• Waterhole Branch

Dewey Decimals: My Love of Libraries

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

By Suzanne Hudson

Featuring Chuck Cannon

Photo above by Kevin D’Amico: Singer-songwriter Chuck Cannon at a Waterhole Branch Shoe Burnin’

When I posted on my personal Facebook page about a sentimentally valuable 20th Century relic of a library card catalogue that was stolen from me, it hit a nerve with folks and stirred up both memories and emotions, which brought to the fore my long time love of all things bibliophilic.

I’m so grateful to have grown up during the waning Age of Books, when encyclopedia salesmen roamed middle class neighborhoods like mine, peddling sets of science reference books for elementary schoolers, Junior Classics for the middle grades, and the huge and heavy Britannicas full of small print and way fewer pictures. We pampered baby boomers, nannied by the flickering glow of the old Zenith, were to have information and entertainment at our fingertips, by gum, the 1950s version of a smart phone.

My parents were readers, my mother pretty voraciously, so I was also fortunate to have had a love of reading modeled for me, unreluctant as I was. I envied the big fat “adult” novels they perused, with the cryptic and intriguing titles like The Carpetbaggers or Ship of Fools, with the biblically mysterious sounding ones, like Exodus. I was peripherally aware of the scandalous nature of a book like The Group, although clueless about what, specifically, all the blushing and fidgeting was about. I was aware that my parents had both read Lolita before going out on a “date” to see the movie, a film spoken about in fierce and shocked whispers, that was playing at the Ritz theater in town. My curiosity firmly set, I would ultimately discover those “grown up” books some years later, at the beautiful, newly constructed library in my hometown.

The Brewton Public Library was on my way, on that approximate mile-long walk home from school every day, from my elementary through my junior high years, plenty of time to nurture the love of reading that first sprouted from late-night, flashlight-lit Little Golden Book pages beneath the sheets of my twin bed on Bonita Avenue. Books were a go-to, a comfort, an adventure--and here was a whole entire building filled with them. It was both exhilarating and frustrating--how would I ever be able to read them all? I gave it a try, though, meandering through the web of a spider named Charlotte, hanging out with Curious George, listening for a Who with Horton. I skipped through Aesop and the Brothers Grimm before befriending Freddie and Flossie and Nan and Bert, and the Little Peppers--five of them--paving the way to the four March sisters.

When enough change from lunch money or milk money jangled in my pocket, I would make the two-block detour to the A&P to pick up a can of Betty Crocker Ready to Spread Chocolate Frosting. Those were the decadent days, curled up behind one of the large wooden bulletin boards that flanked the aisles of shelves, dipping playground-dirty fingers into the can, licking, careful not to smudge the Bobsey Twins’ and, later, Nancy Drew’s world with the sugary snack. Surely Mrs. Locke, the librarian, was on to me, but she never said a word about that broken rule; I’m guessing that, like most librarians, she was simply tickled to see a kid who was so eager to be swallowed up by books, no matter the conditions.

My preadolescent self semi-pruriently perused a spate of virginal teen fiction, with fresh-faced white kids on the covers, crew-cut boys in creased denim and button-down shirts, girls in cinched, belted waists, petticoated skirts, and neck scarves, with wholesomeness oozing from their smiles and dimples, images running the gamut from the blonde ringlets of a Trixie Belden to the page boy flip of a brunette Donna Parker, images always playing to stereotype. Holden Caulfield was a ways down the road.

I boo-hood over Old Yeller before moving onward to Perry Mason and upward to Alice and Gulliver and Oliver and Huck & Tom. And, of course, to Scout, Jem, Dill, and Boo, combing through mockingbirds’ songs multiple times throughout the years, feeding something of a social conscience and ultimately, decades later, bringing it into the forming consciousnesses of the middle school readers in my literature classes. Oh, they moved that title to the high school reading lists? Not allowed to use it anymore? Yeah. Right. Ask me if I care, and fire me if you dare.

I roamed the reference aisle, discovering the hefty medical textbooks, feeding a dark fascination with physically ravaged bodies, graphically pictured deformities, and all things gross and disturbing; it was junior high, after all. I was transported across the globe via National Geographic magazines in the periodical section, haunted by the eyes of an Afghani girl, by the horror of war; then lifted up by miracles of the earth--dazzling gem stones, exotic sea creatures, and the vast command of the unknown, the ever-growing smallness of me.

I came to know one J.L. Seagull, wallowed in the salty tears and sentimentality that was Love Story, and, some would say, much too immature for such a thing, smuggled Valley of the Dolls home for a secret read. I was censored by no one--neither Mrs. Locke nor my mother, who confessed to smuggling D.H. Lawrence past her own maternal unit. And I will always maintain that my free reign over book world prepped me beautifully for the Big Dogs, once I got to college.

Of course, the card catalog, that enormous, multi-drawered chest, was at the warm heart of the place, the centerpiece of the library, a cornucopia packed with thousands of cards, their worn edges whispering the dust-moted key words, ISBNs, and lower case Roman numerals of Mr. Melvil Dewey. A couple of friends remarked, via my original Facebook post, on the tactile experience of fingering through the cards, coming upon more titles, following the treasure maps of letters and categories that led the way through the system. My first college roommate, a reference librarian, said she loved and missed “the linear and alphabetic simplicity of card catalogs,” that began to be gobbled up by electronic versions way back in 1993. “This theft makes me so sad,” another friend and writer commented, the implication being that it was not a typical theft of property but a theft of nostalgia, of a past, of a tangible experience shared by many, something like a violation of our collective memory.

And then came Chuck Cannon, who put its profound absence into his own words. Here are his musings on such a piece of olden days’ furniture as a card catalog. He brought it. He brought it in his unique and magical way, as he is wont to do in song lyrics that can be scathing cat-scratches to your soul, or a comforting balm to your hurts, or a gut-punch of a laugh at the absurd. In these musings about the Age of Books he brought the balm, writing:

“There it stood.

“Right there in that lonesome corner of the library.

“There it stood for enough years to choke a half century--back where the kids who never got picked for any of the teams sat reading by the silent sunlight streaming through windows that looked south by south east, from whence cometh all words worth the the trouble of a story.

“Right there it stood holding safe the secret codes that were the maps with the X’s that marked the places of the buried treasures those boys who picked the teams would never find.

“Haloed in the dust diamonds set floating through the still and musty air by the sacred fingers of the curious stood something holy--hand-sawn of old-growth white oak, dove-tailed joined, tung-oiled and adorned in tarnished brass, anchored by the weight of knowing the where of that which is owned by everyone and borrowed by anyone.”

Well said and brimming with truth, Mr. Cannon. Thank you.

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