I have swam through libraries.
When I read about the ways in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
The eighteen-year-old seaman apprentice holed up that snowy winter in the toasty library at Naval Training Center Bainbridge. The nineteen-year-old seaman was often a lone sentinel in the spartan library of the Naval Air Station Norfolk. The twenty-year-old petty officer third class could be found in the spacious library of the Norfolk Naval Station whenever the 879 was back at Destroyer and Submarine Piers. And the twenty-one-year-old petty officer second class binge-read inside the modest library at Naval Warfare Center Dam Neck.
Polaris submariners were serious readers. Look, well-thumbed copies of War And Peace and Ulysses. The libraries of Naval Training Center San Diego, Naval Base Key West, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and Naval Stations Naples and Rota also figured in this E-1-to-E-5 saga of the voracious reader. At A and C School, I logged untold hours in the sacred space consecrated to the democratic spirit of self-improvement and enlightened solidarity.
The closing-for-good of the Base Library as a bottom-line recoup is one more nail in the coffin of American democracy. Baseness rules the airwaves, so why not the high seas? Never mind the sinking morale of the bluejacket, beset tout l’azimuth by boneheaded decrees from on high. Close the Rec Centers too, while we’re at it, with the housing folly at Key West taking the baton from the USS George Washington tragedy. No wonder retention is a synonym for brain drain. Recruiters now have viral social media to laugh off and explain away. A thankless task. If a czarist ukase of punitive austerity and hectoring tough love be “leadership,” then the Naval Academy had better instill in its midshipmen a relish for the lash. No coddling in this cost-effective navy.
True, many more white hats would rather frequent the EM Club than show their faces inside the Base Library. At least that was the case when I was in uniform, back in the male bastion heyday, when the favorite autoerotic genre aboard ship required a measure of literacy. By and large, I had no trouble losing myself in a book in the Base Library. Indeed, at Naval Air Station Norfolk, I usually had the library to myself in the evening, which didn’t sit well with my Drone Antisubmarine Helicopter (also called DASH) School classmates, who thought I should be getting shitfaced with them instead. Assailed in the head by three disciplinarians, I was told to get with the program and put on notice that bookish zeal would invite bodily harm.
If my saga is at all evidentiary, I’d say that closing the Base Library is about the worst thing that could happen to sailor empowerment.
I was dumbfounded by the third-degree, for these were the cerebral elite. They, of all sailors, should have cut me some slack. Thanks, but no thanks. But no, AWOL (absent without official leave) from the Club was an affront to their convivial natures.“Too good to drink with us?” Not a misdemeanor offense. Ergo I gave them no quarter in grapeshot reply: first in a class of 30. Take that, Electronics Techs. The companionship of authors long dead meant more to me than the besotted camaraderie of the nightly bender. More, I’d readily spill my blood for the privilege of drinking in Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.
It boils the blood to think of those deserted — read desecrated — buildings. The Base Library was my anchorite base, from which I could progress unimpeded. No push back. On my own, push on. Acquire page-turning momentum, go to crush depth under pedagogic pressure. The tutelage I sought was found on the page, in a place that prized silence, in a place that inculcated the democratic ethos of learning for all. A place to take stock and entertain the daydream of the college catalog. Those quiet hours of study and reverie offset the white noise of the barracks, the grab-ass of the berthing compartment, the noisome crowding, and the incessant crowing. The literary imagination had to be secreted in the seabag. Melville had his main top, and I had the Base Library. I cannot imagine my naval service without it. Just as I cannot imagine the navy without it, no matter how undersubscribed.
The public library in the United States is a democratic institution par excellence. No wonder Carnegie built so many in robber baron recompense. Giving back in book conscience. These were sacred spaces where the American Credo was practiced and perfected. Those Carnegie libraries educated a self-taught populace hungry for learning. For improving their station in life. How many in the once burgeoning middle class owed their educations to the public library?
The autodidact has gotten a bad name. Worse, the public library has been written off just when needed the most. American Civilization, when not an oxymoron, reaches its pinnacle inside the public library, as first-generation Americans can attest. And now reaches its nadir as well: doubling as a homeless shelter, with emphasis on shelter from abject civic disgrace.
THE SACRED PLACE
When my mother introduced me to the public library at age eight, I was transfixed. The spare rectangle of the Glen Park Branch — bookshelves on all four walls with large maps of the continents above — came as a revelation. An epiphany. All those books awaiting my check-out. My library card was a passport to this new other world, and I put it to good use.
The due date stamp — was there ever a more impressive sound of self-validation — meant you were now part of a great institution, the San Francisco Public Library. The 14-day loan carried a heavy responsibility. The book wouldn’t read itself, especially since it was labeled “adult.” You were admonished by the librarian to stay away from the adult section. No thanks. So you went downtown.
The main branch in Civic Center instilled a hushed reverence, so august did its long marble staircase and massive card catalog seem to an eleven-year-old dressed in his Sunday best. Eager to read the real history of the Old West, which he proceeded to do. Even the Vatican Library ten years later couldn’t hold a candle to the glories of that great good place. I left my heart in the San Francisco Public Library.
The companionship of authors long dead meant more to me than the besotted camaraderie of the nightly bender. More, I’d readily spill my blood for the privilege of drinking in Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison.
For the eighteen-year-old freshly enlisted in another great institution, the bout of homesickness was relieved by the inviting library at Bainbridge, a branch of the San Francisco Public Library 3100 miles away. Sited on a bosky rise, the treeline falling away to the Susquehanna in the distance, the big-windowed structure kept me warm through that first real winter I had ever experienced. It didn’t snow in San Francisco. The World War II wooden barracks that housed the Fire Control Technician A students were hardly winterized, and the clangorous radiators could barely keep the 0600 reveille frostbite free. It snowed a lot that winter. I was in the library every chance I got. It was a haven and then some. And it saw me through that first year in the US Navy.
