the library of the mind

The one area in which I find bookstore classification preferable to library classification is literary nonfiction. A good book store will have a section reserved for essays, and sometimes longer nonfiction narratives. At such a store, you can get one-stop shopping for the works of Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Gretel Ehrlich, et al. In both Dewey and LC, the work of these authors will be split up and shelved by topic. You may read McPhee because you are interested in geology or bark canoes or oranges or cod fishing, but it is more likely that you read McPhee because you love his writing, because you find that, like the best teachers and conversationalists, he can make any topic interesting. You learn from reading him, but you don’t set out to learn.

Several discussions dealing with fiction, nonfiction, reading, and learning have been wending their way around the biblioblogosphere of late, and they’ve gotten me thinking. Nonanon has written recently that she loves nonfiction because it pulls her into the world and teaches her things, whereas fiction tends to pull her away from the world. There’s a lively discussion going on in the comments about what you can learn from each. The NEA, in its Reading At Risk report, has been telling us for some years that there is a crisis in American reading because fewer people are reading–although it should be noted that to the NEA, reading means reading literary fiction. Thrillers and suspense novels don’t count, but apparently reading Refuge or An American Childhood doesn’t count either, which is rather a slap in the face to those of us who spent time and money studying nonfiction writer. And then, as Karen notes, there are people who believe that we shouldn’t be reading fiction because we can’t learn any information from it.

This last statement is so ludicrous that I was considering a blog post consisting just of information I learned from reading fiction: you can test for oxygen by lowering a candle into a well hole — if the flame goes out, you shouldn’t go down, because you won’t be able to breathe (the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder). You ride a horse by gripping with your legs, not by hanging on with your hands (The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis). Medieval Poles feared invasions by the Tartars (The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly) — I even once got to use this information when taking a geography test. The layout of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg). I could go on–as I imagine could most of you–what information have you learned from reading fiction?

I have been using as my e-mail signature of late one of my favorite bits from Samuel Johnson (or to be more precise from Boswell’s Life of Johnson):

Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study. I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together. A man ought to read just as his inclination leads him: for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

Almost everything I believe about reading is summed up in that passage, and it explains why I became a librarian and not a teacher. It also explains my rather peculiar study habits. It is not, of course, a good way to organize a public library (although it serves to some extent as the basis for the Prelinger Library, and it fits well with the everything is miscellaneous nature of the digital world), but it is the way the library of the mind works. Those who wish to proscribe what we should read and why, and what we should take from our reading, would be better advised to stop talking and start wandering in the stacks, trusting in serendipity, that greatest of all library attributes, to lead them in the right direction.


Though I’ve mentioned them in several other places already, I’d like to mention a couple of things once again.

This past week I did two things: I finished my last library school class and I finished paying off the last of my credit card debt. I am actually much, much prouder of the latter. When your parents have three doctorates (two Phs and an M) between them, it’s a little hard to get excited about a master’s degree, even if it’s a second master’s degree. School has always been easy for me, but money never has been.

I tend to tell people that my credit card debt was the result of unemployment and moving expenses, and while these things are partly to blame, the average $3000-$5000 I’ve carried since I graduated from college was really the result of plain old stupidity. Since a lot of people have problems with debt — some smaller than mine, some greater (and it’s worth knowing that I still have another year of car payments and many more years of student loan payments) — I thought I’d write a little about how I finally got mine paid off.

I will note at the start that it is much, much easier to pay off debts when you have an actual job. The job that I have now is the first full-time job I’ve ever held — I got through my twenties on temp jobs and tutoring and graduate employee stipends and dog-walking. It is also a lot easier to pay off debt if you are a single person with no dependents and live in a place where the rent is cheap.

I was never given much of a financial education. I was told, of course, that I ought to pay off credit card debt in full every month, but I was also lead to believe that actually doing so was optional. I never learned to make a budget, and though I was frugal in many ways, I also had expensive tastes, most notably for travel and food. But the lack of a budget and a plan meant that every time I got the debt paid off, it soon rose again, because something came up — my car broke down, or my cat got sick — and I didn’t have the money budgeted to pay for it.

