Last Tuesday, I went to the Snow Patrol concert at the Ryman. The audience consisted of true fans, if the heartfelt singing along on every song is any indication. But three moments stood out. The young woman in the row behind told me how she’d had a crush on her boyfriend for a long time but wasn’t sure how he felt about her–until he sent her a link to the Snow Patrol song, “Run.” Then during “Just Say Yes,” another couple to the side of me simply put their arms around each other in a way that indicated that this song was special for them. Then later that night, while I was working on finishing a review, I noticed that one of my concert buddies had posted a video of another of the group’s songs, this one carrying a special message to her husband.
All of these things reminded me how songs have lives quite beyond their creators. They sail out into the world and are picked up by folks at different points in their lives and become memories that may accompany falling in love, getting married, being betrayed, or even experiencing existential loneliness in the middle of the night. A song that might hit one person in the gut with emotion leaves someone else totally unmoved.
I came to the library by the way of three English degrees. And I came to the English degrees by a love of reading. And when I say reading, I mean pure, unadulterated reading. I was the kid who would read the back of cereal boxes at breakfast just to have something to read since books were not allowed at the table. In the fourth grade, I started the fruitless attempt to read all the books in my school library–starting with the back corner. I would happily read a romance story sent in a parcel by my British grandmother and then follow it up by a 400-page biography of Helen Keller, chosen by my dad who was obviously not familiar with the layout of the bookmobile when he went the weekend I had mumps.
I was probably not the intended audience of much of what I read as a kid, and it was that freedom that taught me that writers have only so much power. Don’t get me wrong. I am in awe of all who create. The act of taking nothing and making it into something that informs, moves, and inspires is a tremendous power. But it is a limited one.
The reader, the listener, the viewer all work in conjunction with the creator to make a unique piece of art. I have sat through enough literary analysis courses to know that even when everyone in the class is reading the same work through the same critical eye (usually whatever theorist their professor espouses), there is still some magic at work between text and reader that simply can’t be analyzed. None of us has the exact same reading experience. I’m always noticing the characters who are pushed aside, not allowed to speak for themselves. Someone else is overwhelmed by the poetic language. Someone else is looking at historical correlates or philosophical meanings.
I suppose this blog has been a roundabout way of describing one of the reasons I love working in a library. While I enjoyed being an English professor, this latest part of my career has brought me full circle to that kid who loved to read everything. I no longer have to worry about lassoing meaning for a class. I no longer have to assign grades to their analysis or comprehension.
I simply recommend. Then I watch something that is special to me go on to one of its other lives where it may be hated or ignored. But if I’m lucky, it will go to a life where it will be loved and appreciated, even if not in quite the same I way I love and appreciate it.
And there’s simply no better job than this.