Libraries, books, and education

Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent. ― Henry David Thoreau

Now here is a piece of good news. According to Gallup polling, visiting the local library remains, by far, the most common cultural activity Americans engage in. It’s nice to know Amazon hasn’t yet put libraries out of business!

For the most part, I think libraries have remained relevant in the cultural landscape because Librarians have adapted to the changing times fairly well: Bringing in advanced technologies—computers, Wifi, digital, etc, etc,—and continuing to be innovative in sponsoring various events at their libraries that attract young families. So let us applaud the librarians and the local government officials who’ve continued to support them at budget time.

With that said, I’ll add that while it’s encouraging to see how well libraries are doing, it would be even more encouraging if we knew Americans were actually reading more good books. The Gallup poll tells us that Libraries are being used and visited, but that doesn’t mean Americans—especially adults—are actually reading more quality books. The jury is still out on this one.

For example, when visiting my local library I notice all the computers are usually taken up by someone researching (or surfing). I notice people in the various conference rooms, and I usually see a few young families with small children walking the book aisles or sitting in the children’s area looking through a stack of books. But typically I don’t see a lot of adults checking-out or turning-in stacks of quality history, biography, or science books. Of course I’ll note that I have no idea how many adults check-out books via digital audio or print, which can be done online. So maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

But then maybe it’s just me, but I don’t detect in a lot of people’s conversations that a lot of deep reading about complicated subjects, or the biographies of great men or women, or ideas in general, are something they do regularly…or at all. And I completely understand that some people may not care for reading—tragic though that may be. Maybe they’re just not interested or too busy. What people do with their time is their prerogative.

I just tend to feel that a democracy—especially one that’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people“—is hard to maintain when a sizable amount of the population appears to be terribly uninformed or just plain ignorant about the nation’s history, government, policies, social challenges, or things like basic science. We can’t properly defend our own or our family’s self interests, better yet the nation’s, if we don’t understand enough to know whether the choices we’re making are actually serving ours or our nation’s interests at all. Many of us, for example, vote for policies or people that are in direct opposition to our interests.

A lot of us uncritically adopt the opinions of others—from our family, group, favorite media source, or some other talking head on TV. But the measure of our own education and personal freedom is when we get to a point where we can intelligently challenge (openly or in own mind) our relied upon sources of information—by weighing and analyzing in light of our own personal readings and observations and then being able to change our mind on a topic or cherished belief….and then having the courage to say it.

Knowledge and education, of course, aren’t a guaranteed cure human folly, prejudice, or our politics. Only a fool who hasn’t read History could honestly think that. Educated people can be just as willing as anyone else to ignore their conscience, twist facts, and advance deep seated prejudices.

But what deep and focused reading can potentially do is introduce us to ideas and thoughts that may gradually crack our caked prejudices and inherited world views and open us to the idea that maybe what we’ve believed all along may be wrong or misinformed or at least in need of some updating. That maybe we need to rethink some of our beliefs about people, your society, and the world.

I should add, that along with quality books and literature, Art in general typically aims at doing this, especially serious films and other performing arts. They can expand our ability to empathize with others—open us to feeling our shared humanity. Note, that’s one big reason authoritarian rulers immediately shut down writers and artists when they take over. Genuine Art is subversive in the authoritarian’s world view.

And then, of course, I can’t leave out, the reading of books that elevate our cognitive grasp. As we read about science and the methods of scientists and the incredible amount of experimentation and research put into their findings, we learn how successful the scientific approach to knowledge has been in promoting human flourishing and, in the long run, democracy itself. As we look back through history we see that science and democracy tend to rise together—a phenomenon to be discussed at length in another post, eventually. With an education in science (reading science books) we learn to think more systematically, more scientifically in other words, about things and ideas and the opinions of others. And that’s a good thing.

And so I’ll close with encouraging you to go to the library, check-out books, or buy books at the store, and then read those books whenever you can. Hopefully you’ll learn, grow, see and feel more deeply.

That’s what being truly educated is all about.

A Sunday Reflection

While looking through a box of books, I found my copy of William Butler Yeats’s Autobiographies. I read it probably 15 years ago. I opened it and saw these words I’d underlined in pencil during my reading.

