Opportunity of a Lifetime

As I have indicated before, I began my career as a librarian in a medium-sized public library in a small county of around 42,000 people.  As is typical in small communities, there were plenty of personal interconnections.  When I graduated with an MA in History in 1985 from a state college in this same county, I started work shelving and cataloging books in the public library.  With the encouragement, patience, and generous assistance from the library director, I and another worker in the library commuted to Emory University twice a week for two years to complete our Masters degrees in Librarianship (MLn).  I served as a reference librarian for most of my fifteen years there, but when the director left during my twelfth year, I was offered the position.  I served as the library’s director for three years.

One morning, during the spring of my last year, the husband of our children’s librarian walked into my office to say he had a proposition for me.  His wife was serving in this position at the library before I began there.  Her husband was a local attorney.  I knew them both very well — we attended social events and my first wife and I had even house-sat for them and had taken care of their two children for a weekend.  As it happened, he was the lawyer for the estate of a major American writer, who also was (and still is) one of my favorite authors: Flannery O’Connor.  She had lived a good portion of her life in this town where her family had deep roots going back to the early 19th century.  She spent the last thirteen years of her life at the family’s farm, called Andalusia, located on the north end of town.

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Flannery O’Connor
His clients were two sisters who were also first cousins of O’Connor.  Flannery O’Connor died in 1964, but her mother, Regina, lived until 1995.  As executors of Regina O’Connor’s estate, these two women were also in charge of Flannery O’Connor’s literary estate, which was primarily administered through a trust that had been established by Regina O’Connor’s will.  As co-executors and co-trustees, one of their responsibilities was to establish a non-profit foundation to maintain Andalusia as a proper memorial to O’Connor and also to perpetuate her legacy as a writer.  They needed someone to help establish this organization.  They also needed someone to work with a sizable archive of personal papers, correspondence, writings, photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts belonging to Flannery O’Connor.  The archive needed to be organized, cataloged, and properly stored for preservation purposes.  The co-executors asked the lawyer to find someone who might be interested and capable of doing both of these tasks.  He came to my office in the library that spring day, explained the proposition from the estate, and asked me if I would consider taking the job as an independent consultant working for the co-executors.  I accepted, which changed almost everything for me.

I will no doubt dedicate several future posts recounting my experiences as a consultant and then later the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation that I assisted in establishing.  I was there for thirteen years — as long as Flannery O’Connor lived there.  That was long enough, or arguably, a bit too long.  While I can look back and think about plenty of mistakes I made and how I should have made different decisions, I don’t have any real regrets.  With a BA in English, an MA in History, and an MLn, I don’t think I could have been any better suited for the job with regard to my education and training.  I had the help of some talented and dedicated mentors, board members, volunteers, colleagues, and for a few years, a trusted co-worker and friend.  What I can state with absolute certainty is that this path that departed from my expected trajectory led me to some of the richest experiences I have ever had and offered me opportunities that other people with my education and training will, sadly, never enjoy.  I am humbly grateful, and hope that Flannery O’Connor would be pleased with the work we accomplished at Andalusia.

What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage

Advanced communication is one of the achievements of human beings that sets us apart from the rest of the living world.  To paraphrase one of my most influential college professors: “Language is what separates us from dogs and cabbage.”  As humans, we have fairly sophisticated language skills that take the form of speaking, singing, gesturing, signing, etc.  But other members of the animal kingdom possess forms of these skills too, and some of them have surpassed our own capabilities.  What truly distinguishes us intellectually as a species is the higher brain function we have acquired, and I believe the best illustration of that gift is in written communication. The ability to pass along information from one person to another through writing was one of the hallmarks that transformed homo sapiens into civilized human beings and paved the way for rapid advancement.  Sadly, literacy is a privilege that is terribly under appreciated in this country, especially when we consider that 774 million adults around the world cannot read or write.  In the United States, most people over the age of fifteen can read and write at a very basic level, but we live in one of the most advanced countries in the world.  Shouldn’t we expect much more than just basic written communication skills?

Most of us know that, in order to write well, we must read — a lot.  To write better, we need to read more and read good writing (this is beginning to sound like a first-grade reader, in fact).  I think it is at this crucial point that we fail.  I am shining the light primarily on the United States, although this problem likely extends to a good portion of the developed countries around the world.  In this country, the masses don’t spend much time reading at all.  There are far too many other sources of information and entertainment available other than the written word.  I am not referring to the Internet necessarily, because there is plenty of writing, and even good writing, available on the Web.  Then again, the Web offers so many alternatives to writing also, which do present quite a distraction.  I am certainly not referring to e-books either, which in spite of their dubious reputation in the eyes of some traditionalists and obsessive bibliophiles, are another source of writing.

