Go Set a Watchman: Time To Reevaluate Our Heroes — and Our Conscience?

 

As I started Go Set a Watchman, Harper’s Lee’s highly anticipated sequel that is now being labeled as a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, I tried to manage my expectations. Early reviews and quick takes from the chapter released online a few days before told me that Atticus Finch wasn’t quite the beloved everyman hero that we all grew up with, and that Lee’s writing wasn’t exactly of TKAM standards. And of course, there’s all the controversy just over the actual discovery and publication of the novel – how could I not go into this without some sort of bias?

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Things I’ve Learned While Volunteering at the Library

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I began volunteering at the local library last August. I’m in the circulation department, and once a week for about an hour and a half, I shelf-read and clean books. I also help shelve some paperbacks and organize carts ready to be shelved, things like that. And contrary to belief, it’s not only elderly people who volunteer at the library. There aren’t many of us younger ones, but there are some, including my supervisor, who is my age, and has been working at libraries since high school. I may be one of the youngest volunteers, but being at a library is like another home to me. So getting my library fix once a week and supporting the system? A winning combination for a book lover. (Bonus: I even met a wonderful woman at the orientation who has now become one of my closest friends here in San Diego. We talk about books, knitting, Downton Abbey, and desserts. It’s perfect.)

Shelf-reading basically means making sure the books and other materials are in order on the shelves. You literally go book by book and read the spine label, re-shelving any books (or DVDs or audiobooks, etc.) that are out of place, and aligning them all on the edge of the shelf so it’s pretty and upright. So for instance, in fiction, you follow the spine label by author, then title. In nonfiction, you follow by the Dewey Decimal number, then author, then title. Some sections are nearly always perfect, making for a boring (if not fast) review, while others seem to always be out of sorts (children’s, new fiction, some non-fiction sections).

For most people, volunteering at the library may seem like a very mundane and rather uninteresting activity, but for book lovers, it’s a nice escape to the world we love, and a continual learning experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned from volunteering at the library:

  • Children’s books are filthy. I don’t mean the content. I wear gloves and use a household cleaner and microfiber cloth to clean books. What appears on the cloth after just one cover of a kids’ book is absolutely disgusting. (Note: there are Purel sanitizer stations all throughout the library. This is an important feature.)
  • The children’s books are also always the last to be organized. The volunteers will go through all of the rest of the library each month, shelf-reading anything but children’s, until we have to do it before starting any other section again. Said one volunteer recently, “I don’t do children.” (I wondered after if she meant that specifically for shelf-reading or in a larger life sense.)
  • Mystery and thriller series have all sorts of interesting title themes. I’ve never read mysteries or thrillers, so for a long time I thought that Sue Grafton’s alphabet series was somewhat unique. Or that whole “The Cat Who…” series. But when I started shelf-reading, I realized there is an insane amount of theming that goes on with these titles across the board, some of them kinda cool, and some that are lame. The alphabet thing is quite common, actually (i.e. Capital Killer, Capital Larceny, Capital Murder), and then there’s overplayed themes like baking or holidays (Carrot Cake Murder, Red Velvet Cake Murders).
  • Patrons still rely on old services. When I’m in the circulation room cleaning books or doing other tasks, at least three to four calls come in with a request for renewals or someone wanting to know when their books are due. This is despite a printed receipt system when you check out your books that show when they’re due, and an online renewal system that is quite easy to use. I think it’s an interesting example of how even though libraries are instituting technology to streamline processes, many patrons still prefer traditional methods.
  • People still use libraries to get work done. Or play games on the computer. Believe it or not, people don’t exclusively go to coffee shops now to hog the Wi-Fi and work on their paper (or check Facebook). Even on Tuesday afternoons, the library is full of people getting work done on their laptops at study tables, doing research, and whatever else they need quiet space for. But a fair number of people come to the library to make use of the computers for job searching, playing solitaire, and watching YouTube videos.
  • Library book sales are hard to beat. If your library has an ongoing bookstore and frequent sales, take advantage of it. On any given day, I can buy a newer paperback, a great biography, a classic cookbook, or a fascinating non-fiction book for anything from $1-3. Many of these books are in near perfect condition. Consider donating books you don’t want to your library, and buying from them, too, if that’s an option. Keep the cycle going.
  • You can never run out of new material to read. If you’re open to expanding your literary horizons, the library is a perfect place to try new genres, new authors, and new subjects – all for free.

Have you volunteered or worked at a library? What you have learned from your experience?

For the love of books

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“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”  – Cicero

I think I’ve read more books in the last 10 months than I have in the last three or four years. I suppose that’s what being on a part-sabbatical while working from home in the country does for you – it’s given me a chance to get a library card again for the first time in years, to hungrily devour books long on my “to read” list and revisit favorites from my youth. It’s made me choose reading over TV and the social media, led me to staying up late just to finish one more chapter (or the end of a book), and it’s reaffirmed that reading is one of the things that brings me the most joy in life.

In honor of National Reading Month, I wanted to acknowledge some of the books, characters, and reading moments that have stuck with me through life, out of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve completed.

