There was a big brouhaha on the listserv DorothyL this week when mystery author K.C. Constantine, who once wrote the Mario Balzac mysteries, was quoted as calling "library users literary welfare bums." And, his own website says, "In Bottom Line Blues he spent an entire chapter attacking public libraries." Thank heavens, mystery author Bill Crider stepped up to the plate to say he always loved libraries, and had a number of stories about them. I jumped on that, and asked him to tell us a few of those stories.
It's hard not to like an author whose biographical sketch on his website includes information about his three cats. Crider taught English at the college level for year, but his Ph.D. dissertation was on the hardboiled detective novel. In the mystery field, he's best known for his Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, described as "The adventures of a sheriff in a small Texas county where there are no serial killers, where a naked man hiding in a dumpster is big news, and where the sheriff still has time to investigate the theft of a set of false teeth."
So, thank you, Bill, for taking time to tell us a few stories about libraries.
I’ve subscribed to DorothyL, the crime and mystery e-list, for more years than I can remember. Usually I just lurk these days, but when someone mentioned K. C. Constantine’s comment that library users were “literary welfare bums,” I was moved to put in a good word for libraries and library users, mainly because I am one. A library user, that is, not a library. I didn’t think anyone would notice, but someone did. So here I am.
I grew up in a house without many books. In fact, I still have the five or six books I owned as a child, including the remains of the Mother Goose book with which I supposedly met my father at the door every afternoon, demanding that he “‘ead Mama Goose.” But if I didn’t have many books, I had a mother who knew where to get them, and that was the public library. As I mentioned on DL and have mentioned elsewhere, one of my earliest memories of my mother is of her holding me up so I could reach the library shelves and pick out a book. I still remember the book, which was Clementina, the Flying Pig. Sometimes nostalgia tempts me to buy a copy of it, but when I look at the prices it commands, I decide that nostalgia is too expensive these days. At any rate, I loved that book, and I’m sure my mother read it to me many times. Maybe its influence on me has never died, as witness the title of my forthcoming (in 2011) Sheriff Dan Rhodes novel, The Wild Hog Murders. That might seem a pretty slim connection to you, but please remember this story when you seen the cover for the book. I’ll put it on my blog soon.
But I digress. I was going to tell some library stories. The two libraries in Mexia, Texas, became like second homes to me as I was growing up. There were two because the original library was replaced by the Gibbs Memorial Library, a fine air-conditioned building that wasn’t exactly structurally sound and that has now been replaced by a third library, an even finer one with the same name. The first library is still there, by the way, but it’s now a part of the Christ Episcopal Church complex. And sure enough, I’ve digressed again. I have a tendency to do that. I’d better stop.
Here’s a library story for you. When I was in college, a friend of mine and I were home for some holiday or other. We began talking about Dr. Seuss and how much we’d liked certain of his books when we were kids, McElligot’s Pool being a particular favorite. We decided we had to read the book again, so we were off the Gibbs Memorial Library. The book was right where it had always been, and we sat down to read it. Mind you, we were in the room with the children’s books, and the tables and chairs weren’t built for two guys of our size. We didn’t care. We sat in the little-bitty chairs, our knees sticking out above the table top and started reading. Pretty soon we were having a wonderful time. Maybe we even did a little reading aloud: “Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish, . . .” Pretty soon after that the librarian came in. We must have been quite a sight, and we’d forgotten about being quiet. Even though there was nobody else in the room, we got shushed. We were also asked to leave the children’s room because we might break the chairs. I had my doubts. Those were study chairs, solid wood. But we went quietly. It’s the only time I was ever chastised in a library.
Or maybe not. There was the time when I was a bit younger and had discovered the wonders of photography magazines. Those were in the periodicals room, and I believe the library had subscriptions to only one of them, maybe Modern Photography. Memory grows dim. At any rate, the attraction of the magazine (at least to me) wasn’t the amazing photography hints (shoot at 1/32 of a second at f/2.4) as the occasional “art studies.” I didn’t know much about art, but I knew what I liked. So did the librarian, who wandered through one day and happened to notice my choice in “reading” material. She obviously thought I should try something else, though she didn’t take the magazine away from me. Instead she suggested that I try a different one, maybe Boy’s Life. I put down the photography magazine and picked up Boy’s Life, which I glanced through until she left the room. Then it was back to my studies.
Yes, I was the only one in the room. I often was, and for years I’d spend hours there reading magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, which I suspected that no one else in town cared about. I loved Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post and Life. Not to mention Mechanix Illustrated, where I discovered the writing of Tom McCahill, whose prose I greatly admired. He coined the phrase “zero to sixty” in his road tests, but that was the least of it. If you like wild metaphors, you can’t go wrong with Tom McCahill. I wanted to be Tom McCahill when I grew up. Didn’t make it, though.
When I was in graduate school, I was finally able to get a “stack permit” to enter the vast holdings of the main library at The University of Texas at Austin. What a great time I had there, when instead of doing research on the papers that were due in my classes, I could pore over the bound back issues of The New York Times Book Review. I read every single one of Anthony Boucher’s “Criminals at Large” columns with a pen in one hand and a note pad beside me. I wrote down the titles of practically everything he recommended. The paperback originals, I bought in used-book stores. The hardcovers, I checked out of the library, which had a wonderful and up-to-date collection. Those were the days.
The librarian whose name you see in the article was an older woman with hair that had once been red but was at that time mostly gray. Mrs. Armstrong. I thought she was wonderful. I still do.
On behalf of all librarians, Bill, and all of us who grew up using, and loving public libraries, Constantine's "literary welfare bums," thank you.
Bill Crider's website is http://www.billcrider.com/Index.html