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February 19, 2024

At The Public Library

By Chris Miller

The inside was dark. I looked around. The public library, aside from the shelves of books, had computer kiosks, study tables, a large print collection and two small meeting rooms where I presumed children listened to a storyteller or elderly women knitted Christmas sweaters. The library walls were decorated with posters promoting literacy and upcoming community events. For example, this Wednesday there was a family night session on how to choose a pet. The public library was also hosting a chef offering a free class on how to use the Internet to spice up your cooking. I looked at the posters, but was interested in none of them.

I liked this public library, even though the lighting was dim, the roof leaked and the librarians were none too friendly. One of the librarians was friendly enough - and pretty, too. Her name was Tammy. She had long brown hair that fell straight down. Tammy was built sort of like a willow, skinny but with breasts. Once I visited her at the library and we spent all afternoon sitting in comfy chairs and talking about our favourite books. I talked about "Sons and Lovers" by D.H. Lawrence and she talked about the Harry Potter series. When I visited the library today, Tammy was not working, so I searched the bookshelves for something worthwhile to read.

Lately I was into reading again after a long drought of reading nothing. Whenever I discovered a new writer like D.H. Lawrence or Ernest Hemingway I devoured every book they wrote. It was a kind of magic to read in bed at night under the covers a new book from one of my favourite authors. Then a sad day arrived inevitably when I would come to the realization that I would never find another of their works because I had read all of them, and these authors were dead. With Hemingway gone and Lawrence gone, whom could I turn to? When this happened, I stopped reading altogether, and resorted to watching TV or bouncing a tennis ball against the basement wall.

Then, I discovered another one, another wordsmith that wrote with passion, that was unafraid of emotion, a writer who could still excite me. His name was Sherwood Anderson and, as with the others, I went about reading everything he wrote. Every line of Anderson's had its own special energy. His sentences were short, his words understandable, not confusing me with his grandiose vocabulary like so many other writers tried doing. Pain was intermingled with superb simplicity. With other writers, they either had nothing to say, or if they did, it took them too long to say it and I could not get halfway through their novels. I was an admirer of great literature, but I refused to read with a dictionary at hand. I needed the clarity of Anderson.

All of this literary talk reminded me of college or, more specifically, of a particular college instructor. The instructor always came out drinking with the students in the evenings. He spoke of what he called "the literacy breakdown" in our culture, how the young people were so immersed in computer games and rock music videos that soon none of them would be able to read and write intelligently. I agreed with him on this point, definitely.

"There are only two immortal works," he would say, tipsy on a vodka cooler, not talking as coherently as he did in class when he was teaching. "Moby Dick and anything by Charles Dickens."

While I didn't exactly agree with his choice of classic literature, I agreed with the point that he was trying to get across. He continued, "A day is coming when a university graduate will not be able to read either one of them. We are a doomed society."

I thought of this ominous prediction by my former college instructor as I went through the fiction section of the library. The fiction collection had romance, westerns, mysteries, science fiction, Oprah's book club choices, National Book Award winners, all that. Around and around the big room I walked pulling the books off the shelves when a title caught my attention and I read a few lines of one, put it back, glanced over a few pages of another, then put it back as well. The library, it seemed, had nothing worth reading. I could not understand why the writers we studied in junior high and the novelists that were deemed excellent were the very same writers that had nothing to say. Rows upon rows of their dull books filled the public library. Book after book on the shelves, and nobody had anything to say.

I went looking for the real books, the literary fiction. Finally I found a book that I wanted to read. I brought it up to the checkout desk. I signed out an Anderson book that was titled "The Egg and Other Stories." I had read most of his short stories and his immortal novel: "Winesburg, Ohio." When I signed out this one, an old prune-face flashed a tentative librarian smile.

"Tammy not working today?" I asked.

"It's her day off," said Old Prune-face.

"Is she in tomorrow?" I asked.

Old Prune-face gave me a querulous look. "I cannot tell you that information - it's private."

I didn't argue this point. I asked, "Will you be getting anymore books by Ivan Turgenev?"


"The author of Fathers and Sons," I said. She didn't seem to know what I was talking about, so I added, "He was an angry Russian." I wanted to tell her that Turgenev, outside of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, was the most influential Russian writer of all-time, but I didn't think she would care. After all, this woman was nothing more than a librarian who signed out books to people, and not a promoter of great literature.

"I can look into that for you," said Old Prune-face, as she stamped "SEPT 7 2004" on the inside cover and surrendered the book over to me, looking scruffy in my ripped-up jean jacket and unshaven face.

As she stamped the Anderson book, I could not help but notice that I was only the 13th person to check out this book since Nov. 1, 1981. I also observed that no one even touched this book in the years 1983, 1985 or 1991. If Tammy had been working, I'd inquire about this oddity. Why did nobody read Anderson? I never learned about him in high school. Why the secret? If people weren't reading, we wouldn't have public libraries. I thought about this library where the checkout lines were always long, the book return bin was always overflowing, and the clean cut kids or the criminals doing community service were always scurrying around putting books away on the tall shelves. It bothered me, this lack of knowledge about the classics.

Wondering, I asked Old Prune-face, "What the hell are people reading?"

* * *

Chris Miller, born in Edmonton, Alberta (the so-called City of Champions) in 1971, began writing short stories and poetry at a young age. Then Miller gave up writing altogether for the world of work and bars, not publishing, not writing, throughout his early twenties. Those years were spent roaming from odd jobs in coal mines and liquor stores to odd dwellings across Western Canada. Attaining his journalism diploma at Grant MacEwan College, Miller later secured a job with the Wainwright Review, working as editor of the fledgling newspaper. It was a job that took no effort except for the strength to show up and the patience to perform mindless operations. In 2001 he took over as editor of the Cold Lake Sun, a community newspaper in Alberta's newest city. Now he has come out of literary hibernation and began to write fiction again. Miller's first generally recognized publication date is in the 1990s, with a handful of poems published in small anthologies. Miller has authored two novels: One Bang and Eye of the Noodle.

Article © Chris Miller. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-12-11
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