This is a very special evening and a very special award for me, partly because, like all of you, I love libraries and I believe in them and the work that they do. In giving my thanks today, I’d like to talk about the roles libraries have played in my life. I was born in 1977 and I tell you this so you can understand the culture of my generation. I am from the Reading Is Fundamental, One to Grow On, Captain OG Read More, Reading Rainbow Generation. I am a product of the after-school special and of School House Rock. Conjunction Junction? I know your function. I’m a member of the last generation to be pushed toward the library for hands-on learning via the encyclopedia, the reference desk, and the card catalog rather than pushed toward the internet.
I am originally from New York, and I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood known as Brownsville. I lived equidistant between two public libraries—one on Church Avenue and one on Mother Gaston Boulevard. Every Friday, my elementary school classmates and I walked together to the Church Avenue library to choose our weekend books for our book reports due Monday. I waited for every Friday to come so I could step into that space and roam and browse and lose myself and find myself once again. I waited for Friday so I could spin the racks that held the paperbacks, so I could find the books I wanted and bring back books for others. I was a short-order cook, taking requests, bringing back Agatha Christie mysteries for my great-aunt who could not make the long walk. Every Friday I always came back with more than I could carry. Just as it is for many of us, the library was my go-to place. It was the place where I was sent to “look it up.” The place I could hole up in on hot summer afternoons, using the cool space of the library to beat the summer heat. If I had a nickel for all of the libraries I’ve loved before, I’d be rich indeed.
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Guest Blog: Author Amina Gautier on Libraries
From the Lenny Letter
The year was 1989, and I was a jack-o’-lantern. Wearing the costume equivalent of footed pajamas and a hat with a stem and felt leaves, I gripped my dad’s hand as we walked down the carpeted hallways of our apartment building. I remember the weight of my plastic candy bucket as I held it outstretched toward Frankenstein’s monster, witches, and ghosts sporting penny loafers and house slippers. Later that night, I sorted through my sugary loot and decided that Halloween was my favorite day of the year.
The following year, I was a witch. I wore a cape and striped tights. I trick-or-treated with my dad, adjusting my pointy black hat and practicing my cackle before we knocked on each door. I sunk my teeth into spider-shaped cookies alongside my neighborhood friends while our parents chatted and the flicker of crudely carved jack-o’-lanterns cast shadows against the wall. I bobbed for apples with a princess and a Ghostbuster, unaware that this Halloween would be my last.
Something changed in the months that followed. My parents started going to church again. They rededicated their lives to Jesus and became followers of the Word of God. They weren’t merely “religious.” They became devout. We attended church every Sunday and spent Wednesday nights at prayer meetings. My Disney VHS tapes were replaced by The Greatest Adventure series. My dad started listening to gospel music instead of jazz, and my mom got rid of her Nefertiti necklace in order to adhere to the Second Commandment. They explained that all of this would bring us closer to God, that it would allow for us to guard our ears, our eyes, and our hearts from worldly distractions and sin. Their reignited passion for Jesus meant that I would attend Christian school. It also meant that Halloween was no longer a day of fun. It was unholy, pagan, a doorway to the occult.
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Screening Room: Rion Amilcar Scott on Big Bird, Writing, Adulthood, and the Unfairness of Death
From ELECTRIC LIT
I used to joke that between apparel, toys, books and DVDs, my family was, for a time, single-handedly funding Sesame Workshop, the non-profit that produces Sesame Street.
I had always been fascinated by Jim Henson’s gentle philosophical method and by the visionary Id-like wildness of his puppets. My toddler — himself an agent of chaos, akin to so many of Henson’s greatest creations — provided the perfect excuse to finally study at close range the antics of Henson’s Muppet characters. There was another reason of course, the great unpleasant present that often numbed me and left me cold: the low bank balances and high fees for existence; the sameness of each workday and fleetingness of each weekend; the damn maddening frustration of constantly having to be the disciplinarian — how bad I was at all of this. And the paperwork. No one tells you about the paperwork that adulthood involves.
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I often travel to places I’ve read about, and I like how the remembered story unfolds as I drive, at once moving toward a destination and returning to a memory. On this particular trip, I’m rememberingErnest J. Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a novel that follows the 100-year life of Miss Jane, from her birth during slavery to her death in the 1960s.
I’m heading to Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, and when I arrive, I’ll meet Ernest himself. I’m accepting an award named in his honor, and to say I’m grateful doesn’t come close to describing how I feel. Ernest has been a hero of mine since I was a teenager. In 2002, I sat in an auditorium at Spelman College in Atlanta and listened as he discussed his life and writing with Emory professor Rudolph Byrd. I’ll see Rudolph on this trip too. Together, we’ll all drive around Pointe Coupee, stopping to see a tree that is both myth and landmark.
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Millions of Tiny Things
When Hammond was very young, he had a hard time sleeping. It felt as though there were millions of tiny things crawling around beneath his skin, and the small, small spaces that separated each of these tiny things was known to him, and so it wasn’t just that there were millions of them, but that he never felt whole, and that he felt always on the brink of dissolving. He knew that the only thing keeping him together was his ability to focus on each of those tiny spaces inside—if he fell asleep, whatever small bit of force that kept the parts of him from flying apart would vanish and he’d be torn into millions of small, small pieces. Sometimes, at night, he felt his focus slipping, could feel the tension in his body as he tried and tried to will himself whole, to keep it together. But the millions of tiny things inside of him kept moving, sliding around. It was hard to keep track of them all, and on this edge of sleep, every time, he thought that he would die. He thought that he could already feel his body going to pieces, breaking up like static, so when his eyes closed, he said goodbye to his parents, goodbye to his dog Mojo, goodbye to the trees, goodbye to his bed, goodbye to the turtles in the pond out back, goodbye to the sky, goodbye.
Sometimes, Hammond makes the mistake of telling the people he loves about this time in his life. They look at him with either pity or amusement, though there was the time that the guy rolled out of bed, put clothes on, and left Hammond’s apartment while muttering something about fucking schizo nutjob. It’s always a calculated risk to tell someone something ugly about yourself, but perhaps this isn’t the best way to describe it because Hammond does not feel shame about his boyhood. He was anxious and heady and sullen as a child. Many people are these things. That he experienced long bouts of psychosis is nothing to be ashamed of, though he has learned to conceal it from people, folding this necessary article of his being away in the way one might wear long shirts over flabby arms or keloids. It’s only on the edge of sleep, when he’s curled up with someone toward whom he is experiencing the first, fluttering uneasiness of love that he makes the mistake of telling them about the times as a child he thought he’d dissolve in the middle of the night. There is always a moment of hesitation, when they aren’t sure if he’s joking or telling the truth, that he realizes is a minor kindness extended toward him, a moment in which he can take it all back and explain it away as a bad joke. It’s a fleeting, narrow possibility into which he could wedge himself and live out the rest of his time. “Oh,” he could say, “just kidding.” But he never takes the moment, never takes it all back. It is what it is, he figures. He is what he is, he figures.
Read the rest of the story here: Millions of Tiny Things