Books · Culture · Library and libraries

The Good Old Days

The Rose Main Reading Room, New York Public Library
The Rose Main Reading Room, New York Public Library
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=533750

Did you ever wonder how we managed to do research before scroll and point? Well, here’s how: This is something I wrote in 1992, describing what went on in the NY Public Library. 

On the third floor there is a rotunda with murals on floor and ceilings. From there you go into a big room where the librarians are behind a large counter. These people are amazing. They seem to know EVERYTHING about how to find information. Whatever you want to know they can tell you where to look for it.

Of course, sometimes you can find what you want by yourself. Along three walls of this room are black books which contain photocopies of all the index cards of books published before 1971. Across the room are computers where you can look up anything published after 1971.

After you find the call number you fill out a slip and give it to a clerk at this little desk who gives you a tag with a number on it and puts the call slip in a pneumatic tube which sends it to the basement where all the books are. Then you move onto the huge reading room and wait for your number to light up on a board. When it does you go to the counter give them your number and get your book.

They don’t let you check anything out of this library so you have to take your book to one of the reading tables and read it (and take notes) there.

In other words, we moved our butts. First of all we had to get to the library, probably by subway, we talked to other people asking for information, we used our imaginations as we searched for the book holding the right card; we moved across the room, we held books in our hands; we opened them and closed them, we paid attention. We could take a break to get something to eat from the vendors in Bryant Park, the backyard of the library, but that involved its own complicated routine which I can’t remember. 

And we enjoyed it! It felt good to be engaged with life. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment after a successful afternoon at the library that I don’t seem to feel after sitting and scrolling. Is the new way better? There’s an easy way to answer that question. Are the books being written today as a result of our research better than the books being published then? The answer is clearly no. We tend to think that we are constantly moving forward in a positive direction and that whatever is new is better. Sometimes new ways are better, but not always. 

Books · Culture · Fiction

Is COVID-19 Driving You Nuts?

Me too.

I came across this in a blog I follow and it seemed to be good advice: It’s from The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang.

“Compare the difference between the life of a man who does no reading and that of a man who does. The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine; he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison there is no escape. 

“But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about. An ancient author puts him in communion with a dead spirit of long ago, and as he reads along, he begins to imagine what that ancient author looked like and what type of person he was…. 

“Now to be able to live two hours out of twelve in a different world and take one’s thoughts off the claims of the immediate present is, of course, a privilege to be envied by people shut up in their bodily prison.”

And Closer to Home—from Reading and Rhyming by Herbert Knapp

The text of the poem:
No weed that grows, no chemical men cook
can alter my reality like a book.

Books · Culture · Role of Women

What Do You Do for Firewood When There’s Not a Tree in Sight?

Pioneer woman hauling buffalo chips (dessicated buffalo poop).

Before beginning the perilous journey westward, the pioneers congregated on the edge of the prairie in what would eventually become my hometown of Kansas City. Here they outfitted their wagon trains in preparation for the arduous journey ahead. 

I’ve often wondered where these women got the courage to leave loved ones and friends and all their familiar routines and possessions for an incredibly dangerous journey and a life of extreme hardship and scarcity as they tried to build a new life in a strange and lonely place. 

The feminist historian, Julia Roy Jeffreys, wondered the same thing. In 1979 she consulted over 200 of those diaries, reminiscences, and collections of letters written by these women in preparation for writing Frontier Women: the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-1880.

In the introduction to this edition of the book Jeffrey writes, 

I hoped to find that pioneer women used the frontier as a means of liberating themselves from stereotypes and behavior which I found constricting and sexist.

The behaviors and stereotypes she refers to constituted what is called “the doctrine of separate spheres” which dictated that woman’s place was in the home; man’s place in the world. The Victorian woman was expected to be submissive to her husband, concerned only with her home and children, having no interest or ability to engage in public affairs. She was above all genteel, pious, and pure. She was “the angel in the house; the madonna in the nursery.”

But what Jeffreys discovered surprised her

She found that frontier women did their best to maintain the Victorian stereotype even as necessity forced them to face decidedly unfeminine challenges.

That really didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me about this book was the author’s perserverance in spite of the fact that her research proved her assumptions incorrect at every turn and that in the end, though her core belief in feminism remained unshaken, she was willing to be wrong about the subject of her study.

Though my own ideological commitment remains the same, I now have great sympathy for the choices these women made and admiration for their strength and courage. I have continually wondered if any of us would have done as well.

Today, 40 years later, the attribute of open mindedness is in short supply. You just don’t see it very often, certainly not among third wave feminist academics., 

Books · Laura Ingalls Wider · What We're Reading

More About Laura and The Story of an Autodidact

What we’re reading

Mary—Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill

Before she wrote the Little House Books, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her autobiography for adults. She was never able to find a publisher for it, and the manuscript remained in the Wilder archives for over 80 years.  In 2014, it was published by the South Dakota State Historical Association as the culmination of the Pioneer Girl Project.

