August Wilson, Sam Uskovich and Harold Bloom
“A Thirst for Knowledge”

An Undelivered Speech–2003/4

by Paulette Dickerson

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few years about why and how people come to have a thirst for knowledge. Why are some people always looking for more information about history, hobbies, health, wealth or happiness? What makes a lifelong reader or a successful playwright or a literate person or a literary anything?

You know how it is—some people can’t wait to grow up because no one will make them read or study anymore and other people can’t wait to grow up because, when they do, they know that no one will monitor their reading—they can keep their noses in books as much as they want to.

There was a piece in the New Yorker magazine about the playwright, August Wilson. It was a slightly breathless piece, like most celebrity interviews are, but about three-quarters of the way through was a reminiscence about Wilson’s schooldays. That was the eye-opener.

In the middle of a section that described one failure after another—truancy, disrespectfulness, disillusionment, despair, transferring, dropping out, being kicked out of one school after another—young Wilson, upset by the accusations of one of his teachers, left the class and the school building with no intention of ever going back.

Normally this would be the nail in the coffin for a poor urban kid but Wilson lucked out. He didn’t want his mother to know that he wasn’t in class, so he spent his days at the local library. All day, every day for months, he read book after book sitting there at the library—didn’t check them out, just read them—hundreds of books on all topics, fiction and nonfiction.

The New Yorker article kept going through the playwright’s early life and on to his first plays and those who mentored him as a young writer. It was interesting but what I found more compelling were the two or three paragraphs about his neighborhood library.

Another beneficiary of the New York Public Library System was Harold Bloom. His parents were Russian émigrés who did not speak English and had no books at home. A New Yorker article about Mr. Bloom revealed that the public library was where he discovered his love for words and ideas. Like August Wilson, Mr. Bloom also navigated the sea of knowledge alone. Or, perhaps, not quite alone. The librarians of that time were happy to recommend book after book to an interested teenager.

I had an art teacher in high school who was just about the coolest guy any of us knew. For a while after I graduated, I kept in touch with him. We had talks periodically. Sometimes he would throw art stuff my way. One of those times, he told me about some other kid he’d run into recently—a kid who was memorable to him because she was the only student he was sure he’d failed to teach or to help.

Apparently, she’d come rushing up to him in some public place to thank him for being the best teacher she’d ever had. She said he’d been kinder to her than anyone else had ever been, that he had inspired her to become a teacher and that she was most of the way through college and doing well.

What he told me was that she always came in late, sat in the back of the class, looked out of the window for the whole hour and never did much work. He said that he’d tried to include her in class discussions but she never responded and that, after a while, he just left her alone.

Why does this memory come up now? I think it’s because it fits with the August Wilson piece. Some kids do best when they are left alone. It gives them the space to think, to figure out what they are interested in, what they would like to try or be or do.

How does this relate to library service? Pretty simple. If stuff is available from an unbiased source that is convenient, cheap and always around, then people will use it. You don’t always have to trick kids into reading, thinking, creating—they can do it on their own, sometimes, if they are left alone to try.

Quince Orchard Library has the highest circulation for a branch its size in Montgomery County, Maryland. The only Montgomery County library with higher circulation is the Wheaton Library at maybe twice the square footage. Quince Orchard is in a shopping center in Gaithersburg nestled amongst fast food places, banks and gas stations. It is just off a busy thoroughfare and, oh yes, it is directly across the street from a high school. Kids don’t have to travel any distance to get there. The library that August Wilson used during his hiatus from school was three blocks away from his house.

When we use a business model to run government agencies like libraries, we talk about economies of scale. Small branches that serve limited numbers of people aren’t cost effective. Consolidation of services looks so much better on paper.

Neighborhood branches almost always lose in this model. But how much is it worth to develop a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright? How much is it worth to keep a few kids off the streets? How much is it worth to have the possibility that someone will do well years later?

One of the problems with education in general and libraries in particular is that, unlike manufacturing widgets, there is no easy way to measure how well they are doing. There is no standard for quality control for workplace efficiency. Or, rather, there is no standard for how effective any educational entity is at achieving its goals. Why? Because it takes years for the results to show.

Customer satisfaction, user surveys, focus groups and the like can give you a blurry snapshot but there is so much time between a troubled teenager cutting class and the writer he may become that the radical effect of access to books and knowledge (for free) is lost in the noise.

Reading can be for knowledge-seeking, a pastime or a pleasure. It is not a passive activity but it doesn’t need to be onerous. The best readers do it for pleasure before they do it for work and they are voluntary readers. Neither August Wilson nor Harold Bloom were reading “assignments” as needy teenagers in the public library but these days their work is often assigned reading for teenagers and young adults.

Fully funding public libraries gives the Blooms and Wilsons of the future their chance to shine.

Paulette Dickerson P.O. Box 598 Kensington, MD. 20895-0598
Private Citizen / Library Advocate

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