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Queen of bookworms

Long after her pen fell silent, Helen Haines guide to the world of books still instructs and delights.

By MIKE WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 1999


I came upon it at a used bookstore in Georgia. It stood out, somehow, among the forgotten novels and outdated coin-collectors' price guides piled up on the bargain table: a thick, hardbound volume, its green cloth cover stained by water and frayed at the corners.

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This scroungy book in a used store became a treasure at the bargain price of $1.25. [Times photo: Amy Toensing]
The gold lettering on its limber spine said: Living with Books. Haines. Columbia University Press.

The title page identified Living with Books as a textbook in the study of library science. Oy. I was about to put it down when, in the foreword, I came across this sentence, written by a librarian friend of the author: "Any reader with discrimination who is lucky enough to discover Living with Books . . . acquires (it) with enthusiastic gratitude as a Baedeker for a life's program of reading."

Could an everyday reader really get excited about a library science textbook? For $1.25, I could afford to find out.

Having read it, I am . . . enthusiastically grateful. What a Baedeker! Published in 1935 and revised in 1950, Living with Books is the best argument I've seen for reading as a way of life. The introduction alone will make you want to kill your television.

"Books give a deeper meaning and interest to living," it says. "Those able to turn to books for companionship are seldom lonely; nor do they suffer from the need of finding some action, however trivial, to fill an empty hour."

For me, the discovery of Living with Books did more than stoke a longstanding interest in reading; it opened a window onto the remarkable life of its author, Helen Elizabeth Haines.

Haines' entire life gave testimony to the incandescent power of books. She read Plato and Mailer and everybody in between and quoted them liberally in her writing. But her reading did more than make her a clever conversationalist; it placed her life in context so she could understand it better and enjoy it more.

The more she read, the more open-minded she became, and the more she wanted to read. Her ideas about race relations and sex education were decades ahead of their time.

But what distinguished her most was her staunch defense of intellectual freedom during the McCarthy era. Anybody who goes to the library to read Marx or Mao -- to read anything, for that matter -- owes a debt to Haines, dead these 38 years.

An appreciation is, as they say in the profession, overdue.

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But it is obvious even in the first chapter that Haines had a larger agenda. She wasn't training people to be librarians; she was training them to be thinkers

"The province and purpose of the public library," she began, "is to provide for every person the education obtainable through reading."

Emphasis on every person. Within a few pages she began pushing the idea, controversial at the time, that black Americans ought to have easy access to books. In the 1935 edition she wrote, "The public library . . . should stand for freedom from all race or class distinction." This was 30 years before libraries were integrated in the South.

She expanded her ideas on race in the 1950 edition: "The second-class citizenship that is the lot of Negro Americans (and) the lower class status of Filipino, Indian, Mexican, Oriental and other minority groups . . . deny our national heritage and ideals and invite the ironic skepticism of other peoples toward our international role as champions of democracy."

Having urged librarians to let people in, Haines insisted they provide whatever folks wanted to read. Though steeped in the classics, she was no snob. "The librarian who looks upon the ever-moving throng of book users only as an unending influx of unreasonable or stupid consumers should find another profession," she wrote.

Though Haines was born in the Victorian age, she was no Victorian. She regarded sex as "one of the primary life forces" and therefore believed it had its place in literature. In the 1950 edition of her book she encouraged librarians to make available the Kinsey Report of 1948, referring to it as the "foundation stone of a massive structure of sex knowledge." Haines wrote that when she was 78.

For all its high ideals, Living with Books is also laced with humor, some of it unintentional. In her chapter about the physical aspects of books -- their bindings, typefaces and so on -- Haines observed that most people can't tell a well-made book from a cheap knockoff.

Take a deep breath:

"Everyone who possesses some degree of book knowledge can recall terrible moments when proud friends, awaiting enthusiastic commendation, have displayed as cherished possessions pretentious and hybrid volumes -- pages with gaudy rubrications, imitation parchment titles, covers of oozy, roycrofty, limp (very limp) leather, inner upholstery of satin or moire; or "complete sets' in "de luxe' bindings (immediately identifiable, because the words "de luxe' are stamped in gold on the backbone of every volume!) with imitation watercolor frontispieces on imitation vellum."

I feel I possess "some degree" of book knowledge, but for the life of me, I can't remember a time when I had to conceal my embarrassment for a friend who sought my approval by proudly showing me a pretentious volume bound in limp, roycrofty leather. Maybe I'm not hanging with the right people.

In the same chapter, Haines decried the public's ignorance of book history. She illustrated the point with an anecdote about a reception given "by a famous American collector whose chief glory was his remarkable collection of Shakespeare quartos."

The story is also worth quoting at length:

"In the beautiful private library, among the elite of wealth and culture assembled, was an imposing lady, richly bejeweled, who made her way a little forcibly to the cases where the quartos were displayed, uttering ecstatic cries of appreciation. . . . "Tell me,' she said, "are they all Caxtons?' "

Apparently this is a real gut-buster because Caxton, England's first printer, lived and died before Shakespeare was born and therefore could not have printed the Bard's quartos.

