American Literature is a History of the Nation’s Libraries
Ilan Stavans on One of Democracy’s Bedrock Institutions
The history of American literature is the history of the nation’s libraries. These have changed over time, from mere depositories of books meant for circulation where patrons, driven by taste and curiosity, replenish their intellectual needs, to sites where an assortment of community services are offered, especially for the disenfranchised. They offer internet services, English-language classes for immigrants, children’s activities, job-hunting tools, and even Yoga.
In that sense, the American library is an essential ingredient in the nation’s ongoing democratic conversation. Intellectual exchanges are orchestrated in them designed to propagate the semblance of community the nation needs, even in times of ideological fracture as in the Trump years.
Kurt Vonnegut, in A Man without a Country (2005), praised this function:
I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles. So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.
I too celebrate this spirit. The challenge, however, is that the American library—out of need, no doubt—has pushed books into the basement. I speak both concretely and metaphorically. In many branches, books are a second thought. The reason has to do with the technological move by the culture at large from printed to digital books. Most new books are available as e-books. And classics are made free online.
What’s then the purpose of shelving books for library patrons? They can access them anywhere they want.
At this point I could engage in a litany of why printed books matter more: the way they feel in front of one’s eyes, how the experience of reading is different. But my purpose here isn’t nostalgic. I want to talk about libraries.
However, I do want to talk about the dramatic diminution of reading as a habit. It is said that the average American reads one book a year. Yes, one single book a year! The thought is frightening, especially when one recognizes that to read is to think, to read is to imagine the world in an individualized way.
It isn’t a new complaint. In one of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium (c. 385–370 BCE), one of the participants grumbles that in Greece reading is a practice exclusive of those interested in philosophy, mathematics, and other pursuits of the mind. No similar complaint, at least not in those terms, recurred in the Middle Ages, when the degree of alphabetization was minimal. Monks and the ruling ecclesiastic elite were known to be the ones in charge—maybe it is better to say they were bestowed with the duty—of learning, in contrast with the peasantry, which was deliberately kept ignorant as a strategy of control.Yet no matter how we see it, the act of reading is in decline.
It is known that after the first volume of Don Quixote was published, in 1605, the way people accessed it—at least people not part of the nobility—was through public readings in town plazas and other open spaces.
It is true that in contrast, books reach Americans in multiple ways these days, not only as e-books. They might arrive as audio books, in serialized form through online services, and so on. Likewise, book clubs have remained and even increased their popularity. Yet no matter how we see it, the act of reading is in decline.
As with everything else, in America readers vote with their wallets. Turning a book into a bestseller is a referendum not only about the quality of the volume itself (best-sellerdom might mean it is just trash) but about the audience that endorses it. For audiences are anything but homogenized. Each genre has its own following, as does each author and style. There are sophisticated readers and popular readers.
To become a fan of a literary figure is to turn the values the figure expounded into an ideology. Readers purchase t-shirts, tote bags, and postcards to express their adoration. Such are the passions that fandom often results in tribalization: if you’re one of us, you must be ready to adore our author without restrictions.
To the degree possible, libraries stay away from this kind of Balkanization. They want to be as comprehensive in their offerings as possible, even though some specialize in one particular type of literature their patrons might favor.
In any case, in a nation on steroids as a result of hyper-stimulation, American literature is at a disadvantage in comparison with other forms of entertainment: TV, movies, the internet, video games, even radio. In American libraries, the sections on visual material have grown at a very rapid speed, sometimes far outpacing the standard book collections.
This goes hand in hand with the fact that in America people remember through popular culture. Otherwise, people no longer have individual memories. They now remember the past through the movies, the TV shows, and the streaming services they subscribe to. Remember the episode of Star Trek in the third season, in which the Enterprise is about to stop an asteroid from crashing with a Federation world only to discover that the asteroid is a Generation ship? I saw it when I was seven years of age and my parents were in the middle of a divorce. Or the episode of Gilligan’s Island called “Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow”? It was shortly before John Lennon met Yoko Ono. Memories don’t have a life of their own. They are inevitably anchored though pop culture highlights.
No empire in history has been as adept at trafficking with culture as the United States. It thrives in creating a market, then satisfying it with all sorts of cheap merchandise. Not to be up-to-date in pop culture is to show one’s age, to be behind the times. The bombardment of references is crucial in order to be au courant, which in turn makes you cool. That’s the biggest trophy: coolness. To be cool is to be awesome.
