writing about reading
JULY 22, 2011 5:13PM

A few words about libraries from Keith Richards

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 Monday was the birthday of William Makepeace ThackerayYevgeny Yevtushenko and Elizabeth Gilbert.  Yesterday was the birthday of Ernest Hemingway and Hart Crane. We're lucky that public libraries still carry the works of all these writers available for no charge -- right there on the shelf, waiting to be picked up and discovered.

Public libraries, once considered such an important community asset that Andrew Carneigie financed their building in towns both large and small, continue their struggle to survive. Many are now in danger of becoming print's obsolete repository as more offer online services to stay open.

Computer access is becoming more important to library services to such an extent that one Georgia library is considering removing the books all together and becoming, in essence, a Starbucks without the coffee.

The internet, in all its wonders, may not replace the thrill of discovery quite like finding the unexpected on library shelves. Of course the electronic wizard can always point the way for the curious reader. But most of us use the internet like a dowsing rod. Looking for something specific in the vast sea of knowledge and finding the gold coin glittering there is unlike browsing shelves in a library; the gold can sometimes be found in the search itself.

The student seeking "three facts about Rome" who helpfully adds the clarifier in a question, "It's a city in Italy?" may only need the internet for a 500-word paper. The student who discovers a book with reproductions of the art in the Sistine Chapel will make his own life-changing discovery in the stacks.

Even that old sage Keith Richards in Life,  his 2010 memoir, confessed to a lifelong interest in libraries: "The Church belongs to God, but the library belongs to you," he writes about his own self-discovery reading in 1950s English libraries. In a system so tradition-bound, the young guitar-player with a passion for the blues found the library "a great equalizer" about ideas of class and station in everyday life. He goes on to confess in his book that he often thinks seriously about becoming a librarian -- that is, if he ever gives up his night job, one supposes.

Samuel Beckett
A recent post by a writer on The Dabbler blog illuminates how this stumbling about in a public library can have unexpected results, and create an interest that continues to expand forty years on -- not just in the search for information, but for the pleasure of reading itself.
... It was through public libraries that I found my way into reading -- real reading -- and as often as not it was a book picked off the shelf on little more than a whim that changed everything, opening up a new path that would enlarge my mind and soul and become part of my life. When I was still at school, I was mooching around in my small local public library, idly scanning the shelves, when I spotted a title I thought might be worth a look. I knew the author only as a playwright who had caused a bit of a stir in the Fifties, but this appeared to be a novel.

It might be interesting, I thought, picking it up. It was bound, I remember, in a muddy blue 'library binding', unpleasing to the eye and the hand alike, and on its spine was stamped in ugly black letters 'Molloy. S. Beckett'. I opened it and read: 'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...' I was hooked. I read Molloy with amazed delight and moved on to devour every Beckett I could get my hands on. And now, more than 40 years on, when most of my youthful literary enthusiasms have long since died the death, I am still reading (or rather rereading) Beckett.
I have just finished rereading Malone Dies, and it seems to me every bit as wonderful - no doubt in different ways - as it was to me then, more than 40 years ago. And this lifelong, ever-deepening love affair I owe to a chance find on the Fiction shelves of a suburban branch library. Could such things happen in the librariless or library-lite future that seems to be on its way?
The four-volume complete Grove Press editions of Samuel Beckett's work was published in 2006, with series notes by Paul Auster, among others. From his introduction: "Open anywhere and begin reading. It is an experience unequaled anywhere in the universe of words."
(Photo of Beckett from the website A Piece of Monologue.)  

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I was quite taken with Keith Richard's speech at the New York Public Library earlier this year, which is available to be seen on line. I quoted him in a very superficial blog entry on March 8. Your blog takes off from that statement and then becomes a far more substantial piece.
I'll have to check out that video, I haven't seen it ... and your post, too, Brass. The Gwinett County Library board has proposed removing the books and turning the Lawrenceville central branch into terminal-only access as a cost-cutting measure. I'll keep OS posted w/developments. And ... np, I have pulled so many cool books off the shelf "just because," that I've lost count.
You had me @ Keith.

Long live libraries and hopefully Keith lives long enough to become like the old blues men he discovered as a young man 50 or so years ago.
The libraries have saved me many times from doing things I would have regretted, just by staying home and reading~Kieth Richards is no fool~~
I love Keith Richards (and Mick Jagger). I have Keith's bio on my shelf...need to read. Thanks for posting. Great read.
Wow. Good sell. You had me hooked with "a Starbucks without the coffee". Now I have to read Beckett. I stumbled upon you, so maybe the internet can be a guardian angel for those sensuous corridors of bound volumes.
Keith, bless him, is now older than the blues men he emulated back in the day ... and you know how old that makes ME feel. Anyway, yes Scarlett I think KR is as amazed at his longevity as we mere mortals. And scan, now even Keith has given up drinking and putters about the garden! That would make an interesting "back fence chat."

Christina, Keith's book will make you realize how different the world is now than the Sixties ... attitudes, expectations, lifestyles.

and thanks, ASH, glad you stopped by ... We writers all have to make the "internets" interesting enough to get our noses out of books once in a while!
Point number one: books don't crash.

Point number two: Free (monetarily, politically and culturally) libraries are the cornerstone of any society that wants to consider itself free.

Words on paper may become "obsolete" eventually. Some say they already are. But words on paper have shown their practicality time and time again for thousands of years.

The Web is great for finding what you're looking for. Libraries, (to say nothing of actual bookstores and record shops) are for finding stuff you would never have discovered otherwise.

Finally: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” - Frank Zappa
It was in just such a library that I, as a beardless youth, discovered Hemingway. Only because I picked up a book and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" sounded interesting. We need books, we must have books, bound cloth and paper. Or maybe I'm just an old fool stuck in the past.
All valid points, fud. 3,000-year-old papyrus can still be read -- what happens when the batteries wear out on an electronic device? Zip. And yep, bookstores are for dreaming ... one question: what exactly is a record shop? :-) ... Professor Z. is exactly right, from my own experience!

Scylla, it's always better to be an old fool than a young wiseass. I think the writer I "discovered" for myself in the West Elmira library was Nathaniel Hawthorne. After "House of Seven Gables" I was hooked -- on reading and Nat, too.
Well said. Thumbs up for including Yevgeny Yevtushenko in the birthday list. I actually got to meet him once back in the 1980s when he was speaking at a small college in Pennsylvania. I brought my newly acquired copy of "Wild Berries" and he autographed it, after a rather amusing conversation. We were two of the tallest people in the room, and somehow that turned into chitchat about our mutual appreciation of basketball, which made its way into the autograph. Definitely a character.