When a writer is poor, he makes great use of whatever free libraries are available to him. In my case, it is the Sonoma County Library, which is, as they say, “Free to use… not free to operate.” And I do donate to the cause—just not anything close to what I get in return. I figure that roughly 70% of the books I read come from the library (20% come from used bookstores and 10% come new from Amazon and Barnes & Noble). The problem with all this library use is, as Krapp said sarcastically, “Getting known.” It isn’t like the library equivalent of Cheers where my entrance elicits the hushed chorus of “Frank!” from the library staff. But they do know me—several by name.
Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people who frequent the library: kids, old people, and the strange—a poorly defined group including the homeless, mentally unbalanced, and me. It still surprises me the quantity of books that children check out during a single visit. It reminds me of the ending of The Man Without a Country—more starved than gluttonous—while it is probably just that unlike me, these children visit the library only rarely. The old people too sometimes check out a lot of books, but mostly their apparent consumption is moderate. The vast majority of “the strange” seem never to check out anything. All of this is to say that I don’t think many patrons get known—certainly not to the depth to which I seem to be known.
A good example of this occurred recently when I checked out Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope (a very exciting book that I will be writing about soon). The librarian who checked me out seemed surprised that I was reading this anti-Obama book. This may not have been the case at all; she might have just been considering the book’s delightfully clever title. But I knew that she knew me and I thought she was reflecting upon my choice, so I said with casual defensiveness, “It’s a critique from the left.” She just smiled back the way one would to reassure a befuddled child.
When I first started using this library system a year and a half ago, I was struck with the utter disinterest of the library staff. It was as if one could check out 100 Reasons to Love Hitler or Pol Pot’s Tips for Mitigating Over-Population and it wouldn’t so much as dilate an eye. It occurred to me that this was probably part of the training; as one librarian said to me, “Never apologize for your reading choices.” It is not just a question of being allowed to read what you want without criticism; it is a question of privacy—an issue over which librarians have been and continue to be truly heroic.
Over time, I have become a known quantity. How could I not? I go to the library almost every day and I am chatty—at least about the books I’m reading. In addition, I ask a lot of questions. Frankly, I’m a pain, and if the same bird pecked at you every day, you would learn its name—or make one up. So more and more, I have gotten to know the library staff (although not their names) and we chat a fair amount about the books I check out.
About a month ago, I finally made the decision to start my own publishing company, after much pushing from friends and a lot of readers who are unhappy about one of my books being out of print. I didn’t particularly want to look back at these old books, since I made a decision some time ago that I was not going to write books of that nature any more. However, I am known for this work, and this did present a great opportunity to make positive use of a past that greatly harms me when I, say, apply for a regular job. So I went to the library and got three books on self-publishing. The librarian who checked me out asked me excitedly, “Oh! Are you a writer?” To which I responded, “Book out of print, blah, blah, blah.” Now she had to look up what I had published. In response, I calmly freaked out, “No, no: you don’t want to know what I’ve written; you’ll think ill of me!” More or less. To which she gave me a hand gesture that said, “Poppycock!” Of course, I was confident that she would not find anything, and I was right. She seemed deeply disappointed by her null result to which I responded, “I don’t publish under that name—not that it’s too difficult to figure out.” I used to publish under my given, formal, name; this is why I now call myself “Frank”—but I told her none of that.
After I left the library, I felt very bad. I would rather she know the kind of scandalous books I’ve written than think I am a liar. So I came back to the library, found the librarian and gave her my business card, saying, “Go to this website to see my more recent writing.” I didn’t think much more of it until yesterday, when I went to the library to pick up Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah. She turned around from the returns counter and gave me a big smile. “We were just talking about you,” she said. Then she went on to gush mightily about Frankly Curious. It was a very nice birthday present, even if I am rather bad at taking a compliment.
About a year ago, I checked out a number of books on palm reading for a book proposal (a project I have since abandoned). I found this very embarrassing and it was during one such check-out that I got the line about not apologizing for one’s reading preferences. For some time now, I have thought about writing a book about Glenn Beck called, “Glenn and Me” because we share the exact same birthday (year and all) and an earnest wish to understand the world. It would be interesting to contrast this with the many things we do not share (for example: I’m poor, he’s rich; I’m a fearless seeker of uncomfortable truths, he’s a demagogue; I’m a genius, and let’s be charitable and just say that he is not). It would be very difficult to write such a book, however, because it would require that I read all of Beck’s books. But even more difficult would be overcoming the fear that my librarian pals might think that I was a Glenn Beck fan. (I’m certainly not going to pay to read Glenn Beck’s Common Sense!)
Of course, there has never been a hint of judgement from anyone who works for the Sonoma County Library. And their jobs are not easy. Most people who rarely visit their public library have no idea just how much guff library staff have to put up with. I have seen numerous instances of patrons yelling at staff-members. Yet they always manage such situations with aplomb. They are, after all, angels sent to earth to spread the word. So despite what they may tell us, we should be afraid of what they think of our reading choices. We should be very afraid.