I have remembered to-day that the Brahmin Mohini said to me, ‘When I was young I was happy. I thought truth was something that could be conveyed from one man’s mind to another. I now know that it is a state of mind.’

Here we have Yeats remembering a bit of wisdom passed on to him which he then memorializes in his own memoirs. Lucky for us. It’s a quote worth some deep reflection.

Farewell to Second Look Books

In 2001, when we decided to move from northern Virginia to a semirural county in southern Maryland, I had some concerns. Sure, on the positive side the school system was one of the best in the state (we had a 2 year old at the time), our new home sat on a big, nicely wooded lot, the community was nice, and we were near the town center, so we had quick access to grocery stores and various small shops and eateries. All of this was great. But I had one critical concern: What about a bookstore? I mean this was a serious issue….okay, I’m being a bit facetious, but being a guy who enjoys books I was hoping I’d have somewhere near-by to satisfy my desire to browse, thumb pages, and read bits of prose in search of a good book.

(Photo by Gary Deshotel)

Well, I got lucky. Not long after we moved in, while shopping in the town of Prince Frederick, not far from our new home, I came across a used bookstore. There, in big letters, was the sign: “BOOKS.”

Just a tad bit excited about my find, I immediately headed over to check it out. Now, having a used bookstore is great, but the real test is the owner’s inventory preferences.

I couldn’t have been more pleased. The inside of Second Look Books was a charming and quaint little bookshop with a large selection of books from a broad range of genres. As it would be for years to come, a perfect place to spend a half hour browsing while my lovely wife bargain shopped at other stores.

Second Look Books, center section (Photo by Daniel Cleary)

The bookshop was owned by Richard and Liz. Two very nice people who know their books and are just great people to chat with. Over the years my wife and I got to know them pretty well and enjoyed a number of conversations about books and kids and various other topics. Their bookshop was a valuable part of our community. I have dozens of books I’ve bought from them over the years and, more importantly, a lot of great memories from their charming little bookshop.

Well, this past October, after about 3 decades in business, they closed Second Look Books. We were, of course, saddened by the news. Their children are grown and doing very well and it was time for them to move on to other projects in life.

My wife and I stopped by after the store had closed down and Rich and Liz were cleaning up and tearing down shelves. We talked for a while and raised a toast (we bought wine) to them and to the fond memories of Second Look Books.

Saving a Nation

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

My maternal grandmother was a young woman during the Great Depression—the period between 1929 and the eve of WWII, 1939. During those lean years she worked on the family farm in Danville, Virginia. The struggles and hardships of that decade were always in some way part of her life story. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard people explain the thriftiness of their grandparents by saying “they grew up during the Depression.” Well, my grandmother was thrifty, hardworking, religious, modest in manner, stoic, had a low tolerance for nonsense, and seemed always grounded in basic realities.

I spend a lot of time with my grandmother (“Nanny”) during my adolescent years, and I don’t recall Nanny talking much about politics. She was a southern baptist, conservative in most ways, and a Democrat. I recall my father, a businessman and a Republican, sometimes making mildly sarcastic comments about Nanny’s support—“no matter what”—for the Democratic party. But of course dad was just as devoted—no matter what—to the Republican Party. “Once you touch the biographies of human beings,” Walter Lippman said, “the notion that political beliefs are logically determined collapses like a pricked balloon.” And so it was with both of them…and the rest of us.

Nanny’s politics was grounded in a very basic reality: who, or what party, really cared. As a kid, I do recall her and I sitting in her small living room in her Norfolk, VA, home and talking about her early years in Danville. Somehow we got on the topic of Presidents. “We would have starved to death had it not been for Franklin Roosevelt!” my grandmother said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Hoover almost destroyed this country” she added. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a progressive era style Democrat and Herbert Hoover a Laissezfaire Republican. Nanny never forgot, nor would she forgive, the cruelty of Hoover and his policies.*

So you understand, when the Great Depression hit, millions of Americans were out of work (about 25% of the working population), banks were closing all over, farmers were losing their farms everywhere, and millions were on the verge of starving. President Hoover, being a good Laissez-faire conservative, and echoing the views of Big Businessmen, felt it would damage the moral fiber of Americans to allow the federal government to expand and provide direct assistance. Charity, in his decided view, was a local thing. Of course state and local governments were in pretty bad shape themselves from the collapse of the economy. So things were really bad and getting worse by the day. And this was the case largely because Laissez-faire economics had failed in a big way. Something Hoover couldn’t bring himself to admit…and so he couldn’t act.

