This article was originally published in Writers In The Storm on July 13, 2016.
Libraries are magical places. At least they always have been for me. As a child I wanted lots of stuff – an unending supply of Bubblicious, a puppy, checkerboard Vans, eyes that didn’t need glasses – and I managed to collect only a few, exceptwhen we went to the library. I was a lover of books, and everything in the library I could have. For free. If it caught my eye, into the library bag it would go. The smooth pages and colorful bindings were a rainbow of promise.
Throughout much of my life, my view of the library was only this: It was a peaceful place, beloved and wonderfully generous. But it became so much more when I crossed over from patron, to part of a library’s inner workings. In 2008, I became a member of the Board of Directors for the Salt Lake City Public Library, a 5-Star–rated system consisting of a 250,000 square-foot downtown library and seven busy branches scattered about the city, and I began to understand the bigger picture: the importance of libraries to civilization, to democracy, to the future. It’s just a library, you might be thinking. It’s just a roomful of books on shelves. But no. There’s so much more, here’s why:
Free access to a library is the first step toward literacy. So why is literacy so important? And why is access so important? Because the world is full of information, and the ability to read that information is critical for equality (the most basic of all democratic ideals). Unequal access to information, meaning only a select few control the words, creates inequality. Think the middle ages (or parts of the Middle-East).
But reading isn’t simply about enjoying a good escapist novel (though sometimes that’s just what the doctor orders). It’s about the practicality of navigating things like health insurance forms, employment applications, contracts. It’s about sensing a scam…or finding an opportunity.
And yet, reading and literacy are not only critical for the practical applications mentioned above. A story (fictional or not) is also the nexus of imagination. As a reader, you imagine a setting and you speculate at what comes next. Imagination is the root of innovation and innovation is at the core of technology and progress.
In British fiction author, Neil Gaiman’s fantastic lecture delivered to the Reading Agency in London (see link below), he talked about attending a Science Fiction conference in China in 2007. Science fiction had been disapproved of by the government for decades and Mr. Gaiman wondered why they had recently embraced the genre. He was told by a top official that the Chinese were brilliant at making things as long as others brought them the plans. But they didn’t innovate or invent. So the Chinese government sent a delegation to top technological firms: Apple, Microsoft and Google and asked the inventors what inspired them. They wanted to get to the root of innovation. The correlation? All read science fiction when they were young.
But there’s more. Reading inspires empathy. In a story you feel things or visit places you otherwise wouldn’t. And you learn from the past – what worked, what didn’t, what seemed fair. Many would argue these things can be obtained from watching (television, YouTube, a film), but here’s where I would argue that reading wins. When viewing content you are force-fed another person’s vision. That vision may be award-winning, but it’s not of your own making. In taking the symbols of the English language – twenty-six letters with a smattering of punctuation – and creating a world in your own mind…that is the part that changes a person. Plus, reading forces a slower pace, contemplation between the action sequences, a moment to take a character’s experience and incorporate it into one’s own context.
And what about the physical space of a library? Sure, you can Google all sorts of information that, in the past, was exclusively held in the stacks. And that’s great for equal access. It’s awesome, in fact. But we humans are social creatures. According to the latest State of America’s Libraries report from the American Library Association, libraries are becoming Third Spaces – a social area apart from home or work. Libraries are, “No longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research, and cherished spaces.”
The library building, itself, is a community builder, a neutral place that doesn’t push a product, where people can innovate together. It’s also a safe place – warm when it’s cold outside, cool when you might collapse from heat. There are people who need a quiet space to study or who don’t have access to a computer, and guess where they can find both? A library. It’s a spot where all people are welcome, regardless of age, socio-economic status, or race. It’s the great equalizer. It is the server to the underserved.
As a writer and a reader, I value the written word. I’m enamored with books and the stories they contain. But as human being, I love libraries.
This post originally appeared on Luxury Reading July 5, 2016.
Writing a Novel About Your Hometown Without Offending (Too Many) People
I live in Utah and I wrote a book based in Salt Lake City. In realizing location will nuance story, what do you think my book is about? Come on…say the first thing that pops into your mind.
Now with that subject in your head, let me say this: I’m not Mormon. Now what’s my book about?
When I told friends I was writing a book based in my neighborhood, many groaned and said, “Please tell me it isn’t another Mormon exposé?” It’s not.
On the other hand, Utah has several small-press publishers and one dedicated book store chain – all specializing in LDS literature. A different group of friends eyed the glass of wine in my hand, and said, “I guess they won’t be selling it at Deseret Book?” Maybe they’ll carry it, but I’m not holding my breath.
Many actually have a name for this cultural chasm that spans Mormons vs. non-Mormons. It’s referred to as the Great Divide. But what if I wrote a book based in my hometown that does not take sides? What if I based my story in my neighborhood simply because it’s mine? Because I know it, because I love it, because the history is unique and interesting? And by the way, there are many places with controversial histories – think the southern states. When approached truthfully, with kindness, and without any editorializing by the author, this history can be enlightening rather than a stain. So how does an author go about tackling this?
Although every author will face a different challenge, based on his or her own personal circumstances and settings, here was my dilemma: often those interested in the history of the Mormon Church want fact-based non-fiction. Others sort through the concepts of polygamy or a living prophet and are eager to pounce on the scintillating nature of these tenets – think Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven or HBO’s Big Love. But most people who love Utah, because there’s so much more to the state – think mountains, skiing, national parks full of red rocks, blue skies, a thriving economy, nice people, sunshine – are sick of the whole issue.
So does my novel address Mormonism or ignore it all together? Root, Petal, Thorn is a braided story tracing the lives of five women who inhabit the same historic home over the course of a century, from the early 1900s through the present day. Trouble comes in many forms, and each woman marks good times and bad, by leaving clues (some intentional, some not) within the walls of her home – a home which happens to be located in Salt Lake City, Utah.
So of course, some of the stories are touched by the church, but also by a variety of other events, such as WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, lunar landings, mental illness, love and loss. These landmarks in time are not unique to Salt Lake City, but the lens through which a worldwide experience is seen, can’t help but take color from personal circumstance and location.
Will it be offensive to my Mormon friends and family? I sure hope not.
It’s all about character building. Characters do crazy things in books. They make choices we don’t approve of, they say mean things. Conflict makes for good reading. If a story has no conflict, there is no story. But at the same time, if a reader doesn’t sympathize with the characters, they won’t stick around long enough to understand. And they certainly won’t recommend the book to their mom, a friend, or their book club. The author must create sympathetic characters and illustrate the motivation behind their actions, or they will appear counterfeit (at best) or offensive at worst. I hope I achieved this.
There were points while writing Root, Petal, Thorn when I felt like I was walking on eggshells. For crying out loud, my own book club argued over some of the decisions my characters made. But guess what? That conversation was one of the best we’ve had, and my book club is full of smart, well-read, savvy women – Mormons and non. I may have broken a few eggs to tell a complicated story, but no one went home with yoke on their face. In the end, Root, Petal, Thorn isn’t a happily-ever-after tale. It’s about heartbreak, hope and tough choices. It’s about life. And, oh right, it’s also based in Utah.