“Next week,” one of Lindsay’s wonderful librarians mentioned last week as she checked in the books I’d brought back, “we’re going to have tables of free books out front. We’ve got too many donations and need to give some away.”

Her news fell like a thud on my heart, because I already have brought home too many donations to Friends of the Library, purchased at the great price of 4 for $1. There’s no room at the inn.

The library is already a source of free books to read on loan. I have made use of ours from the moment I moved into town. On a reading spree now that began with the pandemic, I’d have dried up and blown away without this critical social infrastructure.

The importance of free and open access to books has been brought home in my current immersion in the history of Ukraine and other Eastern European countries once under the Soviet hammer and sickle. Two of those books I brought home in my last binge at the Friends’ shelves make this abundantly clear.

The first was a biography of Vaclav Havel, a Czechoslovakian writer who was elected president of his country after it broke free of Soviet control. Titled Disturbing the Peace, Havel’s story details the steps he and others took to keep their country as the Soviets cracked down and seemingly took it away. His understanding of the importance of writers in keeping the truth available even under the most oppressive circumstances gave me new respect for my own vocation. It’s a cross when done rightly, a liberating cross. Hope is the everlasting life it provides.

The second book is by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a name I remember from the news of my youth. Titled The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, first published in 1949, it came out just as the hot Second World War cooled into the frozen Cold War, and just prior to the Bolshevik-like McCarthy era. His description of the difficulties then, as countries tried to restore economic balance amidst the new crisis of nuclear warmongering and a loss of faith in humankind, has given me new appreciation for the decade into which I was born. The difficulties of maintaining a grasp on the truth were also described, putting our own era now into real perspective. The division our country’s going through now is not unprecedented: it’s history repeating itself, one of its favorite moves.

One of the best things about a free library is that it provides an opportunity to remember humility. Just walking in the door, looking around at all the books, then walking down the aisles and glancing at the plethora of titles, a person just can’t help being reminded of all you don’t know. With any luck, a person will be tantalized by at least one title to remedy that lack of knowledge, at least a little, and check it out. For free. 

One of the first things oppressive regimes (or political movements) try to do is eliminate other people’s access to books. The book-burning of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in Bakersfield in the 1930s (written up beautifully in Rick Wartzman’s book Obscene in the Extreme, 2008) is just one local example from another turbulent time. The movie “Fields of Dreams” included a book-banning scene from the 1980s in the Midwest. We’re under a similar onslaught now. 

I say all this simply to remind us of this precious resource we have (and often overlook), the free library. The free exchange of ideas is as critical to freedom as the free exchange of goods and services. If we don’t step up to the plate and defend that right, we’ll lose it and many of the other things we love unconsciously—until they’re gone. That’s the story you can find in books at the (currently) free library. Check it out.

Trudy Wischemann is a writer who’s had a library card since she was 5. You can send her your thoughts on free ideas c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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