Sunday, December 14, 2014


I’m getting to be a library junkie. Seemingly every book recommended by friends, Amazon, NPR and literary sections ends up on my queue. I’m number one through fifty-seven on hold. The librarian must think I’m a speed reader. Let it be known I’m something between a slow reader and a non-reader. I go through the first twenty pages and often give it up. The reviews were better than the books. There was a time, long gone, when I thought the 11th commandment was to finish what you start.

I have no patience for books about Nazis, Popes, amnesiacs, drug-addled slackers, coming-of-age stories, arduous journeys through ice fields, futuristic apocalyptic tales or historical romance, How I Chanted My Way Out of Ebola or Found Happiness in an Ant Farm, or Parlayed My Last Eleven Cents Into a Condominium in Marina Del Rey, or Thirty Recipes for Moo-shu Pork, lurid horror, Life in the Gulag, Cockroaches I Have Known, biographies about golf pros or professional bowlers…. as told to.  I’ve had my fill of Churchill, Jefferson and Civil War battles. I’m done with such as the untold story of Abbott and Costello or the real James Dean.

In short, I'm a certified snob.

Which leaves me overlooked classics, books about people with inner lives written with a flair for language … quirky, non-narrative, and character-driven preferably. Poetry or near-poetry, for sure. In non-fiction I’m still a sucker for some political and social history with something new to say.

I like finding my name on the will-call shelf; I’m even getting familiar with other Levines and their preferences. An email shows up when a book has arrived and when it’s due. Last week I owed them a dollar. I didn’t haggle. The book was in my trunk ….and then forgotten, hastily moved there when I went to car wash.

There’s a special feeling being in a benign place where hardly any money is exchanged. People are helpful, patient and happier having switched into another gear…. unless you are homeless and this is the pit stop you depend upon to wash yourself and stay out of trouble. My daughter, Lauren, was a librarian and saw it from a different angle having to contend with the great unwashed, at times drugged out and occasionally violent. Then again that guy with his life’s belongings in a shopping cart could be a former professor who lost his tenure and couldn’t handle a job flipping cheeseburgers. 

I don’t quite understand why the library is so under-used. Imagine Barnes & Noble if everything were free. It’s a no-brainer. I suppose some folks don’t want to wait till their turn comes around. And then there is the pride of ownership; the obsession to collect or to write marginalia.  I wonder if it is better to be number ten with one book in the system or number one hundred with ten circulating. 

My Ocean Park branch library, built in 1918, was one of 2500 funded by Andrew Carnegie, that penny-pinching robber baron who decided to give it all away in his twilight years. In his heyday he had turned down labor demands for a two-cent an hour raise. Was he making peace with his maker or was it all about amassing power and keeping his name alive? I read a Carnegie biography and still don't know.

I can think of no better place to be trapped in when the next earthquake strikes. There are worse ways to go than to be buried under thousands of pages of well-chosen words. And if I still had a pulse I could read my way out.  I would even bless Andrew Carnegie and forgive those best-selling authors for writing the same book a dozen times and all the bloated volumes and particularly the ones I wish I had written myself.

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