It’s a tough time for people who like reading books. It’s a tough time for people in general. It’s a tough time. Have you heard of this thing called coronavirus?
Libraries are closed, my favorite local bookstore is not considered an essential business, and Amazon warehouse workers are striking for basic safety precautions and paid sick leave, which is very brave of them and infinitely reasonable.
I have enough unread books to get me through the April 30 federal government social distancing timeline, but hardly any faith that this will be over by then.
The most recent economic projections are that unemployment could hit 32%. Tony and I are employed for now but, like everyone, we have no idea if that will be true tomorrow or next week.
My library system is still checking out digital books, but I get headaches that are made worse by screens, so I much prefer paper books.
All of this means that I have a month to figure out how to get new books to read without jeopardizing worker’s health or spending money. It’s an unreasonably lucky problem to have, considering.
Benjamin Franklin started the first library in America. He also invented bifocals, discovered electricity, and created the first post office and volunteer fire department.
When I was in second or third grade, my class watched a cartoon about Benjamin Franklin on a TV our teacher wheeled into our classroom. Remember classrooms? The cartoon featured a friendly gray mouse who helped Franklin achieve his many successes.
The mouse firmly lodged in my mind, so that even now I can’t think of Franklin without also thinking of a smiling mouse at his assistance. A part of me still feels that it is the mouse, not Franklin, to whom we owe our allegiance.
Here is what Franklin wrote about that first library, in his autobiography:
“About this time, our club meeting not at a tavern but in a little room of Mr. Grace’s set apart for that purpose, a proposition was made by me that, since our books were often referr’d to in our disquisitions upon the queries, it might be convenient to us to have them altogether where we met, that upon occasion they might be consulted; and by thus clubbing our books to a common library, we should, while we lik’d to keep them together, have each of us the advantage of using the books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole. It was lik’d and agreed to, and we fill’d one end of the room with such books as we could best spare. The number was not so great as we expected, and tho’ they had been of great use, yet some inconveniences occurring for want of due care of them, the collection, after about a year, was separated and each took his books home again.”
Is it nice to imagine old timey white men taking all their books back after a failed experiment of sharing them, like sore losers? Or is it upsetting to read about it, to have feelings about their feelings, to empathize with their plight—how difficult to share! How common our humanity!—when I still know so little about people who aren’t old timey white men? I know nothing about slaves or Native Americans or even white women, compared to what I know about Benjamin Franklin.
Those people I don’t know about are the people who, in a very real way, made Benjamin Franklin’s achievements possible. Does the cartoon mouse symbolize those people, their untold stories, the unrecognized help which propelled a smart guy to amazing heights? Was the movie I watched in elementary school imparting a subversive message, did it radicalize me and my classmates, pointing us toward a more complicated understanding of our nation’s history? No. But also, maybe? Yes?
What I’m trying to say is: I want to start a local library collective in which we leave disinfected books on one another’s porches. Later, we can get annoyed and take them back, like our forebears once did.
I just finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels on my friend Shawn’s recommendation. They center around a lifelong female friendship in Naples, Italy and they’re sprawling and engrossing and radically feminist. Lots of smart people have reviewed them, so I won’t offer my take except to say they’re worth reading. I wish I had access to my friend Shawn’s books, but she lives in Spokane, Washington and I don’t want her leaving the house to go to the post office to send any of them to me, given how many coronavirus cases there are in Washington state.
I had the foresight to check out the second two Neapolitan Novels before the library was shut down, so let me know if you want them.
I also have Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley: A Memoir checked out from the library. It’s dark and urgent and has helped me understand, in part, why this abrupt shift to remote work feels simultaneously liberating and soul crushing. Thanks to my friend Chris for recommending it to me. Some other good and newish books we own include Coventry by Rachel Cusk, Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow, The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood, and Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. Let me know if you want to borrow any of these books.
The books I had on hold at the library before it shut down include: Weather by Jenny Offill, Something that May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, and Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. If you have any of these and are willing to let me borrow, please let me know. If you have other books that you think I would like, please let me know that, too. Also it’s not out yet, but I want to read Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight and would like to put a hold on your copy if you’ve preordered it.
Benjamin Franklin was a good person, if you grade on the Founding Fathers’ curve. He did own slaves, though he eventually freed them and became an abolitionist. He had many extramarital affairs, and his wife helped raise one of his illegitimate children. He trusted his wife to run his many businesses when he was out of the country, which he was often. When she was 38 years old, his wife had a stroke while Franklin was in Europe. For several years she wrote letters begging him to come home to Philadelphia. He didn’t. She had another stroke six years after the first and died.
It seems to me that this pandemic has exposed and will continue to exposure the relationship between those who have power and those who make that power possible, between the mouse and Benjamin Franklin. It is bleak to see it all laid bare. But in that bleakness there is a spark of something hopeful, an opportunity to rewrite the rules, to fully value the mouse, or at least give it paid sick leave and a living wage.
Here’s to libraries, one part of the former world I know for sure I want back. Here’s to sharing and working for a better future. Most of all, here’s to mice.