Sunday, May 1, 2011


I’ve enjoyed a life-long love affair with libraries all over the world. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that I've lived most of my life in the stacks. For example, as a kid I hauled home armfuls of books on drawing and the history of illustration from the Evanston Public Library. I began writing my first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, in 1972. For that novel I read 80 books on magic and folklore---all of them came, of course, from the library of the college I was attending. The next novel, Oxherding Tale, I began in 1975 when I was working on my doctorate in philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. After I finished teaching and taking my own classes, I went to the library and speed-read every book on American slavery that they had on their shelves. 
When I wrote Middle Passage, I once again turned to the library in order to immerse myself for six years in the literature of the sea, nautical dictionaries, and even esoteric studies of Cockney slang, which helped me to individuate the language of the sailors on the 19th century slave ship I was writing about. And even before I wrote the first sentence for my last novel, Dreamer, I spent two years at libraries researching the history of the Civil Rights Movement, biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., and critical examinations of his speeches, his sermons, and his intellectual development.  
I mention these examples because my process as a writer has always demanded massive research before and during the creation of a novel or a non-fictional book, and that would have been impossible without the institutions that preserve human culture, thought, and experience in written form.
During the last 30 years I’ve had the pleasure of visiting one of the oldest libraries in Europe, one located in the little Portuguese town of Coimbra, in a small building with no windows so that sunlight would not damage the rows of manuscripts that dated back well before the Middle Ages. In northern Thailand, I walked shoeless through Theravada Buddhist libraries that preserved classic works of Buddhism on palm-leaf scrolls that were at least a millennium-old. And closer to home, in the special collections section of the library at Indiana University, I had the unusual experience of holding in my hands a Buddhist scroll written on parchment. That day, in that library, I had to wear plastic gloves because the ink used a thousand years ago on that scroll had been mixed with poison. The purpose of that was to kill anyone who did not belong to the monastic hierarchy, and to keep spiritual knowledge and wisdom in the hands of a few.
Until the modern era, it was not unusual for people in the East and the West to withhold knowledge from the common man. This was especially true in the United States after slave rebellions like that of Nat Turner and the Stono Rebellion. Black people were whipped if they tried to learn how to read. Whites feared that if slaves could read, they were more likely to come across abolitionist material and rebel. They would read, reflect, and question their situation. So slaves had to be kept illiterate.
In 1832, Alabama enacted a law that fined anyone between $250 and $500 if they tried to educate a slave. In North Carolina in 1835, the public education of black Americans was prohibited. Whites in the slave-holding South also feared black people who could write and therefore communicate with each other. One law in South Carolina said this: “Be it therefore Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all and every Person and Persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a Scribe in any Manner of Writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such offense forfeit the sum of One Hundred Pounds current money.”
So I think there is an intimate relationship between literacy and democracy. Between democracy and the free public library especially, which is one of the finest achievements of this country. Like any American, I complain on April 15. But some things are so essential for a nation to call itself civilized---like libraries---that they require a community's collective support through a contribution from each of us (i.e., taxes). The return on that investment, in both principle and practice (as that relates to a nation's level of literacy), is too great to be measured.

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