The Allure of a Book-Lined Room

A comfortable nook at Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, Ohio

A comfortable nook at Blue Jacket Books in Xenia, Ohio

I follow various book sites on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter and one thing I notice is the frequency that people post pictures of fantastic libraries, both institutional and personal, or sometimes of bookstores that look like libraries with shelves and shelves of books and comfy nooks and crannies with overstuffed chairs in abundance.

I have two hunches of why we love such images. I’d love to know what others think.

One is that such places represent a place of safety or refuge in a world that can at times feel scary. Maybe this is just me. I was in a seminar where we were asked to imagine a safe space. The image that came to mind was a book-lined room, with lots of old, leather-bound volumes, a fireplace with a good fire burning, comfortable leather chairs and good lighting, a stand at my side where I could place a mug of something warm, and reading tables or a reading desk for more serious work, looking out on a woodland or mountain vista.

So much for my fantasy life! But wouldn’t you love to spend time in a room like that? Maybe if you are a bibliophile, you’ve tried to create, with your means hopefully, a room like that. Yet the funny thing is, that all I need really is the book! I can be in an airline waiting area in a major airport with a cup of Starbucks and a book or my Kindle, and I’m in that place.

East Reading Room at Thompson Library, The Ohio State University

East Reading Room at Thompson Library, The Ohio State University

My other hunch is that these spaces represent something of our aspirations as readers. Sitting in a university reading room studying (or pretending to) a challenging work makes me feel like a scholar, or perhaps a bit wiser, whether it is really so or not! Sitting in a place where we have access to the best of what human beings have thought or written encourages us in the hope that we might gain some of that knowledge.

I’ve observed that some of my favorite bookstores try, within their means and their space, to create this feel. They allow us to slow down, to savor being around all these books. They aren’t just warehousing books. They are welcoming those who read them. I’ve found others, particularly those selling used books that simply pack as many books in as possible. There’s no place to sit to skim a book or read a chapter to see if it is what you are looking for. I’ve found some great books in these places but they aren’t places where I want to linger. That can be mitigated somewhat by a friendly bookseller who is appropriately helpful and enjoys talking about books.

Maybe another word for all of this is that these places, whether mental images or real places, represent places of retreat. They are places where we come away and have the safety to reflect and be renewed. At one time, we might have turned more to religious places, and some of us still do. (I’ve found some of the best retreat centers even have spaces like this!). It makes me wonder whether such imagery, and the real places that approximate this, as good as they are, point us to something more, just as the books we read often do.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Renewing the City

OH Youngstown aThis is a post I’ve thought about for some time. We’ve talked quite a bit about memories, and the richness of life in the Youngstown we grew up in. Yet there is also a sense of what has been lost — the mills, many vibrant neighborhoods and businesses throughout the city, and a significant part of the city’s people. But as many have written about Youngstown, we’ve been knocked down, but not knocked out.

I’d like to think, and hopefully hear your thoughts, about what it takes to renew the city so many of us grew up in and love. Before I write about that, I have to acknowledge that I don’t live in Youngstown and won’t be among those who have to do the heavy lifting to make it happen. Nor do I consider myself an expert in these things. Rather, I simply love the place I grew up in and would love to see the city not only get back on its feet, which I think it has, but thrive once more. What I think this involves is building on what Youngstown still has, learning from the past, and learning from healthy cities.

Building on what Youngstown still has. Youngstown became an industrial powerhouse, not just because of the mills, but because of the work ethic and spirit of its people. People who open restaurants, small machine shops, or new technology start-ups reflect that spirit. There are people who remember what good places neighborhoods can be and whether they live on the north side, Brier Hill, the Idora neighborhood or elsewhere, they are doing the hard work to reclaim that heritage. Youngstown has a rich heritage of cultural institutions in the Butler, the McDonough, the DeYor Center, the Covelli Centre and so much more that make it a place to live as well as work. There is the beauty of Mill Creek Park which needs to be preserved, including the health of its lakes. The city has been the home of a great urban university since 1908 and the partnership between the university and industry in providing a well-trained work force can be a key to renewal.

Learning from the past. I would contribute only two things here. Just as investors diversify, so should the city and not rely on a single industry. The great thing about things like the Youngstown Business Incubator and other entrepreneurial efforts is that it has the potential of building a diverse economic base. The other thing is to relentlessly pursue the rule of law rather than criminal or economic interests that drain the city’s wealth into the coffers of the few rather than the pockets of many.

Learning from healthy cities. We’ve lived in a city the past twenty five years that works pretty well. None are perfect but Columbus does some things that might be helpful for Youngstown. One is that it has had a history of good and shrewd city government and foresight that extends back to the 1950’s when Mayor “Jack” Sensenbrenner made plans to allow Columbus to grow in the 1980’s and ’90’s. That has continued through successive administrations. The other is that this city knows how to solve problems, getting political, civic, and business leadership together to quietly work toward solutions. At least when I was growing up in Youngstown, it seemed that it was much more common to play the blame game in the press or wait for someone else to solve the city’s problems for us.

My hunch is that good cities are not “90 day wonders” but are built over several generations. Columbus is a growing city today because of fifty years of reasonably good leadership. That was true at one time of the Youngstown of the past as well.

My sense is that there are people all over Youngstown who are rolling up their sleeves, at very least to make their own living, but also to make the place around them a bit better. They are in government, running businesses, leading faith communities, rehabbing homes, teaching in schools and the university, working in the arts, or simply clocking in each day to do their job in exchange for a paycheck.

Sometimes we keep looking around for others to provide the leadership a place needs. I wonder if it is the case for those of you who are rolling up your sleeves like the people I listed above, that you are the people you have been waiting for. And why not? It’s your city after all.