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September 2013

Libraries great and small

Reading is an Adventure by Charles Vess

"Libraries are the best literacy resource we have," says Malorie Blackman (the current Children's Laureate of Great Britain) in a recent article penned for The Guardian. "For children they provide an equaliser that allows everyone access to books, story-telling sessions, homework clubs; expert librarians who give non-partisan assistance and advice regarding books; and warm and safe environments within which to discover and explore the world of literature. Libraries switch children on to a love of reading, with all the ensuing benefits, and can make them lifelong readers. Without them, literacy may increasingly become the province of the lucky few, rather than the birthright of everyone."

From Library Lion by Michelle Knudson

''Library Mouse'' by Daniel Kirk

"Libraries," as Rebecca Solnit describes them, "are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it: here in the quiet rooms are the lives of Crazy Horse and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hundred Years' War and the Opium Wars and the Dirty War, the ideas of Simone Weil and Lao-Tzu, information on building your sailboat or dissolving your marriage, fictional worlds and books to equip the reader to reenter the real world. They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world, which might be the magic that all those children's books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds."

Adopt a Library

'A great library doesn't have to be big or beautiful," Vicki Myron points out. "It doesn't have to have the best facilities or the most efficient staff or the most users. A great library provides. It is enmeshed in the life of a community in a way that makes it indispensable. A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and always has what people need.''

Reading Matter by Casia Beck, Things I Need to Survive by The Lady of the Books

"Libraries are a force for good," says Libba Bray. "They wear capes. They fight evil. They don’t get upset when you don’t send them a card on their birthdays. (Though they will charge you if you’re late returning a book.) They serve communities. The town without a library is a town without a soul. The library card is a passport to wonders and miracles, glimpses into other lives, religions, experiences, the hopes and dreams and strivings of all human beings, and it is this passport that opens our eyes and hearts to the world beyond our front doors, that is one of our best hopes against tyranny, xenophobia, hopelessness, despair, anarchy, and ignorance. Libraries are the torch of the world, illuminating the path when it feels too dark to see. We mustn’t allow that torch to be extinguished."

Library destroyed by bombing, London 1940

Thinking about libraries, I'm reminded of this lovely passage from Sarah Smith's Chasing Shakespeare: "I shall tell you what I believe. I believe God is a librarian. I believe that literature is is that best part of our souls that we break off and give each other, and God has a special dispensation for it, angels to guard its making and its preservation." 


And yet libraries are now closing at a horrifying rate....and this will only get worse if we don't take immediate action in the UK, the US, and around the world. (Follow the links to organizations fighting the good fight.)

"Libraries are the thin red line between civilization and barbarism," says Neil Gaiman.

A call to arms if I ever heard one.

The Stockbridge Library by Norman Rockwell

The images above: "Reading is an Advemture" by Charles Vess; "From the Library" by Michelle Knudsen; "Library Mouse" by Daniel Kirk; a photograph from  CODE's "Adopt a Library" program;"Reading Matter" by Cassia Beck and"Things I Need to Survive" from The Lady of the Books; a photopgraph of a library bombed in the Blitz, London, 1940; and a poster design for The Stockbridge Library by Norman Rockwell.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today: The Proclaimers (those two irresistible Scottish lads) on the road to Vegas for their song "Let's Get Married." This one's for Howard, because it's our wedding anniversary today and this is a song we listened to at least a million times back when we did the scary deed of tying the knot and officially becoming a family.

Does every couple have songs that makes each think of the other? The one that never fails to make me think of my husband is Dougie MacLean's "This Love Will Carry," particularly after the things we've weathered as a family in the last few years. It's not a sweet song, but one about going through the dark of the woods together...for don't we all make that fairy tale journey at some point (or several points) in our lives? When we can do it hand in hand, that's a blessing indeed. In his performance below, MacLean (also from Scotland) is joined by the wonderful Appalachian American singer and musician Kathy Mattea. It is one of the most beautiful songs I know.

And now let me raise a glass to all of you and your loved ones too.

From our anniversary dinner, celebrated over the weekend

Into the Woods, 37: For our Feline Friends

Mark Twain with kitten"Mark Twain

According to one old legend, cats were the only creatures on earth who were not made by God at the time of Creation. When God covered the world with water, and Noah set his ark afloat, the ark became infested with rats eating up the stores of food. Noah prayed for a miracle, and a pair of cats sprang to life from the mouths of the lion and lioness. They set to work, and quickly dispatched all the rats — but for the original two. As their reward, when the boat reached dry land the cats walked at the head of the great procession of Noah's animals. Which is why, the legend concludes, all cats are proud, to this very day.

