George Saunders—alumnus of Oak Forest High School (1977)—is a short story writer and author of the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, for which he won the 2017 Man Booker Prize, an award given each year for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK. He is the second American to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize since its establishment in 1969. George Saunders wrote the following remembrance to commemorate the Acorn Public Library District’s 50th anniversary.
Many congratulations to the Acorn Public Library on its 50th Anniversary. I’m pretty sure there’s been some sort of error, since I have very clear memories of going to the opening day of the Library when I was around eight years old, and since I am only twenty-one now, the numbers don’t quite add up….Please recalculate, and get back to me as soon as you can…
But seriously: I have such strong and fond memories of that first Library and the way it inspired me. When I was very young, my grandmother used to take us to a Library down in Gage Park, that was in an old building, sort of grand, as I remember it. The early Acorn was not grand at all in its physicality – it was in, as I recall it, housed in a very temporary-feeling trailer (I remember the way the floor would give a little, as you crossed it). But what was inspiring about that space (what is inspiring about every library, and certainly about the current and lovely incarnation of the Acorn Library) is its simple and profound mission: to make knowledge readily available to everyone, regardless of class, color, ethnicity – to everyone. It is the cornerstone of our democracy that even someone struggling financially; even someone using every spare minute to provide a livelihood for her or his family; even someone who is part of an historically oppressed group; even, well…anyone has the right to put herself into connection with the truth (historical truth, scientific truth, literary truth) and both be tested and expanded in the process.
Especially in a time like ours, when so much that passes for information is coming to us via pipelines that are corporate, and therefore subtly (or not so subtly) distorted by an agenda, the library’s role as an uninflected repository of what human beings have thought and done over the many centuries is vital.
I remember long afternoons sitting in the Library; the way it was decorated for the seasons; a certain charming burned-coffee plus old book smell in the air; the way it functioned as an informal community center; the view of “The Field” across the street (soon to become a city park). You saw a lot of people you knew coming in and out, and sitting there, casually reading, was a way of feeling a deep connection to our version of small-town American life…very sweet, very Rockwellian, seen in memory… Many years after those first visits (which were mostly undertaken for research papers, assigned over at St. Damian’s), I found myself, in my twenties, living through a challenging period. I was living with my aunt, roofing sporadically downtown, trying to figure out how a person became a writer. During this period, I would often retreat to the Library, which was now in an actual building, and I’d browse in Fiction, and write, dreamily and illegibly, in my notebook. For a short period, dreaming of going to El Salvador, to be a war correspondent, I studied Spanish in the library (but would often drift over and grab some Hemingway or Steinbeck instead). Being, again, in that physical location, so sacred to me from childhood, had the effect of protecting/reigniting my early ambitions. It helped me, in a sense, remember who I used to be. So, a library is also a place for dreaming: it is quiet, there are no expectations; a person can sit there staring into space more honorably than in any other place in the world – and staring into space, allowing the mind to run free, is very important and honorable work.
A library like the Acorn is the very definition of a safe space, because it is a challenging space (you are surrounded by books, those repositories of all past knowledge) and it is a hopeful space (it says that you – even you – are capable of being changed by those collected great thoughts).
So, the fact that the Library has been a valued and central part of the Oak Forest community all of these years and is, by all appearances, even more central and valued to that community now than it was at its inception, is truly cause for celebration. As long as our country is based on the idea that we all get an opinion, and that one’s opinion should be based on fact and objective truth, and as long as we believe that anyone can aspire to anything, and that the path to accomplishment lies through education and books and openness to the world, our libraries will be central to our country’s viability and power. I send my warmest greetings to the Acorn Library, a beautiful example for libraries everywhere.
- George Saunders