The Remains of a California Day

By three,  I drove up to the CSU Fresno Henry Madden Library to get a Greek edition of Procopius’s History of the Wars. (Procopius is the ancient sort of the DC insider blogger/pundit: he praised Justinian, sort of, in the History of the Wars, damned him as demonic in the Secret History, and eulogized him in the Buildings — all predicated on the degree to which Procopius felt that the emperor was well/sick, dead/alive, popular/unpopular and the degree to which he was in/out with the court.

In the same manner, Procopius was the secretary to Belisarius, his apologist, his primary critic, and perhaps (this is disputed) the same Procopius who, as magistrate, put him on trial for his life. In other words, he was a sort of New York Times or Newsweek columnist.

It is touchy to use the library, since its hours are now vastly abbreviated due to furloughs (You, reader, will come to know that word soon enough in the increasingly bankrupt America: it means that we must not tamper with union contracted employees, so we simply ask them not to come to work a day or so a month. The resulting pay cuts are not pay cuts.)

The newly expanded and modernized library — thanks to the generosity of a local Indian gaming casino—is in the material sense, quite impressive. But even without the massive addition, the early 1980s library was a sui generis, the unique creation of the Europhilic scholar Henry Madden, whose postwar acquisition trips to Europe had ensured the nearly 1 million volume library was among the very best in California (where else in these parts can one find something like the 83-volume Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, the most complete encyclopedia of the classical world in existence -- in German?).

For ease of use, professional and polite staff, and accessibility (the books are available, the stacks open, and recall rare), it was perhaps the best library of its size in the nation. Yes, Fresno had one of the top 1-million volume libraries in the nation— something the Chamber of Commerce never seems to brag about, although the stacks are open and available for browsing by any tourist or visitor. For most purposes of access and lack of recall, I prefer it to the Stanford Library.

But this new manifestation is still confusing. Let me explain. The volumes are now housed in postmodern collapsible shelving that electronically come apart as needed. Impressive — but this day it seemed to me that the savings in space surely were not needed. Quite simply, save space for what? More books? Not really.

The library instead has transmogrified into a multiplex student “center,” replete with Starbucks, lounge areas, and hundreds of loud, talking, and eating students. This day I saw just three reading books and about 100 chatting, web surfing, and emailing.

No one was accessing the hundreds of thousands of volumes in the electronic shelving. And whereas in the Madden era, signs abounded warning not to eat, phone, or talk (the idea was not to disturb those studying and reading and writing, or to litter or invite insects, etc. into the inner sanctum), today almost everyone was phoning, talking and eating. I would imagine the old budget was about ½ of the present one — and the number of people using a library for its books about double the present number.

Then a thought came. This is most definitely not quite a library for most. Yes, its basement is a sort of forgotten archive of a vanquished civilization of readers; but its top floors are self-glorious monuments to current sociology.

You see, it is a meeting place, a locale for cultural socialization, where particular groups are given tours, have group projects, see multimedia presentations, and by the fact itself that they are in a “library,” they are suddenly reinvented into students and scholars.

(I grant that this is part of a nationwide trend in which student centers now draw or lose students, depending on the range of plasma TVs, rock-climbing walls,  bars, etc., and that libraries are cultural resources centers, and so my observations are simply again anecdotal in nature.)

By dusk, I closed the medieval gates to my driveway and prepared to get ready to drive to work for the week at Palo Alto, as postmodern a world as mine out here is premodern. (In response to all this, I am trying to restore this 1870 two-story house to its original appearance, in and out, as much as I can ascertain in photographs from my great-great-grandmother's era, though I confess it is a questionable expenditure of scarce funds: I'm 56 and spend most of my time at Stanford these days. I am not sure any of my three children wish to live here. I grant that it is now to be in the city-limits and accept that it is no longer a homsestead farm and that its vineyards, barn, shed, and barnyard are virtual. I realize that the environs in general, in terms of dog licensing, policing, crime, and community, are pre-civilizational. I am foolishly spending what I can on the idea of it. I am trying to ensure the memory of the 19th century survives the chaos of the 21st in one tiny place for a decade more or so. I am, in reactionary fashion, protesting against the world of 2010. I am aiding the memory of all those now dead I remember so well in the 1950s and 1960s in these rooms.)

All of which raises the question: how would we return to sanity in California, a state as naturally beautiful and endowed and developed by our ancestors as it has been sucked dry by our parasitic generation? The medicine would be harder than the malady, and I just cannot see it happening, as much as I love the state, admire many of its citizens, and see glimmers of hope in the most unlikely places every day.

After all, in no particular order, we would have to close the borders; adopt English immersion in our schools; give up on the salad bowl and return to the melting pot; assimilate, intermarry, and integrate legal immigrants; curb entitlements and use the money to fix infrastructure like roads, bridges, airports, trains, etc.; build 4-5 new damns to store water in wet years; update the canal system; return to old policies barring public employee unions; redo pension contracts; cut about 50,000 from the public employee roles; lower income taxes from 10% to 5% to attract businesses back; cut sales taxes to 7%; curb regulations to allow firms to stay; override court orders now curbing cost-saving options in our prisons by systematic legislation; start creating material wealth from our forests; tap more oil, timber, natural gas, and minerals that we have in abundance; deliver water to the farmland we have; build 3-4 nuclear power plants on the coast; adopt a traditional curriculum in our schools; insist on merit pay for teachers; abolish tenure; encourage not oppose more charter schools, vouchers, and home schooling; give tax breaks to private trade and business schools; reinstitute admission requirements and selectivity at the state university system; take unregistered cars off the road; make UC professors teach a class or two more each year; abolish all racial quotas and preferences in reality rather than in name; build a new all weather east-west state freeway  over the Sierra; and on and on.

In other words, we would have to seance someone born around 1900 and just ask them to float back for a day, walk around, and give us some advice.

PS. I don't vote Democratic any more much, if at all, but haven't gotten around to changing my registration to Independent. But this June I will at least once more vote in the Democratic primary, largely for Mickey Kaus, whose online campaign seems to be reminding us just how absurd Barbara Boxer has become. He has good sense about unions and amnesty and state spending (my late mother, an appellate judge, used to speak highly of state Supreme Court Justice Kaus, a Democratic moderate, who, I think, was his father). In general, I have listened to all three senatorial Republican candidates and they are all good. Note — Barbara Boxer is a particularly unfortunate sort of politician, combining arrogance (remember her much publicized slapdown of a general and African-American businessman) with a loud sort of ignorance. (A diversity note: Three of the most powerful women in the world that have a lot to do with running the U.S. are multimillionaire, doctrinaire liberals, who at one time lived within about 50 miles of each other in San Francisco — Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer.)