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The Thanksgiving Day newspaper landed on the lawn, causing small seismic tremors with its load of advertising inserts. Thick colored booklets from all of the major retailers spread out on the dining room table, advertising sales that would begin in the early evening and run through the night. The black ink of Friday seeped into the calendar page of Thursday, like Marley’s ghost dragging its chain of debt.

When I was a boy in south Florida, I spent each October and November poring over the Sears Christmas catalog with my brother and sister. We would lie on the floor of the old stone house hidden among fruit trees, with our heads together, skipping quickly past the clothing ads and into the bright colored toy section. There were the treasures I longed for, double holstered cap guns, space stations, baseball gloves, and plastic castles with one hundred knights on horseback, all arranged to capture a boy’s imagination. It was an early training in consumerism.

So, I thumbed through every page of every newspaper catalog Thanksgiving morning, but nothing stirred my imagination. I did not see myself in the skinny jeans or wearing the noise cancelling headphones or tapping the screen of the iPad. I did not want to wait in the late hours of the evening at the door of a big bright store with a crowd of other well-trained consumers. But I was not above it all – no, I wanted my Black Friday, too.

That morning my family got up in shifts based on age, first me, then my wife, then much later the older daughter, followed, after much coaxing, by her teenage sister. By this time, Black Friday had been ongoing for about nine hours. We thought downtown State College, with the students gone for the holiday, would be less hectic, and we were not disappointed. The sidewalks were mostly uncluttered and the shoppers unhurried. Families stopped to look in windows, nobody pushed or cursed. The clerks were unharried.

We ate a leisurely breakfast at the Waffle Shop across from campus, then wandered for an hour among the shops on College Avenue. There were many things I admired, but none that I longed for. We all seemed on the same wavelength, if I read my wife and daughters right. This year we are hoping to save toward a special trip in the future, and the British Isles seem more glistening than ear rings. We bought a few stocking stuffers and thought of England.

My mother always liked to imagine she would take her extended family on a trip to England some day. She wanted to walk among those places she had read about in novels and poetry, the Lake Country of the Romantic poets, the London streets of Dickens, Walter Scott’s misty hills. The years came and went, and she grew too old to climb the hills. It was a sad day when she told us we would have to go on our own without her. But England would remain, green and perfect in her imagination.

We ended the day, as we often do, in the library. There the gifts were all on the shelves, and we plucked them like gold apples, eager and greedy. They were gifts of the imagination for this alternative Black Friday, and we sat in the warm library and read for hours.

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Standing on a series of walkways spanning the cliffs of Savannah, my younger daughter gazes off toward the library we have not yet discovered (Click on image to enlarge).

Savannah was built on the cliffs overlooking the Savannah River, and most of the town is built up much higher than the river. To get from the cliffs above, down to the shops and restaurants along the riverwalk below, we took either curving cobblestone streets or plunging alleys, or else the staircases that descended steeply here and there at various places along Bay Street.

On one of those occasions when we were looking for a stairway to get down to the river, we came across a series of elevated walkways that hung above one of the descending streets. At the end of one walkway, we were surprised to find a library, tucked among shops providing tourists the things they want to buy on vacation, like trolley tickets and sunglasses and praline candies.

My whole family has an addiction for libraries, and my older daughter has just taken this love to the extreme and finished her bachelor’s degree in library science this year, so we had no choice but go in.

It was just a small branch library, open a couple of hours a day in the afternoons and not at all on the weekends. It was only by chance that we found them open at all. It was called the Ola Wyeth Library, after some old sainted lady of the town, I suppose. It was a single long narrow room with a couple of patrons sitting out of the heat and two middle-aged lady librarians, helpful as librarians invariably are.

It seems like every town or city I’ve ever visited I’ve stopped at their library, and often that was the highpoint of my visit. This was no exception. It was like walking into a friend’s house and meeting other old friends, shelves and shelves full of old friends.

They had a few dozen retired books for sale on a shelf near the front door, and there I found on sale for a dollar, a classic science fiction book from the fifties that I had long desired to reread. James Blish’s Cities in Flight is a four-book series about the far future when antigravity devices lift entire cities into space from a dying Earth. It’s a space opera mixed with shrewd commentary on politics and society, and a lot of scientific speculation that is still remarkably not outdated.

I have been rereading the collected novels, and at a quarter apiece, they are the best value of my vacation. The memory of the little library in the sky will linger long after the trolley tours are forgotten and the pralines are all consumed. The libraries always are open when I visit them again in my mind.

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“… a deeper and more ultimate reality than that in which our lives are lived.”

I have been living in ancient Greece the past week, with the help of the magnificent Edith Hamilton, the first and greatest woman scholar of the classics. The above quotation, on tragedy, from her 1930 book The Greek Way gives a feeling for her sensibility and her literary style.

I wanted to find her books on Greece and Rome when I visited the Midtown Scholar bookstore in Harrisburg two weekends ago, but despite the thousand scholarly books on this or that niggling aspect of the period, there was no Edith Hamilton to be found. It was a bit like going into a Christian bookstore and finding Sunday school material and the Left Behind novels, but no Bibles. But the local public library had a copy. Bless the libraries and save them from budget cuts, Amen.

The great age of Greece, the period of Socrates, Plato, and the playwrights Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, lasted only one hundred years. Out of that brief flowering comes much of what we still think of as science, philosophy, and literature. Also it gave our forefathers the idea of democracy and the republic.

Hamilton compares the flowering of Greece, with its courage and love of freedom and belief in the mind, with the death obsessed cultures of the East, ruled by priests and tyrants, in which freedom of thought was impossible and the only hope was in a better life beyond the grave.

The great classical age of Greece in which so many new ideas were invented that have lasted for more than two thousand years was fueled by a particular event – the defeat of the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC. This defeat of the vast empire of Persia by the city states of Greece against overwhelming odds very likely changed the course of Western civilization. The Greeks escaped slavery, and they believed their hard won freedom was worth preserving, and they did preserve it long enough to invent much of the modern world.

In a side note, Hamilton suggests that a similar event, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, gave us the English Renaissance and Shakespeare. Maybe the same is true of the American Revolution, and the founders of American democracy who were so steeped in the ideals of Greece.

I have a few more pages of The Greek Way before I plunge into The Roman Way, the next of her classic books. What a pleasure awaits.

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