Friday, June 10, 2005

And While We're Talking About "The West" And "The Skinny, Silent Spines of Books" 

A story torn from the headlines....

...well, the headlines at Common Dreams, anyway. But it is an inspiring story, one that reminds us that there is no one narrative of "the West." And it comes from my most favorite cowgirl, broadly defined, a true daughter of the West, Anne Lamott.

If there is one institution in the life of the nation that has consistently functioned as an avenue of opportunity open to all, a great equalizer, if you will, in the sense that its rewards are bestowed almost exclusively on the basis of the merits of one's own efforts, is there anyone who would dare deny that institution is the public library? I think we can all agree about that, even, or maybe especially, our red-state brothers and sisters. (I exempt from this formulation those paid and unpaid propagandists who proudly hail themselves the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy.)

On the other hand, the triumph of the spirit of Proposition 13 and Ronald Reagan's philosophy of government - that government is the problem, not the solution - had the effect of curtailing state and local revenues, even as more and more unfunded mandates were piled onto their shoulders in the name of Federalism, one of which results was the closing of public libraries all over America, along with the curtailing of what hours the remaining libraries were open, as well as all kinds of library programs. Here in Los Angeles, where oddly enough, the libraries most likely to be closed were in poorer and minority neighborhoods, the result could be seen in the long lines of young folks waiting to use the computers at our splendid downtown library, now their only access to a resource most middle class students take for granted, after they'd made a long, expensive trip to get there on LA's truly terrible public transportation system.

During our recent recession, and even now that it is supossedly over, George W. Bush has done even more than his hero, Reagan, managed to do, to tax the strength of state and local government, and painful cuts in vital programs are still being made all across America.

This year, that baneful need, to find some way to cut a budget that would otherwise outstrip tax receipts, came to Steinbeck country, i.e., Salinas, California, where the powers-that-be, in their desperation, I assume, decided to shut down all of their public libraries, the first community anywhere in America to take such a decision. Until, that is, "the word went out," as Anne Lamott describes it:
This is how many tribal stories begin: Word goes out to the people of a community that there is a great danger or wrong being committed. This is how I first found out that Salinas was going to be the first city in America to close its libraries because of budget cuts.

Without getting into any mudslinging about whether or not our leaders are clueless, bullying, nonreading numbskulls, let me just say that when word went out that the city's three libraries were scheduled for closure -- the John Steinbeck, the Cesar Chavez, and the El Galiban --a whole lot of people rose up as one to say this does not work for us.
And who didn't this work for? Well, in case you've never been through central California:
Salinas is one of the poorest communities in the state, within one of the richest counties in the country, the locale of so many of Steinbeck's great novels: Think farm workers, fields of artichokes, garlic, faded stucco houses stained with dirt, ticky-tacky housing tracts, John Ford, James Dean's face in ''East of Eden," strawberry fields, and old gas stations.

Now think about closing the libraries there, closing the buildings that hold the town's books, all those bound stories about people and wisdom and justice and life and silliness and laborers bending low to pick the strawberries. You'd have to be crazy to bring such obvious karmic repercussions down on yourself. So in early April, a group of writers and actors fought back, showing up in Salinas for a 24-hour ''emergency read-in."

My sad '60s heart soared like an eagle at the very name: an emergency read-in. George W. Bush and John Ashcroft tried for three years to create a country that the East Germans could only dream about, empowering the government to keep track of the books we checked out or bought, all in the name of national security. But they hadn't counted on how passionately we writers feel about saving the world, or at any rate, the worlds contained in the skinny, silent spines of books.

The whole article is similarly wonderful, and I'll provide you with the link momentarily. Before I do, I just want to quote one or two more of Lamott's paragraphs, so that Corrente will be ennobled by their presence in our midst:
We came together because we started out as children who were saved by stories, stories read to us at night when we were little, stories we read by ourselves, in which we could get lost, and thereby, found. Some of us had grown to become people with loud voices, which the farm workers and their children of this community all of a sudden needed. And we were mad. Show a bunch of writers a sealed library, and they see red. Perhaps they are a little sensitive, or overwrought, but they see a one-way tunnel into the dark. They see the beginnings of fascism.

A free public library is a revolutionary notion, and when people don't have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries. The entire flow of communication is bricked off. You cut people off from incredible sources of information -- mythical, practical, linguistic, or political -- and you break them. You render them helpless in the face of political oppression. We were not going to let this happen.

Okay, here's the link, now go and read the whole thing and be inspired.

If any of our alert readers have similar stories about the closing down of local cultural institutions, please tell us in comments, or in an email. And let us know about any local newspapers we should be surveying in trying to get a solid picture of what is happening on the ground, locally and specifically, which is where and how most of us live our various American experiences.

corrente SBL - New Location
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