Our Authors, Our Advocates
Four authors help kick off ALA President Roberta Stevens's "Our Authors, Our Advocates" presidential initiative
Posted Tue, 07/20/2010 - 10:14
Authors (from left) Brad Meltzer, Carmen Deedy, Maria Arana, Sharon Draper, with ALA President Roberta Stevens.
The American Library Association got a brand-new president June 29, when Roberta Stevens of the Library of Congress entered the ballroom at the Renaissance hotel in Washington, D.C., dancing to the tune of “Celebration,” along with the incoming presidents of the 11 ALA divisions and four of her favorite authors: Marie Arana, Brad Meltzer, Sharon Draper, and Carmen Agra Deedy.
Taking a pass on an inaugural speech, Stevens took the baton from 2009–2010 ALA President Camila Alire and promptly turned over the mike to the authors, as the launch of her “Our Authors, Our Advocates” presidential initiative. Her objective is to establish a cadre of nationally known writers who are ready and willing to speak out on behalf of libraries. And speak out they did, wowing the audience with testimonials to the higher value of libraries and librarians.
Prior to the inaugural, Arana, Meltzer, Draper, and Deedy also recorded a set of public service announcements that will be posted on the I Love Libraries advocacy website and the @ your library public awareness website. An edited synopsis of their speeches in Washington follow:
Wow. It’s such a pleasure to see such a large group of book lovers, librarians, like-minded people. As far as I’m concerned, you are the gatekeepers of wisdom, Cicerones of the written word, the people who hold the key to a more civilized, humane, enlightened, and dynamic society.
The prospect of being with you tonight got me to thinking about a question I once posed to the novelist Gloria Naylor many years ago when I was interviewing her for the Washington Post, where I was the books editor for many years. The interview was for a series called “The Writing Life,” which is 17 years old and still running. It’s a series that invites distinguished authors to write about their experiences with the craft.
In the course of my interview with Gloria Naylor, I asked her, as I often ask writers, what she thought her big break was, and what she thought was the moment when everything changed and her future as a writer was secure. She didn’t hesitate for a minute. She said, “My big break in life as a writer happened before I was born. It happened when my mother, who was working as a sharecropper in Robinsonville, Mississippi, walked down the dusty road to the public library in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and got herself a library card. She wanted more than anything to read and to have her children, too, be readers. As modest as our lives were, we grew up with books in the house.” It’s a remarkable answer to the question, the big-break question, really, for in it Gloria Naylor gives so many things credit for the success of her writing life.
First, there is the mother who, however difficult her circumstances might have been, however tired she was at the end of the day of backbreaking labor, found the time and the energy to walk a few miles for something as abstract as learning.
Second, there’s the library. Naylor gives it credit simply for being there for its basic and enduring principle of spreading that learning around, offering a vibrant life of the mind to anyone who walks through its doors.
Third, she gives a big bow to the greater culture of reading. For when Gloria Naylor’s mother was trudging back and forth from the cotton fields to the library a few towns away, Gloria didn’t yet exist.
So what made the difference to Gloria Naylor, what ultimately would become the biggest break of her career, was the family environment that her mother had already created by the time she arrived in the world. That environment consisted of a mother’s essential curiosity and a longing for a culture that books brought into their home. For all the challenges the Naylor family would face, for all the adversity in store, a house with books on its shelves was ground in which a writer could grow.
Even more interesting to me, as years went by and I interviewed more and more writers for this series “The Writing Life,” was the fact that this was a universal experience. The big break in writers’ lives, more often than not, was the library. The thoughtful librarian, that singular moment when the child or striving novelist or historian or journalist is guided to a book that sparks the imagination and serves the relevant question, brings worlds alive.
From John Updike I learned about his childhood treks to read Robert Lewis Stevenson and a library in Brooks County, Pennsylvania. Umberto Eco told me about the magical day when he left his birthplace of Allesandria, Italy, and walked into the library at the University of Turin, a day that changed him forever. Margaret Atwood, who never attended school until she was 12 years old, told of coming in from the wilds of Canada with her family to find oases of reading in Toronto’s libraries. And then there was John Irving who, taken to the local library stacks in Exeter, New Hampshire, would lug home seven books every Sunday, one for each day of the week. And so on.
I myself had a similar story, coming to the United States from Peru at the age of 10 and being taken to get my first library card in Summit, New Jersey. I had never been in a library before, and I will never forget what it was like to check out a book and be allowed to take it home with me. I felt as if I was committing a crime, absconding with something that wasn't mine. It seemed such an act of trust, of generosity, of acceptance. I was bowled over by the sheer bounty of possibilities that a library card could give. I’ve been fortunate to have many warm associations with libraries since.
But the library and the librarian that I’ve come to talk to you about tonight are the Library of Congress and its golden treasure, your new president, Roberta Stevens. For the past 10 years I’ve had the great privilege of working with the organizing committee of the National Book Festival and with Dr. James Billington, who is the mind from which it sprang. It’s through this marvelous festival, conceived and created by the Library of Congress, that I met and got to know Roberta Stevens, who has served as a project manager of the festival and one of its most important administrators, an elemental force in its execution. If you don’t know about the National Book Festival, you should.
It is the single largest book event in the nation's capital. It attracts in excess of 130,000 eager book lovers, and over the last 10 years of its existence has featured close to 500 of the most distinguished and beloved authors in the world. It’s not an easy task to put on a show, a big show, in the heart of the heart of the country right there on the National Mall, and orchestrate a million little pieces, a million little moving pieces. And I have watched with open-mouthed wonder as Roberta has applied an extraordinary array of talents to the work of making this festival happen. I’ve seen her tame demanding White House operatives, correspond nimbly with the First Lady’s office—not an easy task—stand up to the Secret Service, direct impossible traffic on the festival grounds, even in the pouring rain. I’ve seen her negotiate sweetly with the press, even when war protesters were threatening to steal the thunder. I’ve seen her working behind the scenes to make sure that every detail of a program is managed. And, as if all that weren’t enough, I’ve seen her make every last little author feel like a star.
This is so much fun. This is such a hoot! Most organizations, they just hand the gavel over, and the outgoing president says bye, and the ingoing president says hello. You guys know how to do it! Whoa!
I want to thank you, Roberta, for letting me be part of your inauguration, and I want to thank each of you librarians who are making a difference, not only in my life, and not only in the life of every single writer who has ever become a writer, but in the lives of all those children out there that need you every single day.
I’ve always been a lover of libraries. I’ve always been a supporter of libraries. When I was a little girl—we all have our library stories—my mother would take me to the library once a week. And I would check out 10 books, because that was the maximum they would let me take. And I would read those books that week, and then I would go back the next week, and I would get 10 more. And 10 more. And 10 more. By the time I was 11 years old, I had read every single book on the elementary side of our library. I read them all. I went to a school once, and some little 7th grader said, “So, did you read the dictionaries, too?” I said, “No, be quiet.”
But I read all the books, and I got to know the librarians, and they knew me, and they knew my mother, and they knew my brothers and my sisters, and they knew my dog. They knew us. They were part of our extended family. Our librarian, Mrs. Botticelli, would ask me sometimes to review books. “We have a new book in, Sharon. Would you like to read them?” And I didn’t know I was a book reviewer. She said, “You’ve read everything else. You want to read this?” And she said, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, you can put that on the shelf, but no, nobody will like that one.”
I was a book reviewer. I was like 10.
Now, after I read all these books on the elementary side, I knew that there was the big side, the adult side. But you had to be 14 to get a card to get on the adult side. It was white.
And the little kid’s card was yellow. Mrs. Botticelli made me a yellow card; no, it was a green card, because it was separate and it was different and it was a special card. It says this girl has special permission to get books from the adult side. She is an advanced reader. And she would check my books very carefully to make sure I didn’t get anything that was too advanced for my young years.
She was absent every Thursday.
I learned a lot on Thursdays.
Later, as a young mother, I took my children to the library and continued the tradition that my mother had done with me. When I became a teacher I took my students to the library. The school librarians loved me, because they said, “You come down here every week and you bring stuff for us to do and you bring the kids and you give them assignments.” I said, yeah. And so I taught my students how to read and how to appreciate books.
So it’s always been about the book. It’s always been about the feel of the book, the texture of the book, the smell of a book in my hand. It’s always been about the book. I remember the first time I held one of my books—it was Tears of a Tiger, it was a first book, and I was so excited. And a friend of mine who was a librarian covered it in the plastic, you know, like the books that you check out, and she said, “Here, now your book is real.” I cried. I was like, “My book is real.”
Anyway, when I think about the loss of libraries in the community, the loss of libraries like Gloria Naylor’s mother had, I’m reminded of the tragic loss of the library in Alexandria of antiquity. I’m into antiquity, I’m reading a lot of historical fiction. I think I’m going to write something about this.
