Towards the end of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a newly graduated magistrate is sent to a small Colombian town to investigate the circumstances surrounding the murder of the novel’s ill-fated protagonist, Santiago Nasar. 25 years after the murder, the narrator, conducting his own investigation, travels to the Palace of Justice in Riohacha to examine the magistrate’s report. Although the narrator can’t find the magistrate’s name on any of the surviving papers, “it was obvious that he was a man burning with the fever of literature. He had doubtless read the Spanish classics and a few Latin ones, and he was quite familiar with Nietzsche, who was the fashionable author among magistrates of his time . . . He was so perplexed by the enigma that fate had touched him with, that he kept falling into lyrical distractions that ran contrary to the rigor of his profession.”
[W]hen scholars and biographers complain about the gatekeepers to the estate, especially when those are family members, what do they expect? Biographers may claim noble and spotless intentions, but for the most part they deal in gossip. Stephen saw the people who raised him reduced to cartoon figures. He watched as the biographer of his very troubled aunt, who had recurring periods of madness and spent most of her life in an institution, hailed as not schizophrenic but merely artistic and damaged by her father’s sexual love for her. His grandfather was called a liar and a cheat. His parents, private figures both, faced a scrutiny they did not deserve. Stephen’s father, Joyce’s son, was called a worthless layabout for never really having a career, and his mother was called mad. If I were Stephen, I would have started to burn documents, too.
“Think,” I told them. “What would cause a 12-year-old girl to wipe out her entire family? What would cause her sister, when pushed, to say they all got what they deserved?”
As we retread the book carefully, with this question as a lens, I started to feel that maybe I was betraying the book, taking it off in a direction it did not necessarily want to go. I was imposing my own agenda on the novel, using it to prove that, while it’s almost accepted wisdom that adolescent boys are rage-filled thunder gods, ready to wreak death and destruction upon any around them, a girl must have a pretty good reason to lash out. Maybe instead I should have felt it was natural for a 12-year-old girl to poison the sugar.
We stopped freaking out about the “Oh my god, women want to wear pants!” thing a really long time ago. Women wandered into the traditionally masculine realms of self-expression and ambition and now it’s just normal.
Not so with masculinity. It is still as rigid and well defended as ever, despite a few David Bowies or Johnny Depps in the mix. Just look at last year’s total freaking meltdown about a J. Crew catalog that carried a photo of a woman painting her young son’s toenails. . . . When a girl is boyish, or even claims she’d rather be a boy, it’s cute. She’s a tomboy. When a boy is girlish, wanting to wear dresses or try on some makeup, it’s a mental disorder and needs an immediate medical intervention.
This is where the action is, after all, the public libraries. And by action I mean bloodletting. It’s perhaps the most vulnerable segment of the American Library Association, dependent on city and state budgets rather than the universities and corporations that find their funding elsewhere. And each year, thousands of the PLA’s 11,000 members descend on a city to set the agenda for the year to come, to commiserate and strategize. And to network for employment, for the more recent victims of the cutbacks.
Secure in the knowledge that libraries are now permanently fucked, I expected to walk in to find a mournful scene. Maybe candlelight vigils for state funding, a designated mourner wailing over grants for arts programs? I was donned in black. I was ready to blend in.
We love you, Bookslut. You will be dearly missed. •
I was disappointed not to go to the town of Limbe with Clement. In Haiti, Clement Benoit II is to books what Paul Farmer is to medicine. He waited for me in the open air lobby of La Plaza Hotel in Port-au-Prince while I tried to make up my mind. This was the second year in a row that I had met with him at La Plaza and he offered to take me to Limbe, his birthplace, and I had to decline. Both times, a State Department alert warned against traveling to Limbe because of riots. I’d seen similar warnings concerning Port-au-Prince and ignored them, but Limbe was three hours away.
An author who has published several poetry books, including Tach Soley, a book of poems written in Creole, Clement works tirelessly to give people access to books. His work involves establishing small libraries and delivering books on horseback to people who live in isolated rural communities. His biblio cheval, library horses, are part of his vision for raising Haiti’s literacy level, which, according to the CIA World Factbook is 52.9 percent, way lower than the rest of the Caribbean. More… “Biblio Cheval”
Harriet Levin Millan‘s debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of “Lost Boy” of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She’s the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.
The Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center is near the train tracks that cut through Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. Nearly every town in southeastern Pennsylvania is organized like Pennsburg: A few houses lining a short empty street that was once a thoroughfare for trains that stopped moving a long time ago. The trains once served the mills and the factories, but those have stopped moving too. The street in these towns might have a restaurant or a gas station for the commuters who live in the housing developments that now ring a fortress around the railroad tracks. The architecture of southeastern Pennsylvania might be called development by erasure; the more that is built, the less of southeastern Pennsylvania there seems to be. The farms erased the wigwams and the railroads erased the farms, and sometimes it feels like few people really live here. The woman at the laundromat and the man at the… More…
The Bryant Free Library sits on a now-busy state road in Cummington, Massachusetts, tucked into the trees at the bottom of a hill. Climb the hill and you’ll reach the sprawling boyhood home of the man for whom it’s named, the 19th-century poet and journalist William Cullen Bryant. He was born here in 1794, but he made his career in New York as the crusading editor of the Evening Post, and as a founder of the party that once was Lincoln’s. Bryant, as in Bryant Park. Yet he never forgot these hills, and in 1872, just a few years before his death, the old man came back to Cummington, a hundred miles west of Boston, and gave the town a library.
The Bryant is a cube-shaped mass of brick and rusticated stone that looks defensible, more like a military blockhouse than a seat of learning. Only a sign announces the… More…