It is a stunning work of scholarship. A large book, the page size accommodates the text and adjoining notes. Based on primary sources: census data, government records, and newspapers, these notes elaborate on the characters and the incidents in the little House books. And they explore how Wilder manipulated the material in the autobiography to fashion the Little House series, now considered classics of American literature. 

It’s unclear just when Wilder decided to use the autobiography as the source for the Little House books and to change the point of view from the first person of the adult narrator to that of the limited third person, telling the stories from Laura’s point of view. With that transformation, magic happened, as we see the westward journey through the eyes of the growing child. Unless you’re a student of Wilder’s works, you probably won’t want to read this book in its entirety, but if you read any of the books as a child, the next time you are in a library, look it over. There are over 125 interesting illustrations, including many photographs. Pa, by the way,  doesn’t look anything like Michael Landon.

 

Herb—Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour

The stories about celebrities cheating to get their kids into brand name colleges didn’t surprise me. The motivation of these parents has nothing to do with seeing that their kids are well educated of course. You don’t have to go to an elite college to be well educated. 

As it happens I have just been re-reading Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man. L’Amour was an extraordinarily popular writer of Western novels and short stories. He left school at fifteen in 1930, never graduated from high school, and never even thought of going to college. He read the books he found on boxcars or that had been left behind in the rooms he rented. When he saved enough money, he rented a room near a library and read until his money ran out. When the kids in his class were graduating from high school in Jamestown, North Dakota, he was in Singapore, buying a copy of Kipling’s Department Ditties from a bookseller named Muhammed Dulfalkir. He liked to recite Kipling or Robert W. Service to his bunkmates and they loved listening to him. 

I used to dream of doing the same—of quitting school and educating myself. But by the time I came along, child labor laws, union rules, and my sheltered upbringing made that impossible. L’amour lists all the books he read during his wandering years, 1930–1935 and 1937. (He lost the list of the books he read in ’36.) They range from pulp fiction to Plato. 

Because this book is a memoir not an autobiography, he doesn’t say much about how he became a writer, and nothing about how be became friends with the historian, Daniel Boorstin, who wrote the introduction.

L’Amour made a lot of money from the sales of his books and the movies that were made of some of his tales. Boorstin mentions that the bookshelves he designed for his ranch are like massive doors that can be swung back to reveal a second tier of bookshelves behind them. He was a nondiscriminating reader.

Books · Childhood learning · Laura Ingalls Wider

So You Think the Polar Vortex Was Bad?

The Long Winter was a Newberry honor book for 1941.

Have you  heard about the hard winter of 1880-81? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will remember it as the winter that 14-year-old Laura and her pioneer family endured in the remote Dakota territory.

Recurring white out blizzards began in October and continued until spring with little respite between storms. Temperatures dropped to 40 below, snow accumulated as high as the house, and the trains became stuck in the snow packed cuts, unable to get through with supplies. The Ingalls’ family’s coal and kerosene dwindled until there was none left. For months they spent every day all day huddled together in the small kitchen performing the laborious tasks of twisting hay into sticks to burn in the cookstove for warmth and grinding seed wheat in the coffee grinder to make flour.  They were finally rescued from starvation by the heroic efforts of two young men, one of whom would later become Laura’s husband.  And then the Chinook wind started blowing and spring came—as it always does.

Pa teaches Laura how to twist the hay into sticks which they burned in the cookstove for warmth.

Reading this book as an adult was an interesting and rewarding experience. So rewarding in fact that I have resolved to reread all nine books in the series—in order. I just finished the third book and will have something to say about the controversy surrounding them in the future. 

In the Little House books we see the westward journey through a child’s eyes. It is beautiful, exhilarating, sometimes dangerous and frightening,

But these books are much more than adventure stories. They convey a reverence for the natural world and are thought provoking in a way that makes sense to children (and adults as well). It’s no wonder that so many of us remember these books as such an important part of our growing-up years.

Countless sermons have been delivered and gallons of ink spilled by theologians pondering the thorny subject of free will.  In the first chapter of The Long Winter,  Wilder addresses the subject.

The story opens on a sunny, summer day. Laura has talked Pa into letting her help with the haying. By noon they have gathered the hay from the little haystacks (“haycocks”) and loaded it into the wagon.

Laura spies what she thinks is a haycock they missed. Upon inspection, however, it proves to be a muskrat house.

Pa notes he has never seen one so thick, and that means the muskrats have built their house to prepare for a hard winter.

Pa, how can the muskrats know?”  she asked.

“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow I suppose.”

“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” 

“Because,” said Pa. “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”

“I thought God takes care of us.”

“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us conscience and brains to know what’s right. But he leaves us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”

“Can’t Muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.

“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of.

And maybe for the first time in her life the child thinks about the serious subject of what it means to be human and she just may file the information away, for later consideration.