contemporaries on a shelf

Alice Munro section, Central Library, Portland, OR

Okay, yes, I still read paper books. I don't see that changing. I like their heft in my hands, the dead-tree smell that brings back summer-vacation reading long into the growing dusk because I was too engrossed in the story, too far escaped from my own small, pained family life, to get up off the floor and switch on a light.

What others may not know is that I don't buy books anymore. Oh, I'll pay for a secondhand reference book here and there, to learn a skill or otherwise help myself, but that's it. Years ago I transitioned from full-price trade paperbacks to black-lined hardcover remainders and then, eventually, to free, borrowed books—but oh the guilt when I pass my library card under the digital scanner, deactivate the theft-prevention device, stuff the book(s) in my tote bag, and walk right out the front door, passing the security guard as if nothing at all criminal just happened.

But it did, does. I've long decided my answer to the "What one book would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island" question would be a dictionary because I could never choose just one favorite author or book, so with a dictionary at least I could make up my own stories among all the words—and learn more words, those abstract containers of meaning. Books and stories, real and made-up real, are my favorite things in the world. But I don't pay for them. I don't align my values with my dollars. Instead I buy clothes and food and health care because those aren't free. How did books become free (via public taxes), but U.S. health care is still for profit? How did our culture decide that wordsmiths aren't worth much? Because we all make meaning with language? Because we all send e-mails and with words make other people do things? Because any monkey can write?*

My day/night job involves teaching adults who on average dislike, if not outright hate, writing to write better, er, "more effectively." I tell them in this information age we're all writers, no matter what job we might have, but since only the professionals have editors, we must learn to better revise and edit ourselves because, fair or not, we are judged on our written communication. Yet while that's the truth, it's only partial. Because while the culture may nod to quality writing, it normally pays next to nothing for such skill, compared to, say, mutual fund management or computer engineering or surgery—maybe because artists, whether painters, novelists, or screen writers, need to create, and nobody pays us to breathe.

E. L. Doctorow section, Central Library, Portland, OR

E. L. Doctorow unfurls wistful trips back in time.

Lorrie Moore section, Central Library, Portland, OR

Lorrie Moore makes me snicker while wanting to cry, while Alice Munro (see image above) captures in her portraits of women their whole lives in a scene.

Haruki Murakami section, Central Library, Portland, OR

Haruki Murakami, who describes the most mundane details of a day—getting dressed, making lunch, tying shoes—juxtaposed with surreal fantasy dimensions (like talking sheep), is always checked out at the Multnomah County Central Library.

*Note: At a school I taught for some years ago, a white administrator said to a black administrator that "any monkey can do it," meaning teaching. The black administrator took offense.

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