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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Don't Close the New York Public Library!

For a person who’s not really into acquiring things, I’m amazed at how much stuff I have: a whole wall of books, three file cabinets of manuscripts, and then there’s the music — the tapes and CDs, not to mention my collection of 33 1/3 records that take up two feet of floor in my bedroom and simply cannot be discarded.

I plan to weed. In my bedroom closet there’s a trunk full of I-don’t-know-what — oh no, it’s photo albums and decades of personal journals that I’ll never read or look at, but I cannot throw away.

One nice thing about being unemployed is that I no longer buy anything to add to the clutter. I mean that. Aside from food and rent and essential services, I don’t spend money. And I don’t feel the least deprived. Why?

Because of the New York Public Library — which is presently being threatened with a $37 million funding cut. This weekend I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. For three days I was in an altered state, and at the end, I felt certain that there can be no greater work than the service of giving people like me a wonderful story — a story that makes you feel and think about things differently and know in your writerly gut that writing books is service.

Before Time Traveler, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. For years people had recommended this book to me, but I didn’t read it until a couple of weeks ago. Again — transformation, new ideas, inspiration.

I’ve been on a Susan Trott novel binge and have read everything the library will lend. I’ve laughed, I’ve loved, and again — I feel like writing is a service profession.

I read a whole bunch of books by very famous writers that won awards — books that did not do much for me, but, hey, I didn’t have to buy them. One of them, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was sheer torture, but I read it because so many people thought it was worthy, and I was curious. What I learned from this book is that there is writing that, for me, is not so much service as masturbation, and I’m just not that interested in it.

I’m currently writing a book with a partner — a new experience for both of us. It’s a funny story, and I know by our mutual enjoyment that it’s service. Maybe someday you will be able to take it out of the library. Maybe someday you will feel uplifted by it and share it with friends — the way my partner and I have been doing with books we love. According to a new study, this is what we humans do: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who studied the New York Times list of most-emailed articles for six months discovered that what readers share most is articles that inspire awe (NY Times, 2/9/10). Humans need stories, awe-inspiring stories — whether that awe is from facts or from sheer artistry and creativity (as in the Niffenegger book).

I have a theory about our culture’s evolution. It seems to me that everything but service will gradually fall away and die. There simply will be no space for it. When people do things for other people, it’s service. But products, too, can be service — when they minimize the space things inhabit. Much as I love paper books, I see the service aspect of e-books. The most lucrative business I can imagine will be one that recycles everything — creating needed stuff without adding clutter to the world.

Good stories don’t add clutter. They go into your mind, become part of you, and maybe even make you a better person. I will be a better person and de-clutter my apartment. I will be a better person by borrowing and reading books from the library. I will be a better person by defending the value of stories and the buildings that circulate them.

To voice your opinion about the impending library desiccation, please go to DontClosetheBook.nypl.org.
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