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First Monday Classics – The Stranger by Albert Camus

On May 1, First Monday Classics will be tackling The Stranger by Albert Camus. While researching the book, I saw multiple references to the fact that it’s often assigned reading in high school, which was surprising to me. I first read the book in my early twenties, after I’d graduated from college. I remember being shocked by the book’s blatant and unrepentant atheism. I’d grown up in the Bible belt. Perhaps this book was assigned reading elsewhere in high school, but it seemed to me to be the sort of book that would have wound up getting removed from the library if it had been assigned reading while I was attending school in Mississippi.


Note that I wasn’t shocked by the atheism itself. I’d been raised a fundamentalist, but in my teens I’d become an atheist, and a somewhat loud, militant, and obnoxious member of that tribe. Confronting others with the absence of God was one of my favorite hobbies. What shocked me was the nakedness of Camus’ treatment of the subject, the fact that someone had put so many of my thoughts and feelings onto paper twenty years before I’d been born. Reading the book in my early twenties, I felt tremendous empathy for Meursault, and felt a little less alone in the universe.

The irony of this reaction isn’t lost on me, since the whole argument of the book is that we are ultimately alone in the universe, and Meursault responds to this truth by shedding all traces of empathy. He kills a man and is incapable of feeling remorse. He’s not even able to understand his own motivations for the murder, defending the fact he fired five bullets into a man as simply a thing that happened because the sun had been shining too hot and bright. He has no logical explanation for his action, because he’s incapable of believing that things happen for a reason. Things happen as they happen, and to try to say that not killing the man was a better course of action than killing him is absurd to Meursault. He’s living in an uncaring universe where his death is certain, his victims death was certain, and the details of how a life plays out is ultimately meaningless because eternity will inevitably wash away all memory of our actions. Life is only a short absurdity, and the best we can hope for is to enjoy the few sensual pleasures available to us while we’re here.

When I was twenty three, Meursault’s feelings resonated with me. Yes, of course, life was pointless and absurd, but have what fun you can with it. Now that I’m fifty three, rereading the book proved uncomfortable. I find Meursault’s lack of empathy to be a devastating character flaw. He has the courage to accept the absence of God, but lacks the imagination to see that this doesn’t render life pointless. If we’re all trapped in a universe devoid of any higher meaning, it doesn’t follow that we must withdraw into ourselves and live like selfish, emotionless strangers. Quite the opposite. If there is no God to watch over us, then the full responsibility for the safety and happiness of our fellow man falls on our shoulders. The band Typhoon has a lyric in the song “Morton’s Fork” that sums up my feelings perfectly: We’re all alone in this together.

While I’ve lost respect for Meursault, I still have a great deal of respect for the Stranger. To qualify as a classic, a novel must struggle with a great theme. Camus faces a godless universe within these pages, and does so with skill and beauty. The writing is spare and precise, and despite the focus on the indifference of the universe, you can’t help but be moved by the wonder of small details like the way the sky changes color during the course of a day as Meursault watches from the tiny window of his prison cell. It’s a carefully crafted, thought provoking novel that still rewards the reader’s time and attention.


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First Monday Classics: The Grapes of Wrath

On the first Monday of each month at 6:30pm, I take part in the First Monday Classics Book Club at the Orange County Library in Hillsborough. April 3 will be the second anniversary for our group. We’ve covered a broad range of classics by authors such as Austen, Dostoevsky, Twain, and Cervantes, and now we’re getting ready to tackle one of the most acclaimed American novels, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath

In choosing to focus on classics, this book club inevitably runs into a problem of definition: What, exactly, constitutes a classic? One of the criteria I look at when proposing books for the group is that the novel has a timeless quality, that the topics under discussion are just as relevant today as they were at the time the book was written. The Grapes of Wrath is nearly 80 years old, but as I’m rereading it this time I keep being struck by the sense that the novel could have been written today as a commentary on current issues.

To begin with, the novel is about the consequences of man-made climate change. The dust bowl was partly caused by poor farming practices that turned once fertile soils into barren dust. The Joads and thousands of other families are forced from their land as their crops fail. But even if the dust bowl draught years had never come, the novel makes clear that the Joads’ way of life is doomed by another force: technological advance. With big combine harvesters, a single man can work hundreds of acres that once required the labor of dozens of men. Yet another force of social change that will seem relevant today is that distant banks run by people the Joads will never meet decide their fate. There’s no one local to blame, no one to personally appeal to for another chance. The faceless world of finance doesn’t judge you by your character or your needs, only by whether or not you can pay.