As a concept, coolness comes from Black culture. It defines a type of 1950s entertainment (a jazz musician, a fashion designer, a novelist) who, aware of the oppressiveness of the environment, created a cocoon of safeness by feigning remoteness. Ella Fitzgerald was cool. Dizzy Gillespie was too.
Countless American writers, from John Updike to Grace Paley, have a love affair with libraries. The majority come from middle-class backgrounds. For them the public library is a platform to alternative universes. These are three exaltations. First, Annie Proulx in her novel Barkskins (2016):
One reason for the [Port Townsend’s arts-and-crafts Carnegie, allied with the Jefferson County Library]’s success is the town’s population. A characteristic of Port Townsend is citizen involvement in hundreds of volunteer projects from maritime science to the kinetic sculpture race. The library is beloved and although there is a staff of more than 15 people what makes the place efficient and engaging are the more than 70 volunteers. But Ms. Eisler’s personal commitment to libraries is more than her affection for the community. She believes and says “librarians live and die by First Amendment rights.”
Amy Tan in her memoir Where the Past Begins (2017):
My first library gave me the freedom to exist in private, to choose and even be greedy. I took ten books the first time—illustrated books, fables, fairy tales and happy stories of white children and their kind parents. A week later, now initiated, I was allowed to walk to the library by myself, carrying the ten books I had finished reading, knowing I could choose many more to furnish my vast secret room, my imagination, all mine.
Finally, Barbara Kingsolver in her novel Unsheltered (2018):
Everywhere I’ve gone since, I’ve found libraries. Those of us launched from bare-bones schools in uncelebrated places will always find particular grace in a library, where the temple doors are thrown wide to all believers, regardless of pedigree. Nowadays I have the normal professional reliance on internet research, but my heart still belongs to the church of the original source. Every book I’ve written has some magic in it I found in physical stacks or archives.
My own debt to the American library is enormous. In Mexico, where I grew up, public libraries were always dysfunctional: they were understaffed, the weekly schedule was irregular, books were stolen… It was only when I came to the United States that I understood the centrality these institutions have.
While I travel, whenever I have some free time I spend it at the local public library. I let myself get lost in the shelves, wandering without any specific purpose. I always come across surprises. I also meet friends at these libraries. And plenty of strangers with whom I have insightful conversations.Whenever I am in one of these places, I feel safe. I have an internal peace I seldom replicate anywhere else.
In Wellfleet, Cape Cod, where I spend part of the year, the public library, right in downtown, has been an oasis during humid seasons. I found signed copies of Edmund Wilson’s books in it. (He was a long-time resident of Wellfleet.) I have also read detective novels I would have never come across. And collections of essays.
Whenever I am in one of these places, I feel safe. I have an internal peace I seldom replicate anywhere else. The librarians eventually become my friends.
The underfunding and people’s apathy toward reading are worrisome. Ray Bradbury once said that “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” The quote comes from Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which was written less than a decade after the Second World War and in the middle of the McCarthy era. Bradbury’s novel is about the burning of books in a totalitarian state.
In that foreseeable future, there will be no libraries. Fortunately, for now there are. John Steinbeck tells a starchy anecdote in America and Americans (1966): “Not long ago,” he writes:
After my last trip to Russia, I had a conversation with an American very eminent in the field of politics. I asked what he read, and he replied that he studied history, sociology, economics, and law.
“How about fiction—novels, plays, poetry?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I have never had time for them. There’s so much else I have to read.”
I said, “Sir, I have recently visited Russia for the third time and don’t know how well I understand Russians; but I do know that if I only read Russian history I could not have had the access to Russian thinking I have had from reading Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Pushkin, Turgenev, Sholokhov, and Ehrenburg. History only recounts, with some inaccuracy, what they did. The fiction tells, or tries to tell, why they did it and what they felt and were like when they did it.”
My friend nodded gravely. “I hadn’t thought of that,’ he said. “Yes, that might be so; I had always thought of fiction as opposed to fact.”
Steinbeck adds: “But in considering the American past, how poor we would be in information without Huckleberry Finn, An American Tragedy, Winesburg, Ohio, Main Street, The Great Gatsby, and As I Lay Dying.”
Very poor, indeed.
From What is American Literature. Used with the permission of the publisher, Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2022 by Ilan Stavans. Since 2017 Stavans has been delivering lectures followed by discussion on world classics, every second Tuesday of the month, at the New York Public Library. The schedule for this season includes Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Gabriel García Márquez’s story “One of These Days,” and George Elliot’s Middlemarch: