|This speech was given at an inservice for all Metro Schools Librarians at JT Moore Middle School on August 9, 2011.|
I like to tell audiences that I wrote my first song at twelve. I was published at thirteen, made a record at fourteen, had a hit at fifteen, and was a has-been at sixteen…
It’s all uphill from there.
I am from the North, and though I’ve lived in Nashville these past 23 years, that’s barely long enough to remove the phrase “Damnyankee” from my name. I am therefore doubly honored to be asked to address you; first, as a transplant, and second, as an artist.
Of all the descriptions I might apply to myself – Northern, white, Jewish, gay, female, vertically challenged – artist is the only one I earned myself. So today, I speak to you from the viewpoint of an artist, first and foremost.
When prehistoric man made his first symbols, and connected those symbols with true language, he began a chain of events that would enlighten and ennoble the world. The written word informs us. It challenges us. It drags us to the depths and lifts us to the heavens, in one graceful arc that can only be appreciated by those who can read.
Libraries are a hallmark of a civilized culture, and librarians represent that culture to all facets of society. We artists have a great affinity with you librarians, for many reasons, not the least of which is that we exist in large part to educate, and to protect. To make order out of chaos, and to teach others to do the same. To keep the dreams of a nation, of a people, safe for future generations. To make those dreams available to everyone – not just the wealthy or beautiful, not just the people of one race or one color or one religion – but available to everyone who dares to dream of something bigger than themselves.
As you well know, the history of libraries is deep and dense, informed with beauty and tragedy. Who among us has not wondered at the barbarism of those who burned the library at Alexandria? Which of us does not mourn the ignorance displayed every time a book is burned? Who among us here can fail to rejoice that we live in a nation where freedom of speech rules, and literacy is considered a right, not a privilege?
It is difficult to subdue a fully literate people. They are exposed to too many different trains of thought. They are taught to question, to challenge, to argue. In our respect for literacy, as in so many other things, we artists have a great deal in common with you.
Librarians and artists have an affinity for one another, perhaps because we’re both outlaws. We seek understanding rather than agreement. We are open to greater worlds than the day to day world we occupy. We are often left to stand alone from the first, to make our way toward conscience and morality at ages far younger than the average person. We seek solitude, in order to hear the thoughts in our heads – and to make room for the hope in our hearts.
I grew up on a farm, a mile or two from the nearest neighbor. There were books everywhere; some of my earliest memories are of my parents reading to me. From Babar to Winnie-the-Pooh, books were my companions and my solace.
My immigrant grandparents, whose English carried the lilt of their birth languages, would read the newspaper after dinner, and the fierce arguments over politics that ensued each night convinced me that the printed word carried a weight all out of proportion to its size.
I lived, not only on the farm, but in France with Madeleine at her convent. In Africa with Mowgli, in China with Ping the duck, on Mars with the Tik Tok Man, and in my favorite place, Oz, with Dorothy and Toto. My family gave me books, and books, in turn, gave me the world.
My grandparents wrote to us every week, always including a paragraph for me, and the instant I realized how it worked, I demanded my mother teach me so I could read them for myself. I was sure they’d sent secret messages meant only for me with each letter, and I wanted to find them for myself! Even then, I understood that words can reveal, and words can hide.
I didn’t realize I was a freak until I started kindergarten. The teacher began showing us how to print letters. I raised my hand and asked to be excused, saying I already knew how to read and write and would much rather be reading. The teacher called me a liar, and made me stand in the corner for the rest of the afternoon. I was outraged, and complained bitterly to my mother when I got home.
Fortunately, my mother was also outraged, though at the thought of anyone calling her child a liar. She came with me the next morning, talked to the principal, and thereafter – provided I made good grades – I spent most of the writing hour with my nose buried in a book.
My father had what I now know was a rare and enlightened attitude toward my reading. A teacher himself, he believed that if I read something beyond my scope, I wouldn’t understand it, and it wouldn’t hurt me. If it was within my scope, I would understand it – and it wouldn’t hurt me.
As first generation Americans, my parents understood all too well the power of literacy. In Russia, my grandparents were not permitted to attend school. Fortunately for them, they were Jewish, a religion that insists on education – in fact, the first thing we’re taught to build when we begin a new community is not a place of worship, but a school. Because of this, they were literate in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Ukrainian, French, and finally, English. Looking at my own mono-lingual skills, I feel like a pauper compared to them!
My people understood the power of literacy because they saw, over and over again, that education was the key to a future. The Portuguese say, “Knowledge does not occupy space.” As a hunted people, expelled from one country after another through the ages, the Jews had learned that lesson well. My grandmother often told me that gold could be confiscated, money could be lost – but knowledge was forever.
So my grandparents, and my parents, encouraged me to read – everything and anything, from Batman comics to My Side of the Mountain. My nickname as a child was “Why?” People would ask my mother how she could stand it, the constant questioning – my father even got a part time job selling encyclopedias so he could buy one for me and give my poor mom some time off!
But even when my omnivorous curiosity presented difficulties for them, they continued to support my quest for knowledge. Who knew where it would lead? We were in America! Maybe I would become a great scientist, like Einstein. Maybe I would become a professor, or a doctor – all the professions denied to my forebears in Russia. Whatever I became, they were sure books were key.
You can understand what a disappointment it was to everyone when I became a musician…
And being a musician, being a writer, set me apart from the first. I became an outlaw the day I set my fingers on the piano keys. I became an outlaw the day I decided Madeleine L’Engle was more interesting than American Bandstand.
When I looked around at my schoolmates, I didn’t see anyone remotely like me. No one else dreamed of the day when she’d be able to afford a hard-backed book instead of a paperback. No one else saved every scrap of lunch money so they could buy pens, and pads, and books. I longed for friends, people I could talk to about things that were important to me, but I met none.
I was alone, and lonely. I only met myself in novels.
And novels were few and far between. There was a lending library on wheels, limited to books adults thought children would enjoy. Hah. Anyone who’s ever watched an untutored adult choose books for a child knows how little I found of interest there!
Then, one brisk October morning, everything changed. My entire class was taken to the library. We wrote our names down, gave our addresses to a stern-faced woman behind a tall desk, and were given library cards in return. They were limited to the children’s and young adult sections, we could only take out three books at a time, but they were library cards.
The library saved my life. If anyone in my family wondered where I was, they had only to drop by the reading room to find me. The librarian, Mrs. Anna Baker, was my first true friend – someone who listened carefully, responded truthfully, and gave me every scrap of knowledge she could muster through the books she controlled.
I met her because she’d noticed the way I decided which books to check out. To have access to an entire room full of books was more than I’d hoped for, and I was determined to read each and every one. I’d begun with the top left shelf of the room, and was gradually working my way to the bottom-most right. Of course, the problem with my indiscriminate reading was quality, and interest – quite often, I’d take home my three cherished books, only to find that two of them failed me completely, and the third wasn’t so great either.
Anna began recommending books – A Wrinkle In Time, Half-Magic, Boy Gravely, Young Man With a Horn - all the Newberry and Caldecott winners and more besides. My life began to fill with more worlds than I’d ever dreamed. Books led me to more books, as authors led me to more authors.
A newspaper article led me to Scottsboro Boys, but when I tried to sneak out of the adult section and check it out, the head librarian caught me and confiscated it. I complained to Mrs. Baker, who called my parents and obtained their permission to check adult books out for me on her own card.
Books saved me. I lived at the library. I lived there because it was quiet. I lived there because it was safe. I lived there because no one judged me. I lived there because there, and only there, did I feel free to explore myself.
The library was my safe haven, my sanctuary, the only place that understood my inner world. The library taught me that somewhere out there were others like me. The library promised that one day, when I was old enough, I would meet them at last.
The library saved me. It was a source of strength, and that source fed me, as surely as a river feeds the sea. It was the library that taught me how to be an artist, and led my way to my own life’s work.
An artist is a citizen of the world, bound by no convention, tied by no borders. We are homeless from the start; we do not have the refuge of conformity, of predictability. Artists need a place of refuge, just as children need a place of refuge… and the world needs its artists, just as it needs its children.
It is the artists who pull sense from the chaos of daily life. It is the artists who carry our true history in their work. Artists are the last alchemists, turning base metal to gold, base desire to beauty, daily life to magnificent stories that stay with us long after we set the work aside. We take your heart’s desire and make it visible – and if that isn’t alchemy, I don’t know what is.
Artists deal in dreams. That is what we sell. We sell dreams, and as you well know, without a dream, a book is just an empty cover waiting to be filled. Without a dream, a CD is merely a piece of plastic. Without a dream, a child is just a shell, left to wander in ignorance, no better than a brute animal.
Books fill the empty pages of our hearts. They leave their language on our souls. Whether a story leaps at us from the printed page, or whispers to us from a CD, or blinds us with its beauty when we see it on film, words capture and hold our dreams. They remind us of ourselves at our best, and teach us what we can be. They carry our longing for the stars, and point us toward them when we are too earthbound to do it ourselves.
I hope that every library is a place of refuge for people like me, and for all the children in the world. I hope that every librarian is as kind as Mrs. Baker, who corresponded with me regularly until her death, and whose last letter to me recommended several books she’d recently enjoyed. I hope that when you are tired, when you are exhausted, when you are frustrated and angry and railing against an impossible system with ridiculous rules – I hope that in those moments you will remember me, who found her heart in books, and learned from you that there are worlds for the taking, if only we can find them.
* © 2011 by Janis Ian; all rights reserved. Librarians and other educators are free to disseminate this piece on line and to copy it for non-profit educational use, provided it’s attributed to the author. When possible, please include my website, www.janisian.com, where there are more articles and speeches. Thank you.
|For more from Janis Ian and her work with America's libraries, visit her website, JanisIan.com. |