This is the text from my speech:
I am honored to be here tonight. My wife and I have attended “Wine, Wit & Wisdom” as supporters in the past and it's a real treat to stand up here now as a speaker.
To be honest, it’s also a little unnerving. I mean, putting “wit” and “wisdom” in the title sets a pretty high expectation. Be witty and wise? That’s just too much pressure. “Mildly amusing”? Maybe. “Somewhat intelligent”? OK, perhaps. But “wit and wisdom”?? Come on.
I wore a bowtie tonight in the hope that it would make me look witty. Or perhaps wise. But I fear it just makes me look like I’ve had too much wine.
So yes, this is stressful. After all, we writers are not really known for our public speaking.
But my debut novel PHOENIXVILLE RISING was released a few weeks ago. And a big part of being a writer in today’s world is marketing your own work. So when I was invited to promote my book tonight to the very people I wrote the book for, this roomful of avid Phoenixville readers and book lovers, some of whom have already had a glass or two of wine. Well, it’s a marketing opportunity that’s too good to pass up.
The thing is, my speech is not really about my book.
What I want to talk about is why I’m standing up here in the first place. Why I am in fact a writer.
And the answer to that is quite simply one word:
I am a writer because libraries unlocked my imagination. They instilled in me a love of reading and learning. And they sparked my desire to tell my own stories.
I am a lifelong library rat. In fact, my path to becoming a writer can be charted directly through the different libraries in my life. Perhaps your life can be tracked the very same way.
I grew up in Baltimore, a product of the Enoch Pratt Free Library System. And the first library I remember is a library that came to me. On wheels.
Every week, the Bookmobile would stop at the playground directly across from my house and, armed with my very own library card, I would come away with an armload of picture books and chapter books that kept me busy until the next week.
As seen through the eyes of a certain six-year-old waiting by the window of a Baltimore rowhouse, the Bookmobile was perhaps the greatest invention in the history of the world.
Along with my teachers and my parents, the Bookmobile taught me to read.
When I was old enough, I graduated from the Bookmobile. I would ride my bike a few miles to the Govans Branch of the library. And my world opened up even further.
I discovered my love of fiction through Encyclopedia Brown and Three Investigators, DC Comic books, and the Hardy Boys. I took part in summer-reading programs and I learned the consequences of not returning books on time.
The Govans Library taught me to love reading.
A little older still and I was taking the public bus all the way to the Towson Library, a new contemporary structure filled with books and magazines and vinyl records. It also was filled with older college girls from Towson State, which might have had something to do with my eager bus trips at fifteen years old, but it was also about the books.
At my high school, I was given the books my teachers thought I needed to read -- and that was important. But at the Towson Library, I found the books I wanted to read. I got caught up in The World According to Garp and The Once and Future King. And I devoured books about the Apollo astronauts, US Presidents, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Lost City of Atlantis.
Towson Library taught me to explore my passions.
My college library at Bucknell University was the first library I saw as more than just a place for books and reading. It was a hub of information and technology. There was a computer lab, where I could write term papers and my very first short stories. There were research materials for even the most serious scholar. There was incredibly comfortable furniture that was well suited to afternoon naps.
And yes, there were also college girls. And this time, I actually married one of them.
When Joan and I moved to Phoenixville more than twenty years ago, one of the first places I sought out was the public library. And I was delighted to find an original Carnegie Library, a hundred years of history, right at the center of town. Amazing!
Best of all, this library was clearly not content to sit back on its history -- the place seemed to be in a constant state of transformation, keeping up with the times and the needs of its community. Whether bringing in new computers or services, offering DVDs or ebooks for your iPad, or expanding its children’s section, our library is at once a place of history and a place of the future.
When my wife and I decided to put down roots in Phoenixville, I wanted to learn more about this place my children would call their hometown. And so I turned to the place I always turn to: the library. I became an amateur history buff, learning about Phoenix Iron & Steel, the Revolutionary War and Civil War, the Underground Railroad, and the evolution of businesses at Bridge & Main Streets. Not only is Phoenixville a wonderful place to raise a family, but this town is steeped in history and story. You can’t help but be inspired.
And all of that inspiration led to my novel, PHOENIXVILLE RISING.
In my book, a man returns to his hometown after many years away and revisits the tragic autumn that occurred when he was a teenager up to no good in the abandoned millyard of Phoenix Iron & Steel. The story moves back and forth in time between the Civil War era, when the mill was flourishing and the new community was rising around it, and 1980, when the steel mill was gone and things weren’t looking so good for our little town. It’s been described as “part coming-of-age novel, part crime story, and part historical romance.”
I conducted my research at the Library and the Historical Society and I talked with residents who were here when the mill was active and when it was closing down. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to challenge the universal feeling that so many people have about small towns at some point in their lives: “nothing ever happens here.”
In PHOENIXVILLE RISING, readers will discover that plenty has happened here in our town, and continues to happen here even today.
Although this is not a history of Phoenixville, it is a story of Phoenixville. And if you’re telling a story of Phoenixville, then the library has to be part of it. You’ll be happy to know that a few key scenes in PHOENIXVILLE RISING actually take place within the library. And in fact, I worked on the book in the library at my favorite table near the window.
The library is a true centerpiece of our community, for many of us, the heart of Phoenixville. Not just a place to check out a book (although it’s great at that), but also a place to learn something you didn’t know before and to participate in events with your neighbors and friends.
A few weeks ago, I did my first public reading of PHOENIXVILLE RISING at the library upstairs in the Carnegie Room and it was a standing-room-only night. There is a hunger in this town for shared experiences, for personal connections, for community. And that is exactly what the library provides.
At the risk of preaching to the choir, I remind us all that it is vital that we support our library.
It’s no secret that funding our libraries is no longer a priority in this political world. As a community, we must shout from the rooftops when funding does not come. And as individuals, we must contribute what we can to help ease the burden, to continue that mission of transformation. We must donate our dollars, our volunteer hours, and our hearts to make sure the library not only survives, but thrives.
I want to do my part.
When the library invited me to speak here tonight, they also invited me to make PHOENIXVILLE RISING available for sale in the lobby. I’m happy to sign and personalize any books you might want to purchase.
But I want to surprise the library tonight by announcing that all of my profits from the books I sold at my first library reading a few weeks ago AND all profits from any books I sell tonight will be donated back to the Phoenixville Public Library.
So if you’re thinking about picking up the book, for yourself or perhaps as gifts for the holidays, tonight is the best night to do that.
There is an African proverb: when an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.
I suggest that when a library dies, an entire community disappears, as surely as Atlantis sank to the bottom of the sea.
So thank you for buying a ticket tonight, for bidding on the auction items, and perhaps picking up a copy of PHOENIXVILLE RISING.
I ask you to continue to support this centerpiece of our town, the Phoenixville Public Library, not just tonight but every day. I thank you for keeping it alive.
And most of all, please remember to encourage that little kid who rides his bike to Second Avenue to spend his free time at the library. The kid who wants to get lost in a good book or a new passion.
Because that child just might grow up to be a writer ...
or a doctor
an inventor ...
or -- if things really go right -- a librarian.
Thank you very much.