Thursday, July 2, 2015

2015 Summer Library Series: Scofflaw by Simone Zelitch

Welcome to the inaugural post of this summer's library series!  I'm pleased to showcase a third season of excellent writers and their reflections on growing up in the library.  The series originated in Summer 2012, when I was awarded an Artist Trust Fellowship that gave me the time to work on my fiction and other creative projects.

I grew up in a small town in Illinois, and looked forward to the annual public library summer reading program: the appearance of new colorful bookmarks on the circulation desk, the hanging of a banner of that summer's theme, and best of all, all the shiny new books that began to arrive and were set out in cardboard displays on the children's shelves but remained cloaked in sheets until the opening day.  It was a wonderful anticipation to experience. 

But because those programs are for children, and I've left that phase in most ways, I wanted to create something that provided that same excitement for grown-ups and returned us all to the library.  May you find the same excitement each Thursday when a new library reflection is released here at What She Might Think, from now through August.  And may you find yourself returning to the library nearest you and supporting this important aspect of our lives. 

Please enjoy this reflection by novelist Simone Zelitch, whose many early books came from the circulation desk at a branch library in Philadelphia.

The front of a single story library with a green roof and two glass doors. Foreground is sidewalk sheeted in rain.
Picture of Bustleton Branch Library

by Simone Zelitch 
The Bustleton branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia looks like a highway rest step: a single-story structure with long, narrow windows and a corrugated green roof.  It’s located next to Washington High school, which was an easy walk from our house in Northeast Philadelphia.  My mother claims that she took out fifteen books a week for me.  I never came along which made the process more efficient, but could be the reason why I have no early memories of libraries, no sentimental images of choosing my own read-out-loud book and watching a librarian stamp it with the due-date.  It also may explain why I couldn’t grasp that these library books were shared property.   I’d dog-ear pages, crack spines, and stain whatever I was reading with whatever I was eating at the time.   You might say that I left my mark. 
Photograph of two, dark-haired young girls in a photobooth. One is older and wears a hat, and the other hugs her from behind, head on her shoulder. They hold a small ceramic cow.
Simone hugging her "hippie sister"
who now works as a digital archivist.
Used with permission of author.
Things got worse when I began to check out books on my own. I didn’t return them. Cheap paperbacks like Paul Zindel’s The Pigman migrated from the library’s wire racks to my bookshelf and stayed there, along with dozens of case studies about teenagers who drifted through a hostile world until they finally found the person who understood them. I was that person. No one could love those books like me. Returning them to the library felt just plain wrong, as though I was condemning Lisa Bright and Dark or Dibs in Search of Self  to a life of abandonment and alienation. Besides, my older sister—a hippie and a role model— had so many library fines accrued that she was actually forbidden from ever taking out a book again,  and I had to do everything she did. In short—though I wouldn’t have used those words when I was twelve—returning library books felt like giving in to a conformist culture. 
What was the turning point?   In 1977, when I was fourteen, I actually wanted a book that was in demand, Alex Hailey’s Roots. Did the library have a record of all those unreturned paperbacks?  Maybe not, because they put me on a waiting list, and when my turn came, I took home a thick hardback with the same bold cover that had appeared at the end of the opening credits of the miniseries, and I propped it on my nightstand so it would be the first thing I’d see when I got up in the morning. Actually, the book wasn’t nearly as good as I thought it would be, but I did return it on time. After all, someone had done the same for me.  
Maybe that’s when I realized that libraries demanded a kind of social contract. Who read my nerdy paperbacks before I came along? I looked at the call slips and saw the long strip of stamped months and dates.  Eight readers had checked out I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. They were decent enough to return it so I could get my chance to read about a schizophrenic teenager and her German therapist. It’s romantic to imagine you’re the only one who loves something. It’s astounding to realize that you’re not alone. Who were the readers represented by the back-and-front eternity of stamps on Prince Caspian or Player Piano? Who took out Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid or just about anything by Orwell or the autobiography of Emma Goldman?  In the days before social media, it wasn’t easy to find these people, my people, my tribe, but the stamped cards were proof positive: That tribe existed.    
It took me a long time to understand that honoring the social contract of a library isn’t conformist. It’s countercultural. In a consumer society, libraries aren’t about what we own; they’re about what we share. Given this understanding, when I look through my own crammed bookshelves, what should I do when I come across a copy of Then Again, Maybe I Won’t that was due on March 12, 1973?  Should I return it?  Probably.  

Simone writing in her room, 1978
Used with permission of author

Cover of Zelitch's novel,
Simone Zelitch has published four novels, most recently Waveland. Earlier work includes The Confession of Jack Straw, Moses in Sinai, and Louisa which was the recipient of the Goldberg Prize in Emerging Jewish Fiction. Her work has also appeared in The Lost Tribe Anthology and has been featured in the NPR broadcast and the published anthology Hanukah Lights.  Recent honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Grant in Fiction, and residences at the Edward Albee Barn and Yaddo.  She established a Creative Writing program at Community College of Philadelphia and currently coordinates their new Degree in English.  A new novel, Judenstaat, is forthcoming from Tor books in Summer 2016.  Visit her website here:
Books by authors in the Summer Library Series will link directly to author-friendly sites, such as the press itself or to the international library search engine, Please support small publishers, independent bookstores, and our libraries.