If you didn't know that, welcome to my planet. I had never heard of Caxton and had to do some reading to find out who he was. I didn't know what "roycrofty" meant, either; only by searching the Web did I discover the word refers to Roycroft, a form of craftsmanship created a century ago in East Aurora, N.Y., by Elbert Hubbard, who, you may be interested to know, perished on the Lusitania.

This was precisely what Haines wanted, of course: She wanted readers to jump from one book to the next, seeking and gaining knowledge as they went.

"From every book invisible threads reach out to other books," she wrote, "and as the mind comes to use and control those threads the whole panorama of the world's life, past and present, becomes constantly more varied and interesting."

Also, Caxton's imprint on history can be revealed and Elbert Hubbard raised from the deep.

Living with Books is full of pleasures, large and small: Haines' description of the agate type in one book as a "forbidding stubble"; her contempt for the reviewer who, in summarizing the plot of a novel, "holds up remorselessly the skeleton that the novelist has sought to endue with flesh and life"; and her cold-hearted but correct appraisal of Kenneth Rexroth's poetry as "nonsense."

What did the critics have to say about Haines? They loved her in 1935 and loved her more in 1950. Booklist called the second edition "invaluable" and the Christian Century gave it a "top rating." The Library Quarterly said, "Miss Haines' courageous suggestion that Marxist literature be included in library collections is applauded."

By the Library Quarterly, maybe, but not by everybody.

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She was born in 1872 in Brooklyn, the eldest of five girls. Her mother was a homemaker, her father a Civil War veteran who may or may not have fought in the battle of Gettysburg and may or may not have abandoned the family. Haines herself never married

(Most of what I know about Haines' life I learned by reading Freedom Through Books, a superb doctoral dissertation written by Holly Crawford in 1997 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After getting her doctorate, Crawford taught for a year at the University of South Florida and is now on the library science faculty of Indiana University.)

At 19, Haines published her first book, a history (for some reason) of New Mexico, and at 21 went to work as an editorial assistant for R.R. Bowker, who published Library Journal and Publishers' Weekly. She soon became managing editor of the former publication. She became an officer in the American Library Association.

In 1907, when Haines was 35, she contracted tuberculosis and moved to Pasadena, Calif., to recuperate. For six years she did little but sit and read books. When she felt better she started giving lectures on book selection and never stopped. Living with Books grew from those seeds.

Haines' commitment to intellectual freedom was put to the test in the McCarthy era. In 1947, Los Angeles County demanded that all civil servants, including librarians, sign loyalty oaths or be branded as "probable communist subversives." Haines, appalled at the prospect of librarians endorsing one form of political thought over another, protested and urged the American Library Association to do the same.

"We are passing through so violent and dangerous a period of anti-Communist and anti-Russian hysteria," she wrote to a friend, "that it is of the utmost importance that material for . . . reason and tolerance be made widely available to library users."

But the ALA did nothing. In 1948, Haines took matters into her own hands, rewriting the organization's Library Bill of Rights. In it she said library patrons should have free access to books regardless of the authors' race, nationality, religious beliefs or political ideas.

"Suppression of books, magazines or newspapers in libraries by Un-American Activities Committees and various super-patriotic and bigoted groups is a major threat to the American way of life," she wrote in her draft. The ALA toned down the language but adopted the ideas, which are still part of the document today.

Haines had red-baiting on her mind while she was working on the second edition of Living with Books. The index includes 13 references to communism, many of them pointing to passages like this one: "To understand an issue, whatever it may be, the "other side' must be known. . . . Thus, in the locked battle between capitalism and communism, materials of both defense and attack must be freely available for public information and study."

Obviously Haines was a commie. It was obvious, at least, to the Freeman, which published its review of the second edition under the headline, "A Slanted Guide to Library Selection."

"The major impression I get from a comparison of the original with the revised edition is the strong pro-Soviet bias of the latter," the reviewer wrote. "Miss Haines may think she is still objective, but in fact she has now become a propagandist for the Stalinist way of life."

Not quite. If anything, Haines was biased against the USSR, at one point writing of "the uncompromising dogmatism of Soviet political and economic doctrine." Still, as a believer in the free exchange of ideas, she wore a bull's-eye on her back.

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The book itself lived on. Kathleen de la Pena McCook, director of the library school at the University of South Florida, remembers using the book as a student at the University of Chicago in the early '70s

"Helen Haines was one of my heroines," she says.

Librarianship has changed a lot since then. These days, the job of a librarian is not so much to recommend books as it is to help people find information. And Living with Books long ago went out of print, to be replaced by more up-to-date texts.

I think Haines would be pleased to know I found her book someplace and bought it, even for only a buck and a quarter. Borrowing books from the library is fine, she wrote, but sometimes nothing short of ownership will do: "All who care for books will possess some friends and intimates whose companionship cannot be restricted to a formal and limited visit."

You know what I like best about Helen Haines? She probably never imagined her own book would be that kind of friend.


-- Times Researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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