Reading with the Stars
A Celebration of Books and Libraries
Leonard Kniffel
There are interviews here with Laura Bush, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Garrison Keillor and eight other "stars." The subject: "the reading experience," "success," books, happiness, libraries, the works.

Nine of these stars list their favorite books. Catcher in the Rye twice (Obama, Bill Gates) Lolita (Ron Reagan --- not that Reagan), anything by Ida Tarbell (Ralph Nader), Marshall McLuhan and Mark Twain (Al Gore), and, naturally, Oprah. Being Oprah, she says we should check out "the complete list of Oprah's Book Club."

David Mamet offers up a relatively scandalous title, at least for its day, Knock on Any Door. And Laura Bush, of all people, offers up one of my favorites, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (by the great American comic writer, Betty MacDonald), and tosses in, OMG, The Brothers Karamazov. Makes you wonder what she and her mate think when she reads aloud the passage of Christ coming back and being told by the Grand Inquisitor that He is no longer needed ... that the "Church has vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy." The Inquisitor tells Jesus,

    Men are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them --- so awful it will seem to them to be free. We shall tell them that we are Thy servants and rule them in Thy name.

"We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again," he concludes.

§     §     §

You'd think that a book put out by the American Library Association would be a doozer. After all, librarians see mountains of books every day, have probably figured out what a book should look like, how it should feel, where it should go. But Reading with the Stars is more like something that was put together by your local podiatrist. The printing is ho-hum, the stitching is primitive, and the general lay-out is about as inviting as preparations for a root-canal.

There is a fair amount of gushing by Kniffel about how humble and excited he is to be interviewing --- say --- Jamie Lee Curtis, laying a real hard question on her: Why did you start "writing books for children?" Ans.: "I didn't start writing books because it was a connection to learning. For me, it was a connection to feeling." The problem here is that Kniffel is acting like a parody of your humble local librarian, at a time when American libraries are being vandalized by two radical developments in 21st century America.

The first is obvious ... we live in a time where we have the entire contents of a sizable library stored on our desktop computers (Google has scanned over seven million books; they are now available online).

But more, we live in a balmy time: where a balmy tax system enriches the very rich, impoverishes those institutions such as hospitals, clinics and libraries who were put there for the Greater Good of our society, even and especially the poor. These institutions are now being starved to death, and horribly put upon.

Ask any librarian what his or her greatest problem is at this moment, a vast problem that is not even mentioned in this star-studded book. It is the new clientele. Old and disabled and looney (and often smelly) characters repair to the local branch the moment it opens its doors in the morning; often, too, they are last to leave at night. Librarian Chip Ward writes,

    A dirty little secret about America is that public libraries have become de facto daytime shelters for the nation's street people while librarians are increasingly our unofficial social workers for the homeless and mentally disturbed.***

We suggest that instead of massaging doubtful "stars" with lame questions, Kniffel could have done a real service for those of us in the industry by exploring the truth ... and helping directly or indirectly those of us who are forced to put up with those who don't come in the door to read and learn and expand their minds but to get the hell away from not only the rain but a society that no longer cares for them.

Or, apparently, for us.

--- Mary Cleaver, MLS
***For further information, see
"America Gone Wrong:
A Slashed Safety Net
Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters."

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