly, another great boon to libraries came in the 1950s and 60s, when the nation found itself in a literacy race with the Soviet Union. The Library Services Act in 1956 and the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964 may have come about in response to a 1950 report “Public Library Inquiry,” published by the Social Science Research Council, which observed that “communist countries have been most active in promoting public library growth within their borders.”

Today our nation has 10,000 library systems with 16,500 outlets, and 80% are located in rural areas or small towns with less than 25,000 people. Modern libraries not only make it possible for the cash strapped to share in the great literary works of our culture, they provide community programs and allow free internet access to millions. They offer access licensed databases, homework help, online instruction access to local community information and service for job seekers.

Be proud, America, of your free lending libraries. Be proud of the ideals they represent.

-This article was adapted from a chapter in my book Broke is Beautiful.

Angel Excerpt of the Day: Obituaries

As Stuart talked about his thoughts for the service, Paul thought about obituaries. When a person you love dies, the obituary takes on an outsized importance. It is the community record that this person lived; she was here; her life did not pass without notice. Yet obituaries are also almost always flat and disappointing. They consist of a dry list of job titles and accomplishments and official connections. But what about the unofficial connections we have in life? Where are the teachers who changed our whole perspective; the mistresses; the dear, dear friends; the ones who worshiped us with unrequited love? What about the ones who got away? The ones we pined for who never returned our affections? Where do they fit?

Obituaries are written in shorthand, sketching out a biography but leaving out all of the context that creates a full life. Marital status is a shorthand, but a misleading one. You can be a devoted spouse or a disinterested spouse, an abusive spouse or a supportive spouse. You might have married for love or social status. It is all marriage. Career titles are a shorthand. The deceased held a job, but was it his main sense of pride and identity, or something he dragged himself to every day to pay the bills? You will never know from a death notice.

Even seemingly straightforward words like “mother,” “father,” “daughter,” and “son” are shorthand. Was your brother “like a brother” to you, or were you distant or rivals? Was your father the constant presence who taught you to play baseball and took you to Cub Scouts, or was he the man who had sex with your mother and disappeared? Was your relationship with your mother loving or strained and difficult?

The shorthand of obituaries is meaningful to those already in the know—but then, they don’t really need the biography. Our obituaries, and our biographies in general, are a show for those who know us the least. Paul thought he had stumbled onto the very definition of what it means to be intimate, to know someone well. It is to understand the meaning of those shorthand words for a particular individual, to understand the ambiguities of a life, the parts that do not fit neatly into boxes.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

A Review of Upton Sinclair and The Straw Man of “Religion”

There is a benefit to being a broke person who was given a Kindle for her birthday. Not being able to afford to buy new titles for it has given me a much needed excuse to read up on my classics.  Many 19th and early 20th century titles (and older) are available for free download.  Nothing like soaking up the prose of the 19th century Oscar Wilde on a 21st century technology.

Thus I found myself reading Upton Sinclair’s “The Profits of Religion,” which drew me in with its introduction about the religion of “bootstrapping,” that is, rich people telling poor folk to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  It is every bit as relevant today as when he wrote it.

Sinclair is a passionate and articulate advocate, and I enjoy his rhetoric on behalf of working people and against social inequality. The main thrust of his argument, however, is that religion, as it now exists, (or more accurately as it then existed) is nothing more than a tool used to keep the oppressed from rising up against a wealthy class that the religious leaders represent.

It is an argument that I might have found compelling in my youth. In fact, when I was in high school I wrote a cheeky essay on how the church was a big business that was interested in protecting its profits. It was full of quotations and clever arguments, and I got an A on it in my English class. So in arguing against Sinclair, I am also arguing against my junior year self.

Sinclair makes the mistake of assuming that there is a single entity in the world called “religion.  Unlike many socialists of his time, he does not argue for the abolition of religion, rather he believes that the inauthentic religion of today can be replaced with a new religion of justice and equality that mirrors his socialist idealism.

He imagines that all religion is in the business of making money and consolidating power, while the religion of social equality does not exist now, only in a utopian future. Of course the reality is much more muddy. Religious organizations modeled on the ideal of social justice exist along side churches that encourage support of the status quo.

“Religion” is always an easy target for its detractors.  I find that religious zealots and religion debunkers often come at it with the same quest for absolute answers and certainty, things that exist so rarely in human interactions.

