Corliss wondered what happens to a book that sits unread on a library shelf for thirty years. Can a book, rightfully, be called a book if it never gets read?
“How many books never get checked out?” Corliss asked the librarian.
“Most of them,” she said.
Corliss had never once considered the fate of library books. She’d never wondered how many books go unread. She loved books. How could she not worry about the unread? She felt like a disorganized scholar, an inconsiderate lover, an abusive mother, and a cowardly soldier.
“Are you serious?” Corliss asked. “What are we talking about here? If you were guessing, what is the percentage of books in this library that never get checked out?”
“We’re talking sixty percent of them. Seriously. Maybe seventy percent. And I’m being optimistic. This isn’t a library. It’s an orphanage.”
“How many books do you have here?” Corliss asked.
“Two million, one hundred thousand, and eleven,” the librarian said proudly, but Corliss was frightened. What happens to the world when that many books go unread? And what happens to the unread authors of unread books?
“And don’t think it’s just this library, either,” the librarian said. “There’s about 18 million books in the Library of Congress, and nobody reads about 17-and-a-half million of them.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“Sorry about that,” the librarian said.
There are almost 500 pages in this short story collection, and this riff on library books from a story called The Search Engine serves as a good analogy for all of them, because this is what Sherman Alexie writes about, and it’s not just library books. It’s ideas, people, cultures, human potential of all kinds, unread, unrecognized, unrealized. Whether resigned or relegated or remaindered, there is so much potential being rendered inconsequential in this big old goofy world. Alexie has a talent for tracking it down and telling stories about it, always (as far as I know) through the lives and experiences of Native Americans, usually Spokane Indians from around Seattle, which he is, and I also appreciate the exposure to those particulars.
He tells simple and intimate stories using lots of dialogue, like someone transcribing them from an oral tradition in a way that brings John Prine songs to my mind. We're not talking great-big-deal potential here (though who knows what might have been); it's the stuff that makes daily life worth living or not, and in a collective sense amounts to hope for humanity, because how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, and it is from life to life that this world is passed on, so yeah, I guess it is a great big deal after all, especially when your people add up to an entire marginalized and categorically short-changed race.
Alexie can be brutally skeptical about it, and all does not end well, but all good storytellers have heart, and Alexie's is great big. Just reading the story titles tells you there are tears and scars and fistfights and tumors and breaking and entering and the toughest Indians in the world, but also dancing and basketball and protest and faith and growth and humor, and by god What You Pawn I Will Redeem
, the latter being the title of one of my favorites. There is redemption going on, and much quiet determination despite the desperation.
One of his stories became a movie (he wrote the screenplay and Chris Eyre directed), Smoke Signals
, which I also highly recommend.