Once the Joads reach California, they become migrant farm workers, facing the problems that still bedevil migrant workers. Employers need to hire hundreds of able hands for a few weeks, but after that the workers must move on. As people without homes, they’re treated as potential criminals by the locals. And not without cause, as Tom Joad, Steinbeck’s primary protagonist, is a convicted murderer violating his parole by leaving his home state. I admire Steinbeck’s courage in choosing Tom as his vehicle for exploring these difficult themes. It would have been tempting to make the central character a saint. That this far more complex character still earns our sympathy shows the depth of Steinbeck’s skills.

Of course, it’s possible to appreciate this novel without once thinking about how the problems faced by the characters are echoed in the modern world. The language of this novel is powerful in its clarity and beauty. Steinbeck’s ability to create a scene, to make you dwell inside a single moment, is something few writers can match. Near the beginning of the book he devotes an entire chapter to a turtle attempting to cross a road, turning an event most people barely notice into an epic tale of determination. This is the third time I’ve read this book, and on this pass I’m taking more time to step back from the story and simply appreciate the beauty of the words.

If you’ve appreciated this book in the past, or are considering reading it in the near future, please feel free to join us at the library at 6:30 on April 3. I can promise a lively, thought provoking discussion on a truly enduring classic.

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Spring Book Sale Success

by Lori-Anne Shapiro, Chair of the Board of the Friends of Orange County Public Library

Wow! What a successful sale it was!

Thank you to all our volunteers, especially our woman at the helm, Stacey Gamble!

We had a total of 30 volunteers to help with set up, sorting, more sorting, and more sorting, 12 shifts of book selling, and a massive clean-up.

The sale started with a Friends Benefit event at Antonia’s Restaurant in Hillsborough where members received a 15% discount on their bill!  On Thursday evening we had a Kick-off Reception for members only to preview shopping, socialize, enjoy a spread of appetizers, and bid on a Silent Auction of special books, including one signed by Lady Bird Johnson.

The dinner at Antonia’s, the Thursday evening Reception, and the full day of shopping on Friday were all new additions to the sale over that of recent years!

We also had two Author Events:

  • A delightful panel of writers on Saturday afternoon in a talk titled Thrifty Lit: Homage to Library Book Sales. The writers were current Piedmont Laureate Katy Munger, last year’s Piedmont Laureate James Maxey, and Samantha Bryant.
  • A talk by Rosetta Austin Moore, author of The Impact of Slavery on the Education of Blacks in Orange County, North Carolina, on Sunday afternoon.

Authors Samantha Bryant, James Maxey, and Katy Munger shared their favorite book sale finds at a panel on Saturday during the Spring Book Sale.

Our total profit for the sale is not in yet due to pending payments for final silent auction items. With final payments for the auction payments, the total earned to support important library services and programs, as well as future Friends events, may exceed $3000. This exceeds our totals of the last two book sales.  Much thanks to everyone!

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Did You Know? Children’s Programs at the Library

If you haven’t walked through the children’s section of the library recently, you may not have noticed all the new additions. Now there’s a puppet theater, puzzles, and other hands-on interactive toys available for children to explore, as well as a wonderful selection of books, music, audiobooks, and movies. Children build important language skills through reading, writing, talking, singing, and playing.  The new Little Learning Lounge provides a space for caregivers and children to engage in these activities together.

In addition, Youth Services offers many exciting children’s programs every week. For younger children, there are 4 storytimes each week, including a Saturday storytime, and there are are 1-2 educational programs for school-age children. There is even a monthly book club just for tweens.

The library usually sponsors a couple of special programs each month targeting a range of topics and interests. These programs are offered during the evenings and on weekends to make them accessible to more families. Recent examples include the Bright Star Touring Theatre performance celebrating Black History Month, the science of flight, LEGOs at the library, Frozen singalong and other family movies, campfire stories, and Mother Goose games.

Why not bring your child, grandchild, or another child in your life by the library to take advantage of everything on offer? And please spread the word about all of the wonderful children’s programs at the library. Learn more and keep up on upcoming events by subscribing to the Youth Services eNewsletter.

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First Monday Classics Book Club: 2016 Update

By Samantha Bryant; Covers by Nathan Kotecki

The First Monday Classics Book Club meets at the main library in Hillsborough the first Monday of each month from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Discussions are led and facilitated by local authors James Maxey, Nathan Kotecki, and Samantha Bryant. New members are welcome at any time. You can come to just a single meeting when the group is reading something that catches your eye, or come to them all. There’s a public facebook group as well where you can keep up with discussions and continue the conversation outside the confines of our meetings.

