During a recent visit to the public library here in Whitewater, I stopped to look at a display of photographs, of framed pictures each showing a resident of the city posing with a book.
The residents were easy to see, but the book titles harder to identify, so I drew closer to the exhibit. As I stood there, an older woman from the library’s staff came nearby and began sorting books from a bin. I thought it might be best to explain to her why I was standing around, so that she would not think that I was about to steal a book, or maliciously sort nearby brochures in an unalphabetized order.
So I said to her, “I’m looking at these photos.”
And she replied, “Do you recognize anyone?”
In her question, one finds an old-fashioned habit still lingering in this city: she was asking about my ability to identify the people in the photographs, not the books they were holding. Even in a library, some residents of the city would, predictably, think this way.
And so I answered her, “Yes, all of them.” (It is, after all, a small town.)
She was incredulous. “All of them,” she replied disbelievingly.
My best guess about her skepticism is that she believed that if she could not identify someone, then surely he could not possibly be able to identify the leading figures in the city.
In Whitewater, another person – perhaps even a few of those in the photographs – might have taken umbrage, and made some bold statement of prominence, importance, etc.
I had no statement of that kind to make. Instead, it was more than enough to walk away confident that an untainted observation of a thing matters more than a tainting declaration.
Old Whitewater – a state of mind and not a person – runs on self-promotion as fuel.
There’s no enduring hope, however, in that perspective — one makes one’s way through a cause, not celebrity.
Of books, in particular, is it not true (especially for young readers) that the words inside and out – contents, subjects, titles, and even cover art – are what catch readers’ notice and then hold them spellbound?
The interest in the photographs lies not in the people holding the books, but in the inviting titles in their hands.