In Praise of Library Books

The other day, I sojourned to my local library to pick up a book I had started on ebook from another library and which would soon be due. You know you’re a book nerd when this sort of thing happens.

This was only my second time at this particular library, and I was pleasantly reminded what a nice library it is. Quiet and modern, but not too modern. You can check your books out with a high-tech scanner and still get lost in shelves of paperbacks and hardcovers or find a cubby-hole desk to sit at. I love living in the 21st century.

I soon located Barry Lopez’s Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World and relished the moment of seeing an ebook “in real life.” (There’s a story on how I picked up this book of essays by an author I’ve never heard of before, but that story will have to be another day.)

In any case, you don’t leave the library with just one book, so I wandered around the nonfiction and fiction for a bit. I was perturbed there wasn’t much in the way of philosophy, but I brightened to pick up Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which is the last of his 20th-century novels I have yet to read. I am hoping it will be the Kafkaesque masterpiece I expect it to be.

Leaving the library with two hardcovers reminded me how long it is has been since I went to the library on the regular. Growing up, new books were more of a biannual or triannual treat, closely linked to new school years or birthdays and Christmas—in the interim, libraries were my jam. Dad took me to the local library every week and a bigger one several times a month. Usually I had books to pick up from the front desk, but we also looked at the magazines and media (VHS, DVD, and CD). It was a real high to come home with a good “haul” in the canvas book bag.

Eventually I traded the local library for my college library . . . and my college library for my personal library. Because that’s what I’m building. I treat every book with care and plan on someone else owning it someday—I am just its caretaker for a brief time on earth. I am grateful to have the choice to buy a brand-new book if I like (a choice I exercise a bit too frequently).

Nonetheless, I think I will start going to the library weekly again. The public library was a blessing to me, one I’d like to make sure thrives in the community. There is also great wisdom in getting your shopping kick out of a trip to the library. You carry home something tangible, and you’re granted a finite time frame in which to read it. It cannot sit and collect dust on your shelves for (ahem) years on end, giving you every motivation to apply yourself to reading it. (I once kept Seven Pillars of Wisdom overtime and almost got fined $25. Don’t try this at home.)

I may also try to resume my practice of reading a book from the library before purchasing it. Not that I’m averse to buying books or taking a chance on an author, especially if it’s one I’ve read and enjoyed before. But as someone who has little discernment in book buying—or more charitably, a very open mind—I’d really like my personal library to be “the best of the best,” along with a few titles that I view as important even if they weren’t 5-star reads. In many cases, the library can serve a great purpose in vetting books and exploring editions.

How about you—how has the library played a role in your reading life?

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We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans and Comedy

Rating: a generous 3 out of 5 stars
CW: occasional strong language and crude humor

I’m truly torn on a rating for this one . . . The first 1/3 was truly gripping and interesting. I flew right through it. The last 2/3 was a bit of a slog, and if I was not reading it for a book club, in all honesty I might have DNF’d it.

This is a work of what I’d call journalistic history. Written in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, it draws largely upon primary sources and interviews, each chapter a vignette focusing on a particular indigenous person(s) in comedy, with some overlaps in media at large. Overall, I found the topic extremely fascinating. From my limited perspective, the book does a fairly good job of navigating the balance between two very different topics: the terrible atrocities suffered by the indigenous peoples of the US and Canada, versus their desire to negate stereotypes and amplify their perspectives through the medium of comedy.

There were a couple of things that bothered me. First . . . this book will not age well. Unfortunately it demonstrates one of the issues it critiques—namely, being geared towards an old-school white audience. If you have never heard of Andy Griffith, Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson, or any of those older-generation personalities, then you’re going to be greatly confused by many of the references. (I have heard of most of them, and even I was struggling to keep up with the whirlwind of names mentioned!)

Another problem is that due to its highly focused style, this book doesn’t serve an ignorant reader (such as myself) well in contextualizing Native American comedy within their own cultures. We do get a good understanding of how it is contextualized within Hollywood culture and media . . . much is covered about various comedians’ stints in Nevada and LA. But apart from a bit about powwow emcees, I felt there was a great deal lacking in explaining their personal history of comedy or even storytelling. I was disappointed not to have come away with a bit more knowledge. Rather, most of the book is quite repetitive, talking about how each comedian found their career path, who inspired them, etc. Good info for sure, but a bit limited in scope.

One thing I highly recommend is looking up these artists and comedians on YouTube as you go along. It makes the book much more enjoyable, getting to see the comedy style of the 1491s and Charlie Hill, or listening to a protest song by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Take your time with these sections, and you’ll be glad you did.

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