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Charles Simic: “I don’t know of anything more disheartening than the sight of a shut down library”

By Harriet Staff

Writing for The New York Review of Books, Charles Simic looks out across the depressing cultural landscape as libraries close from coast to coast. It’s not just the state and local budgets to blame — it’s the indifference. This isn’t unique to libraries, as Simic notes, but it hits especially hard when the institutions on the chopping block are the very same ones that might hold the power to stem the tide of that indifference.

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak. “The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

Simic recalls his own experience growing up with a public library — for which he thanks local taxpayers profusely — where he was allowed to take anything off the shelves without question and piece together the knowledge and wide range of reference points that would shape his work as a poet, from insect books to jazz recordings. Traveling to other libraries, even ones where the taxpayers couldn’t afford to be so generous, always turned up something new and important: “Even libraries in overseas army bases and in small, impoverished factory towns in New England had their treasures, like long-out of print works of avant-garde literature and hard-boiled detective stories of near-genius.”

Librarians themselves have done a great deal of soul-searching over what they might have done differently to clear up the vast misunderstanding of the role they play in society, but what Simic fears losing is bigger than libraries. What’s at stake can be seen with a simple visual survey of a now-endangered species: informed citizens at home in their native habitat.

Wherever I found a library, I immediately felt at home. Empty or full, it pleased me just as much. A boy and a girl doing their homework and flirting; an old woman in obvious need of a pair of glasses squinting at a dog-eared issue of The New Yorker; a prematurely gray-haired man writing furiously on a yellow pad surrounded by pages of notes and several open books with some kind of graphs in them; and, the oddest among the lot, a balding elderly man in an elegant blue pinstripe suit with a carefully tied red bow tie, holding up and perusing a slim, antique-looking volume with black covers that could have been poetry, a religious tract, or something having to do with the occult. It’s the certainty that such mysteries lie in wait beyond its doors that still draws me to every library I come across.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.