William Butler Yeats and his catWilliam Butler Yeats

George Bernard Shaw and his catGeorge Bernard Shaw

In the earliest feline images found on cave walls and carved out of stone, wildcats are companions and guardians to the Great Goddess — often flanking a mother goddess figure in the act of giving birth. Such imagery has been found in ancient sites across Europe, Africa, India and the Middle East. In China the lion, Shih, is one of the four principal animal protectors — associated with rain, guardian of the dead and their living descendants. In the New World, evidence of wildcat cults is found across Central and South America, where the jaguar was the familiar of shamans and a powerful totemic animal. Ai apaec of the Mochica people of Peru was a much-revered feline god, pictured in the shape of a wrinkle-faced old man with long fangs and cat whiskers. A hauntingly beautiful wood carving of a kneeling figure with the head of a cat was found just off the Florida coast — remarkably well preserved, the image dates back over three thousand years.

Gustav Klimt with his cat KatzeGustav Klimt and Katze

Colette and her catsColette

We find the first evidence of the wildcat's small cousin, Felis catus, in ancient Egypt — where the beasts were so sacred that any man who killed one was condemned to death. When a house cat died, the entire family shaved its eyebrows as a sign of grief; and mummified cats (along with tiny mummified mice) have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 1st century BC, the Greek historian Diodorus reported the fate of a hapless Roman who'd caused the death of a cat:

"The populace crowded to the house of the Roman who had committed the 'murder'; and neither the efforts of the magistrates sent by the King to protect him nor the universal fear inspired by the might of Rome could avail to save the man's life, though what he had done was admitted to be accidental. This is not an incident which I report from hearsay, but something I saw myself during my sojourn in Egypt."

Jean Cocteau and his catJean Cocteau

Heni Matisse and his cat MioucheMatisse and Miouche

Mau was the Egyptian word for cat — both an imitation of its speech, and a mother-syllable. Bast, the Cat-mother, was a goddess whose cult began in the delta city of Bubastis and eventually covered all of Egypt with the rise of the XXII Dynasty. Unlike the fierce lion-headed Sekmet from earlier Egyptian myth, Bast embodied the benevolent aspects of cats: fertility, sexuality, love and life-giving heat. Bronzes from the period show the goddess in her feline form (seated and wearing earrings), as well as in human form with the head of a cat, kittens at her feet. The twice-annual Festivals of Bast, as described by Herodotus, were carnivals of music, dancing, wine-drinking, love-making and religious ecstasy — dedicated to Bast in her aspect as Mistress of love and the sensual pleasures.

Picasso and his catPablo Piccsso

Jean Paul Sartre and his catJean Paul Sartre

Numerous legends tell of human beings who transform into the shape of a cat. Although some male wizards, magicians and shamans were gifted with this power, more commonly the shapeshifter was a woman, and a witch. Cats (along with bats, owls and toads) were believed to be witches' companions who aided in spells and carried messages to the Devil. During the tragically widespread witch trials of 16th and 17th century Europe, feline "familiars" were burned, hung, and drowned alongside their mistresses. A witch, it was said, could shape-shift into cat form whenever the moon was full. Good men were advised to lay consecrated salt on their doorstep, lest witches compel them to join in their revels.

Doris Lessing and her catDoris Lessing

Randall Jarrell and his catRandall Jarrell

When we turn from folklore to fairy tales, shape-shifting cats are viewed as less sinister creatures. In "The White Cat," a popular French fairy tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, the three sons of a king are sent upon a series of quests. The youngest son meets a lovely white cat, the queen of an enchanted castle filled with cat-servants and courtiers. She helps the prince with his tasks, and over time he falls in love with her. In the end, she asks him to cut off her head; sadly, the young prince obeys her command. This breaks the spell, and the cat assumes her true shape as a human princess. (For a thoroughly modern rendition of the tale, I recommend Holly Black's YA novel, The White Cat.)

In "Kip the Enchanted Cat," from Russia, a mother cat and her kitten are actually human beings under a fairy's curse. The kitten is raised with a human princess and eventually aids her with several magical tasks, leading to the spell's undoing and a double wedding with two suitable princes. (This tale — about women's friendships — was a particular favorite of mine as a child.)

