Jul 5, 2016


Back cover of Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things
If you were to ask me whether I grew up surrounded by books, my answer would be complicated. There were certainly books in my parents’ house; they encouraged my reading and were always willing to get me new books for Christmas, for my birthday, and sometimes just because. In a lot of important ways, books never felt scarce. However, there was no well-stocked, easily accessible public library I could go to; until I started university, there was not much in the way of a school library either. This meant that no private and unsupervised reading was available to me. My parents would probably have told you that they would never dream of limiting what their children were reading, and they would have meant it too. Still, in practice, with few opportunities to acquire books without their mediation, I wasn’t free to read about the parts of my life I’d rather not expose. These were, for myriad reasons, more numerous than I would have liked.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I came to feminism relatively late. I’ve also written about how much I wish my teenage self had been aware of the patterns that became so painfully obvious to me later. A few weeks ago, my friend Jenny was asking on Twitter how many of us had school stories about creepy adults in positions of authority in our past; adults about whom girls whispered warnings to each other. This reminded me of something that happened at my middle school, which I hadn’t, to my surprise, thought about in very many years. To rehash that story here would be too great a deviation from the topic of this post, so I'll spare you the details. What I’m trying to say is that my limited ability to make sense of the kind of traumatic experience girls are routinely exposed to was very much a result of the ideas I’d encountered. Feminism existed in the nineties, of course, but it didn’t exist in my world. There was a cost to that: books wouldn’t have made it all okay, but they would have helped. They would have told us it wasn’t us. Something like Laura Bates’ Girl Up, had it existed then, or bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, had I been able to find it, would have transformed my life profoundly. There’s no overstating this fact.

All of the above is a roundabout way of getting to a simple truth: the books I’ve read have made me, piece by piece, line by line, page by page. I don’t know who I’d be without Discworld, without His Dark Materials, without A Room of One’s Own, without Tender Morsels, without Tiny Beautiful Things, without A Ring of Endless Light last winter or Upheavals of Thought this year; but I’m certain I wouldn’t be the person I am today. They shaped me in incalculable ways. They expanded the boundaries of my world. They furnished my mind with possibilities I’d be unlikely to arrive at on my own. We book lovers articulate iterations of this idea fairly often, but it’s still easy to forget just how much there is behind it — how much raw human need, how much wondering, how much becoming.

My reading this year has felt vital in a way it hadn’t in some time, for various reasons. Rereading Earthsea, discovering Maggie Nelson or Adrienne Rich, spending four days doing little but read Martha Nussbaum on my living room floor: it has all been about becoming. I’ve been following trains of thought from book to book, across space and time; I've been delving into ideas that feel absolutely crucial to how I want to live my life. I’ve been, to quote Rich, able to “allow what [I’m] reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary canal life is tracked, charted, channelled” — she calls this “to read as if your life depended on it”. Or to quote Richard Wright, I’ve felt as if my reading has “made the world around me be, throb, live. (…) My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow.”

That’s been important to me, and I’m grateful for it. Lately, though, I’ve also been feeling the limits. My awareness of all the books outside my reach has been especially heightened. I’m part of a generation that has seen living standards fall sharply: it’ll be five years in September that I finished graduate school, and there’s no end in sight to the day to day uncertainty I live with. I am, always, one mishap away from disaster: I have a low-paid and insecure job in an increasingly expensive town, and not much in the way of a safety net. What could happen in a year or two doesn’t bear thinking about. The obvious caveat here is that my difficulties are very much relative — I don’t go hungry, I’m not cold, I have somewhere to sleep at night. These things are by no means trivial or small. At the same time, I resent the stigma around discussing financial insecurity because there’s always someone worse off. I resent the shame of it; it’s part of the meanness that got us here in the first place. This year I’ve been saving for a big trip, and I know I’m immensely fortunate that this possibility is available to me in the first place. These are the things that give my life meaning: travelling, seeing people I love, books. I make my choices carefully, measuredly, and I don’t regret them in the least. But because of this, there are countless books I haven’t been able to read. The ways in which they would have changed me have had to be postponed for now.

Yet there are libraries, of course. Libraries guard us against this, against all the narrowing down these choices force on us, because about two centuries ago we agreed this would be a desirable thing, and a good way to live. They’re about abundance, possibility: a way to push against the limits that would otherwise besiege us. I work in public libraries, and this is why I do my job with pleasure and a sense of purpose. It’s why, as much as I sometimes resent the relentlessness of full-time work and the necessity of selling more of my waking hours than I’m comfortable with, I find it meaningful beyond my need to keep myself alive.

Still, lately it feels as though they’re closing in — as though a harsh, mean and unforgiving way of being in the world is encroaching on everything that’s important to me. Something happened recently, something I can’t really discuss in detail here, that has narrowed the limits further at the library where I spend my time. It was one more reminder that money determines the possibilities available to you, even at an institution that’s supposed to offer us relief from that. Then, just around the time when this was happening, I went on a tour of a large academic library, and looked at the endless stacks of books outside my reach, and felt for a moment like I might cry with wanting. Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is not a luxury” comes to mind: yes, and neither are the words, in whatever format, that help us become.