Not too surprising, in the 1932 election, FDR defeated Hoover in a massive landslide.

I thought of Nanny when I recently completed reading Nothing to Fear (2009) by Adam Cohen. The book is about FDR’s first 100 days in office and his inner circle of staff and cabinet members who helped draft the 13 or so major laws that comprised the core of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which started the slow climb out of the Great Depression. From a historical perspective, Nanny was right, FDR and his administration did save this country from a terrible situation. FDR’s various New Deal government programs started the recovery, and the massive government spending to defeat the axis powers in WWII, completed the recovery. From FDR forward we began growing the biggest middle-class in world history. There is no doubt this successful broadening of wealth wouldn’t have been possible to the extend it was without FDR’s progressive economic policies and programs. As one historian said, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created the framework for the success of our modern day world.

Cohen’s book is mostly about FDR’s own “team of rivals” that helped him launch the New Deal. A team of people who knew the problems facing the nation couldn’t be resolved by waiting and hoping things just got better—just letting “the market” deal with it. The most interesting character in Cohen’s story is Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor in the FDR administration. She was the first woman to serve in any Presidential cabinet. She is the one who pushed the massive infrastructure spending that would ultimately put millions of Americans back to work. As she argued, this spending would “prime the pump” of economic growth. She was largely right. She’s important because at first FDR was reticent about the infrastructure spending (FDR was a fiscal conservative at heart), but she persuaded him to go with it and the rest is history.

FDR’s governing philosophy for the Great Depression, and in general, was pragmatic. Something had to be done and he, unlike Hoover, was willing to experiment, to try something, anything, to see if it would work. There was going to be no risk free success in FDR’s view. Doing nothing was not an option. FDR’s view, unlike Hoover’s, was that government had a responsibility to reduce suffering and address major social problems. A government IS the people acting through their Representatives. If, in FDR’s view, a policy or program didn’t work then he’d try something else. The important thing was to act, to do something, to use government to solve problems, not just sit on your hands and wait while things got worse. That’s not leadership, that’s surrender.

Business interests were not going to solve this big problem. In fact, a lot of Big Business interests resented FDR. Being a wealthy man himself, FDR was labeled a “traitor to his class.” But FDR was unmoved and took pride in the wealthy class’s distain of his loyalty to working families. FDR and his progressive allies in Congress put the government to work serving the people, not “organized money.” In thinking about how the rich business class viewed him, during one of his reelection campaigns, FDR wrote:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. 

Thus the New Deal was a social experiment—an attempt to solve a large socio-economic problem via government intervention. And for the most part it worked. In a flurry of legislative activity FDR put into effect over a dozen major laws during his first 100 days. The major departments and programs he established brought aid to millions and provided millions more with jobs…and dignity.

It’s important to note that Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate with large majorities during FDR’s first 100 days. Something critical to remember. If a President doesn’t have their party in control of Congress then that President may not get the support for the major changes needed to address major problems. In other words, major New Deal programs, like Social Security, may not have been a reality today had FDR not had majorities in both the House and the Senate. Programs like Social Security (and later Medicare) for example, were not supported by conservatives in Congress at that time. They were attacked as a form of sovietism. Consider the example of Ronald Reagan. After having moved to the political right in the 1950s, he actually attacked the idea of Medicare as surrendering to “socialism.” But Reagan, of course, would eventually himself surrender to the overwhelming popularity of Medicare and convert to being a supporter of this socialist style program.