"The Cat Bride" is a story of animal-transformation in reverse: a house cat becomes the human bride of a good and gentle man who allows the gossip of neighbors to undermine his marital contentment. (I recommend Jane Yolen's lovely retelling in her story collection Dream Weaver.)

Ernest Hemingway and one of his catsErnest Hemingway

W.H. Auden and his catW.H. Auden

"Silvershod"  (from Russia) is the tale of a poor man, a child, her beloved cat Moura, and a mysterious stag who sheds jewels in the snow. The fairy tale ends oddly, for the jewels bring prosperity but the dear little cat vanishes with the stag. In a bittersweet poem inspired by the fairy tale, Ellen Steiber writes:

In the north country
a child wakes in a soft feather bed
and remembers
a red-brown cat
whose nose was cold against her neck.

In the north country
a child sits in a tall, gabled house
and remembers a pale gray stag
with a silver hoof
who gave and took
what was most precious.

William Carlos Williams and kittensWilliam Carlos Williams

William S. Burroughs and GingerWilliam S. Burroughs and Ginger

The best known fairy tale cat of them all, of course, is that clever, bold rascal called "Puss in Boots." The story as we know it now comes from the French version penned by Charles Perrault in the 17th century; in earlier versions -- such as those of Straparola and Basile in Italy -- Puss is just as wily, but hasn't yet taken to wearing his famous boots. In a Scandinavian version, "Lord Peter," our plotting Puss is female, and is really a princess under a troll's evil curse -- but in most tales, Puss is a cat, nothing more, albeit a very magical cat. (The bawdiest and best retelling, in my opinion, is Angela Carter's, in The Bloody Chamber.)

Joyce Carol Oates and her catJoyce Carol Oates

Edward Gorey and his catsEdward Gorey

In additional to Puss in Boots and other memorable rogues from folklore and fairy tales, cats stalk through the pages of books beloved by children and adults alike.Who could forget the grinning Cheshire Cat met by Alice in Wonderland, or poor hungry Simpkin in Beatrix Potter's The Tailor of Gloucester? Or Rudyard Kipling's The Cat Who Walks by Himself, padding his way through the Just So Stories? Or Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussy Cat, setting to sea in their pea-green boat? Or T.S. Eliot's dashing Growltiger in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Or Mehitabel, friend to Archy the cockroach, in the poems of Don Marquis? Or the wily cats in Nicholas Stuart Gray's classic children's stories: Grimbold's Other World, The Stone Cage and Mainly in Moonlight?

Ray Bradbury and his catRay Bradbury

Peter Matthiesen and his catPeter Matthiessen

In 1817, the American author Washington Irving paid a visit to Scottish author and folklorist Sir Walter Scott. The following comes from Irving's account of that meeting, published in 1835:

"The evening passed delightfully in a quaint-looking apartment, half-study, half-drawing room. Scott read several passages from the old romance of Arthur, with a fine deep sonorous voice, and a gravity of tone that seemed to me to suit the antiquated, black-letter volume. It was a treat to hear such a work, read by such a person, and in such place; and his appearance as he sat reading, in a large armed chair, with his favorite hound Maida at his feet, and surrounded by books and relics, and border trophies, would have formed an admirable and most characteristic picture. While Scott was reading, the sage grimalkin [Scott's cat] had taken his seat in a chair by the fire, and remained with fixed eye and grave demeanor, as if listening to the reader. I observed to Scott that his cat seemed to have a black-letter taste in literature.

"'Ah,' said he, 'these cats are very mysterious kind of folk. There is always more passing in their minds than we are aware of. It comes no doubt from their being so familiar with witches and warlocks.' He went on to tell a little story about a gude man who was returning to his cottage one night, when, in a lonely out-of-the-way place, he met with a funeral coffin covered with a black velvet pall. The worthy man, astonished and half frightened at so strange a pageant, hastened home and told what he had seen to his wife and children. Scarce had he finished, when a great black cat that sat by the fire raised himself up, exclaimed, 'Then I am king of the cats!' and vanished up the chimney. The funeral seen by the gude man was one of the cat dynasty. "'Our grimalkin here,' added Scott, 'sometimes reminds me of the story, by the airs of sovereignty which he assumes; and I am apt to treat him with respect from the idea he may be a great prince incognito, and may some time or other come to the throne.'"

