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Living in Society Writing

Postcards From Iowa #3

Text on the postcard: “Student, c. 1960. Photographer Unidentified.”

When young our capacity seems limitless. When I got my first library card in 1959 I believed I could read every book on the Bookmobile that stopped each week in our neighborhood. I looked forward to returning books I read and getting new ones. Outside of school, it was a highlight of the week.

Mother got me a subscription to My Weekly Ready, the arrival of which was another highlight. I bought a few children’s books at the local drug store. Keeping up with reading was easy with the energy of youth.

When I lived in Iowa City in my twenties, I started a project to read every book in the public library. It tested my limits. I started at the beginning of the Dewey Decimal system and didn’t make it out of the philosophy section.

I didn’t hear about the Horatio Alger story until I was in college, but that could have been my story, lifting myself up with diligence, honesty and altruism as I read and read and read, waiting for some happy circumstance to present itself and bring me the good things of life. We now know what I was feeling was the privilege of being white and middle class.

I look back to those days, with their libraries full of reading material, and consider my devotion to the act of reading. It was a solitary life and I was mostly okay with that.

What I didn’t realize, that would have helped me if I did, was to get anything significant done in society it takes a context that includes others. I was ready for a life of rugged individualism, in which through my own hard work I could pull myself up by my bootstraps and experience success. I didn’t understand how divisive that could be, pitting my own efforts against others to ensure personal success above all else. Live and learn.

Today I have piles of books I want to read just like the schoolboy on this postcard. However, my intent is different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. I seek insight to take collective action on things like the climate crisis and more. I provide for my basic existence — food, shelter, clothing, transportation and healthcare — yet that serves only as a platform to do other things with a network of people.

Some days I wish to be that boy sitting next to a stack of books while reading. If I were, there would be things to tell him.

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