Friday, September 28, 2012

In Review: The Summer Library Series

The first time I tried to check out a book from the library, that is, a book with no pictures, I was in first grade.  The book was A Vote for Love.  Evidently, I had been roaming on the other side of the children's section and found the metal racks where the teenage romance novels were kept.  When I took the book to the circulation desk, the librarian eyed the book then eyed me, and wanted to know if I realized the book had no pictures.  I was terribly insulted.  Yes, I knew it had no pictures.  Obviously, it has no pictures.  Maybe she even dared to ask me to get my mother's permission.

. . .

Forgive me.  I want to go on, but only because I need another library story to read.  It is Friday, after all.  And dedicated reader, you've been following What She Might Think, so you know what every Friday has meant all summer: a visiting poet or fiction writer has appeared to share a new, original essay on his or her childhood experience at the library. More than 1,000 readers know what Friday means here at What She Might Think, for that's how many readers came to read library essays this short summer.

But the wind is busy pushing summer backward in order to allow autumn to do what autumn has always done best: signal the end of warm, good things.  The Summer Library Series is over.

Editing the series has been, for me, one of those experiences that, while it's happening you both know you don't want it to end and that it absolutely will.  The essays themselves will not stay on What She Might Think forever.  It is, after all, each writer's work, and this website is no library archive.  Every writer wrote out of interest in the project and, I would say, a generous understanding of generosity.  Because of that, we must give them back their work.  Even the grasshopper knew that the ants' generosity had its limits.  So it is not just the end of summer, but nearly the end of our time to read the essays, too.

But now is now, and so reflections are here for only now, and they're artful, beautiful, strange, beating things:

Children reading in New York Public Library, circa 1920
Once upon a time, in a library, Owen Egerton smuggled horror novels into the children's section and "wished to God [he] could read!"  Matthew Brennan's mother was a painter, and her paintings hung in a library long gone.  Jack Kaulfus rode her bike almost every day one summer in Texas to air-conditioning, to a library, to a man who never questioned why she was choosing the books that she did, only her thoughts about them.  Dan Powell waited for a van of books to stop so that he could climb up the stairs to one of the most traveled vehicles that came through Colwich. Laura Ellen Scott's desk was empty at school because she was busy walking four miles to a library where there were enough books that she never encountered a nurse romance if she didn't want to.  The library discarded what came to be TJ Beitelman's favorite book, and he took care of it so that he could return it to the library, not knowing that they wouldn't take it back. John Kenny's library was a toyshop. Juliet E. McKenna just read and read read and read. Heather Anastasiu's town took place at her library. David Hadbawnik became David Hadbawnik over the course of reading in libraries while in Van Nuys, California, a little girl named Kathryn L. Pringle, fell in love with a statue outside her library and then decided to become an archaeologist.  Steinbeck killed Stacey Swann's pony in Sealy, Texas.  And then the library ended on a Saturday in Cincinnati for Stona Fitch.    

The series is over, but autumn is lovely, with the leaves how they change, and the air on your cheeks.  It is just the weather for a long walk that leads to a library. All our library authors are there, too, waiting for you in the shelves.

Warm Regards,
Erin Pringle-Toungate



Friday, September 21, 2012

Summer Library Series: Library Days by Stona Fitch

Every Friday this summer authors have been sharing their childhood experiences at the library, and we've now arrived at the final Friday of the Summer Library Series here at What She Might Think--not to mention the final Friday of summer. 

This week's author is novelist Stona Fitch who went to the Cincinnati Public Library until one day in fifth grade. In fiction, it's sometimes said that a way to start a story is to bring a a stranger into town, as that's a way to introduce conflict, tension, and suspense in a piece.  And it is.  But when the stranger appears in real life . . .  that's the day that ends more than a library. 


by Stona Fitch
Working my way down the aisles, 
I picked out novels like a crow, 
attracted by shiny covers and big type. 

Cincinnati Public Library, photograph by OZinOH ,
used under CC license
The self-study math program my fifth-grade teacher gave me fit in a carton that I hauled around like ant with an enormous crumb. The laminated lessons included a test every ten cards. But tucked in the back were the answer cards, so honest students could grade their own tests. I soon discovered that skipping ahead to the answer cards and pretending to take the tests saved a lot of time. In short order, I moved on to 10th-grade level, so far ahead that I could spend class time daydreaming.

