I’m focusing on April as Library Month. Yes, I do know this is May 1, but better late…? I’ll look into May next year? So sue me…it’s just something to think about.
There are only twelve months in the year—we could stretch it to thirteen, but that’s about it. This means we have to share, because each month—if you look it up—is Something month, and Something-Else month as well.
April is Library Month, plus Poetry Month, Earth Month, Animal Cruelty Prevention Month and many others, including Lawn Care Month—don’t make fun!
I am truly grateful to libraries. If it were not for them, I would be a different person. I would never have gotten into university, much less done well. I flunked kindergarten because I would not learn to read, arrogant and stubborn even at five years old. I was going to have to repeat the year, but my dad said no child of his was going to do that. Okay, so I inherited the “arrogant and stubborn” part. That summer he bought a big shiny kid’s dictionary with cool pictures and sat with me every day after work to teach me not just to read, but to love it. I was a star reader in first grade and a whole other world opened up.
Then I flunked high school. This happens if you are arrogant and depressed at the same time. I used to get dressed for school, walk around the block while my mother and stepfather went off to work (my dad had died), come back, take off my clothes, lie in bed and read. Sometimes I would go out to get more books, but that was it. I wasn’t hanging around or smoking dope, I was just reading. I made it in English Lit, but I flunked History, French and even Art—I was so shocked. Who knew you actually had to go to class?
After flunking, I had what is now called a “gap year” between high school and university, but mine was not by choice. Every morning I went to a special school for flunkers, where I crammed to pass my A-levels so that I could attend university; then in the afternoons, I’d go to the public library to study and just get lost in wonder browsing the shelves. It was a pre-Google experience of one thing leading to another—how would you ever know all this stuff? The light bulb had finally gone on: I realized that I had blown it. If the cramming did not work my whole life plan and everything I really wanted for myself would go swirling down the drain. At that time it was very competitive to get into university in England and most people were rejected. You needed very good grades and cramming is not the best way to learn. Being a pessimist, I decided I would never get in. Being arrogant, I decided I would get the equivalent education by myself, so I invented what I thought the curriculum would look like and used the library not only to complete my homework but to read and read some more.
I was of course pretty much wrong about the curriculum. However, when I did get in to university I had read more widely than most of my peers and, more importantly, I had learned something about the value of study. Yikes, that was a near-miss.
Thank you libraries– without you I would be a completely different person with a different career track, and probably still a pessimist!
I realize I am talking about libraries during the 20th century and that everything has changed with the resource of the Internet. But libraries aren’t going away, they’re changing and finding new roles. If you want to see a really fantastic one, I recommend the London Library in England. When I was there, it was housed in the British Museum (as it was when Karl Marx used it, and a bunch of other really interesting people). Now it has its own shiny new building with a grand exhibition space that enables them to rotate their treasures more easily for public view. I went to their Gutenberg Bible show a few years ago. Wow!
I often read several books at the same time. It’s an old trick I use not to get too biased by one writer’s ideas, but it also works for different moods I might be in. So here is a list of the books I’m reading right now:
Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I know, you all read this twenty years ago, but I didn’t and someone recently recommended it. It has come into my life at just the right moment. It’s one of those books that would strike you differently every time you read it, so give it another go even if you have read it. Life is always changing, we are always changing, our perceptions change and with that the insights we bring to daily life. Pinkola Estés is a Jungian and comes to her analyses of myth and fairy tales from that perspective. I am more of a Freudian if anything, but don’t forget that Freud collected Greek and Roman bronzes of mythological figures. There’s a reason myths and stories persist—it’s because they have something to tell us that lies deep and partially hidden in our psyches. Pinkola Estés has chosen to analyze some that are familiar (Cinderella) but that have twists from a less familiar cultural framework (no slippers or princes in this version; a scary witch and a fiery skull in place of a fairy godmother.) Others, like the Skeleton Woman, are much less familiar and very haunting. (No spoilers from me on this one.)
It’s about stories. What’s not to love?