I was interested in Cohen’s book because I wanted to understand how and by what means FDR and his team tackled the Great Depression. The truth is we can’t say another Great Depression isn’t in our future, and so studying the 1930s, both economically and, given the times, politically, provides some important lessons and insights about issues we face today and may face tomorrow. Of course my hope is we’ve vanquished any chance of a 1930s style Great Depression for good. Certainly because of FDR and many subsequent policies since that time we’re not as likely to crash as hard as they did in those less regulated times…though we’re on a binge of deregulating Wall Street currently and that should cause deep concern for all Americans. The 2008 crash was largely the result of reckless behavior by deregulated Wall Street Bankers.

If you’re interested in FDR and his first 100 days or the New Deal in general, this is a good book to start with. Because how a leader and his team go about saving a nation is always a good story.


*Not all Republicans at that time adhered to Laissez-faire like a religion. From the start the Progressive Movement cut across party lines. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, was a champion of the Progressive Movement, and actually founded the Progressive Party. There were Progressive Republicans in both the House and Senate throughout most of the early and mid 20th century. Most of the progressive Republicans in Congress supported FDR and his New Deal legislative agenda.

From the Annals of Book Collecting — La Crosse, VA

(Photo by J.D. Wills)

We headed south last weekend to attend a big family and friends get-together being held down in La Crosse, Virginia.

One of the grand gentleman of the event, knowing I was a book collecting type of guy, invited me to his nearby home to scan his shelves for any books I might want. At 80, he insinuated, he didn’t see a good reason for holding on to all these books when there were others who might actually enjoy reading them.

The above picture are the ones I picked from the shelves and decided to add to my own library….whether I get around to reading all of them before I’m 80 is a fair question.

I picked out a total of 6 books for my collection:

1. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was assigned—as so many kids were over the past decades—to read Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby in High School…though I seem to recall avoiding that assignment and, like more than a few other high schoolers at the time, hunting down the Cliff Notes instead. A taste for fine literature is something acquired, not assigned, and I would eventually acquire this taste myself in college and beyond.

Since high school—roughly 30 plus years now—I’ve read Gatsby twice…maybe three times. And none of those times had anything to do with college either. I’ve returned to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby because, for me, it was about experiencing the power of words and storytelling. It was about art. I wanted to see what so many others had seen and felt from reading this great literary masterwork. Each time I read it I got something different out of it. That, my readers, is what makes great art so great…it lives on and on in each reading.

But I will say this about literature and books like The Great Gatsby and being a high school student. I think there is a small number of teenagers—especially teenage boys—who can truly appreciate books like Gatsby at that stage in life. Sure, we should expose our teenagers to great literature, but it’s unlikely at that young age they’ll truly appreciate art of that quality. To really appreciate books like Gatsby requires some experience with the tragedies of life, and for the most part high school kids are just too young and self-absorbed to appreciate how novels like Gatsby deepen the mystery.

So when I saw this book of Fitzgerald’s letters on my friend’s book shelf I immediately reached for it. It was the first book I took. My thoughts were about the inner life of this literary artist, his thoughts and concerns, and the quality of his prose in personal letters. Tragically, Fitzgerald died young. He was only 44. American letters lost so much.

2. The American Language.

This is a study of the American (English in North America) Language by H. L. Mencken. Most of you probably haven’t heard of Mencken. He was one of those silver tongue journalists and critics who was famous for his caustic wit. I really haven’t read much of his work to be candid, but so many great writers, like William Manchester and Russell Baker and some others I can’t think of right now, have referred to him with affection and recommended his works.

So thus I picked this book off the shelf. I couldn’t let this well known book—at least to bookish people—slip past my hands. Such is a book collector’s life. A so we collect on!

3. Lee Lieutenants. (4 volume set)

I had just the abridged (single book) version of this multiple volume set by Douglas Southall Freeman until this day. The subtitle of the series is “A Study in Command.” The books, as I recall, were at one time standard reading for West Point Cadets. I’ve read most of the abridged version and it’s a very interesting history of Robert E. Lee’s subordinate commanders and how they performed during the American Civil War.

In addition to the books themselves, I was taken by the fact that this particular set of books came from the Palmetto Junior High School library in Miami, Florida, where my friend had been a principle and retired from in the early 1990s.