Hauling around the math carton gave me the illusion of intellect—the middle-school equivalent of carrying around the two-volume set of Musil’s Man Without Qualities. That carton said I was smart, not just a scrawny dreamer in white corduroys, a web belt, and a blue button-down shirt.

On winter weekends, the carton earned me rides downtown to the main library, clearly the only edifice in southern Ohio large and scholarly enough to let me pursue my interest in mathematics. Every Saturday, my father would drop me off at the library while he went to work at the paper plant down by the river, an arrangement designed to keep me out of trouble.

The Cincinnati Public Library squatted on a full block of Vine Street, a brick heap of the International Style that looked like a joint project of I.M. Pei and the Aztecs. The airy, cement-walled reading room allowed it to stay extra cold during the energy crisis, now in full bloom. Students and eccentrics clustered on long expanses of tables and desks—everyone bundled in sweaters and down jackets, giving the library a gulag-ish vibe. We should have been carrying picks and shovels instead of books.

At the library, I ditched my math box and prowled through the fiction stacks, sampling books the same way my sister abused a box of chocolates, jamming her little finger into each soft middle to see what was inside then putting them back in the box, hole side down.

Working my way down the aisles, I picked out novels like a crow, attracted by shiny covers and big type. Hours flew by. A hunt for Nazis (The Odessa File) segued to depressed guy in Pennsylvania (Rabbit Redux) then on to an interplanetary catastrophe (Cataclysm!). These choices weren’t intentional—these titles just happened to be at eye-level.

One Saturday in early December, I had to leave the fiction section to go to the men’s room downstairs, a smoky haven for creeps. I peed and washed my hands and found myself alone in the dingy bathroom except for someone grunting and rustling around in one of the stalls. The stall door flew open and a tall man rushed across the bathroom. He wore a blue pin-stripped suit and a white shirt and looked exactly like a bank manager, except his fly was open and he was stroking himself with intense devotion. His watery face was a rictus of ecstatic pain or its reverse.

I turned to run but he grabbed my gray sweater and pulled me down toward him. My clunky black orthopedic shoes slipped on the tiled floor as I tried to get away. He had a firm hold of me but I managed to wriggle away, freeing my spindly arms from the sweater, which slipped past my face in a blur of gray wool. I slid into the wall next to the hand-dryer, stunned, my concave chest heaving.

Our brief fight left the banker with nothing but my wooly husk, which would suffice, apparently. He balled it up and mashed it into his cock over and over.

Photograph by Joe Thorn, used under a CC license
I struggled to put the scene before me in words to convince myself it was actually happening. A banker was fucking my sweater in the men’s room of the Cincinnati Public Library!

After a moment he gave a gruff yelp. Then he held my used sweater toward me like a gift.

No thanks. I shook my head and ran, slowing only to grab my math box on the way out.

My library days were over.


Stona Fitch lives and writes in Concord, Massachusetts and is the author of five novels, including Give + Take (2010), Printer's Devil (2009), and Senseless (2001).  "Library Days" is an excerpt from his memoir-in-progress, Funny As Hell. He is also the founder of generosity-based publisher Concord Free Press, which gives away its books, asking only that readers donate money to a charity or someone in need. Readers are encourgaed to pass the book on to another reader after they're finished.  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Summer Library Series: Then Steinbeck Killed My Pony by Stacey Swann

Welcome back to this Friday's installment of the Summer Library Series wherein an author reflects about his or her childhood experience at the library.  This week's author is fiction writer Stacey Swann who grew up attending the Gordon Memorial Library in Sealy, Texas.


by Stacey Swann

I refused to finish the book or to forgive the librarian.

From unknown children's book, please contact me if you know its name

You know the stereotype: the shy child, always reading, happiest when tucked away in the library, more comfortable in the solitary world of books than making friends. But I wonder if that stereotype might be missing something. Maybe my own childhood love of books was less about how they allowed me to embrace my shyness and more about how they let me rebel against the shyness I was saddled with. To be, as I bonded with and became those characters, definitely not shy.

When I was six, the Sealy, Texas public library moved from a cramped space across the street from the Methodist church to a large, modern building across the street from the public pool (in towns as small as Sealy, every building comes with locational context). Built through a bequest from the late Dr. Virgil Gordon and his wife Josephine, I suspect it was a fancier library than most small Texas towns could boast in 1980.

