Mark Lennihan / AP

Today’s Issue:

  • “We’re so used to the idea that [public libraries] exist that we take them for granted and pay little heed to what complex, extraordinary, resource-rich places they are,” Susan Orlean wrote on our forum last week.
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean was our November Book Club selection. Orlean joined us to discuss the history and future of the American public library.
  • For December, we’re reading Kiese Laymon’s memoir, Heavy.


Introducing Our December Book-Club Pick

Heavy, by Kiese Laymon, is a letter to the author’s mother about growing up a hardheaded black son in the American South. Spurred on yet burdened by his mother’s dreams for him, Laymon charts “the bruising and disorienting experience of navigating America’s unmarked black path to success,” as the academic Christopher J. Lebron wrote in The Atlantic’s November issue. For Laymon and other people of color, Lebron said, walking this path means alternating between “reaching for a sense of power and reaching for a salve for powerlessness.”

Here’s how to join in: Get as far as you can in the book by December 19 (that’s two weeks from now). That’s when we’ll launch our discussion on the forums and collect your questions for a Q&A with Kiese Laymon. We’ll announce those details in a future email.


“The Public Parks of the Mind”

Susan Orlean answered member questions on our forum on Friday. The questions are paraphrased below. Orlean’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.

In 2018, how should we define a library?

I recently landed on my own definition, which is that libraries are the public parks of the mind—they are communal spaces for curiosity and intellectual exchange. The difference between now and a hundred years ago is that intellectual exchange is done through a wider range of media—books and DVDs and digitized material and discussion groups and all sorts of programming. But the fundamentals remain pretty constant: shared space for exploring thought and knowledge.

How did the traditional book-centric library begin to take on the characteristics of a community center—caring for the homeless, providing classes, and coordinating social events?

To be honest, libraries have always been community centers. Especially in the early days, owning books and magazines was a luxury, so people relied on the library for any exposure to them, and often did their reading at the library rather than at home, because a lot of the material couldn’t be taken out of the library. But also, in the early days, the library hosted card games, and people gathered there to play together and for conversation and companionship. It’s easy to think that the community-center aspect of libraries is new, but it’s actually been part of the idea of a library since the very beginning.

Today, libraries generally allow members of the public to use their computers and the internet for free. How has that offering shaped the modern library, and the people who choose to spend time there?

Using library computers is certainly a great asset for folks who don’t have their own, or don’t have Wi-Fi at home. What I’ve sensed, though, is a desire by a wide range of people to engage with others in a communal space. I think that’s why coffee shops have thrived, and why co-working spaces have thrived: More and more of us work at home, alone, and really crave being around other people. Libraries are an ideal place to do that—great Wi-Fi, big desks, lots of interesting books to look at if you want a break from work, and a wonderful sense of humanity swirling around you. Because of that, I foresee a renewed interest in libraries as places to be alone together. And they’re free!

If libraries were an entirely new idea, would they be supported today, by both political parties?

Sometimes when I’m in a library, I am struck by what an outlandish idea it is to gather all of this material and make it available for free to the public. It’s pretty amazing! If they didn’t exist, I wonder if we’d feel as much a sense of sharing—for free—[as] we did when free public libraries were first founded. Are we as community-minded as we were then? Do we feel that society should make sure information is available to everyone for no cost? I’d like to think we would say yes to both of those questions, but I honestly am not so sure.

Will libraries struggle to survive financially in the future?

I’m hopeful about our ability to sustain our libraries. Funding will always be an issue, but most libraries have robust “friends” organizations that raise money for additional programming, and most people seem willing to support tax levies for libraries in their communities. BUT… when city budgets shrink, it’s awfully easy to cut funding for the libraries before cutting the police or fire department. So those philanthropic support organizations are really essential to keeping libraries open and vibrant. Maybe I’m a crazy optimist, but I believe we will find that funding and keep our libraries going.

You write that “destroying books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured.” Today, many books live in digital form. Does that affect the way you understand the destruction of physical books, particularly book burning?

I’ve been wondering if we feel the same protectiveness toward digital media that we do toward books. I think books as objects are beloved and will always be special. But the other day, I realized that I never delete books from my Kindle, even after I’ve read them and have no intention of reading them again. I was curious about that, and realized that what exists in any form of “book” is the sense of a human voice telling a story, and that burning that or deleting that feels … wrong. Digital books don’t have the deliciousness that a print book has, but I think you still feel the presence of the person who wrote the book, and that makes it feel like it has a quality of life, regardless of the format.

Is the public library taken for granted?

We’re so used to the idea that these places exist that we take them for granted and pay little heed to what complex, extraordinary, resource-rich places they are. Our libraries, in most cases, have been building collections for decades and preserving so much material that’s hard to find, and provide us with (frequently) beautiful places in which to gather. It’s quite an accomplishment, and one that is easy to underappreciate. I’m not wagging fingers, because I’m someone who had also come to take them for granted until I started working on this book. One of the great pleasures of having written this is to have reminded myself of what wonderful institutions libraries are.


Today’s Wrap Up

  • Today’s Question: Do you have a special library in your life? Tell us about it on our forums. Or email us at themasthead@theatlantic.com.

  • What’s Coming: On Friday, Rachel Donadio reflects on Elena Ferrante’s hit book series, the Neapolitan novels.

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