The battle on where to site the Presidential Library of Barack Obama has begun. Hyde Park and the University of Chicago are vying for the opportunity to host the library and the attention that goes with it. The argument for the South Side of Chicago is a convincing one. Obama has roots there as a professor, as a community organizer. His home was in Hyde Park before he became President.
Of course the decision on where to site a Presidential Library touches many aspects of culture and society. It is a political decision first and foremost. Then economics enters in. Sentiment too. All these factors combine to help make the decision. It's not like the President himself points a finger on the map and says, "I want it there."
For those of us with lives less grand or significant on the world stage, a library is something a bit more personal. For those of us who loves books, there might be shelves of treasured novels, non-fiction and art books. My own library has all of those, plus artifacts that go with those books. It's not so different from a Presidential library, these things we keep. The scale is simply smaller.
My personal library is diverse enough to force categorization of types of books and collections. There are three full shelves 10 feet across dedicated just to my "bird books" that include books about bird artists, bird study and identification. This section of the library reflects an interest in birds that began at 5 years old when my mother's older sister Carol gave me a Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds. You can still see where I traced the shapes of hawks in that field guide. Their profiles have always deeply moved me.
Beyond the books there are sketchpads filled with bird drawings. Some date from 1976 when I drove to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology on a January Term project. While there I catalogued the entire collection of bird art, including work by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, my favorite bird artist then and now.
There are many other art books in my collection, including college textbooks from Art History, and books about favorite artists such as Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, John Singer Sargent and many others.
The literature books in my collection are like a core sample of life from college to middle age. The early exploratory novels by John Irving, John Updike and Tom Robbins are all still there. Then come the non-fiction biographies of Winston Churchill and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Finally there are political books by John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience and Al Gore's book on global warming.
These lead into the core of books I've read on theology. That period coincides with the writing of my own book, The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. It took 7 years to complete from 2000 to 2007, about the same time period President George W. Bush spent in office. In fact Bush's election spurred me to work on the book, which sprung from a reading I'd done on a paper titled How The Earth Was Forgotten In Creation about the effects of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment.
Toward the end of that project, I participated in a church activity called Reading the Bible in 90 Days. There was a specially composed bible for that purpose, with sections marked off every 12 pages so that you could completely read the bible in the prescribed time period. I cheated by skimming over the genealogies but other than that, I read every word. It is a skinny bible without all the annotations and commentary typically found in the many translations.
There have been many books on theology that made an impression on my faith. One is titled Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrmann, an author who moved from conservative evangelical to bible critic as a result of his profound realization that the process of translation is always imperfect and results in both errors and manipulations of biblical texts.
How many, many times we need to profread in order to reach some kind of perfection. It always stuns me to find typographical errors in textbooks or novels, but it happens. The same thing happened with the bible over the centuries. Additions were made for theological and political reasons. As times changed some translations were made for political purposes. Others were made in an attempt to drag scripture back to its "original form." But that's not possible. We have none of the original texts from which to work. None. The consequence is that the view of the Bible as an inerrant, infallible text is a tragic error in itself.
Which proves that we need to be ever vigilant with our own histories.
Perhaps that is why, to some degree, a personal library feels so important to many of us. We want to keep track of our original thoughts, even those we've left behind.
But there does come a day when our libraries must be examined for their purpose in our lives. I'm involved in that process right now. There is too much clutter to work around. Too many half-read books or gifts given that we never wanted to read.
Wedged between all that are transcripts of novels and other projects in old-style paper folders. Pages jut and peek out the tops. There's at least one entire novel sitting in there, a book called Admissions written in 1980-1981. The problem with that novel now is that much of it came true in the real news.
The book centered on a fictitious University of Wisconsin Dells where one of the main characters is both East Indian and American Indian. The book utilizes an interlinked series of short stories to communicate the idea that it is our personal admissions about flaws and desires that helps us grow. The book centers around the college admissions process as emblematic of the need to admit our flaws in order to decide what is best for us in life. But to publish it now would seem like I'd stolen stories from headlines. Voice recognition software now exists as I proposed it would back then. The Disney company now combines entertainment with education, a prediction I made in 1981. There was even a new story about a woman who seduced a team mascot, as one character in my novel also did. In fact, repeatedly. But those payoffs make me feel good about the vision of the book, if not the writing style and tone. That needs work. But I'm capable now, so we'll see what happens.
I wonder if the President is working on a novel right now. Sure he's busy being the leader of the free world, but he's written several books before, and won awards in doing so. He won't be lacking for material, that's for sure. Not for many years to come. In fact he'll never run out of material.
And neither will I. While my life has not produced the level of fame or success that Barack Obama has achieved, it is my life and my library matters quite a lot to me. And that's as it shoudl be.