For 2016, the group has expanded its scope, trying to bring in more world literature and works by minorities while still maintaining a focus on classics: works that endure.

if on a winter's night a traveler

We’ll begin the 2016 season with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino. By far the most recent book we will have tackled, Winter’s Night is considered a postmodern classic.

their eyes were watching god

In February, we’ll take on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The 1937 novel is Hurston’s best known work and is widely praised for its wit and pathos.

heart of darkness

In March, just as the daylight comes back, we’ll read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. As Conrad described it: “A wild story of a journalist who becomes manager of a station in the (African) interior and makes himself worshipped by a tribe of savages. Thus described, the subject seems comic, but it isn’t.”

fear and loathing in las vegas

In April, we’ll read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. The subtitle, A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, speaks to the gonzo journalism blend of fact and fiction that makes this work a landmark piece.

the bridge on the drina

In May, We’ll read The Bridge on the Drina by Yugoslavian author Ivo Andrić. The back of the book says that Drina is “a vivid depiction of the suffering history has imposed upon the people of Bosnia from the late 16th century to the beginning of World War I.”

age of innocence

In June, we’ll read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. The novel was Wharton’s twelfth and it won her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, the first time the prize had been awarded to a woman author.

the portrait of a lady

The first Monday in July is a holiday (Fourth of July), so we won’t meet that month. In August, we’ll read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Many feel that this exploration of the relationship between happiness and money is his finest work.

We’ll collect suggestions for the second half of the year throughout our meetings and announce the selections in August. If you love classic literature or just want to give yourself an excuse to read all those things you’ve always meant to read, this is the book club for you. Come join us.

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Orange County Public Library Book Club Update for Winter 2016

By Sara Levinson

The Book Club of the Orange County Public Library meets every second Tuesday of the month at 6:30 p.m. in the meeting room of the library. No registration is required, and everyone is welcome.

22609391For the January 12th meeting, the club will be reading The Wright Brothers by David McCollough. In describing this book to the club, one of our members wrote, “This book was extremely detailed in describing how two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, developed the first viable airplane in 1903. I was impressed to learn how they started building gliders, sent away to the Smithsonian for all the available information from the first experimenters, studied the flight of birds, built their own gasoline engine, persevered through major crashes, and performed major reconstructions following equipment setbacks. I did not know that they spent significant time in Europe demonstrating their planes and winning government contracts while vigorously defending their patents.”

51+kAdUZOyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_On February 9th we will be reading Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Eric Larson. The author’s website states, “On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic ‘Greyhounds’—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.”

The_Ghost_Map_coverThe Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Berlin Johnson is our pick for March 8th. A national bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year, this is how it is described on Amazon: “It’s the summer of 1854, and London is just emerging as one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure-garbage removal, clean water, sewers-necessary to support its rapidly expanding population, the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure. As the cholera outbreak takes hold, a physician and a local curate are spurred to action-and ultimately solve the most pressing medical riddle of their time. In a triumph of multidisciplinary thinking, Johnson illuminates the intertwined histories of the spread of disease, the rise of cities, and the nature of scientific inquiry, offering both a riveting history and a powerful explanation of how it has shaped the world we live in.”

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An Amazing Annual Meeting

Everyone who attended the Friends of Orange County Public Library’s Annual Meeting on December 5 agreed that it was an awesome event.

A terrific breakfast spread of pastries, casseroles, and coffee welcomed Friends members, Library staff, and attendees from the general public as they walked through the door. We’re happy to say that many attendees decided to renew their membership in the Friends or join right then.

Our emcee, local poet Bartholomew Barker, made everyone feel at home. Outgoing president of the Friends Board, Tommy McNeill, highlighted the Friends’ activities in 2015 and announced the newly established Janet Flowers Award, which will be given for the first time at the 2016 Annual Meeting. Library Director Lucinda Munger shared highlights from the Library’s year as well.

Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens started us off right with a nostalgic reading of Where the Wild Things Are. Carrboro’s poet laureate Celisa Steele moved us with readings of her poetry. Our keynote speaker, author Jill McCorkle, captivated the audience with her reading and reminiscences on her own passion for reading.

Congratulations to our newly elected Board members: Stacey Gamble, Dee Love, Stephen A. Smith, Susan Vreeland, and Hollie White. All will serve on the board through 2017. The Board is excited for the upcoming year, as we dedicate ourselves to creating a passion to read in Orange County.

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