Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud: My Reading Life

1958 hardcover edition’s jacket

The library saved my life. I did not have a happy relationship with my single-parent mother, for many reasons, but I am forever grateful to her for understanding me well enough to realize I needed books the way fish need water. Actually, since she was the same kind of person, I suppose it would have been bizarre if she had not seen that in me. For whatever reason, she did and, as a single mother working for the first time in her life at age 48, she did the smartest thing possible for her broke and struggling self to do with a biblioholic son: She got me a library card of my own in 1969 and took me to the library every single Friday afternoon. I was agog when a new library opened near my junior high school and our apartment in 1973. The Old Quarry Branch of the Austin Public Library was a refuge from the hateful bullies who made my life a living hell for being queer.

Old Quarry Branch today, not much different from 1973

I’d hide from their taunts and threats and occasional violence in this bland, utilitarian box made of siena-colored brick. I checked out many, many, many books from the pruney-lipped old librarians (probably my current age, but 56 to a 14-year-old is unimaginably ancient) who tutted and clucked over the volume of material I took out as well as the type of stories I liked. They didn’t dare refuse to check anything I brought to the desk out to me, remembering my mother’s epic teardown of their judgments of my reading habits. (Story for another day.) When I found Islandia in the summer of 1973, the old bat on the desk damn near refused to check it out to me because “boys don’t read big thick books like this, you’ll just lose it when you get bored.” Up steamed my mother. Old Bat locked eyes with Angry Lioness. Book checked out, crisis averted.

World opened.

I was attracted to the jacket (seen at top) but wowed within an inch of my life by the endsheets. That map was my version of the maps of Tolkien’s Shire that enraptured my generation. A made-up place where people have real troubles (how do you work around wide cultural differences in love affairs? what does friendship mean? how does loyalty translate from one culture to another? can you love someone and still not want to live their mode of life?) that I was having. A place with a history, a language, a culture that one brilliant man created in his off-time from being a dad, a husband, a lawyer, for his own set of needs that somehow met my own needs exactly and precisely, and before I even knew what they were! Amazing! And to think that book was sitting in the Austin library system from before I was born in California, waiting for me, waiting until I was driven into a specific branch and into a specific section (farthest from the doors, away from the shitty rotten boys who wanted to keep having “fun” at my expense) so I would find it and feel its magic.

That is what libraries do. They are time machines chock-full of glorious discoveries for those who are driven there in fear. They are titanic encyclopedias for the use of anyone who can articulate a need or a want for any kind of information. Far too often they are refuges from the street for the unserved poor, the throwaway people that vicious, heartless assholes (like my childhood tormentors grew up to be) do not want to feed or clothe or give medical/mental health care to because, well, I don’t know their reasons. I only see the reasons in outline when governments are voted in that slash budgets to “save money” that mysteriously never reappears anywhere. Libraries in all their miraculous amazing richness and vibrancy are constantly struggling to get the money they need to keep giving people so much more than they pay for. I would not be alive today, I would not have paid payroll and income and property taxes for decades, if it hadn’t been for the Old Quarry branch of the Austin Public Library. And not to forget Austin Tappan Wright, author of Islandia. And Farrar and Rinehart, publishers of same as well as ancestors of today’s Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And Mark Saxton, young editor at Farrar and Rinehart, who discovered the millions of words Wright left behind in time to make it into a best-selling beach read during World War II.

Map of Islandia from placeness.com

A wonderful novel, is Islandia, of a very alternative history in which Earth has a subcontinent near Africa called Karain. The subcontinent is peopled by African-descended tribes in its north, and the Islandians in the far south. These are people who have a culture that, to modern ears, sounds like a cross between the Japanese Shinto and the Nordic Social Democracies. The organizing principle of isolationist Islandia is living in harmony with the natural world while frowning on greed and materialism. Yes, there are noble houses and a monarch; no, they are not a different order of being like the aristocracy and royalty once were, and the billionaire class is now. They are stewards of the land and the people.

An image of Mr. Wright from his archive page at San Jose State University, California.

Wright’s detailed imagining of the land, the culture, the people of Islandia was a gargantuan feat undertaken over almost the entire course of his life. He understood the geology of the place, the history of its people, the language that he invented was full of untranslatable concepts like “tanrydoon,” or the “linamia” (strong, deep, permanent bond) of one person for another such that each party has an inalienable right of residence and support from the other in times of trouble. There is, in other words, no homeless problem in Islandia, no hunger or illness not ameliorated by one’s position as a member of that society’s web. As Wright was an upper class scion of a lady novelist and the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University, he wouldn’t have been unusual in his era for being interested in a society more level than his own. It was a time where the nouveau riche were greedy, but the upper class were raised with a deep and abiding sense of noblesse oblige, that from those to whom much has been given unearned much is expected in return. The world of Islandia reflects that concern marvelously. It is refreshing to me, and accords with my personal views in a way that the kleptocratic world I live in does not, cannot, will never.

Islandia is no longer in print. Used copies start at about $21 for a trade paperback in acceptable condition.