Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Community and the Talbot County Free Library
I'm not sure when it will be printed, but I'm writing this column in early summer. It is the time of year when pictures of high school graduates wearing prom clothes and big smiles begin appearing on lawns all around Talbot County. The pictures always make me happy. Whenever I pass one, I say a little prayer that the teenager be granted a good, long, and happy life. I like wishing these kids well, thinking about them continuing on with their lives long after I'm gone. And it reminds me of how fortunate I am to live in a place like Talbot County, a place where parents still unabashedly plant photos of their children on their front lawns, invite their neighbors—as they would members of their family—to join them in cheering their child's success.
I learned a new word today, “feuilleton.” In the second decade of the nineteenth century, after the fall of Napoleon, newspapers in Paris found themselves lacking material to fill the spaces previously taken up with war news. To make up for the deficit, they began printing short pieces of writing that were really more literature than journalism: reminiscences, portraits of famous Parisian street characters, quaint Parisian neighborhoods, even fiction. Such a piece was called a feuilleton, which is the French diminutive for a “leaf” or “sheet” of paper. Many of Dumas's works began as serialized feuilletons.
I learned the word “feuilleton” in Edmund de Waal's family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. If you're interested in nineteenth century history and art, this is the book for you (de Waal's great uncle is the man shown wearing a top hat in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party), and it is especially the book for you if you like your stories salted with new and interesting vocabulary. I never picked up The Hare with Amber Eyes without first checking to make sure my dictionary was near at hand.
But back to “feuilleton.” De Waal says that the feuilletonist “renders the city back to itself as a perfect, sensationalized fiction.” When I read this sentence, I recognized something of my own writing in it—or at least what I hope my own writing has become. For fourteen years now I have been writing this library column. But any column about a library must inevitably become a column about the people that library serves. For a library only becomes a library when people walk through the front door, stroll around, begin to pick up books, search the catalogue, play with their children in the children's section. A library isn't just a place; it is a living breathing thing. It is the community it serves; it is the community at its best: quiet, sharing, learning, laughing. So I write not so much about shelves and books as I do patrons, the folks who use the library's computers to apply for a new job, the young mothers who sit on a comfortable chair in the children's section to watch their little ones play, the college kids who immure themselves in the library's study rooms to write papers, study for exams, read.
For years now, when people ask me what I do, I always mention the fact I write a column for The Star Democrat. I try to sound humble when I say it. I try to be humble when I say it. But in truth, of course, I'm kind of showing off. But reading de Waal, I realized I don't have any right to be proud. For he's convinced me this isn't really a column, it's just a feuilleton. De Waal is rather dismissive of feuilletons. It's clear he sees them as slightly childish diversions in an otherwise busy, grown-up world. But when I think about those lawn signs that sprout up in our community every year about this time, I'm not sure I mind being a feuilletonist, someone who tries to reflect back something of his community to his community. Because the community I write about is ours. Because in our community, when I catch sight of one of those lawn signs, I'm fairly certain I'm not the only person who, in passing, has sent up a little prayer.
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