[Before I begin the blog post proper, I want to say farewell to Francine Fialkoff, who is leaving LJ after 35 years (her final editorial is here). Francine recruited the AL to LJ. I don’t think she knew how controversial a move that was, but she defended free speech, alternative views, and critical perspectives all along the way. Anyway, thanks, Francine. I wish you well. It’s been a pleasure.]
I ran across this old interview with Ray Bradbury from the Paris Review. My experience with Bradbury’s works is reading Fahrenheit 451, beloved of anti-censors everywhere. It’s amazing how many people want to burn books, from Nazis to redneck ministers to charities against domestic violence. (I don’t know if Fahrenheit 451 is really the temperature books burn at, but since Fifty Shades of Grey is supposedly so hot to begin with, it might burn at a lesser temperature.)
When the interviewer asks Bradbury if he’s self-educated, in this case meaning he didn’t go to college, Bradbury replies, “I’m completely library educated.”
He also says:
I am a librarian….When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.
Okay, I know there are those MLS boosters who would claim that Bradbury misspoke, and that if he’d been to college he might have known that NO ONE is a librarian without an MLS. You know, like the Librarian of Congress. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
So roughly from 1937-47 Bradbury spent countless hours in the library reading and continuing his education. This benefit wasn’t universal among Americans at the time since 43.5% of them were still living in rural areas in 1940, and rural Americans have never had access to the kind of cultural amenities as their urban peers.
However, the LAPL was established in 1872 and the Central Library in Los Angeles was built in 1926, and while I assume its funding was hit during the Great Depression, it still must have been an educational treasure trove compared to most places outside Philadelphia, NYC, Boston, and Chicago at the time. [Library historians feel free to amend or correct that assertion.] If that’s where Bradbury was going, no wonder it took him ten years to read everything he thought he needed to read.
If I had one quibble about his reasoning, it would be this statement: “When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?” One might say that the point of education isn’t to give kids only what they like, but what is good for them, just like we do with food. But in context it’s clearer that Bradbury is talking about the education of a writer, and writers are often better off reading everything they can get their hands on than following a specified curriculum.
It reminds me of the line from the movie version of Biloxi Blues, when Eugene asks his writer friend Arnold what he should read to become a writer, and Arnold responds, “the entire third floor of the New York Public Library.”
I ran across the interview in this book review column at American Libraries, which quotes from it regarding lifelong learning, but the connection seems questionable. Bradbury’s reminiscences are linked to a new book called Lifelong Learning in Public Libraries: Principles, Programs, and People.
It looks like it could be an interesting book for public librarians who want to develop educational programming, but based on the title and table of contents, that seems to be its limitations. It’s about information literacy, learning styles, library programming, and that sort of thing. I’m definitely up with that sort of thing, but it’s not the sort of thing Bradbury was talking about, or Arnold for that matter.
Lifelong education in the sense of classes or programming are useful and important, but can they really be a substitute for the “university of the people” kind of approach that Bradbury benefitted from? It’s one thing having access to earnest instruction librarians, but quite another having access to the entire third floor of the NYPL, or even the third floor of the LAPL Central Library.
Even now, 75 years after Bradbury began his self-education, that sort of opportunity is limited to Americans living in certain cities and counties. According to this list of the 100 largest libraries in the U.S. by volume, about a quarter are public libraries.
The comparisons between the academic and public libraries don’t fare well for the users of the public libraries. For example, the Houston Public Library, serving a city population of over 2,000,000 people, has about the same number of books as the Brown University Library, serving a population of (I’m assuming) far less than 2,000,000. In addition, public library systems usually have multiple copies of numerous popular books, which drum up the total volume but reduce the total number of titles.
These larger public library systems have some depth to them, but I did some random searches on a few historical popular authors that are out of print but not out of copyright and found the collections spotty at best. For example, I searched a favorite old mystery author of mine in a public library system of millions of books and found none of his dozen novels available. I didn’t search for contemporary but more esoteric authors, but I probably would have found the same results.
The library might reply that they don’t have them because nobody wants to read them. I would reply that no one will ever be able to read them if they can’t discover them. Even in the larger library systems you can’t necessarily follow your whim the way Bradbury did.
He said, “the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read.” There’s still a lot to read, as long as you want to read contemporary popular fiction or the relative handful of authors who have achieved enough critical and popular acclaim that they’re still relatively popular despite being old, like Bradbury himself.
Could potential writers who wanted to educate themselves the Bradburyan way do so at most public libraries? Could the public library really substitute for college in most places? I have my doubts.
Some librarians might say it’s not important, but think about how excited librarians get when a famous writer praises libraries. You might have felt that way yourself when seeing how formative libraries were in Ray Bradbury’s education.
What about the famous writers of the future, at least outside the few cities with access to broad and deep library collections? Will they remember libraries past their childhoods? Will they have reason to?