The other day I was reading Marilynne Robinson's The Givenness of Things, and I came across the following in an essay titled “Value”:
A significant consensus has emerged around the notion that we cannot afford these provisions meant to create or sustain justice and individual dignity. Another consensus supports the idea that such provisions have created a deadweight of slackers and takers who imperil society by burdening the productive with the cost of their idleness or their fecklessness. This is the old Poor Law language again, the kind of law that required Shakespeare and his company to wear servants’ livery so that they would not be branded as vagrants or sturdy beggars. It is impossible to read about the old social order without wondering how many million good and gifted people fell to its casual brutalities.
This is precisely it, and we must not let it become abstract or far-removed. It’s real, and the human costs are unimaginable. It’s not mere political rhetoric to point this out: that every life lessened by these brutalities is an incalculable loss. I want a better world than this. An excerpt from another essay I reread recently also seems appropriate — it’s about education, but it goes for libraries too, and for all the ways in which political decisions have been closing in on life:
The idea that life should be harsh, bitter, severe and strictly disciplined is, I think, key to what we are up against. Even when there is plenty of money in objective terms, the austerity agenda values punitive and repressive policies because it is based on an inherent, if sometimes unconscious, antipathy to the very services it purports to be managing. Academic management motivated by austerity frankly dislikes, and therefore aims to diminish, the democratic, emancipatory and transformative essence of our universities and colleges.
I don’t want a world of brutality, of scarcity; I don’t want to see a constant rending of all the things we live for. I have been, thus far, insulated from the worst of it, and as I said above that’s in no way small. I’m keenly aware that the world is full of people who have far less than I do. I have possibilities still — the baseline I’m starting from is high, and shaped by privilege at every turn. Nevertheless, every day I feel that my life has been diminished in palpable ways due to decisions made by men who already have more than enough.

This is not inevitable. We don’t have to live like this.


  1. "Decisions by men who already have more than enough" is everything. Pretty much the entire history of the world, summed up in a single clause. In case I haven't said it lately, friend, I think you are brilliant and insightful and I feel lucky to have you in my life. :)

    It's interesting -- thinking about my own reading life, the books I was missing were the ones I didn't know to ask for. You know? My parents didn't limit my reading, and we had lots of books in the house AND a good public library, but because of the limits of the educational system (ideological and financial), there were worlds I didn't know existed and couldn't learn about for that reason. Feminism, for sure (I already was a feminist so I thought I was done with that). My country's failings, for sure (again, I was liberal so I thought I knew all the things about where we'd messed up, and I thought they were mostly comfortably in the past). I think that's another place where austerity fucks you up -- when resources are perceived to be scarce, we narrow ourselves down or allow ourselves to be narrowed down, and we don't listen to the voices of people different than us because we're busy and scared. Austerity limits our cognitive and empathetic opportunities as much as our financial/tangible ones.

    1. Thank you so much, Jenny — I hope you know I feel just as lucky ♥ ALSO, YOUR LAST LINE IS SO BRILLIANT. That's the exact point I was trying to make.

  2. I have always felt rich, because my parents had access to a university library and took me to the public one, and we saved up for travel and to go to fancy restaurants. I still feel rich that way--I have access to two public libraries (one for the village where I work, and one for the small town where I live) and one college library where I work.
    I've been admiring, lately, how patient the small town public librarians are with the number of homeless and slightly addled people who hang out in the library during the day. I hope libraries can continue to be an oasis in the desert of austerity.

    1. Now I feel like I have a secret double. I too live in a small town and work at a college library.

      We didn't have any university near by, but my mother--a librarian too--filled the house with books and we nearly lived at the library, especially when I was smaller and it had air conditioning. (We had no such thing at that time, and summer days were always 100+.)

      I like the idea of libraries as generous. I think we try to be. Now if only someone would come and read all these books I buy...

    2. I hope so too, but it's been hard, in this country, in ways that are difficult to explain if you don't witness it day after day. I think US libraries have been spared the worse of it, but in the UK the assault has been constant.

    3. I think libraries are generous in theory if not always in practice. But the impetus is there, and I believe in it, and find it worth fighting for.

  3. "This is not inevitable. We don’t have to live like this." Can we write this across the sky for all to see? It feels like we are all so beaten down and exhausted that no one can stand up for change. We all ask what can be but no one wants to be the brave one to propose a solution and, very likely, be shot down (figuratively and literally).

    What a beautiful voice you have and a wonderful mind. I am so glad I was able to stop by here today.

    1. Thank you so much, Stefanie. And yes, it does feel like we are beaten down, and that this stops us from imagining other possibilities, which is itself a very scary and dangerous thing.

  4. Loved your essay today. Thank you!


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