Shel Silverstein: the Little Library Where the Sidewalk Ends and Jennifer Johnson

A few years ago, in an attempt to be a cutting-edge, high-tech institution, the powers-that-be decided that the school I teach in didn’t need a library. The library is superfluous, they claimed. Students have all the information they need on their phones in their hands. (As if information was all that students need.) And so, quickly, the library was gutted, the librarian dismissed, and the books were donated, destroyed, or “disappeared,” From its ashes rose a Maker-Space and a Learning Commons. (If you are not currently involved in modern education, don’t ask.)

littlelibrary

“The Library Where the Sidewalk Ends” on Valentine’s Day

A few colleagues and I couldn’t imagine a school without a library, so we built our own. A “little library” it was, and ones like it appear in neighborhoods, towns and cities throughout the U.S. (I once was at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for such a library on the porch of a bar in Key West, although it was much more of a Key West celebration than a library opening.)

Anyway, the library thrived with people taking and leaving a variety of books, CDs, and even art works.

The library itself was located in an odd place in the middle of campus. There was a cement sidewalk that jutted into a swatch of grass and then just ended. When I would announce new additions to the library, I would refer to it as “the library WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS.”

where the sidewalk endsAnd every student and every adult knew what I was referring to: the delightful first collection of poems by Shel Silverstein that every student had loved as a child and every adult of a certain age remembered reading to his or her own. The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends are silly, irreverent, charming, and knowing. It’s the silly irreverence that children most love: as if the adult Silverstein—unlike other adults in their world— was clued into the fears, the joys, the silliness, the incomprehension, the absurdity with which they view the world.

Yet, Silverstein was more than a children’s poet. He began as a cartoonist, and a successful one. It was his cartoons that prompted his publisher to suggest a book of poems. He was also a playwright–David Mamet called him his best friend–with over 100 one-act plays under his belt.

And he was a prolific songwriter. He had a number of hits with what could be called novelty

Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein

songs: “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and the “Unicorn” song ( you know,           “green alligators and long necked geese… .”) But he also had a solid stable of songs recorded by a slew of people: Dr. Hook and his Medicine Show, Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Belinda Carlisle, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash among others. I remember the first Judy Collins’ album I ever bought featured a rousing protest song called “Hey Nelly Nelly.” I didn’t recognize the name at the time, but it was written by someone named Shel Silverstein.

And so it comes to a song I have recently rediscovered. I was buying tickets to see Todd Snider in concert and was looking for the one Todd Snider album I own. I couldn’t find it. So instead I pulled out a Robert Earl Keen album West Textures which features a charming Shel Silverstein song, “Jennifer Johnson and Me.” (Snider mentions a Robert Earl Keen song in one of his own songs which is what originally had driven me to this album.)

Anyway, the song tells the story of a man who finds in an old suit jacket pocket a black-and-white photo (‘three for a quarter”) from an arcade photo booth. The picture is of him and an old girlfriend, Jennifer Johnson. The singer is well into adulthood now, and the photo is of him when he was in late adolescence, sitting with Jennifer Johnson.There is a sweet nostalgia in his memories of their innocence, their hope, and the belief in “forever.”

It’s a sweet song, and I opened up with it on Saturday. I think I will keep it in my set list. Here’s the tune, by Robert Earl Keen:

printed books, personal libraries, cleaning out and French bookstores

by roboartemis. Found on deviontart.com

It seems I have always loved books, and in my lifetime have amassed quite a library. I find some sort of comfort in being surrounded by books, books on shelves, in piles on tables and floors.

In the past few years, though, I have had to thoroughly cull my shelves, for a variety of reasons.

Last year, I inherited about a thousand books from an uncle–he had promised me them ever since I was about nine years old–but after he died I simply couldn’t house them. I  already owned more than that myself and his simply were not going to fit. The two of us had had similar tastes and many of the same titles, so the duplicates  were easy to get rid of.  Others I gave to friends, even to non-readers. And the majority I gave to two used book sellers.

In 2004 I had ghostwritten a history of Ireland and part of my contract was that the publisher paid for any books I purchased while doing my research–I bought a lot. So I was able to make more room by donating about seventy-five of these titles to the Irish Center in Philadelphia.  They were hard to part with but I consoled myself in thinking that they are being read rather than simply sitting on my shelf. (I had ghostwritten a biography of Darwin as well but for some reason the publishers didn’t offer to pay for that research. I had far less books on Darwin than on Ireland.)

Now for any new reading, I turn more and more often to the public library, and I have begun buying some e-books, though only a handful.  I make an exception and still buy poetry regularly (kidding myself by rationalizing that these usually take up less space), and I have bought some non-fiction titles that I knew that I wanted to own, and would go back to time and time again. But novels generally come from the library now.  And that’s just as well.

We have all read the dire warnings about the demise of printed books. Such articles crop up almost weekly: The death of bookstores, the death of the author, the death of the novel (granted that one has been going around since long before the internet), etc. A friend of mine in Brooklyn passed along this article to me about how in France book sales are actually rising rather than being smother by digital devices. It makes for some interesting reading. Click on the picture below to read the piece:

Shoppers in La Hune, in Paris, which receives government help.Alice Dison for The New York Times 

So by the end, I went through an enormous amount of books and gave many, many away. (For 6 months I had to rent a storage shed to house my “inheritance” while I figured out what was going and what was not.) I didn’t like doing it, but I knew I had to.

And of course, that book that I hadn’t looked at in fifteen years, that had sat dusty on my shelves for so long.  As soon as I gave it away, I needed it for something or other!  Isn’t that how it always goes?