A Nation of the Book?

When I open the first section of the New York Times daily — yes, I still read the print edition — I’m often bombarded by awful news. Russia’s daily murder of civilians in its continuing immoral war against Ukraine; totalitarian governments in Myanmar, Belarus, and China, and almost totalitarian ones in Hungary and Hong Kong; the debt ceiling hostage-taking (which is a crisis as I write this, though it will hopefully be resolved by publication); the rollback of women’s rights and healthcare in the aftermath of Dobbs; civil war in Sudan; the fact that an indicted and twice-impeached sexual predator is a serious candidate for president; the continuing carnage by gun-toting Americans (as sanctioned by the NRA and the reactionary members of the Supreme Court, who have blood on their hands) of their fellow citizens, who were simply doing their jobs, going to school, driving or praying while Black, attending Shabbat services, asking for directions, or having the misfortune to be lost; and much more.

It’s only slightly better when I turn to Jewish news in Jewish publications. Major civil strife among Israelis and warfare and rockets between Israel and some of its neighbors; teenagers slaughtered by terrorists; worldwide antisemitism on the rise; the continuing plight of agunot; difficult LGBTQ issues confronting the Orthodox community; and much more.

Recently, though, there was a distressing smaller article that caught my eye. This story, while not one of death and destruction or massacre and mayhem, invalidated American values. It told of the small town of McFarland, a mid-California farming community, where city leadership supported the proposal of the chief of police and city manager to convert the town’s library, built with federal funds, to a police station.

If the police actually need a larger facility — and it seems they do – they should get one. But in place of the library? Really? Squeeze the library — which, in addition to lending books and providing reading and studying space, offers many programs to the more than 200 people of all ages who cross its threshold daily — into a tiny storefront space now occupied by a community health clinic for new mothers (who would now have to look for a new facility)? Can a community truly believe, in the words of a well-respected coach in the community who supports the proposal, that a library is “primarily for babysitting”?

I feel strongly about this because I’ve been a library person my whole life. I remember as a child hearing from my father, who came from a highly educated but poor immigrant family, that he owed a debt of gratitude for his education to the library where he spent many evenings studying and doing homework because his family’s small apartment was too noisy and cramped. While that wasn’t my youthful experience living in a comfortable single-family house, numerous students today, like many in McFarland, where 30 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty line, still need libraries for the same reason my father did.

When I was growing up, part of my erev Shabbat routine was a trip to the library to borrow books that I would gobble up the next week. This included, when I was a bit older, carrying a girl’s books home, as was de rigueur at that time. Since we biked everywhere in Far Rockaway, that meant I put her books with mine in my bike basket. (It was the thought that counted.)

My library habit continued when I became an adult. One of the first things I looked for when I moved to a new office was a nearby public library. And once I found it, I would usually visit it a few times a month during lunchtime. Plus, in my very first job I even belonged to a private library — the New York Mercantile Library (now the Mercantile Library for Fiction) – one of only three membership libraries in New York City and only 17 in the United States. In addition to its very ornate and plush reading room and idiosyncratic method of shelving books alphabetically by title rather than author, the librarian knew my name and, equally importantly, which authors I liked. So I wasn’t surprised when more than once he said to me “Mr. Kaplan, we just acquired a new Donald Westlake. Would you like me to get it for you?” The question was, of course, rhetorical.

But libraries are treasures only if they are filled with books we want to read. And so, the spate of recent news articles about increased challenges to and bans of books in even more states, school districts, and libraries are yet additional awful news filling my New York Times. Nobel Prize winners are on the challenged and banned lists, as are beloved and distinguished authors like Judy Blume (“Forever”), Harper Lee (“To Kill a Mockingbird”), Amanda Gorman (“The Hill We Climb”), John Steinbeck (“Of Mice and Men”), Toni Morrison (“Beloved”), Margaret Atwood (“A Handmaiden’s Tale”), J.K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series), Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”), Maya Angelou (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”), and Maurice Sendak (“In the Night Kitchen”). Indeed, even the Bible (to avoid theological debate I’m not making any authorship reference) has been challenged.

Neither my parents nor Sharon’s ever censored the books we read, nor did we as parents. They and we believed that even if the materials being read initially were not the best or most appropriate, what was important was the reading habit created. We all hoped – a hope that became a reality — that more appropriate books and better literature eventually would replace the others.

We’re called a People of the Book for a reason. Although we kiss only our holy books when we pick up fallen ones, we cherish all books — Jewish and not, in Hebrew and not, adult and young adult fiction, serious literature and beach novels, mathematics and history tomes, science non-fiction, mysteries and cookbooks, children’s books, biographies, self-help, science fiction, books dealing with difficult and sensitive issues and those that contain problematic language, and on and on. Our homes are decorated with bookshelves filled with all of these, our night and coffee tables groan under their weight, our attics, basements, and garages are crammed with those we no longer have room for but can’t bear to give or — horrors — throw away. Books are precious, as are the public libraries which make them available to all for free.

So luckily for McFarland’s children and adults who love books and understand why we esteem libraries so highly, its library is actually owned by the county, which has final decision-making power, and not the town. And the county has wisely resisted pressure to transfer the library building to McFarland’s control. Disaster averted — at least for now. Whew.

In “How Reading Saved My Life,” Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite writers, beautifully wrote: “Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” And that home also has a home — our libraries. Keep them open, keep them uncensored, and keep them free.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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