This year, thanks to the advice of Jessamyn, I started using Pear Budget to track expenses and to make sure that I was putting aside money each month for car repairs and school tuition and visits to the vet and various other exigencies. I used the calculators at to help figure out how much I needed to pay on various debts each month, and I took a lot of the various advice they offer on that site. I also realized that it wasn’t a good idea to deprive myself totally, and so I thought about what kinds of things most improved the quality of my day, and which of those could be substituted or given up. For me, that meant that I stopped buying books and CDs but still got to have goat cheese and good coffee.

In writing about this, I feel like maybe I’m making it sound easy, which it wasn’t — but it also wasn’t as impossible as I once feared. Now I have no credit card debt and I have money in the bank to cover most minor disasters. In a few more months, I should be able to cover at least one major one. In two weeks, I go on vacation with a plane ticket I’ve already paid for. I am, yes, feeling a wee bit chuffed pretty damn proud of myself.

my kitchen, your kitchen

Meredith asks if a blogger can go too far in disclosing things about her life on her blog.

It’s not a question I have an answer for, particularly not the case of the blog in question, which I’ve never read before and for which I therefore have no sense of context. It’s a question that interests me, though, because I used to be in a writing program where we often discussed very similar things.

As many of you know, before I ever dreamed of being a librarian, I killed some time by getting an MFA from a nonfiction writing program. It was a program known somewhat for being “the place where people go to figure out their pasts,” and I was there shortly after the mad memoir rush of the 1990s, when Kathryn Harrison told us about the affair she had with her father; Lucy Grealy wrote about the dozens of reconstructive surgeries she’d had on her face; Elizabeth Wurtzel told us about sex and drugs and rock and roll and mental illness; Dani Shapiro wrote about being the mistress of her best friend’s father; and on and on.

Some of the people in my program were horrified by such confessionals; some were horrified by some but not others; and some were trying to write their own. We were all, however, doing more or less what many bloggers do — we were trying to use our own experiences and ideas to illuminate something. Some people leaned more heavily on experiences and some more heavily on ideas. Some people’s experiences seemed more innocuous; others seemed at times like too much information. I sat in workshops where people were accused, because of something they’d written, of alcoholism, codenpendency, child neglect, and a host of other ills. (It’s a barrel of fun getting an MFA, let me tell you.)

“Do you value your writing more than your family’s privacy?” is a difficult question for many of us to answer. If you say yes, you sound selfish; if you say no, you risk sounding like you’re not really committed. People whose stories do not involve much in the way of marital discord, drug abuse, suicide, rape, and so on have in some ways an easier time of it, because the personal stories that they tell are less likely to invoke censure. But not everyone’s life is free from such ills. If you dig deep enough, almost no one’s life is. Coming to understand that was one of the things that made me start to feel okay about my own life.

When I was in college, I worked for campus patrol, and one of our recruiting posters said simply, “Some women take back the night every night.” Take Back the Night [Wikipedia entry; eponymous page of unknown origin] is the name given to a slew of activities — marches, rallies, speakouts, etc. — protesting violence against women. In my hometown, Take Back the Night was usually a march through downtown to a local park, where an open mike was set up and anyone who wanted to could tell her story. It’s a safe, quiet, and respectful space. Campus Patrol, a lot of the time, was nothing like that — it strove for the respect part but was generally more boisterous, often described as “the closest thing Vassar has to a fraternity” (supposing that it was a fraternity founded by Dungeons and Dragons geeks). I was fond of that poster, though, and I have tried to implement it in my life as much as I can. Sometimes taking back the night is a messy business — but I try my best to respect other people’s mess, and hope they’ll do the same for mine.

The title of this post, which I realize may be a bit obscure, comes from a poem by Anne Sexton called “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further.” It’s from her first collection, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and is addressed to her poetry teacher, John Holmes, who had advised her not to publish the material in the book, much of which dealt with her time in and out of mental hospitals, saying, “You’ll certainly outgrow it, and become another person, then this record will haunt you and hurt you. It will even haunt and hurt your children, years from now.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, from whose biography of Sexton the above information is taken, goes on to say that Sexton sent the poem in a letter replying to Holmes, “a defense not only of her manuscript, but of the whole genre of poetry that would soon be labeled ‘confessional.'”

Whether or not Sexton’s life and work did affect her children aversely (one of them grew up to write her own book about it) is, like most of this post, a subject for debate. My views may strike some readers as abundantly clear, but they are in fact frequently in flux.