Tag Archives: junot diaz

Literary Autodidacts and Public Libraries

You may have recently come across a New York Times article about Ray Bradbury, his love of libraries, and his fight to keep California’s public libraries open. There’s a great quote from Bradbury in that article that I’ve read over and over again:

“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Mr. Bradbury’s experience as a public library autodidact got me thinking about other self-educated literary individuals and the role of public libraries in their lives. Here are a few that come to mind:

Isaac Asimov — One of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Asimov created amazing visions of the future, especially those in his famous Foundation series. Asimov’s autobiography I, Asimov contains a full chapter on the role of the public library in his life, about which he says the following:

I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library.  For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.

Junot Diaz — Diaz recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and his earliest literary influences were discovered at, you guessed it, a public library. As Wikipedia explains, Diaz grew up poor in New Jersey, but “was a voracious reader, often walking four miles in order to borrow books from his public library.”

Jack London — London was self-educated at the Oakland Library in Oakland, California. As the story goes, London was befriended and mentored by librarian and poet Ina Coolbrith, and an assistant in the reference room, Fred Jacobs. The library remained a constant source of inspiration and renewal for London after his many adventures, and also plays a big part in his semi-autobiographical novel, Martin Eden.

August Wilson — The famous playwright August Wilson is one of Pittsburgh’s own! Born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson knew at a young age that he wanted to be a writer, but often found his dreams stymied by poverty, discrimination, and a failed education system. Fortunately, he had another road to education: the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. As he explains in an interview in Conversations with August Wilson, the library was his salvation:

My mother taught me to read when I was four years old, and in the library for the first time in my life I felt free. I could read whole books on subjects that interested me. I’d read about the Civil War or theology. By the time I left the library, I thought ‘Okay, I’m ready. I know a lot of stuff.’ It always amazed me that libraries were free.

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While public libraries remain wonderfully free to use, there are a lot of costs involved in making them that way. As we’ve pointed out here recently, and as Ray Bradbury laments, unfortunately, it’s getting harder to meet those costs.

Take a moment to consider the fact that without public libraries the above literary autodidacts might never have had the opportunity to learn and become writers. A world without Jack London’s stories?  No thanks! But the simple fact is that while reduced funding could mean reduced materials, library hours, and librarians, it definitely means reduced access and opportunity, a veritable reduction in the freedom August Wilson so appreciated.

Who knows how many future Pulitzer Prize winning authors are taking advantage of their public libraries as you read this?  Let’s do what we can to make sure we can keep opportunity open to them.

–Wes

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