A lesson about libraries in a summer's reading


September 08, 1996|By Mike Burns

LABOR DAY having sung the threnody for summer vacations, I find myself thinking repeatedly about mine. Not of sun and surf, mountain trails or historic sites. Not about family picnics, amusement parks or exotic foreign travels. But about my summer reading, books for passing the time relaxing from the daily hustle-bustle.

This summer, largely by coincidence, my reading list was limited to American novels published in 1851. Yes, that's 145 years ago -- not the stuff you'll find on the drugstore or airport book racks.

What a curious, calculated, obsessively arranged list for leisurely summertime reading, you may think, especially for someone who's not enrolled in a college course on mid-19th century American literature.

Yet these are exciting novels -- filled with provocative ideas, rich scenery and imagery, unforgettable characters unfading with the passage of time. They are indeed classics, for that reason as enjoyable today as any modern novel, even if a few words may seem strange and the sentences a bit too convoluted.

"Moby Dick" was, in fact, a re-reading of Melville from a long-ago cram course that allowed you two weeks to read a book thick enough to choke a whale before moving quickly to the next epic.

"The House of the Seven Gables" was an overlooked classic that I never got around to; Hawthorne's more famous "The Scarlet Letter" took precedence several times over.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a choice that I had read in part years ago, a selection somewhat prompted by its similar publication date when I considered tossing it into the vacation carryall. (Should any literary purist have read this far, and raise objection, Stowe published her novel in installments -- a common practice of that time -- beginning in 1851.)

The authors are all from the Northeast, born within 200 miles of one another; yet each was profoundly influenced by a decidedly different location to write these enduring works. Stowe wrote from her agony living on the Ohio border between slave state and free state, Melville about his adventure-filled life sailing the globe, Hawthorne of his ancestral and superstitious Massachusetts past.

The two male authors, great admirers of each other's writing, spin yarns of elaborate symbolism in unfolding their plots.

Melville wrote about a distinctive slice of American life whose lucrative industry was very soon to expire with the discovery of underground pockets of decayed dinosaurs. Hawthorne found seamless reverie and timeless reflections on human nature within the confines of a bygone epoch and a crumbling ancient dwelling.

Stowe is straightforward in her sweeping narrative of contemporary conflicts, aside from a few unsatisfactory flights of literary fancy. There is no need for involved symbolism in her compelling tale, which ends with unadorned polemic against slavery and a prescient prediction of American apocalypse over the issue that was to occur a decade later.

These days "Moby Dick" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" are often cited in searches for "the Great American Novel," their strikingly different styles, forms and concerns offering ample argument for their respective supporters.

The Hawthorne book is considered of lesser rank, and yet it is commonly prescribed for high school and college students because its abundant symbolism and literary exposition offer fertile fields for growing minds. It has drifted in and out of fashion, certainly, but always within arm's reach of a willing teacher or dragooned English student.

But the Stowe and Melville classics were, surprisingly, for a long time out of print, largely ignored until their impacts on American literature and history were rediscovered or revived in this century. Never falling out of memory, perhaps, but not considered worthwhile for stocking in the commercial bookstores.

Where did they survive for new readers during this hiatus? In the public libraries, which were much less prone in those days to throw out volumes that could still be mended and recirculated. Their availability was partly due to librarian judgment, partly to the fact that a book in hand was worth two on the wish list.

Best-sellers 'r' us

That's an important point to keep in mind when the debate swirls around funding for public libraries and around their worth. Libraries aren't just for ever-changing best-seller shelves, video rentals, how-to-do-it manuals and encyclopedias, and computer linkups with the World Wide Web.

They help to keep alive a literary history of our society, nation and world. Changing tastes demand different products and services. But tradition and history also need to be served. Libraries keep that flame burning, after the commercial embers turn cold. Good books need that chance to be rediscovered.

Happily, you can also now buy a copy of these three novels in the bookstores and keep them. Follow Ahab's hunt for the great white whale, suffer Uncle Tom's noble descent into hell, and rejoice in withered Hepzibah's redemption. They are wonderful companions, for summer and all time.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 9/08/96

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