So now let’s narrow it down to the folks who DO like to read.  According to Pew Research Center, as of January 2014 some 76% of American adults ages 18 and older said that they read at least one book in the past year.  The typical American reads about five books a year, which isn’t extremely impressive, but at least they’re reading . . . something.  However, 24% of Americans don’t crack a book at all, and the number of non-book-readers has nearly tripled since 1978.  Again, we have more distractions to pull us away from reading.  As the comedian John Caparulo says in one of his more ridiculous routines, “Books suck!  That’s why they invented movies.  Who the hell reads?”

Now, before the 76% of American readers starts to get too cocky, I will make one final disturbing observation, and it relates to Caparulo’s point.  Most Americans who read do so only for one purpose: to be entertained.  Before going further, let me say that reading should  be entertaining, but if reading is going to continue to raise us above the levels of dogs and cabbage, then what we read should do more than just entertain us.  It should change us, challenge us, move us, and sometimes even call us to action. This standard not only applies to nonfiction — it goes for novels, short stories, poetry, and drama.  The embarrassing truth is that far too many Americans judge the merit of a book by whether or not it has been made into a blockbuster movie. I would venture to say that the majority of people who went to see the movie The Color Purple when it came out in 1985 had not read the Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Alice Walker, but after seeing the movie praised the book as a masterpiece.  One has to wonder if Gone with the Wind would still be the best-selling book of all time if it had not been made iconic by the motion picture that followed.

We have access through numerous vehicles to the world’s greatest works of literature — from ancient sacred texts to modern classics from various cultures.  Why would we waste what little time we have in this life on anything less precious?  Of course, I phrase that question knowing full well that I am guilty of seeking shallow entertainment all the time, but I have not forsaken the pursuit of fine literature in the process.  We can have both.  But, to spend a lifetime completely absent of serious writing seems to me such a tragic existence for a species with the mental capacity to appreciate it and pass it on to the next generation.

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, historian Douglas Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—an “Age of Neoslavery” that thrived from the aftermath of the Civil War through the dawn of World War II.  Having been raised in the Southeast where these atrocities flourished in the decades leading up to the time I was born in 1960, reading this exposé was both painful and illuminating for me — it is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in many years.

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Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African- Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries, and farm plantations. Thousands of other African-Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

This book is a moving, sobering account of a little-known crime against African-Americans, and the insidious legacy of racism that reverberates today.  In light of events involving law enforcement and the legal system with regard to black people over the past year, this book is extremely relevant.  It should be required reading in most southern history college courses, and it should be considered strongly for most advanced American history courses. It is well researched, thoroughly documented, and extremely compelling.  Blackmon is such a good writer.

John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meany

If you haven’t read at least one book by John Irving, then you are missing out on one of the best modern American novelists.  I have read a few of Irving’s works, but none was as brilliant to me as A Prayer for Owen Meany.  A tragic accident brings the two main characters together and links them in a mystery that defines their lives.

I read this novel many years ago, and like many other books from my past, I have forgotten so much of it.  Prolific readers have to come to terms with this unavoidable reality — most of us simply can’t retain the vast majority of what we read.  And, I don’t read all that much.  What is encouraging to me is the side benefit of reading, especially serious fiction.  I may not remember character’s names, specific events, or even the story line, but I know that great books have an impact on my way of thinking and the way I view the world and my own journey.  Sometimes, they alter my path and help me find new avenues that I had no idea existed.

I really wasn’t looking for Christian symbolism when I read this book, but by the time I finished, I had decided that Owen Meany WAS Christ.  Someday I want to return to this novel to see how different my reaction to it will be.  In fact, I would like to do the same thing with several other titles.  So many books, so little time . . . .

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Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan – Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Reading is easily one of my favorite activities.  Outside of newspapers, magazines, and websites, I tend to read more novels than anything else.  I like the immersion experience and the sense of accomplishment after finishing a well-written novel.  However, I do enjoy nonfiction works, and I gravitate toward works on history, religion, and natural science.  I am also fascinated by human origins, evolution, and anthropology.  There are a few books I can recall that truly had a life-altering effect on my way of thinking.  One of those was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by the late Carl Sagan and co-authored by Ann Druyan.

First published in 1992, this book is an exploration of who we are and how human beings have been shaped by the development of the planet over millions of years.  The authors explore origins of traits central to our current predicament: sex and violence, love and altruism, hierarchy, consciousness, language, technology, and morality.  It is easily the best book on human origins and anthropology for the lay-reader that I have ever read. I’m sure some scholars in the field are still not fond of Sagan’s work, but he really did a good job of making science accessible and fascinating for the rest of us.  For that effort and accomplishment, I am grateful.