Crime Writer Don Winslow's Love for Libraries
When you think of acclaimed crime writer Don Winslow, you think about cartels, corruption, and suspense. His new novel, The Force, centers on a highly decorated (and, it turns out, dirty) NYPD squad leader. Winslow's written more than 20 earlier novels, including The Kings of Cool, Savages, The Power of the Dog, and The Cartel. Along the way he's also become one of the world's foremost authorities on organized drug crime in North America. So, when Goodreads asked Winslow if he'd write an essay, we were surprised when he picked a topic close to our hearts: His love for libraries. Turns out this tough guy is the son of a librarian and credits his career to growing up in the stacks:
The Robert Beverly Hale Library—in the little Rhode Island town of Matunuck, Rhode Island where I grew up—wasn't your 'ssshhhh' kind of place. From time to time the head librarian would hook her pet husky up to the book cart and we would ride it around the aisles. A cat slept on the check-out counter, near the stone fireplace that glowed throughout the cold, foggy, New England winter.
The library's three rooms were my ticket to the whole world. From there I first went to Africa, to England, to Rome. I could travel across space and time—from those rooms I journeyed back to Hastings, Gettysburg and Guadalcanal. I could check out any book I wanted, no one ever told me that I wasn't old enough to read this or that, and it was from that library that I first read Huckleberry Finn, the Nick Adams stories and Michener's Hawaii.
I knew at the time that the library opened up the past to me, I didn't know that it also opened up my future. I dreamed of going to the places that I read about, and I did—that small library was the launching pad for my travels to Africa, Europe, China and the South Pacific. And it was in that library I first conceived my desire to be a writer.
Flash forward several decades to another small town, this one in the rural southern California hills where I live now. The town itself is a just a few streets—no stoplight—a small tourist destination and stopping point for people going down to the desert. Only about three thousand people live in the area, which is mostly ranches, orchards and state and national parks. But we needed a library—the town had an old, tiny facility and the high school library was inadequate.
So the town—often a fractious place of vastly differing political opinions—came together to build one. Rock-ribbed Republican ranchers, left-wing neo-hippies, artists, merchants, students sat together through the torturous and tedious 'grant' process, we held bake-sales, silent auctions and other fundraisers until we raised the money we needed for a new 'joint-use' library for the school and the town. It took years. But, finally, construction started.
Then the fires came.
A catastrophic wildfire swept through our area. Our beautiful forests were burned down. People were killed. We lost a third of our homes. Many people couldn't afford to rebuild and moved away. The rest of us lived in a charred landscape seemingly draped in the black of mourning. One of my tasks was to help obtain potable water, and I finished one of my novels while sitting on crates of bottled water in the relief center. It was sad time. A time of loss. Winter settled in as if to freeze us in our desolation.
The first sign of life was the library. On the last day of the fire, the firemen had literally lined up in the road in front of the library and stopped it there. Then it started raining. So the site was saved and construction resumed. I wasn't there the day the new library opened—ironically I was on a book tour. But the library was—and is—a symbol that the town had survived. It signified our revival. It's become a gathering place for the community, the kids study there after school. Maybe they journey into the past, maybe they see their futures.
Those two small-town libraries—modest, charming, beautiful—are close to my heart.
Don Winslow's The Force hit stores on Tuesday. Add it to your Want to Read shelf here.
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