My mother brought my sister and I there often throughout our childhood. Despite not having been there in more than twenty years, I can still remember the glass display case by the water fountain, the large wood-lined meeting room, and the shelves and shelves of books. I owned my best loved books—The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series—but the library satisfied my need to read every single Encyclopedia Brown book, and that alone made me adore the place.

Those early heroes were well-loved because I could see myself in them. When Tolkien begins The Hobbit, he introduces us to Bilbo by saying that the Baggins clan “never had any adventures or did anything unexpected . . . This is story about how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.” And Encyclopedia Brown “wanted to be helpful. But he was afraid that people wouldn’t like him if he answered their questions too quickly and sounded too smart.” I could identify with these characters even when they went on to do things totally outside my own comfort zone. Those books straddled the line between safe and scary.

     In the fourth grade, my school librarian—probably due to my love of The Black Stallion—suggested I check out The Red Pony by John Steinbeck. I doubt she had read the book herself. This was not a “safe” book for a shy, horse-loving nine year old. The title pony is killed off in the first chapter. Even decades later, I can’t shake this image: “When he arrived, it was all over. The first buzzard sat on the pony’s head and its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid.” Our protagonist goes on to strangle the buzzard until it vomits on him, then beats it to death with a rock until its head is “a red pulp.” I refused to finish the book or to forgive the librarian.

In retrospect, though, that librarian, that book, likely pushed me in a more interesting, more challenging direction. By sixth grade, I had more than exhausted the Gordon Library’s children and young adult section. Instead, I ripped through the books my parents checked out. (They didn’t mind if my sister and I read them, as long as we didn’t take them from the living room or move their bookmarks.)  I happily consumed Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, and Colleen McCullough, but I most vividly remember Stephen King.

A mere two or three years after The Red Pony incident, I was transfixed by his story collection Skeleton Crew. I haven’t read it since, yet the details of “The Jaunt,” “Survivor Type,” and “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” are fresh for me. Before I entered high school, I had finished The Bachman Books, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, and Misery. I had moved from shy characters in extraordinary circumstances to countless variations of personality placed in violent and outrageous circumstances.

While I’ve never fully shed my shyness, it did seem to retreat through my junior high years. I even joined the Debate team in high school. After all, I reasoned, even if I did embarrass myself at a speech tournament, that was nothing compared to eating your own hands and feet in order to stay alive. (Seriously, check out “Survivor Type. ” King himself said, "As far as short stories are concerned, I like the grisly ones the best. However the story 'Survivor Type' goes a little bit too far, even for me.") 

"Girl Reading" by Leah Kelley,
used with photographer's permission
In writing this essay, I stumbled on the news that my library, like so many across the country, is in financial trouble. Its future is even more complicated because it's technically a private library, and neither the city nor the county say they can give more than a fraction of its operating budget. Regardless, the library is an amazingly important space, even besides all the good it does the community in the expected ways. It’s a vast place where we can still stumble accidentally upon books, be exposed to things that might veer away into unsafe territory. Because it is those things, those unexpected and challenging encounters, that really make us who we are.


Stacey Swann
Stacey Swann lives, writes, and teaches in Austin, Texas. Her short stories have appeared in Epoch, Versal, The Saint Ann’s Review, Memorious, Freight Stories, and The Good Men Project. Once a contestant on the game show Jeopardy!, Swann was also the editor of American Short Fiction, a recipient of a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and a finalist for the Jesse Jones Fellowship. Swann is currently at work on a novel entitled Olympus, TX.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Summer Library Series: The Ontological Architect by kathryn l. pringle

map to van nuys public library, van nuys california
Welcome to the first Friday of September and the eleventh (!) week of the Summer Library Series here at What She Might Think, where all summer writers have visited and reflected on their childhood experiences at the library.  

This week's library author is poet kathryn l. pringle, who grew up digging through the shelves and the past, at the Van Nuys Public Library in Van Nuys, California.


picture of Mr. Pringle holding his baby girl and later poet, kathryn l. pringle
kathryn l. pringle and her father
by kathryn l. pringle

I needed cold, hard FACTS and I knew exactly where to get them: the Van Nuys Public Library.