Those who argue that religion is a force for evil tend to make a list of grievances like jihads, the inquisition, and treasure rooms at Catholic churches in the midst of poverty.  The faithful counter that religion is the source of some of our greatest art, a wellspring of our understanding of the divine, and a comfort to people in their times of great need. They are both right.  Religion is all of that.  Either side is selective and disingenuous if it ignores the other.

Sinclair does make nods to this dual nature of religion, but his overall thesis is that religion is a tool of society used to enforce inequality.  He casts the ministers, rabbis and preachers of all faiths (Buddhist monks do not escape his scrutiny) as acting entirely out of self-interest, seeking financial support of their leisure on the backs of people who labor physically.

Religion certainly can be a tool to enforce inequality.  It can also be a force to fight for social justice.  Whatever its function, most people who participate in a system do not do it in full consciousness of the system they are supporting.  They participate for their own reasons which are a mixture of the self-serving, the benign and even the alturistic and good.  I prefer to give clergy the benefit of the doubt that they have chosen their profession out of a desire to do good.

Sinclair paints a picture of people victimized by their financial support of the church and its ministers, but there is another way to read this.  They give to their churches to support a community of which they are a part.  It is how that community functions that determines whether that relationship is beneficial or exploitative.

To argue against “religion” as an entity without talking about the specifics of religious belief, practice and community organization, is like arguing against “politics” without talking about what the specific government policies are.  Or, rather, to argue against “politics” by making a list of all of the worst offenses by political systems and using that as the definition of the word.

I see a danger in the straw man argument about the evils of religion.  By making “religion” the problem we let ourselves off the hook.  The assumption is that if we only stopped giving religious leaders power over us, we would become perfectly rational and conflict free human beings.  We would not allow ideology to trump our better instincts.

The truth is, every community creates its own language, ideologies and sacred cows.  Every office has its office politics and its mission statements and its unspoken rules.  Certainly you do not need God to have powerful elites justifying and protecting their positions of privilege.

Free market fundamentalism is an ideology that has demonstrated itself to be highly resilient and to have all the force of a religious movement.  While it is not averse to putting religion into service for its own needs, it is not a religious belief in itself. Yet it has its own language, its own heresies and its own patron saints in the form of Ronald Reagan and the atheist author Ayn Rand.  Belief in American exceptionalism or the American Dream are no less powerful than a “my god is better than yours” faith.

In his closing chapter, Sinclair argues not for the complete abolition of religion rather the creation of a new religion that will dominate society “the Church redeemed by the spirit of Brotherhood, the Church which we Socialists will join.”  Such a thing could only be accomplished if the word “religion” meant one thing, if all of the people of the word practiced it and could change their practice to something else.  I am attracted to his egalitarian vision and his love for the concept of a religion that would reinvent the world even if I find his logic overly simplistic.

As long as we are social creatures we will form communities.  We will create definitions of what it means to be “inside” and what it means to be “out.”  This does not mean that communities and cultures are bad.  It means that they have good and bad qualities like the people who compose them.  Overall, getting along with other people in society seems to be more rewarding than living as hermits.

Politics and religion are two ways in which we organize ourselves in society.  Because society is made up of human beings, our institutions are as messy and contradictory as we are.

The question should not be whether organizing societies of belief or nationality is right or wrong.  Rather, given that we are by nature social creatures, we should ask how we can do so in ways that maximize our potential for good and minimize our potential for evil.

A Philosophical Look at Amazon’s New @Author Program

Amazon has recently launched a new Kindle feature, in Beta, called @author. It allows readers who have a Kindle, to tweet questions to the author directly from within the Kindle platform. When I heard about it I immediately wanted to sign up to be an “@author.” Turns out I’m not famous enough. They’re just trying it out with a few big wigs for now. People like me are fairly easy to reach at any rate.

It’s easy to see why a writer would want to do it though. Most of the time you write a book, it goes out into the world, and you have no idea what anyone thought of it. Hearing from readers would satisfy the natural curiosity of authors.

Nieman Journalism Lab has an article on how Amazon is changing what the book is all about.

I hated much of the tone of this article because it is written in my least favorite language: market speak.

There are a couple points to note here. First, most obviously: @Author represents yet another step in, yep, the personalbrandification of the publishing business — book-wise, news-wise, otherwise. The title of Amazon’s new feature, after all, isn’t @book or @genre or @publishinghouse; it’s @author. The identity of the author herself — as defined and measured and bolstered by her ability to create a community around her content — is, here, itself a kind of product.