But anyway, I have been reading a lot about the library in Alexandria. That library was charged with collecting all the world’s knowledge. When ships came into port, they were required to bring their books to the library, and scribes would take them and copy them and then return them. They were so good that sometimes they would give the copy back to the people on the ships and keep the original, because this is too good to give away. When I say books, I mean scrolls on papyrus. And they had books on mathematics and astronomy and physics and the sciences and languages. All of the world’s knowledge was in this one place. And through various wars and whatever, all of this was lost. It was destroyed.
It is said that, inscribed at the top of this library, when you walked in, it said, “This is the place for the cure for the soul.” So we don’t really know what was lost, but we know that a lot of knowledge was destroyed. And when you think about all the libraries around our country that we’re losing, it’s the same thing as that library in Alexandria being destroyed.
I once spoke at a school, and it was a strange lofty kind of room, it echoed, really strange, and I asked the lady afterward, I said, “What is this place I’m speaking in?” She says, “Oh, this is the library." I said, “There are no books here.” She said, “Oh, yeah, I know, um, we didn’t have enough money for books, so we just bought computers. It’s over there on that wall.” The place had no soul. It had no soul. Sure, you can get a lot of information from computers, but you can’t discuss, you can’t have that community of people together like you have when they come to a library. There was something missing there, and it was very, very sad.
So let’s not lose our souls in our cities and our towns and our communities. Save our souls. And save our libraries.
Carmen Agra Deedy:
All right. Blessed are the brief. Patience and fortitude, in this. These are the lions in front of the New York Public Library. But it is also the title of a marvelous book many of you may know. It is the second of what’s to be a trilogy by Nicholas Basbanes. And he tells this wonderful little story. He says that in 1939 a collector bought a rare book. It was on Native American languages, and he bought it by selling bottles of his own blood.
You see, I didn’t think anybody in this room would be shocked by that. And yet, the world, it is a-changing, right? Libraries are endangered, so where are our readers?
I have to tell you that around the age of 8, I discovered my local library, the Maude M. Burrus Public Library in Decatur, Georgia. It didn’t read that way, but I heard it that way. That was the voice of my librarian, an Apollonian woman: serene, unflappable, redolent. I loved her, but not at first. You may remember this army of women, sometimes men, usually tall, thin, Ichabodish-looking men who had companions.
I have been ineluctably drawn to libraries ever since I entered that sanctum sanctorum.
It was a place of quietude. In a world where things beep and ding and ring, where you’ve got mail and you’ve got messages, when I enter a library, I feel that I am still entering a temple.
When Sharon mentioned that quotation in Alexandria, it came from Ramses I, believed to be the first library motto, the place of healing for the soul. It is hard to imagine now, in the time of Amazon.com, when if you had the coin, and you were given the life span, you could buy and read a million books.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when there was a depository of books in the world where a scholar could travel for days just to be able to handle, to read, to rapture over a dozen scrolls or illuminated manuscripts, and then came Herr Gutenberg. And there were books before that, but as you all know—because this is a crowd that knows the story, but stay with me—movable type changed everything.
It was the great democratization of information. It wasn’t just the church or the nobility or the scholars that owned the stories and the sciences and the philosophy. Now some fellow in his basement could print anything. It was amazing.
It was terrifying, and it threatened the powers that be. And nothing, I believe, came close to it until the internet. The Wild, Wild West of information, right? Where Bob in his basement could tell you all the reasons why you should buy his wonderful new invention. Or Wikipedia could give you really awful information that has absolutely no substantiated text, but you believe it anyway. Or you could also go to Cambridge University Press. It’s buyer beware, it’s reader beware, and yet it’s marvelous.
Here we are, information, intellectual matter in the hands of everyone, but not everyone, right? Because now we’re seeing our libraries close.
I just agreed to join the board of trustees of my local library in my little, tiny town, because you got to put your money where your mouth is. We are closing two libraries. There are no nefarious characters. There is no one to call evil, but it is horrid. Because you know what is happening, right? People say, “Well, folks have computers, they have e-readers, they have . . . .”
Do they, really? What do the poor do? Where do they go when there are no books?
The codex, the most marvelous, the most delicious invention. How many of you know that feeling of holding the book, you’re near the end of a marvelous story, and these two fingers can feel the pages. And the distance between them is smaller and smaller? It’s like a crucifixion. Those of you that aren’t laughing, you’re not book people. I’m so sorry. You were brought here by a friend. You were lost. I don’t know, you’re crashing. I have to end this. You see, we’re doing the de-democratization.
