Who’s ready for a GOOD NEWS review? Yeah, me too!
For my birthday, Bill got me The Metropolitan Opera Murders by Helen Traubel. He knows I love opera, and I love murder mysteries. I have written about both. How did these two loves bring me to write this essay extoling the goodness of libraries? Well, read on!
First published in 1951, The Metropolitan Opera Murders was re-released in 2022 as part of the Library of Congress Crime Classics. As the Librarian of Congress writes in the Forward, “Early American crime fiction is not only entertaining to read, but it also sheds light on the culture of its time.” Yes, such as the book’s casual references to the “Filipino houseboy.”
In her day job, author Helen Traubel (1899 -1972) was a superstar of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was that most esteemed and rare performer, the Wagnerian soprano. A ghostwriter helped with the book’s plot, but the opera-insider info, jokes and digs were all hers. For example, her heroine, who happens to be a Wagnerian soprano, says, “never trust a tenor.”
The current edition has added an Introduction. Also, footnotes explain what may now be an obscure or obsolete reference. For example, the line: “A trip to Reno,” is accompanied by the explanation: “Reno, Nevada, was a popular place for quick divorces.” Here’s a snappy rundown on Leopold Stokowski: “a renowned symphony conductor who disdained the use of a baton … He may be seen performing in Disney’s 1940 animated classic Fantasia with the Philadelphia Orchestra.”
Reading this book was a romp, made all the more pleasurable by guidance from the Library of Congress. It felt like being shown around a city by a local, the way my cousins showed me around Shanghai. They knew how to go, where to eat, where to shop, what to see. Then it dawned on me that libraries have always extended the helpful, friendly hand. To everyone! For free!
That helpfulness was how medicine was when I became an internist forty years ago, and certainly when my dad practiced orthopedics twenty years before that. Before there was Medicare, Dad, an earnest Catholic, never took money from priests or nuns. He treated many Chinese without charge too. I can remember a time in my practice when the first question you asked a patient was not what kind of health insurance they had, if any.
In the subsequent decades, the medical business has become more and more restrictive. You can only go to the hospitals and see the doctors that are “in your network.” You must get insurance approval for procedures. They will pay for this statin, not that one; this blood thinner, these eyedrops. Doctors resent the constant second-guessing by insurance as well as the time wasted. But then, before Obamacare, just getting health insurance felt like a lottery.
Libraries and hospitals come from the same impulse: to be helpful. But, in the intervening decades of my lifetime, their paths have diverged dramatically. Libraries have expanded their services, dropped restrictions, and, essentially, trusted people. Healthcare has tried to monetize everything.
Last week, PBS had a report about providing various art therapies – painting, music, dance – to patients in the hospital. Patients, adult and pediatric, were enthusiastic. An administrator mused that he hoped it would work. Of course, it works. He was wondering how it could pay!
Just as hospitals gained new technology, such as MRIs, stents, and lasers, so did libraries! They supplemented physical books with digital content in written words, audiobooks, video content. Librarians became computer experts, Web experts, smartphone experts, and since the pandemic, Zoom experts.
My feelings about libraries are bolstered by childhood emotional ties. My parents would drive me, or I would walk the five blocks from our south St. Louis apartment to the Fyler Branch library. What did I read then? Star-Crossed Stallion, Little Women, Treasure Island, Tom Swift, and a series of childhood biographies: Maria Mitchell: Girl Astronomer, George Carver: Boy Scientist; Clara Barton: Girl Nurse; George Washington, Boy Leader. They all had orange-colored covers and silhouette illustrations.
Through most of my adult life, I’ve been an indiscriminate book acquirer. I went to the library, browsed both chain and independent bookstores, ordered from book catalogs and later, on Amazon. I prefer iBooks to Kindle. I have been gifted Audible selections. I stream The Great Courses on my phone.
Then came the pandemic, which nixed in-person options. My library came to me! What I mean is that I got emails offering Zoom courses on how to access St. Louis County Library contents online. Which, it turns out, includes the collections of both the St. Charles County Library and, since this spring, the St. Louis Public Library. (For my non-St. Louis friends, St. Louis City and St. Louis County are separate entities. Also, many municipalities within St. Louis County, such as my old hunting grounds, University City, have their own libraries.)
The key for someone like me were the lessons on getting and using the library app. It’s called Libby, which is such a cute nickname for Library. The library staffers walked me through browsing, borrowing, and managing books, audiotapes, magazines. They were knowledgeable, patient and kind. And get this – if you need more tutoring, you can book yourself a consultant.
Once into Libby, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Great Courses –Sure! Best sellers – you bet! Classics – of course! I’ve taken to borrowing an audio and a written version of the same book. I listen on my walks, and I read in bed at night. What luxury! What a splurge!
But not everyone has access. Fear not! Older St. Louis County folks can get Grandpads – tablets already loaded with internet and data – while they last. My image of the library is that of Aladdin’s cave, full of goodies. They will lend you telescopes, fishing equipment, musical instruments, I don’t know what else. Different branches are distribution points for diapers and period products; kids’ eye exams and glasses; even fresh produce.
The physical books I handle these days come from the Little Free Libraries that people set up in front of their homes. I love looking at what other people read. But most of all, I appreciate the generosity that seems to be the basis of how libraries work, from tiny to the Library of Congress. The desire to help, to share something good, to trust the goodwill of others are antidotes to the world’s meanness. Good news, indeed.
Tell me: Are you a library user?