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A Reader's Place
We read to know we are not alone.
        ~ C. S. Lewis~

~~Richard Elman (1934-1997) ~~

Richard Elman was a local author who was a resident of Stony Brook.  He died on December 31, 1997.  Mr. Elman published more than twenty books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry.  His books are available at the Emma S. Clark Library.   Among them are Tar Beach and other titles.
The essay below was written by Mr. Elman and delivered at a luncheon honoring the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the
Emma Clark Library in Setauket, Long Island.

 

Libraries mean a lot to me.  I used to cut school and go to the library, read all the adult books, which didn’t quite mean then what it does now:  Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Black Boy by Richard Wright, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Orwell’s Down and Out In Paris, also pure untrammeled soft porn – “A Rage To Live,” “Forever Amber,” Isadora Duncan’s uncensored memoirs.           

I was tall for my age, very curious about adult love.  It seemed to me good books left something to the imagination, the rest, perforce, left me nothing but my imagination to contend with in that they were so banal.  I also got confused by the difference between fourteen and twenty eight day books, and decided the former was like what certain novelists called an affair and the latter, like reading Vanity Fair, could be a commitment almost akin to engagement and marriage, if you included grim looks, reproaches, the overdue fines. 

High in the stacks of my branch library, as in a budding grove, I loved illicit contacts with fairy tales, mushy love romances, or boys’ books about baseball, dogs and war stories, the Supernatural explained to chilling effect.  Sometimes my time machine would roll all the way back to the louch days of disarray in belle époque Paris.  Discreetly, at a table in the dressmaking and needlework sections, I’d pour over sensual engravings of cosseted and costumed women in old Bengal, Alexandria, and Budapest, presuming the present bedecked with beautiful courtesans in ostrich plumes and men in gilt full dress in St. Petersburg on the eve of Napoleon’s invasion.  I was one of the frightened querulous guests peering at the astonishing marmoreal décolleté of Pierre Bezhukov’s cold and mean-spirited first wife in “War and Peace.”          

Sometimes I even learned odd disconcerting things about psychology, geography, history, and cuisine at the library: that other lives could be more interesting than my own; what love felt like from the way Tolstoy fell head over heels in love with his doomed heroine Anna; that the taste of breakfast kidney (something my mother would never serve at home) had a faint unpleasant reek of waste; the British Colonial Office offered the Jewish Agency Uganda as a National Homeland at the turn of the Century; how Isaac Babel said to Stalin even bad writers are important and should be encouraged and not censored, and for that this genius of the short story lost his life in the Gulag.           

Now that I am a published author I resent some people who only read my books in libraries, and steal them now and then.  Most are out of print and can’t easily be replaced.   But I once had a friend named Shelly, and he was an incipient Staislavskyian, an actor and director.  He could do voices.  We used to go to the library together, and listen to recordings of the great authors reading from their works, Pound and Eliot, Marianne Moore, Thurber, Joyce. Shelly could do Joyce reading from “Anna Livia Plurabelle” in Finnegan’s Wake.  We’d do him together, only he had better pitch.  Once we brought the record home to his place and were horsing around and I sat on the record and broke it.  A replacement would cost $20....Shelly got his melodious idea of steaming off the Joyce Society label, which you could do in those days, and we went uptown to Times Square to one of those booths and he recorded Anna Livia, then we pasted on the old label.  For all I know Shelly W’s Anna Livia is still on file at Grand Army Plaza library in Brooklyn under Joyce, James.             A kid in the outlying provinces learning how to sound like Joyce from a library record is a compliment to Joyce.           

Libraries excite acquisitive animal passions and dormant fantasies and animosities.  They encourage rancor, are the nurseries of your Salom Rushdies and Brett Ellises, people who cause offense by writing offensively.  The living culture is books, tapes, art, and computer discs.  God knows the intention behind the intention, as the Talmudists say, and the intention behind that intention and the intention behind that is probably a lyric poem to be found in a library book which could be adopted as a performance piece, maybe not pretty or tidy or clean, but as apt as breathing…           

I used to bump into the late Richard Wollam at the post office all the time and he was very proud of Emma Clark, and it made me feel good to think a person as freaky as I was lived unmolested in a town where decent local business person like Dick with a sweet smile was proud of his library, of local authors, and so many avid readers.          

I’m deeply honored by the way I’m treated as an author at Emma Clark, the kindness and generosity of the library staff who purchase my books for readers, and keep them circulating, and respond to my various queries, and as a non-University affiliated, non-best selling author I’m deeply dependent on library information retrieval and on library circulation and sales to reach readers who enjoy a laugh and a cry, which is what I aim for with my books as much as anything else.

In the years I’ve been living here, I’ve seen Emma Clark grow and adapt to changing times and preserve important values of literature and language, and I wish there were branches convenient to all the Three Village

neighborhoods, but this, you see, is more or less my neighborhood.  I met a lot of my best writer friends at Emma Clark, like Tom Flanagan, who takes out maybe ten books a week, and that the senior writers and teachers from Taproot who meet regularly there, and so many others I’ve come to admire and respect, and it’s a delight for me to take my 11 year old over there and watch her explore a little, gab with friends about research projects and cute boys, and to see all my neighbors and friends who haven’t quite given up on reading fiction (though they may sometimes wish you could watch it on the VCR with sound effects), and who, like me, learn a lot about the fictively non fictional world through books and periodicals, and so it is in that spirit that I want to congratulate the library staff and its trustees and the institution and to wish us all another terrific one hundred years of reading and seeing things, and learning and loving.

 

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