Women, Food and God, by Geneen Roth. Really, why God? I have a feeling this reference is a marketing tool, because God is not heavily featured in this book. Roth is a compulsive-eating therapist, but what she says applies to pretty much any compulsive behavior. She writes easily and well and has a great deal of insight to offer. How many times have you tried a diet, any diet– slimming, healthy, cleansing, muscle-building? How long did it last and what were you able to make into a habit? Do you want to stop the crazy dieting and live in better balance with yourself? Roth looks at all of this and has some very practical but truly illuminating answers.
Critical Mass, by Sarah Paretsky. It’s not my life if there’s not a mystery/thriller bedside my bed. This is my candy and my nightcap. Any book by Paretsky is going to grab you and I love her characters: the testy but fundamentally good V.I.; Mr. Contreras the aging pipe-fitter and all-round union guy; Dr. Lottie Herschel, who escaped the Nazis as a child and remains committed to helping underdogs; Dr. Lottie’s lover, Max, the voice of reason and practical resourcefulness (someone has to be); V.I.’s arrogant brother; his impractical and idealistic daughter, etc. Not to mention that many of the people V.I. helps are obnoxious but deserving of another chance. So real!
Paretsky is never sugary, although V.I. has worked her way through several cool boyfriends over the years. The books are not, of course, equally good but I love the World War II stuff that gets interjected into many of them, and this is one of the best in my opinion. I think I missed it when it first came out, so I was thrilled to find one I had not read.
Tara’s Enlightened Activity: An Oral Commentary on the Twenty-One Praises to Tara, by Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal. I’m a Buddhist, so I usually have one book going regarding mediation etc. The Goddess/Buddha Tara is wonderful to invoke. She was a feminist before there were any—or at least many. When she achieved enlightenment many lifetimes ago, some Buddhist higher-ups said to her, “That’s nice. But you should really pray to be a man in your next lifetime because women don’t get that enlightened.” Needless to say, she was furious and told them what to do with their advice, after which she swore she would always be born as a woman and grab the brass ring every time. Ha! Anyway, her attributes, apart from great beauty, include being swift and courageous. Meditating on her or doing her practice will allow you to embody those qualities. My form of Buddhism is Tibetan, and more about becoming than worshipping.
This is not Buddhism 101. For that I recommend The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, by Eric Swanson and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. This is a relatively easy and highly readable introduction that is especially applicable if you suffer from depression, as Mingyur Rinpoche did. Let me just say that Mingyur Rinpoche is one of the most amazing teachers of Tibetan Buddhism; he has spent many years in retreat and really embodies the practice.
My other recommendation, which is also easy to read but a longer, deeper book, is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. In 1993, after many years of “trying” to be a Buddhist, going to classes and even retreats, I read this book and it changed my life. I went right into a retreat with Rinpoche and have been his student ever since.
I also love the thought of an American Tibetan Buddhist, Pema Chodron. All of her books are good but I am suggesting When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Her books are very accessible to the non-Buddhist or beginning-Buddhist reader, while remaining completely profound. She intersperses some of them with anecdotes of her own path, including the misunderstandings she had precisely because she’s American—funny!
Living With A Seal, by Jesse Itzler. Okay, this is a bit of an oddball choice, but I am very interested in entrepreneurs, self-starters, and making the most of your body if you can. Itzler began as a rapper and became an entrepreneur, founding Marquis Jets and then the brand incubator 100 Mile Group. His wife is Sara Blakely, part owner of the Atlanta Hawks and the inventor and founder of Spanx. Yes, Spanx!
The book is a quick read and very much about being a guy—keen on sports, exercise, focused, obsessive, being a good husband and dad—but Itzler is also highly intelligent and an intuitive multi-tasker, which I think of as more of a female strength. Talk about swift and courageous, this guy will approach anyone and can talk his way in to anything. He took part in a marathon and met a phenomenal athlete who is a Navy Seal, another kind of man with different super-human qualities of his own.
The book is far from a bromance, but they do gain a real respect for each other and so does the reader. Inspiring in a weird way that is not just about running and sit-ups. I hate sit-ups!