GEMINI JIVE • “Book People”

January 7, 2009

me-maskMaralyn Lois PolakOperation Itch Contributing Writer header
©2009 ML Polak
see all posts by MLP

 The other week I walked into a cozy and inviting second-hand bookstore called the Last Word near the Penn campus in West Philadelphia while waiting for a movie to start around the corner. That’s how it is these days for books — no longer the main event, now relegated to the sidelines. And I’m what passes for a Book Person. I buy books from, whenever possible, independent bookstores rather than chains. I read books cover to cover, savoring each word. I write books. Sometimes they even get published.

 The salesclerk, a pleasant 40-ish woman, and I begin chatting. We share our mutual loathing of those new-fangled wireless electronic book–reader-thingees like Kindle  — think iPods for books– retailing for $359. You can even order them pre-loaded with hundreds of book titles. I compare them to vibrators — you might think you’re getting sex, but it’s sure not human!

 But oh, the mindless blather touting this devilish device! “Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel has a long tradition of nurturing the literary-minded — Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, even Harpo Marx hung out there in its heyday. Keeping up with the times, the folks running the Algonquin today apparently still have literature on their minds, and are offering Amazon’s Kindle pre-loaded with a book of their choice for guests of the hotel during their stay…” burbles the website Switched-dot-com.

 We both agree battery-powered books seem a crime against nature. 
“People like the feel of real books, the smell of books,” the salesclerk declares fervently. “They like to touch them. They like to carry books with them wherever they go. Books are already portable. You can read them anywhere. Books are, in their way, comforting.”

 Certainly books are the low-tech solution to the reading process. Here’s hoping actual books — and public gathering-places to read them like libraries — never go out of style. If only Philly’s Mayor could have been there to participate in our conversation, maybe he’d have second thoughts about his misguided –and potentially dangerous — threat to shut 11 neighborhood library branches to eliminate some red ink in the city’s way-out-of-whack budget.

Doesn’t the Mayor know books are magical? Isn’t he aware books can change lives, young and old, forever? Doesn’t he realize books are a passport to the Imagination Unlimited?

And, instead of privatizing some of the city’s libraries in poor neighborhoods, as he may now do, why not simply eliminate 10-year real estate tax abatements extended to rich, powerful corporate interests instead.

 Here’s a city with one of the highest murder rates in America, yet so short-sighted as to even consider closing nearly a dozen libraries, which function as cultural community centers. Boy, how dumb — and bogus — can you be? Libraries are incredibly important to people of all ages. They can be safe, quiet places to do homework after school. They can be places to use computers, thus helping conquer the Digital Divide for impoverished families. They can be places to do research, seek intellectual enrichment, attend lectures, movies, workshops, or even socialize. Think about it. And then rescind the order to shutter those libraries.

 Besides, as my friend let’s call “Star Chiro” suggests, it’s just a ploy from the faux-liberal mayor to strong-arm the public into allowing casinos to operate within city limits, therefore disrupting residential neighborhoods even further.

 The only bad thing anyone could say about libraries is if they are working right, they help folks learn to think for themselves, definitely a detriment in this era of uninformed mass group-think.

 When I was seven, I started going to the library every week with my father. He’d bring along a wire bicycle basket for our books. My father’s books were often Nero Wolfe mystery novels by Rex Stout, revolving around the twin adult pleasures of sex and food, books Daddy deemed far too “grown-up” for me.

 As a very curious child, reading was my entree to the wonders of the Universe. I read about the Big Bang Theory and how the Solar System was formed. I devoured everything I could find on flying saucers. I HAD to know about Eskimos. I even raced my way through the Bobbsey Twins, Little Women, Nancy Drew and other age-appropriate series.

 And then, after I had finished my own permissible weekly literary allotment of “children’s books” and wanted more, I’d crawl under my parents’ bed, while my father was at work. I’d find the corner where he’d stowed the bike basked with ‘his’ grown-up books, off-limits and alluring. Heeding the Siren Song of forbidden stories, I hid under the bed in my parents’ room and secretly raced through his books as well as mine, before he’d come home each afternoon around 5 PM, tired-out from work, tin lunch-pail in hand, a New York Daily News in his Thermos compartment.

 I’d greet him happily at the kitchen door, give him a big hug, and unpack the newspaper, which I’d take into the living-room and read through quite greedily before dinner. It was, of course, a slightly lurid tabloid, which, in its way, also revolved around murder, sex, and food, although necessarily not in that order. 

 Eventually, by dint of libraries, local schools, newspapers, “Daddy’s books,” and selective entries from the Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia my family got weekly for 99 cents each at Shop Rite supermarket, I became well-rounded enough to be the first in my family to attend college, a privilege never lost on me.

 My parents were very smart, although neither of them, due to economic necessity, finished high school,. And yet my father became an electronics engineer with the federal government. My mother, a bookkeeper for a stylish Manhattan jewelry manufacturer, yearned for a career either in law or fashion design. She had exquisite taste and shared her appreciation of Art Deco jewelry, especially carved or molded Bakelite bracelets now certified collectible.

 I will be eternally grateful to my mother and father for teaching me to love books. Besides that being a family tradition, Jews were known as “People of the Book.” When my own first book was finally published, I dedicated it to my parents.

Do they have books in Heaven? We’ll see!


© Copyright 2009 ML Polak/All Rights Reserved. DO NOT reproduce or disseminate in ANY form via any medium under penalty of beheading. Yes, you can link to me. But that’s it. Contact author for syndication rates and tell your local newspaper editor they need to run this column before actual newspapers go extinct like the dodo, the auk, the bison, and real men.


ML Polak — it’s not a pen-name, it’s a real person! — is an award-winning Philadelphia-based journalist, screenwriter, essayist, novelist, editor, spoken-word artist, performance poet, workshop leader, lecturer, cat-and-dog companion, Reiki channel, and occasional radio personality. With architect Benjamin Nia, she completed a short documentary film about the threatened demolition of a historic neighborhood, “MY HOMETOWN: Preservation or Development?” on DVD. She is the author of several books including the collection of literary profiles, “The Writer as Celebrity: Intimate Interviews,” and her latest volume of poetry, “The Bologna Sandwich and Other Poems of LOVE and Indigestion.” Her books can be ordered by contacting her directly via email: Langwidge (at) aol dot com.  





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