Unless people can access the book—inexpensive, yes, easily destroyed, purposefully or accidentally, by well-meaning or wicked people around the world, yes—we can keep people from information, but we’ll always want it. The box is open now. I believe that there are still young people in this world who will sell bottles of their blood for a book. And that’s why I love libraries.
Now you have to understand what kind of reading family I come from. It's a very literate one.
It started with a paper called the National Enquirer. It was the only paper we read in our house. The only one. And my mom used to tell me, "This is where you get the real news first."
She, of course, expanded her reading pleasure to include The Star, because they had color photos first, and those were the books that we read when I grew up, The Star and The Enquirer, that was it.
To this day, my mom, may she rest in peace, and my father have read—I'm not exaggerating—seven books in their lives. The Tenth Justice, Dead Even, The First Council . . . . I'm not joking, seven books. That's all they've read. You cannot find another book that they have ever read.
But I have a grandmother and I have a grandfather. And my grandfather was the first storyteller in my life. He used to tell me this story when I was 7 years old about, of all things, Batman. And the story would go like this: "Batman and Robin were in the Batmobile on the edge of a cliff. And in front of them is a white van with the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman in it. And then they caught 'em." And I used to say, tell it again! And he'd say, "Batman and Robin are in the Batmobile . . . ." And he would tell me this same, same story. It was 30 words long, he would tell it to me 5,000 times, because he knew that I loved it. And he birthed my love of stories.
But the woman who actually expanded it, the woman who let me explore it, was my grandmother. Because she gave me the most important sheet of paper I ever got in my life: This little laminated library card.
We did not have money growing up. We used to always get The Star and The Enquirer from my relatives, who would pay for it. We got the secondhand edition. The real news did still come first when you got it a week later, but I got this library card. And in Brooklyn, New York, where we didn't have books, we had this library. And my grandmother would take me there. And every week when I would stay with her, we would go and I remember the librarian would always say, "This is your section," and I thought she meant this was my section, it was my own, just made just for me.
But I remember my section. And my section came waist high to me now, and it was eye height to me then. I could remember seeing all the vellum and all the beautiful, clear things that were wrapped around the books, and I could pull them out. And that's where I met Judy Blume, and that's where I met Agatha Christie, and that's where I learned to hate the Hardy Boys, okay. That's where I learned all the things that I loved to do. I loved to read. And it was in the library, where I was.
So I came here tonight to say the most important thing of all, and I say thank you. Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for saving me from The Star and The Enquirer. Thank you for proving what books really are. But I owe you that thanks, and you'll never know, right? People never get the chance.
When I wrote my first book, I should tell you, in 8th grade I had an English teacher. And she was the one who said to me, "You can write. You can write, Brad, you can do this." And she transferred me into the honors class. I didn't know what she was talking about. But when my first novel came out, I went back to her classroom, and I knocked on the door. And she said, "Can I help you?" Because the last time she saw me, in 8th grade, I had a full head of hair.
And I said, "My name is Brad Meltzer, and I wrote this book, The Tenth Justice, for you." And she said to me . . . she started crying. And I said, "Why are you crying?" She said, "I was going to retire this year because I didn't think I was having an impact anymore." And I said, "Are you kidding me? You have 30 students; we have one teacher."
And I want you to think of yourselves tonight as that one teacher, that one person who provides that, yes, who shows those people books.
I'll leave you with this. I've been researching for the past eight years of my life heroes, heroes for my son, a collection of them throughout history, that I wanted to give to him and present to him, and you can see the book on the table.
But there's one hero that I think stands out for me tonight, and it's Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller how to read and write. And many of you know the story, and you've seen the movie about Anne Sullivan. What I didn't know is that Helen Keller went to college. But there were no Braille books at the time, so Anne Sullivan used to spend five hours every day writing in the palm of Helen Keller, reading from her books, and writing in her palm everything that was in the book, and that's how Helen Keller was getting through college.
At the same time Anne Sullivan's own eyesight was fading, and her doctor said to her, "If you keep reading to this girl, you're going to risk losing your sight yourself and be blind forever." And Anne Sullivan said, "I don't care." And she kept reading to Helen Keller, and Helen Keller graduated college cum laude.
And I tell you that story because again, like my teacher Ms. Spicer, and like my grandmother, and like Anne Sullivan, you may not have these exact same moments, but you are that person. You are the one, you might not write it in their hands personally, you might not risk your eyesight to do it, but you are the giver of those stories. And that is the best gift you will give.
And they will never come and say thank you except at fancy-schmancy events like this, but I promise you, on behalf of all of us who get to read these books, that thank you has meant more than you will ever know. So, much appreciated.