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In Steinbeck country, we said no to closing the libraries

IN SALINAS, Calif., word went out. This is how many tribal stories begin: Word goes out to the people of a community that there is a great danger or wrong being committed. This is how I first found out that Salinas was going to be the first city in America to close its libraries because of budget cuts.

Without getting into any mudslinging about whether or not our leaders are clueless, bullying, nonreading numbskulls, let me just say that when word went out that the city's three libraries were scheduled for closure -- the John Steinbeck, the Cesar Chavez, and the El Galiban --a whole lot of people rose up as one to say this does not work for us.

Salinas is one of the poorest communities in the state, within one of the richest counties in the country, the locale of so many of Steinbeck's great novels: Think farm workers, fields of artichokes, garlic, faded stucco houses stained with dirt, ticky-tacky housing tracts, John Ford, James Dean's face in ''East of Eden," strawberry fields, and old gas stations.

Now think about closing the libraries there, closing the buildings that hold the town's books, all those bound stories about people and wisdom and justice and life and silliness and laborers bending low to pick the strawberries. You'd have to be crazy to bring such obvious karmic repercussions down on yourself. So in early April, a group of writers and actors fought back, showing up in Salinas for a 24-hour ''emergency read-in."

My sad '60s heart soared like an eagle at the very name: an emergency read-in. George W. Bush and John Ashcroft tried for three years to create a country that the East Germans could only dream about, empowering the government to keep track of the books we checked out or bought, all in the name of national security. But they hadn't counted on how passionately we writers feel about saving the world, or at any rate, the worlds contained in the skinny, silent spines of books.

We came together because we started out as children who were saved by stories, stories read to us at night when we were little, stories we read by ourselves, in which we could get lost, and thereby, found. Some of us had grown to become people with loud voices, which the farm workers and their children of this community all of a sudden needed. And we were mad. Show a bunch of writers a sealed library, and they see red. Perhaps they are a little sensitive, or overwrought, but they see a one-way tunnel into the dark. They see the beginnings of fascism.

A free public library is a revolutionary notion, and when people don't have free access to books, then communities are like radios without batteries. The entire flow of communication is bricked off. You cut people off from incredible sources of information -- mythical, practical, linguistic, or political -- and you break them. You render them helpless in the face of political oppression. We were not going to let this happen.

Writers and actors came from all around. San Francisco is two hours and San Jose an hour north. Hector Elizondo drove up from Los Angeles, as did Mike Farrell. Poet Jose Montoya drove from Sacramento, four hours away, Alicia Rodriguez-Valdez flew all morning to be there. I drove down from the Bay Area with the Buddhist writer and teacher Jack Kornfield.

When we arrived, the lawn outside the library held only about a 150 people instead of the throngs we had hoped for, but the people of the community were so welcoming and grateful, and the women of CodePink, who helped organize the reading event, kept everyone's spirits up. It's hard to stay depressed when activists in pink feather boas are kissing you. Many people had pitched tents on one side of the library, where they could rest throughout the night while the readings went on at the stage.

Can you imagine the kind of person who is willing to stay up all night in the cold to keep a few condemned libraries open?

Well, not me, baby. I was going home to my own bed that night. But then I saw some of my parents' old friends who were planning to stay, who have been protesting and rallying in civil rights and peace marches since I was a girl, who had driven from San Francisco because they've always known that the only thing that keeps a democracy functioning is for its citizens to stay educated. If you don't have a place where the poor, marginalized, and young can find out who they are, then you have no hope of maintaining a free and civilized society.

We were there to celebrate intelligence capabilities that our country can actually be proud of -- those of librarians. But those of us gathered that day see them as healers and magicians. They can tease out of an often inarticulate person enough information about what he or she is after, and then lead him or her on the path of connection. They're trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles -- you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and they are going to get walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books: ''Hey, is this one too complicated? Then why don't you give this one a try?"

Inside the library were Hispanic children and teenagers and their parents, and a few old souls. They sat in chairs, reading, stood perusing the bilingual collection of books, and worked at the computers. These computers are the only ones that a lot of people in town have access to. The after-school literacy and homework programs are two of the few safe places to which parents can direct their children, away from the gangs.

On this afternoon, parents read to their children in whispered Spanish, and the air felt nutritious: Barry Lopez said, ''Sometimes a person needs a story more than food."

I went back outside. Poets of every color read. People milled around with antiwar slogans -- ''Bomba-No! Libres-Si!" Older members of the community told stories from legends, history, their own families. Fernando Suarez stepped up to the mike, and spoke of his son, who had died recently in Iraq at 19. He spoke first in English and then in Spanish, as he does frequently around the country, and your heart could hardly beat for the sadness.

Maybe in Oaxaca, Mexico, children are still hearing the stories that the elders and comedians tell, but these kids in Salinas are being raised by televisions. So many of their parents work in the fields and in wealthy homes. But if you don't get to hear or read stories about our world, then you can be fooled into thinking that the world isn't miraculous -- and it is. The organizers raised enough money that day, and in the weeks after, to keep the libraries open for a whole year.

Maybe you would not exactly call this a miracle, but if you had been there, maybe you would see that it was at least the beginning of one.

A bunch of normally self-obsessed artist types came together to say to the people of Salinas: We care about your children, your stories, and your freedom. Something is broken in this country and inside you need to be fixed, and we care about that. Reading and books are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will, if attention is paid. Those people are you and us. Stories and truth are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now, we were all saying: Pass it on.

Anne Lamott's latest book is ''Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith."

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