And for the nineteen-year-old seaman breveted to an electronics technician billet, the Naval Air Station library afforded me the breathing space to prove I could hold my own in the classroom. And not only hold my own but begin to master the learning curve of academic pursuit. Night after night in that austere space, I studied and read and suffered and yearned. Behind my back, I was on my way to becoming a writer. Those long hours represented a rite of passage, welcome to the life of the mind, and without the library to stimulate me and humble me, I probably would have allowed myself to be browbeaten into party hardy submission. Certainly, the path of least resistance. So in a very real sense, I owe the Base Library my profession and my sobriety.
So where does that leave the eighteen and nineteen-year-old bluejacket of 2022 but at sea. No Base Library and no Rec Center but plenty of white noise and social media. Homesick? Bookish? Pick up basketball even? Suck it up. Get with the program. Frugality requires it. Want to better yourself? Get your mindset squared away so you can develop a leadership skill set? There’s always the Chief of Naval Operation’s (CNO) reading list. Twelve books to peruse between watches (if you can afford them). And, pace the USS George Washington to find a decibel count under a hundred to hear yourself reading them (assuming you’re not craving oblivion after scraping major rust).
THE MUNDANE BOOK LISTS
This year’s list is not as bold as last year’s. Return that CNO sword to its scabbard. No Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. is the incumbent. No trigger warnings necessary for this non-woke batch designed to placate lathered lawmakers decrying anti-Americanism — the oldest American trope but one. Race has been deep-sixed, thank you, Task Force One for your service. Sexual politics too. No Andrew Bacevich, but Admiral Stavridis is front and center. “Mindset” is there, and so too is Naval Strategy. (Not to mention the fear of China.)
George Carlin would have a field day with the verbiage introducing this year’s list. “A learning mindset is essential to accelerating our warfighting advantage.” Learning mindset? A state-of-the-art vacuity coined by humans hoping to short-circuit the Turing Test. Essential to accelerating? In a deep space void, perhaps. “Our warfighting advantage.” Tell the Chinese that. But hold on, it gets even more essential. “Knowledge sharing is essential to creating a learning culture.” Learning culture is a bromide fashioned from facile glassblowing. The peroration, though, takes the wordsmithing cake. “We must foster an organization that supports and empowers sailors to have an independent quest for knowledge through reading and information sharing.” Say expletive what?
Multiple offenses against the language aside, this sentence achieves sartori. Shuttering the Base Library is conducive to the “independent” quest for knowledge. If my saga is at all evidentiary, I’d say that closing the Base Library is about the worst thing that could happen to sailor empowerment. Perhaps the Nimitz library at the Naval Academy could shut down as well, in solidarity with its bluejacket cohort. Book learning is overrated, as the labored prose of the CNO’s paean to the learning mindset so amply demonstrates.
Ironic that reading should be fetishized at the same time the library is eulogized. The exaltation of the book is at bottom escapist; You can’t read your way out of an institutional crisis. The US Navy is in crisis. It squandered supremacy on the high seas. Hubris-laden, it partied hardy with Fat Leonard while the People’s Liberation Army Navy built the great wall of sand in the South China Sea. Left to their own devices, the Tin Can sailors, time and again, made last stands to save their ships: The Stark, the Samuel B. Roberts, the Cole, the Fitzgerald, the John McCain. As the incendiary fate of the Bon Homme Richard showcases, there can never be enough damage control in the Fleet. The US Navy excels at Freedom of Navigation transits through the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. It remains to be seen if it can navigate its way out of Tsushima take two. The People’s Liberation Army Navy now calls the shots in the Scenario Sea as 19 war games so ominously conclude.
If you want a war-fighting navy, then you have to demonstrate you are serious about the issues that truly matter. Victory begins on the homefront. No quarter for white supremacy. No quarter for domestic enemies. No concern for Fox News Talking Points parroted on The Hill. Real leadership cuts to the quick with the CNO sword, not the CNO reading list. Where are the ships to defend the Western Pacific? Where are the crews to man those ships? Where are the libraries and gyms, and housing that make bluejacket life bearable? That makes reenlistment a real-life choice. I wager the People’s Liberation Army Navy has no brain drain. When will the US Navy stand up again rust-free? No wonder Zumwalt is turning in his grave.
THE DISSERVICE TO BOOKS AND BLUEJACKETS
The Base Library did yeoman service. It kept us warm and gave us a place to come into our own. It brought out the best in us. It was a great good place. It did not occur to us that the importance of reading should become a fetish, a conceit, a concern of the CNO. It did not occur to us that democracy was imperiled, that the planet was in extremis, and that, more likely than not, we would lose our lives in the next war in the Pacific. It did not occur to us because we basked in blissful ignorance of what was to come in the 21st century. It was enough to get out of the 20th in one piece. Our luck held.
But here we are, looking down the gun barrel tout l’azimuth. Deep-sixing the Base Library is tantamount to blowing away the thing that stood out of the line of fire and made our democracy a work in progress. The thing that gave us hope for the future. Self-improvement. Enlightened solidarity. A politics worthy of the name. The essence of American Civilization.
Books become fetishized when they become weaponized, and when they lose their place in the world and become fodder for a culture war. Maybe the Freedom Class could fire the surplus volumes into the American littoral to keep the “learning mindset” from reading into the future the backstory of exceptional institutions.
Robert Andersen is a Visiting Fellow at the Naval War College, where he is writing a novel about the US Navy in Vietnam.