  • Little House in the Big WoodsThe Book of Goodnight Stories: a wonderful illustrated book of fairy tales and fables, broken up to last an entire year. It was one of the first books my mom read to me. I still have it, and look forward to reading it to my children someday.
  • The Long Winter: I think this was the first Little House book I ever read. My mom got it for me at a library booksale, a weathered and creased version, with the original Garth Williams illustrations. It got me hooked on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story, and I have since read all of her books in the series many times over (including now!). Laura was probably one of my first literary heroines. The Long Winter and the books rounding out the series are my favorites: Cap Garland! Town revivals! Almanzo’s Morgan horses!
  • Kindertransport and Clara’s Story: the first two books that I built a collection around of Holocaust stories, which I was fascinated by for years, especially after a trip to Germany at age 12.
  • Jane Austen: all of it. Read my post on her birthday here, and my own life lessons from her books here.
  • An Old-Fashioned Girl: my favorite Louisa May Alcott novel (yes, even over Little Women!). A sweet, good heroine, complete with a love story and a family’s plummet from rich to poor. Also, the introduction of the velocipede. I read it multiple times. Read my post on another one of Alcott’s books, a little-known “thriller.”
  • The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn: the book that sent me down the rabbit hole of the Tudor dynasty and the fascinating lives of Henry VIII’s court. Mostly historical fiction, but I’ve been diving into the non-fiction, too. Alison Weir does both well, and Philippa Gregory is always good for a scandal.
  • The Mitford books: I found this sweet series about a small-town pastor and his friends by Jan Karon quite by accident, but was absolutely taken by it. Less about believing in God, and more about believing in the beauty of friends, family, and love, these books are good for the soul.
  • Shakespeare: I read the requisite plays in high school, and some of his sonnets. But after taking a class in college and reading more of his work (Titus Andronicus, anyone?), I became more devoted. Favorites: Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III.
  • The Bregdan Chronicles: also originally known as The Richmond Chronicles (and the version I own), this historical romantic fiction series based before and during the Civil War is mostly out of print now, but the author is coming out with a new book.
  • Maniac Magee: a youth book I read a couple of times in elementary school about a young orphan boy on the run who makes an imprint in a racially divided town. There’s a kid called Mars Bar in it, and a lot of cake making. And running.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (and its sister books): Rebecca Wells hit straight to my heart with these books about four Louisiana women growing up and raising their families together. Need I say more? The movie doesn’t do justice to the book.
  • Anne of Green Gables: I would be remiss to leave this series off the list. I read through these books so many times they are like a comfortable blanket. My favorites were always Anne of the Island and Rilla of Ingleside. I’m still looking for my own Gilbert Blythe.

I could go on forever. There are so many books and authors that I love, but this is just a little glimpse at what’s impacted me the most. You can also read my post on an ode to the books of our youth, with some contributions from friends.

How have books and reading impacted your life? What are some of your favorite books that have stuck with you over the years?

Happy birthday, Jane Austen

Circa 20 years ago, I received my first Jane Austen book, a copy of Emma, a Christmas gift from an aunt who knew of my passion for reading. At the time, even though I was already reading classics and other advancing literature, I thought perhaps it might be a little above my head. But I only let the book sit for about a year on my shelf before I couldn’t wait any longer, and promptly devoured it. I was hooked.

Next, I read Sense & Sensibility and then Pride & Prejudice. I followed that with Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and finally, Persuasion. I have loved Jane Austen before I had heard of Colin Firth, or before Keira Knightley became a star. I’ll admit something — I’ve never even seen the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read the book at least five times.

People always tout P&P as their favorite Austen novel, and for many, it is king among classic literature. But like many of the essayists in Why We Read Jane Austen, I agree that choosing your favorite Austen novel is akin to picking a favorite child, or for me, a favorite dog. It’s nearly impossible. If I’m forced, it would be P&P, but from there, there is a close tie between Mansfield Park and Emma.

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A whole new look at Louisa May Alcott

“…I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

So states the fair Rosamond in desperation, in the opening line of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase. One of many manuscripts the author, best known for Little Women, wrote to help pay her family’s bills in the mid-1800s, the novel was considered so “sensational” it was not published until 1995.

A thriller from the writer who brought us the Marches, a semi-autobiographical classic that then led to follow-up novels in Little Men and Jo’s Boys? The same writer who penned heartwarming coming of age stories like An Old Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins?

Yes! When I picked up this book at the library, I wasn’t sure what to expect, even though I’ve always loved Alcott. “Sensational” and “thriller” aren’t exactly adjectives that come to mind when I think of her writing, and as I read the book, I realized they also meant very different things in the 19th century than they do now.

The basic premise is a young girl trapped under her grandfather’s care on an island off of England. When one of her grandfather’s friends and pupil shows up one stormy night, Rosamond is enchanted by this supposed knight who promises to show her the freedom and adventures she desires, and take her away on his yacht. But little does she know that this man has a dark past, and it will rear up to cut her happiness short, leading to a chase around Europe as she searches for protection and friends, and he tries to win her back, through a mix of passion and devious pursuit.

Every time I thought things were about to be okay again, Alcott surprised me with another twist, so I couldn’t put the book down, and it took until the very end (spoiler alert: no happy ending here!) for the story to wrap up.

Now that I’ve read this, I’m interested in reading some of Alcott’s other works in this genre. It actually is fitting since when she first began writing stories for her and her sisters to perform, and later to sell, they were full of pirates and deceptive characters and dark romantic twists.

Has anyone else read A Long Fatal Love Chase? Are there other authors you like that have lesser-known works in a different genre that you liked or didn’t?

Next on my reading list: Alison Weir’s Captive Queen, a story of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.