Library Column–March 1, 2005

Every day people come into the library and drop off books they’ve read and then they pick out a few more books and go away again. After a few months of watching this phenomena, even the densest of observers would start to wonder: why? Why do people read books?

I can’t quite find my way inside anyone else’s mind but my own, so I’m going to provide a tour of some books and the benefits, pains, pleasures, delights and discomforts I encounter during my wanderings.

Let’s go to Thailand. "Sightseeing" by Rattawut Lapcharoensap is a slim volume of short stories by a 26 year old Thai who was born in Chicago. The writing is evocative of the pains, questions and fears of young people growing up in a rapidly changing culture. Why do we read fiction about other places and cultures? Why not just read a sociological dissertation about Thailand? The dissertation might stretch my thinking, but good fiction expands and transforms thoughts and feelings.

Whirl around a few times and here we are in urban America almost a 100 years ago, reading "The Stories of Fannie Hurst." Fannie Hurst was an extraordinary woman who wrote novels and short stories, energetically pursued philanthropy and social activism, was happily married (but she and her husband each kept their own household) and was for many years forgotten and overlooked. Her stories (think O. Henry with a sharper edge) focus on the struggles and suffering of working class women. Some are clearly didactic, others simply provide a lens into another time and place. Do I read stories like this just for the nostalgic pleasure of seeing how my grandparents lived? I like to plunge into the past partly to avoid becoming shortsighted, of being unable to properly judge a question because I’m only considering it in the light of the last 10 or 20 years. The immediacy and liveliness of good fiction seems to me better medicine for shortsightedness than large doses of facts.

But facts have their place. In "The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy," Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills argue that just about everything that people currently believe about energy is wrong, wrong, wrong. There are some topics where you just have to have charts and graphs and long stretches of explanations and this is one of them. Read it and then start some arguments.

And then there are books we read for fun. "The Madness of Love" by Katharine Davies is inspired by Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night," but definitely not constrained thereby. It is definitely not fluff, but is light enough and well-written enough to be a pleasure rather than a duty.

But what do I read for pleasure? "Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763" by William M. Fowler, Jr. We all have our addictions and our failings and mine is history (and, in the interests of accuracy, chocolate). Although this book is ostensibly about a war and does describe a few battles, it is mostly about human beings, greedy, fallible, shortsighted, brave, tragic, hopeful, idealistic human beings. Actually, I’ve only read the first couple of chapters and most of the main players seem to be greedy and shortsighted…the more things change…the more they remain the same.

See you at the library.

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