Haruki Murakami and his catHaruki Murakami

Alexander McCall Smith and his catAlexander McCall Smith

"Authors like cats," said Robertson Davies, "because they are such quiet, loveable, wise creatures. And cats like authors for the same reasons."

Marge Piercy and one of her catsMarge Piercy

Holly Black and her hairless catHolly Black and her hairless cat

To end with: two photos of Howard with my beloved cat Oliver at my old place in Arizona, 2008. I'd found Oliver as a starving kitten on the streets of Boston (in the late 1980s), and he was with me for twenty years -- a tough, fiesty, big-hearted fellow. I still miss him.

Howard and Oliver, 2008

Serenading Oliver

A Dog's Life, Part II

Maurice Senkak and MelvinMaurice Sendak and Melvin

Refections on community, literature, and language by Marilynne Robinson (from When I Was a Child I Read Books):

"I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of -- who knows it better than I? -- people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

John Cheever and Flora (photograph by Jill Krementz)John Cheever and Flora

Kurt Vonnegut and Pumpkin (photography by Jill Krementz)Kurt Vonnegut and Pumpkin

"I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle.

Edward Albee and PoochiEdward Albee and Poochi

E.L. Doctorow and Becky (photo by Jill Krementz)E.L. Doctorow and Becky

"All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

Mary Oliver and Percy (photograph by Rachel Giese Brown) Mary Oliver and Percy

John Katz and one of the dogs of Bedlam FarmJohn Katz and one of the dogs of Bedlam Farm

"We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides.

Ann Patchett with Rose (photograph by Jill Krementz)Ann Patchett and Rose

Amy Tan and her dog (photograph by Jill Krementz)Amy Tan and Bubba Zo

"For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form that we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives....

Isabel Allende with her husband and their dog OliveIsabel Allende, her husband, and Olive

Stephen King and his dog Marlowe (photograph by Jill Krementz)Stephen King and Marlowe

"One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use that I want to put it to, and when I summon it it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for the present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.

Jonathan Carroll and JackJonathan Carroll and Jack

Neil Gaiman and CabalNeil Gaiman and Cabal

"I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn't do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely.

Charles de Lint with Johnny Cash (white fur) and friendCharles de Lint with Johnny Cash (white fur) and friend

Alice Hoffman and Houdini (photograph by Richard Howard)Alice Hoffman and Houdini

"So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service -- and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice -- a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage.

Kinuko Y. Craft and her dog WolfgangKinuko Y. Craft and Wolfgang

Brian Froud and ElfieBrian Froud and Elfie

Rima Staines and MachaRima Staines and Macha

"Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyment of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here."

Taiko Maria Haessler and Buju (in puppyhood)Taiko Maria Haessler and Buju (in puppyhood)

Howard Gayton and TillyHoward Gayton and Tilly

Tomorrow: the cats' turn.

A Dog's Life

Mark Twain and his dogMark Twain

Writing advice from Marilynne Robinson (When I Was Young I Read Books):

"There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own.

George Meredith and his dogGeorge Meredith

Charles Dickens and his dog TurkCharles Dickens and Turk

"Words like 'sympathy,' 'empathy,' and 'compassion' are overworked and overcharged -- there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table at a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world.

Beatrix Potter and her dogsBeatrix Potter

G.K. Chesterton and his dogG.K. Chesterton

"Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and its distinctiveness.

Helen Keller and her dog Sir ThomasHelen Keller and Sir Thomas

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and her dogKaren Blixen (Isak Dinesen)

"Two questions I can't really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute.

Gertrude Stein and her dogsGertrude Stein

Virgina Woolf and her dog PinkaVirginia Woolf and Pinka

Frida Khalo and her dogsFrida Khalo

"There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But what we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell.

PG Wodehouse and his dog Ned (photograph by Jill Krementz)P.G. Wodehouse and Ned

Eugene O'Neill and his dog BlemieEugene O'Neill and Blemie

"The advice I give my students is the same advice that I give myself -- forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous.

"By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true."

Dorothy Parker and her dog MistyDorothy Parker and Misty

Dr. Suess and his dog ClunyTheodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Cluny

E.B. White and his dog MinnieE.B. White and Minnie

More dogs (and a few cats) tomorrow.