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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

My Library Story, The New, The Old and The Sad

The Disappearing Joys of Libraries

This is an open letter to my great grandsons and great granddaughter-soon-to-come. It was inspired by my visit to the adorable Palms-Rancho Branch Library just a block away from the 10 freeway in Los Angeles where I was scheduled to appear at one of the free panels the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society’s offers to standing-room only crowds in that library’s Ray Bradbury room.

Libraries have a way of eating up time by offering the unexpected. That’s what libraries do. Or that’s what libraries used to do. Today I fear I may have experienced how that may be changing. I am hurrying to meet my fellow panelists before a meeting in the Ray Bradbury room starts, and there—near the elevator—is a table of books with a big handwritten sign, “Free Books.” As you know, Lance and James, I am a sucker for the word “free.” So I begin stuffing the tote I was carrying with event necessities like fliers and bookmarks with books I find there. Here a newish one titled Busy Things That Go by R. W. Alley. It was published by Golden Books in 1988, if that can be called “newish.” I find a real treasure called Poems for the Children’s Hour published by The Platt & Munk Company, Inc. (New York). Have you ever heard of that publisher? It is the first indication that I have happened on more than a few books my grandsons might like. The next clue: The copyright date is printed on the title page. And it’s in Roman numerals, MCMXXVII! I don’t want to take a minute doing the adding and subtraction required by Roman numerals, so I search for the copyright page where I might find “real” numbers and there is no copyright page! (Ask your dad to tell you about Roman numerals if you haven’t learned about them in school yet!)

The dust jacket, though aged, is intact and in pretty good shape and the artwork jogs memories of the books I once found in the library on the main street of the town I lived in when I was in the fourth grade (this book of poems would have looked old even then! I promise!). This was so long ago (and the town was so small!) I was allowed to ride my bike all the to the library to check out books and I did that, loading my bike’s basket with books (it was the pre-plastic bag era!), at least twice a week. By the way, this library was easily the most beautiful building in town, red brick with white trim and a bell tower.

But I digress, something I do more often these days. The flyleaf on the dust jacket of Poems for the Children’s Hour explains that the book includes the works of the “world’s best-known poets, from Shakespeare to Walter De La Mare.” That makes me think, a child raised on works by Dickens, Emerson, Longfellow, Kate Greenaway, Stevenson, Tennyson is sure to grow up with a sound love of literature, an understanding of history, and a stellar vocabulary. Into my bag it goes!
I find enough space in my tote to stuff Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Sunny Stories (1935) and Gulliver’s Travels (Grosset & Dunlap, 1947). A woman who must be a librarian watches me a bit. Perhaps she is curious about the greedy woman partaking of the library’s freebies—apparently the first to do so judging by the number of books still lying unclaimed on this table. She finally greets me, “This one is one worth putting in there, too.” She finds another niche in my tote to squeeze a really shabby paperback edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham (Ballantine Books, 1967) into my tote.

By way of thanks, I risk telling her that the library is missing an educational opportunity by not using these books as a display or occasion for an event to talk to children about this history of books. The amazing names of publishers now defunct that could become a poem by simply stringing the words together on a list, the artwork that would have appeared faded even when the books were new because printing was different then. She says, “That Tolkien paperback I put in your bag has an “SSN” designation rather than an ISBN or ISBN-13.”
I nod, tell her children in this digital age children may need to see more books like this, not fewer. If not, they may never see, feel and smell how paper books get yellow and sometimes crisp over time—just like the children who once read these books at their mother’s or father’s knee have aged into grandparents who send inexplicable gifts—so inexplicable letters like this must accompany them.

We chat a little longer, but the lovely librarian doesn’t ask me to give my cache back to her to be used for an event or to be shelved again where curious children might find them and spend a little more time in the library reading . . .and wondering. Nor did she remove the other books waiting for a home. It was a missed opportunity!

So, my dear great grandsons and great-granddaughter-on-the-way, you are the beneficiaries of this trove of joy from the dusty back shelves (called stacks) of a modern library where one day you may be lucky enough to check out real books written by the likes of Sir Walter Scott or—if you prefer—e-books by poets like Christina Rosetti. But I fear you won’t be able to taste the history of books quite like these I am sending to you today because only the luckiest children will have vintage books like these to read, as they say, “at your mother’s knee.”

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

Gift for Writers:

To learn more about how authors can battle the fear of writing, the fear of speaking, and even the fear of success, read the first few chapters of my The Frugal Book Promoter and then keep reading to help take the stress out of book marketing (and nurture an affinity for it!)

Gift for Readers:

You probably know there are a few books like Peter Rabbit that are published new but often retain the original artwork (often by the author herself) and so retain the flavor of what they once had been. And may I suggest you take a young child you know to a used bookstore and ask the owner for his or her favorite children’s book or to share a story about how to build a library of real vintage books for yourself. (Used book stores are often owned by book lovers who still work in their own stores, but that is something that is will soon disappear, too, I fear!) Or do an Amazon search for anniversary editions; they are often copies of old treasures like Alice in Wonderland and they are sometimes annotated.

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