On Libraries and Liberty

Hey, did you see that jackass in Forbes arguing that we should just replace all libraries with Amazon retail offerings? It was such an astonishingly bad take that Forbes actually took it down, presumably from shame.

your idea is bad and you should feel bad

I suspect that any of you reading this already have a great love for libraries, for a thousand reasons too obvious and also too personal to name. When I was a teenager, my family moved from the Great Lakes to the South, where I knew no one, sounded like an outsider, and was terrified of being assaulted for being queer. For an entire summer, I made it my mission to read (or at least check out and attempt) every book of 20th-century poetry at my town’s public library. That personal project, spawned from deep loneliness, led me to reading Adrienne Rich, who has been one of my polestars as a poet. And that was just at the small local branch in my shitty suburban strip-mall town. I would not be the person I am without that library. I know you have a story of your own.

After reading about that bad man’s bad ideas, I have been haunted all week by one of my favorite poems by Sharon Olds: “Mrs. Krikorian,” from her 1996 book The Wellspring.

She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I’ve heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour’s work
that hour’s work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library. Every hour
I’d zip through the work in a dash and slip out of my
seat as if out of God’s side and sail
down to the library, solo through the empty
powerful halls, flash my pass
and stroll over to the dictionary
to look up the most interesting word
I knew, spank, dipping two fingers
into the jar of library past to
suck that tart mucilage as I
came to the page with the cocker spaniel’s
silks curling up like the fine steam of the body.
After spank and breast, I’d move on
to Abe Lincoln and Helen Keller,
safe in their goodness till the bell, thanks
to Mrs. Krikorian, amiable giantess
with the kind eyes. When she asked me to write
a play, and direct it, and it was a flop, and I
hid in the coat-closet, she brought me a candy-can
as you lay a peppermint on the tongue, and the worm
will come up out of the bowel to get it.
And so I was emptied of Lucifer
and filled with school glue and eros and
Amelia Earhart, saved my Mrs. Krikorian.
And who had saved Mrs. Krikorian?
When the Turks came across Armenia, who
slid her into the belly of a quilt, who
locked her in a chest, who mailed her to America?
And that one, who saved her, and that one—
who saved her, to save the one
who saved Mrs. Krikorian, who was
standing there on the sill of 6th grade, a
wide-hipped angel, smokey hair
standing up weightless all around her head?
I end up owing my soul to so many,
to the Armenian nation, one more soul someone
jammed behind a stove, drove
deep into a crack in a wall,
shoved under a bed. I would wake
up, in the morning, under my bed—not
knowing how I had got there—and lie
in the dusk, the dustballs beside my face
round and ashen, shining slightly
with the eerie comfort of what is neither good nor evil.

Excuse me a moment, my eyes seem to be leaking.

ancient antique architectural design architecture
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

What I love about this poem, apart from its loving depiction of libraries and teachers and all those other necessary bits of culture that we can supposedly replace if we just give corporations enough tax breaks, is its internal logic. If we want to get fancy we could call it parataxis: the refusal to subordinate one piece of information or one clause to another (look at all those “ands,” with only one “and so”). To me, this mimics the way you experience the stacks of an IRL library: you find your book on the shelf, and then you look at the book next to it, and the book next to that one, and the book next to that one, and before you know it, you’ve read all the way from A Change of World to Dark Fields of the Republic.

The speaker then transforms this beautiful, one-book-at-a-time movement into a way of thinking about people and who she “owes her soul” to: not just Mrs. Krikorian, but “that one, who saved her, and that one— / who saved her, to save the one / who saved Mrs. Krikorian,” who saved the speaker. By the final lines, the dualistic logic of good and evil — which has seemed to control the speaker-as-child’s sense of self, trapped between God and Lucifer, and which haunts the poem through the speaker-as-adult’s understanding that Mrs. Krikorian was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide — has collapsed under the great, true weight of the library, which offers pleasure and respite for both body and mind. It’s not that there is no good or evil, but that there are spaces that provide refuge from moral fear: places like the library, where “spank” is a word among other words and not a physical assault.

So. Next time you encounter some libertarian dipshit talking about the uselessness of libraries, please remember this poem, starring a smart girl and an immigrant who needed asylum — two of the things that disphit libertarians seem to hate the most.


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