“Confession of our faults,” a wise old Roman named Publilius Syrus once noted, “is the next thing to innocency.” So I’ll own up to a couple of errors and omissions from last week’s column. There was my claim that you won’t find synonyms for “sandwich” in Roget’s Thesaurus, and in fact the only place he mentioned “sandwich” in the early editions of his Thesaurus (which means “treasury” in Latin) was alongside “interposition, interjection, permeation.” The modern version is worse, listing “BLT, Reuben, club sandwich, hero,” and other types of sandwiches, as synonyms.
Then lauded the Dictionary of American Regional English and didn’t mention that it does list synonyms for “sandwich” used around our nation. “Sammitch” is popular in Pennsylvania, for example, while “sangwich” is in Boston, and “sandwidge” in New Jersey. Clear communications is part of proper behavior, but that’s a shifting target. Back in the 16th century, Erasmus advised in his “De Civilitate Morum Puerilium Librellus: A Handbook on Good Manners for Children,” against boasting, gossiping, telling unkind stories, self-display, seeking to defeat others in argument, and being too inquisitive. A couple centuries later Lord Chesterfield wrote his son a series of letters instructing him how to be “pleasing in society.” The advice was baldly Machiavellian, and Samuel Johnson said Chesterton’s letters “teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master.” For instance, Chesterton maintained that “Pleasing in company is the only way of being pleased in yourself.”
There are better, healthier ways of pleasing oneself, such as visiting their library. Public libraries encapsulate many of the finer virtues, like sharing and treating others with respect. Libraries were once known for stern librarians demanding even the mildest of whisperers to “Shhhh!” Well, this attitude has evolved. Modern public libraries offer more than books, tables and chairs; besides computers and the Internet, the public needs places to meet and interact. Some people require peace and quiet while reading, studying, or even using computers, and the library obliges by providing quiet rooms located in parts of the building that are designated as “conversation-free” zones, while on the other side of the building normal conversations are OK. In addition, at Noel Wien Library you’ll find a new “sound booth,” a small, enclosed and sound-proofed portable room that’s wired for secure Ethernet connections for people wanting to Skype or receive online instructions, or otherwise converse with their computer or smart phone.
Pico Iyer wrote a good essay for the NYTimes a few months back titled “The Joy of Quiet.” Iyer is a brilliant scholar and writer, contributing regularly to Time, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, Financial Times, National Geographic, and more. His work also appears frequently in the Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Travel Writing anthologies. He notes that “The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a screen,” with adults’ online time doubling between 2005 and 2009. “The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day, though one girl in Sacramento managed to handle an average of 10,000 every 24 hours for a month.” Iyer added that “the children of tomorrow … will crave nothing more than freedom, if only for a short while, from all the blinking machines, streaming videos and scrolling headlines that leave them feeling empty and too full at once.”
Iyer points out the rise in luxury “black-hole resorts” offering freedom from television, Internet, and cell phone activity, and the popularity of Internet rescue camps for South Korean and Chinese teens addicted to being online. “In barely one generation,” Iyer writes, “we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them – often in order to make more time.” However, deep reading, as opposed to screen scanning, provides that feeling of inner quiet.
Your library provides the best of both worlds: a forest of information and connectivity to the modern world as well as places to meet humans and for peace and quiet. As the philosopher Alan Watts said, “If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”