A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’ve been looking forward to our book reading in the community associated with “three days of peace and music” in 1968. Woodstock, New York has long been considered a sanctuary for independent thinkers. Progressives and dissenters. Musicians. Writers. Artists. Ironically, although the town is famous for lending its name to the Woodstock Festival, it was actually held at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm almost 60 miles away in the next county.
Only 90 minutes from where I live, I periodically sojourn to Woodstock to find my center amidst the military madness thrust upon me. In many ways, the village seems frozen in time. Peace continues to reign as a cause celebre. Maybe it’s just cultural branding, but the circle with the simplistic three lines is flagrantly displayed on posters, jewelry, t-shirts, buttons, flags, bumper stickers, hats and, of course, bongs. Stores feature origami peace cranes instead of chest-thumping eagles. It’s a strikingly different marketplace than that of most American communities where ethnocentric Old Glory is peddled, rendering peace symbols quaint relics from the past.
As Boomers continue to act out their worldview, Gen Xers and Millennials are doing a generation-removed interpretation of their make love, not war heritage. Most cars have bumper stickers to free Tibet or boycott an unethical corporation. Buddha’s and Ruth’s faces abound. Shoppers carry hemp tote bags touting one-liners for peace and justice. Vegetarian restaurants, health stores, and beat-poet chapeaus are plentiful.
You can always attend a vigil on the green. Vigils for peace. Vigils for victims of violence. Vigils for social justice. You name it – there’s a vigil for it.
Woodstock is the perfect setting for this reading titled Why We March – Then and Now. The women accompanying me will be reading parts of their foremothers’ stories found in my anthology Before They Were Our Mothers, illustrating the long continuum of disappointment and disregard that women still endure.
Yes, I smile. Woodstock is the perfect setting for this reading about female empowerment. Back to the garden we go.
YIKES! What are those lawn signs that read Save our library? What could be threatening a library in this free-thinking community?
We pull up in front of the modest structure and unload our gear. I ask the librarian about the signs and learn that when the elected library board put forth a proposal to replace the current 7,800-square-foot facility with a building almost twice as large, a group came forward to not only oppose the expansion but to advocate that the library district be dissolved, an action unprecedented in New York State. This would terminate current funding and governance; for library services to continue, a different configuration would have to be developed and approved through various governing and funding channels.
This dispute is tearing the town apart, exacerbated by the national political climate of kill or be killed. Having an illiterate POTUS doesn’t help.
Feeling protective, as if someone just threatened my grandmother, I open our reading by relaying the essence of a 1961 Twilight Zone episode titled The Obsolete Man in which there are no more books and no more libraries. The thought of having no libraries was so terrifying to Rod Serling that he equated it with being buried alive or aliens invading your home. Today, Serling’s prescience still haunts, fueled by a generalized sentiment that technology may indeed make libraries obsolete.
My reason for advocacy runs deep. In seventh grade, I was kicked out of our public library for acting like a seventh grader. While skillfully displaying flagrant disrespect for authority, I ignored the humorless librarian’s entreaties to “quiet down,” continuing my antics until banished. Since I was dumb enough to be wearing my school uniform and nametag, nuns at my school and my parents knew about it before I could walk the four blocks home. In addition to facing consequences there, I was barred from the library for one semester.
Maybe that’s why, despite turning out to be a fairly well-behaved adult, I avoided public libraries for decades. Although an avid reader, I had enough disposable income to buy my own books. Buy books and then give them away or crowd them into already-full bookshelves. The Internet also rendered a library’s collection superfluous.
Who needs the library? I scoffed.
Until the day a library beckoned me in. As if in a trance, I climbed the stairs to the entrance and wandered over to the information desk to meekly ask if my card, which had last been used more than twenty years prior, was still valid. I hopped onto a computer to determine if books on my reading list were available. Most were; those that weren’t could be reserved. I began to navigate my way through the tall book shelves, following that archaic Dewey Decimal system, which seemed surprisingly comforting and nostalgic to me.
I’d come home. Home to one of the great American reserves of knowledge. I proudly took my selections to the circulation desk and walked out hugging my cache. The books I took home, other hands had held. I found myself wishing I knew who’d turned these pages before me and what they thought of the book. I even fondled the clear plastic cover that signifies the obligation to preserve the book for the next reader. And the next. I was part of a community of readers.
Standing in this small musty library now, I feel like I’m standing in the bastion of community literacy where books patiently wait for people to care enough to read them. Books that tell us about our world and the stories and people (real and imagined) in it. Books available for us to borrow — for free.
Don’t get me wrong: As an author, I want people to buy books. But none of us could ever individually accumulate this incredible wealth of information; only by pooling public and private resources is it possible. A library is a sacred place where people read more than email and forsake cell phones. A place where books claim their rightful place in an educated society, and the art of literacy is publicly practiced. And, now, they’re even a place where seventh graders can have fun.
Our Why We March reading goes well. Attentive listeners. Good questions. Some sales.
Passing more lawn signs on our way out of town, I know the answer to my question posed decades earlier: We all need the library. I still regret having stayed away so long.
Postscript: The Woodstock Library dissolution referendum was defeated almost two to one. However, those in favor of dissolution can still boast of 36% voter support. Let this be instructive because if it can happen in Woodstock, it can happen anywhere. Now more than ever, support your public library. A library ballot might be folded into your school district’s budget referendum. Or a separate vote may be scheduled on your library budget and board candidates. Vote to support community literacy! To preserve a free-thinking society, we must ensure books and libraries will never become obsolete. Or, as Serling’s title The Obsolete Man suggests, we ourselves just might.
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live on: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad and the editor of the anthology Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women before Rosie Started Riveting.
Copyright 2019 Patricia A. Nugent