Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing, Reading, and Social Responsibility

Some reading this week has made me very happy, while other reading has made me very upset - no, not upset, angry.

Let's start with the happier of the two: Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Look, I know I'm late to this party. In fact I'm so late that I found a copy just sitting on the shelf at the Boston Public Library (which comes back in part II of this post - just to throw in that teaser). But I don't stay on top of contemporary fiction. I'm the first to admit that. I heard an English professor talking about this book and it reminded me that I've been meaning to read it, so I finally got off my ass and started the thing. I've been loving it. I expect to finish it in the next day or two.

I could go on and on about how masterfully I think Diaz handles this narrative - his mix of high and low language and culture in such a way that a part-time elitist/part-time slummer like me can enjoy it; his use of Spanglish that I find strangely non-obtrusive despite not speaking Spanish (didn't we all learn about "context clues" when learning to read?); his narrator's ability to be both sensitive and yet not wimpy, honest but not overly confessional. But what I want to mention here is something that Diaz may have done on purpose or may have just happened while he was crafting the rest of this narrative, bit by bit, phrase by phrase. Diaz has his characters in love with books.

[I should insert here that at the talk where a PhD discussed this book, a fellow academic wondered about teaching such a book, basically suggested that young Latino/as would not have "the resources" to understand it, but Diaz embeds in the book an argument against this potentially racist and certainly ignorant reaction.]

The main character, Oscar, loves comic books and sci-fi and fantasy, reading them and writing up manuscript after manuscript. His sister, too, loves books - she remembers not wanting to give back a borrowed copy of Watership Down as a kid, and asks Oscar to bring her her clothes and her books, when she has run away as a teenager. Later, a jock character, a weightlifter who kind of befriends Oscar, mentions writing fiction, though he admits, it was "all robberies and drug deals and Fuck you, Nando, and BLAU! BLAU! BLAU!" The point is that reading and writing is a part of these lives, an integral part. It is not pointed out so pointedly, just set into the narrative naturally, giving us a useful glimpse into something more interior than all the dialogue, all the action.

And now the stuff that annoyed me: bad news for Boston libraries. The BPL is facing a severe budget crunch, folks: "Library officials say they face a $3.6 million shortfall next year because of anticipated state budget cuts and a small reduction in funding from the city." Way too severe.

The Boston Public Library is considering closing up to 10 of its neighborhood branches and laying off one-quarter of its staff, cuts that would irrevocably alter America’s oldest municipally funded library system.

This is a nightmare. And good ol' ingrained Mayor Menino's comments did not help me feel better, as quoted in this article:

“Closing branches should be our last resort,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who met for three hours earlier this week with the library president. “But I think the library also has to have a transformation in how they serve the public. . . . In the last 25 years, technology has become a more important factor.’’

See my previous post. I mean, he doesn't even seem to know what he's saying. The digital movement cannot lead us to believe that we are wasting money by preserving and storing actual printed books! That is crazy. Take this out of the context that digital diehards have forced it into, and you'll see that a library, with actual books, with quiet space, with trained librarians, can offer a uniquely situated, incredibly important sanctuary to nurture the inner life Diaz alludes to in his novel, an inner life threatened by the technological invasions to our lives - cellphones, iphones, blackberries, televisions in elevators and over escalators in the mall, computers glowing at every desk, ads running on screens in the check-out line. We are doing ourselves a massive disservice by cutting funds to libraries in this tough economic moment.

And this isn't even to mention the loss of jobs at the library!

I don't know how to organize against this, but I'm certainly open to suggestions. I know the ALA hosts the I Love Libraries group, but I don't know if they do actions on a local level. Anyone?

We need to allow kids and adults the time, space, and resources to discover their own interests, outside of ads and other corporate-driven crap. This is too important to ignore.

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