Photograph of the pillared entrance into Van Nuhys Branch Library, Van Nuhys California
Van Nuys Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library,  
Photograph by Vahe Manoukianused with photographer's permission
When I asked my father, now 86 years old, what he could remember about me and the public library in Van Nuys, he thought for a moment and said, “When you were really, really little you loved The Little Engine that Could.”

My father would take my sister and me to the library often. I want to say he was an avid reader, but compared to my mother, who always had a book in her hands unless she was working or eating, he was just a little above average on this scale. We were, in fact, a family of readers and so economics came into play. A family on a budget equaled a family that frequented the public library. That, and I feel certain that my father didn’t want a house with books on every wall (which, ultimately we did have, because everyone knows once you love a book it must always be within reach).

Photograph of the large sculpture of the Native American Fernando
Fernando - Photograph by Vahe Manoukian 
used with photographer's permission
There was no such thing as a quick trip to the library (I maintain this is still true today). We had to park a little bit out of the way because the library was in this giant quad, filled with government buildings and replete with well-maintained plants, grassy areas, and my second-favorite statue (the first being the Amelia Earhart statue, of course): Fernando.

I both loved and feared Fernando. He stood so strong and fierce and half naked. He was maybe my second crush (after Amelia Earhart). So with the walk from the car, my lingering with Fernando, and my father’s usual answers about the courthouse (I’ll get to that in a minute), it took about twenty minutes for us to actually get INTO the library itself.

The library was our activity center. We didn’t do scouts or play sports or take music or dance lessons - we went to the library.

Once inside, the touching of every book in the children’s section was an absolute must. How, with those soft plastic dust covers and that library book smell - the smell that to this day I swear is the smell of potential energy - could anything else have come first?

Photograph of poet kathryn l. pringle as a child kneeling before a book
kathryn l. pringle
Then, my use of the library had been dictated by whim. Picture books and puzzle books were IT. But one day, quite suddenly, everything changed. The Van Nuys Public Library and its place as the most important institution on Earth revealed itself to me when, at the ripe old age of eight years old, I decided to become an archaeologist. Being the diligent, overachieving student that I was, I therefore had to begin my studies immediately. My subscription to Archaeology magazine, with its large print and too-easy maze games leading through ancient tombs, had been disappointing. I was serious and needed serious books. I needed cold, hard FACTS and I knew exactly where to get them: the Van Nuys Public Library.

At eight years old I had finally realized that the library was this amazing RESOURCE. It was this place that was filled with critical information and it was all mine for the taking. And I took the hell out of it. (Incidentally, it was about this age that I also realized the Van Nuys Public Library sat in the same quad and directly across from Van Nuys County Courthouse and Los Angeles Superior Court--as well as Van Nuys City Hall, the Los Angeles Sheriff Department, and the Los Angeles County Registrar--and I began suspecting that all people in the vicinity NOT entering the library were criminals. . .  thus, the many questions for my father to field on the way into the library.)

Monument for van nuys public library
Photograph by Vahe Manoukian used with photographer's permission
I began with books on Ancient Egypt and branched out in every possible direction. Sure, there was the occasional books by Dumas, Twain, Blume, Poe. . . but mostly there was ancient history and bones. By junior high I was still obsessed. I was so dedicated to pursuing archaeology that my nickname was “Digger.” I even carved a replica of an ancient Egyptian barge out of balsa wood, and it was so cool the school librarian asked if she could put it on display in the school library.

Ultimately, however, I didn’t become an archaeologist. I branched off into a related field, a field that I had always been leaning toward but hadn’t realized. I became a writer--a cultural anthropologist or an ontological architect of sorts. And it all still begins with a visit to the public library. Every book I write starts there with massive amounts of research. Not much has changed since I was eight.


picture of kathryn l. pringle writing in her office
kathryn l. pringle
kathryn l. pringle is a poet living in Oakland, Ca. Her book fault tree recently won Omindawn’s 1st/2nd book prize (selected by CD Wright). She is also the author of Right New Biology (Heretical Texts/Factory School), The Stills (Duration Press), and Temper and Felicity are lovers (TAXT). 

Her poems can be found in journals such as the Denver Quarterly, Fence, Phoebe, and horse less review. Her work can also be found in the anthologies Conversations at the Wartime Cafe: A Decade of War (WODV Press), I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Les Figues), and forthcoming in The Sonnets: Rewriting Shakespeare (Nightboat Books). 

Check out to find out whether your library has books by kathryn l. pringle.