Having people who respond to what you write, and who develop and interest in what you might put out, is not “creating brand identification.” It’s building an audience. In simpler times, what they are calling a “brand,” or a “product,” Dear Reader, we once called “a reputation.”

The idea that readers would connect with authors rather than publishers is nothing new. I venture to say that even in the brick and mortar days of book selling people did not go in looking for a book from their favorite publisher.

My perspective on the whole publishing industry is quite simple: authors and their stories, in whatever form, do not exist to support an industry called “publishing.” Publishing is the industry that came into existence to fulfill the desires of readers to have access to literature, to support writers enough so that they could create said literature. The successful business models of the future will be the ones that keep that original mission– connecting readers to literature.

I do realize that my backwards take on things– that the money making part of business is a byproduct of making products and services available to society, rather than the other way around– is probably why I wrote a book called “Broke is Beautiful” and not “How I Became a Millionaire Through My Idealism.”

In any case, the Nieman article proposes that this assumption, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after completing the book, changes expectations about what a “book” is about. A book becomes a dialogue, never entirely finished and closed. It seems likely that the ways we conceive of “books” and literature will evolve because of this technology. This is an interesting development and we’ll see where it goes.

One potential problem I do see with this “digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation,” as the article puts it, is that letting readers ask authors whatever they want, ironically, risks diminishing the role of the reader in the literary process.

Here is what I mean: The writer of a book, especially a fiction book, is only half of the literary equation. Much of the meaning of a book comes not from what the author intended, but what the reader brings to it. There are as many takes on Hamlet and Jane Eyre as there are readers to come into contact with them. The writer might have a strong idea of what a character’s motivations are, beyond what is literally present in the text, and the reader might have a different idea. Who is to say that the author’s idea is the right one?

Being encouraged to ask the writer limits the role of the reader by bringing the author back in to “settle” some of the questions raised by a book. Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers.

Losing My Religion

“It is an age of nervousness… the growing malady of the day, the physiological feature of the age,” said a New York Tribune editorial.  “Nowhere are the rush and hurry and overstrain of life more marked than in this much-achieving Nation…  Inventions, discoveries, achievements of science all add to the sum of that which is to be learned, and widen the field in which there is work to be done.  If knowledge has increased, we should take more time for acquiring it…  For it would be a sorry ending of this splendid age of learning and of labor to be known as an age of unsettled brains and shattered nerves.”  The article was written in 1895.

There is one thing that you can count on throughout history.  People are nostalgic for an earlier age, one that was less busy, one in which young people took the time to read books, and when people still believed in that “old time religion.”

As for reading, that golden age in America, when every person had his nose in a book is as much a myth as the memory of an age when no one felt pressured and rushed. 

“If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent,” Paul Collins wrote in Sixpence House.  “There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel – what readers they were! But were they? Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people. This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1. It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for. Perhaps the ratio has gone higher since then. You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly pro­claims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.”

Which brings us to that old time religion.  I was reading on the blog Made in America today an article by Claude Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.  His article, Faith Endures, opens with a scene from 1907 when a group of ministers met with president Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the crisis of declining church attendance.  Yet church attendance did not decline, and was booming in the 1950s.  Fisher describes a complex history of Americans relationship to church-going from the nation’s founding- the good old days when most of the founding fathers were “unchurched” to the present day.  The history is not a straight line (oh but we love to see history as linear!) Rather church attendance has waxed and waned.

“Since time immemorial, it seems, people have described – some have decried – the loss of that ‘old time religion.’” Fisher writes.  “Modern scholars call it secularization. With the coming of science, industry, and urbanization, faith had to crumble, they argued. There must have been a time when everyone believed deeply and that time has presumably passed.”

The article presents a graph that shows a surprisingly consistent level of church attendance throughout our history.

Importantly, we see this consistency in expressions of faith even though the early surveys include many respondents who had been born around the end of the 19th century and in the later surveys these elderly folks are replaced by respondents who had been born in the 1970s and ‘80s. Swapping the World War I generation for Gen X’ers hardly changed average levels of faith.

Faith among Americans endures, surprisingly so to many casual observers — even to professional observers…

Had the ministers who visited Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 known that a century later this would be the level of American faith, would they have been less alarmed? I suspect not.  Except when the evidence is too overwhelming — for instance, during the Great Awakenings around 1800 or during the 1950s — people just assume that faith is one of those things we are always in the process of losing.

So the loss of those old time values and a simpler way of life have always been and will always be decried even as things remain, to quote that great thinker David Byrne “same as it ever was.”

Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime by hushhush112