Public libraries are wonderful things

For our Thanksgiving drive to L.A., I went to our local library and got several books on CD.  Since our small family manages not to have any overlapping areas of interest, this is always a challenge.  One wants teenage hero spy books, another wants high school romantic dramadies (half drama, half comedy), another wants books on computer technology, and I like history books.  Fate favored me because , on the day I went to the library, the only available books on CD that would meet any of those parameters were the history books.

The kids were not amused.  In a compromise, we ended up spending half of each drive listening to the videos they got to watch from the back seat (fyi, The Simpsons is fun to listen to), and half the drive listening to David McCulloch’s 1776.  My husband was so delighted with this book that, upon our return, he put it in his own car so that he could listen to the rest of it while driving to work.

I, meanwhile, put Joseph Ellis’ American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic in the CD player in my car. Since I drove about 100 miles yesterday to go to my pistol class, I was able to listen to the first disk.  It’s a delightful book, because Ellis shares my approach to American history:  it’s not about plaster saints or blinkered, evil white guys.  It’s about real people, in real time, dealing with real issues.  And yes, the Founding Fathers were special.

The Founders’ unique abilities came about by virtue of the particular historic time they occupied (what one might call the culmination of the Enlightenment), the incredible bounty of the American continent, their one hundred plus years of freedom as the British government ignored them (right up until the French-Indian War), and the education and class freedom that distinguished them from their European peers and from modern man. Despite these benefits and virtues, they still made mistakes, their personalities interfered with their decision-making, and they punted on the hard decisions because they wanted their own nation more than they wanted to free the slaves.  Those nuances are what make history interesting.

Ellis has a nice turn of phrase and a good eye for historic details, so the book is an effortless listen (or read).  I also detect in his tone a decided disdain for the Howard Zinn school of history, one that throws away the baby with the bath water.  Characterizing the Founders as racist, sexist hypocrites not only obscures their great accomplishments, it also diminishes Americans’ ability to understand their past, to control their present, and, in some small measure, to affect their future.

Listening to the book reminded me that one of the things that makes the Founders so fascinating is that they were men of truly catholic tastes.  Everything interested them.  No man from the Colonial era better exemplifies this quality than Benjamin Franklin.  (Thomas Jefferson loses first place because he was a bit too Southern elitist.)  Franklin was feted the world over for inventing the lightening rod, a device that drastically reduced a terrible scourge.  He also invented the Franklin Stove, bifocals (bless his heart), and the public library.

Before Franklin came along, libraries were reserved for rich people.  Even with the advent of the printing press, books were still expensive, and it was the fortunate man indeed who was both literate and capable of putting together a library of his own.  Now of course, we take libraries completely for granted.  In my community, we have ten public libraries, all of which are clean, well-stocked, well-maintained, and have wonderful on-line resources.

In a historical irony that Ben Franklin would fully have appreciated, modern Britain also has a splendid public library, one that includes a suburb on-line system.  The aristocrats of old might be rolling in their graves, but Ben Franklin, who was also an entrepreneur extraordinaire would especially appreciate the fact that the British library has a department devoted to business planning.  Yup.  That former bastion of intellectual and class exclusivity now has a great resource for British residents who want to see if they can make it on their own.

As a confirmed bookworm, I feel blessed to live in era that not only has public libraries, but that also puts so many resources on-line, so that one doesn’t even have to go to the library to experience the library’s benefit.  Is this the best of all possible worlds or what?

(BTW, if you’re interested in learning more about Benjamin Franklin, I highly recommend Benjamin Franklin’s own quite delightful autobiography, and Walter Isaacson’s slightly more honest look at Franklin’s life as a whole.)

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  • shirleyelizabeth

    I am reminded that I am a few chapters into 1776 and should pick it up again.
    Also, for your next trip check out your library’s online audio book section. My county online audio library is well stocked and very addicting to use once you get started – especially if you do a lot of driving. You can download the files onto your ipod or even a CD. If your family is at all into fantasy you could sneak in some Sword of Truth series.

  • lee

    btw, the american libray association, the professional organization of librarian, who are also responsible for the accreditation of library schools, is yet another stalwart quote progressive unquote organization. my mom, a retired school librarian, and not really all that conservative, railed against them for all caps years. c

  • Ymarsakar

    And yet in this modern world of plentiful knowledge and education, we have a bunch of ignorant hicks voting for Democrat slavery.

    It just goes to show that no matter how bountiful the Earth becomes, humans will always have a hidden desire for the Dark Fall into Hell.

  • 23eagle

    Libraries were wonderful things. It’s why I chose to make peanuts more than a decade ago by choosing that as my career. But they are fading fast. They are becoming “social justice” oriented “community” centers, where people go to hook up on FB for sex, drink beer, watch porn, drop of 7yr olds for free day care and then get pissed at us when the 7yr old is in trouble for pulling a knife on another (yes, it happened). And from white suburban to black inner city caregivers, they increasingly DEMAND that there be no rules or norms of behavior. We don’t have rules, we have “guidelines” with no real consequences. There is always outrage at not enough free services and stuff. And so it gets worse. The top scratches their heads over why violence is increasing so quickly. Why the constant threats of violence and death? It has been sinking into the mire for years now. At the same time, the top has been pushing its leftest agenda more and more aggressively while they spend like drunken sailors on hip, cool new architecture and furniture. Yet when a kid wants a book, God forbid, more than half the time I have to say, sorry, we don’t have a copy here for you. I’m not talking about the latest Twilight. I’m talking about BASIC stuff. Sad to say, but eventually we will probably have to go back to subscription libraries….just to have libraries.

  • David Foster

    “One wants teenage hero spy books, another wants high school romantic dramadies (half drama, half comedy), another wants books on computer technology, and I like history books.”

    Should be easy to combine all these things…how about a smart good-looking (but lacking in self-confidence) high school chick (during the Cold War) who meets a guy with computer skills ( IBM mainframe vintage) and uncovers a Russian spy plot, which the heroine also finds   out about, and her life is in danger, and the guy saves her…

  • Bookworm

    If you write that book, David, we’ll read it!