If you look up libraries on Wikipedia, you’ll learn that a golden age arose from 1600 to 1700 when cities all over the world had to erect a big, baroque building for books. If there’s ever been a new claim for a golden age, it’s right here, right now, involving our Island libraries, all of them, where circulation is up as never before (25 per cent at the Edgartown library alone), and community participation is off the charts.
We’ll get into e-books momentarily — because official word is that the day after Christmas the CLAMS network, which includes the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven libraries, had its busiest day in history, with 120 electronic books checked out (anyone unwrap a Kindle?) — but first it’s safe to say that real, nonvirtual but actual books are still enormously popular.
So what did Islanders mostly read this year, according to librarians from all six Vineyard libraries?
Well, the work that went off like a cluster bomb was the trilogy of the late Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. According to Mr. Larsson’s billion fans, the books are scream-out-loud suspenseful, although many readers admit that the first book, like a slow-acting medication, takes a while to kick in. The prospect of a tedious start prompted this reporter to ask West Tisbury librarian Colleen Morris if one could avoid the hassle by leading off with the second book in the trilogy? She nodded emphatically, “Yes, you could!”
Got that, belated Larsson disciples? You can go directly to The Girl Who Played with Fire. Then, apparently, once you’re lost in the grip of the third volume, hundred dollar bills can rain from the sky, and you’ll ignore them as you sit in the lotus position, raptly turning pages.
Another monster book, in terms of demand, not subject, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. You may recall that Barack Obama gave this book a boost beyond anything Oprah could have done for a new work of fiction (not that it probably needed it). On Mr. Obama’s summer 2010 visit to the Bunch of Grapes, he mentioned the title, only to learn it hadn’t yet been shipped to stores. No problem: The president was loaned an advance, uncorrected copy. Hello, instant bestseller, on Island and off.
Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, was much-ordered at the Edgartown and Aquinnah libraries. This is a sprawling tale that pulls together a doctor in Tennessee during the start of the AIDS epidemic, an Indian nun who travels to Yemen, saves the life of the doctor on shipboard and, some time later, dies birthing twins in Addis Ababa. The narrative moves to the twins’ emerging lives in Ethiopia.
The Oak Bluffs and the Edgartown libraries saw major interest in The Help, a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett. The page-turning action centers on Skeeter, a young activist in the Civil Rights movement in 1962 who pursues a writing career by penning the stories of Abilene, a black maid who raises 17 children, and her best friend Minny, who manages to loaf more than work for her white employers.
The Vineyard Haven and Aquinnah libraries kept waiting lists for Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, a book whose subtitle tells you everything you need to know: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. Director Amy Ryan of the Vineyard Haven Public Library also itemized other interesting choices from her readership: Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Shiff, The Confession by John Grisham, and Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane.
Aquinnah director Cathy Thompson proved her tippy-top-up-Island readership is both eclectic and esoteric with the titles Atlantic by Simon Winchester, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman, and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.
Ms. Morris at the award-winning West Tisbury branch said a surge of readers had checked out editions of the Alex Cross series by James Patterson — not only the latest in the series, but every one in the series itself, which only reinforces this reviewer’s belief that Mr. Patterson runs a writing factory that could possibly keep him too busy to write himself. Possibly. I’m just sayin’. Ms. Morris also reached for a thick tome rubber-banded by the name of the next customer to be checking it out. “This one is huge!” the librarian enthused, revealing the cover of The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. “It’s taken him right back into the stratosphere of Pillars of the Earth!”
At the West Tisbury Public Library, wait-listers are given a week to come in and collect their book. If they call from off-Island and ask for an extension, they’re granted one. “The vast majority of people ordering books follow through,” said Ms. Morris.
Librarians from all six Island libraries agree that the numbers of visitors and of books, DVDs and audiotapes checked out just keep on rising. As Ms. Thompson of Aquinnah put it, “In this recession, people have made libraries part of their strategizing to economize. Also, people in the winter love coming here just for the sake of community. For many people who live alone, we’re the only other people they see all day.”
All the libraries are aware of their lights-on, gathering place quality in otherwise dark, isolating surroundings: At the Chilmark Library in January and February, Chowder and a Movie is supplied every Wednesday at noon. The sprawling facility also offers a casual café (in the same space that houses the monthly art show) of coffee and cookies. As librarian Irene Tewkesbury pointed out, “At this time of the year, the Chilmark Store is closed up tight, and there’s nothing to fill its place.”
The Vineyard Haven library is renowned for its Tuesday, 7 p.m. lectures, cooking classes and author talks, supervised by program director Betty Burton. The Edgartown Public Library serves morning coffee, BYOM (bring your own mug).
Islanders have learned to check in with their local branches to see what’s on offer for the week. Knitting groups, kids’ programs, movie nights, teen pizza, book clubs and special lectures are available everywhere. Into this new golden age of libraries, a universal interest appears to be growing. Ms. Ryan of Vineyard Haven said, “We were always accustomed to people applying for library cards in the summer, but suddenly we’re getting a bunch of requests in the off-season. For some people it’s the first time they’ve ever applied for a card!”
So now we come to the red-hot topic of e-books, as books delivered to your electronic device of choice are called. “They’re the biggest thing ever!” chorus librarians all over the Island, from Edgartown up to the isolated fringes of Aquinnah, where you might expect a population averse to any reading that doesn’t involve paper and leather spines.
But no, they all want it.
Nis Kildegaard at the Edgartown Library e-mailed this information to the Gazette: “Hundreds of Cape and Islands readers who received new e-book readers logged onto their regional library network, CLAMS (Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing) on the day after Christmas to download electronic books to read – for free ... in the week after Christmas ... fully half of the network’s e-book holdings were checked out to patrons.”
AnnaMarie D’Dardarie of the Oak Bluffs Library explained that visitors can download books either at the library (she or any other staffer will be happy to show you how) or you can transact this process at home. “All you need is a library card, a computer and an Internet connection. When you’re done with the book, you e-return it to us.”
Yikes! Just when your New Year’s resolutions included boning up on ancient technologies like YouTube and Blackberries, e-readers and iPods comes along and you see the words writ large in the black screen of your mind: Fasten your seat belt!
Starting sometime in January, patrons will also be able to use CLAMS e-books on the iPad.
Here’s an idea for the next Big Tech Gizmo: A time machine that takes us back to the good old days of 1992, when even the cell phone, or its space-agey upgrade, was not yet clutched in every single human hand on the planet.
So, e-books. I’m staggerin over to the library to learn how to use them. I’ll get back to you.