Listen Carefully–The Books Are Whispering

Carl Spitzweg, "The Bookworm" (1850)

Carl Spitzweg, “The Bookworm” (1850)

I gave a talk last night to Leonardtown, Maryland’s Friends of the Library about—surprise!–“How Literature Can Change Your Life.” It was a busy day, what with writing the talk and turning in final grades and going to one last committee meeting and attending a retirement party (for which I wrote a bit of doggerel) and packing up to go Tennessee. (I left last night and am on the road today to help my mother care for my father, who is coming home after weeks in the hospital.) Not having had time to write a regular blog post, I’m sharing three poems that capture the magic of libraries. Enjoy.

My First Memory (of Librarians)

By Nikki Giovanni

This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
       wood floor
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
       too short
              For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big

In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
       a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips.


In the Library

By Charles Simic

for Octavio

There’s a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered 

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away. 

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds. 

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.


In the Library

By William Stafford

You are reading a book, and think you know

the end, but others can’t wait—they crowd

on the shelves, breathing. You stop and look around.

It is the best time: evening is coming,

a bronze haze has captured the sun,

lights down the street come on.

You turn a page carefully. Over your shoulder

another day has watched what you do

and written it down in that book

you can’t read till all the pages are done.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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