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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Library Card, Bruno Furst, and First Base

From Washington Lawyer, May 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

I obtained my first library card when I was 12 years old. It was with the Mount Pleasant Branch of the D.C. Public Library near 16th and Irving Streets. The library had a children’s division apart from the main section. The card gave me (with an adult’s signature) the right to take out three children’s books. When I was 14, I converted my children’s card to an adult’s card. This entitled me to roam at will the stacks in the adult section.

Every two weeks I returned books and took out three more. When a book went unreturned beyond the due date, the library imposed a five cent penalty. I occasionally had a bad dream that I failed to return the books and I had run up a huge fine.

Woody Allen had a dream similar to mine. In his stand-up comedy days, he said he had delayed returning his Brooklyn library books. One morning he was awakened by police sirens in front of his house. He jumped from bed and looked out the window. The police were surrounding his house. One of them, using a bullhorn, yelled: “Return those overdue library books. We’re coming in after you.” The cops then fired a few shots in the air. Woody tossed the overdue books out of his bedroom window. The cops caught them in what is called a suicide prevention net. Then, armed with pistols, they stormed the house, determined to get the late fees.

Libraries can be dangerous places. Karl Marx used the British Museum library for his reading and writing. He had only his library card, a desk, pens, and ink. What he wrote at his small desk was a proximate cause of the Russian Revolution. Other notable writers, George Orwell, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mark Twain, did some reading and writing in the British Museum library.

The American counterpart of the famous libraries is the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue with the lion statues sitting in front. In the 1930s Depression it was the home for a group of would-be writers whose parents were immigrants, some of whom could not read or write in English.

When I was 15, I wanted to be a good first baseman. I saw in the library a book about baseball written by Duke University’s baseball coach. I read it twice. But the fact of the matter is, you don’t become a good first baseman by reading a book. I got to know most of the good first basemen who played on the sandlots. None of them had a library card.

What started these digressions about the Mount Pleasant library is Joshua Foer’s new book, Moonwalking with Einstein: the Art and Science of Remembering Everything. It is a best seller. Foer says that special memory tricks can make you a memory wizard.

When I was 17, I became acquainted with memory tricks by reading in the Mount Pleasant library Bruno Furst’s book on mnemonics. My memory was then, and is now, no better than anybody else’s. But Bruno Furst gave me the secrets.

I became pretty good. I wanted to show off. Somehow or other, in 1948, I found my way onto one of the early afternoon TV shows, doing memory tricks. On one show, I gave the population of 30 states. I was on four of these TV shows. After the fourth show, the producer told me I had no future in television. The theatrical gift was not there. You either have it or you don’t. I didn’t have it.

Another library book I read was Think and Grow Rich, written by Napoleon Hill and published in 1937. In some respects, the book is nonsense. But in other respects, it is inspirational. Recently, I saw written on the cover that Think and Grow Rich has sold 10 million copies.

Napoleon Hill, as a young man, entered law school but he did not have the money to finish. He turned to journalism. He was lucky enough to get an interview with Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the multimillionaire who came here from Scotland with nothing, and who, in 20 years, became one of the wealthiest persons in the United States. He did good things with his money.

Wikipedia reports that Mr. Carnegie built 1,689 libraries in the United States. The Pittsburgh library was the first Carnegie library. It was Pittsburgh because that is where Carnegie made his fortune.

Carnegie, so Napoleon Hill said, urged Hill to interview people who, like Carnegie, started out life with nothing and became wealthy. Carnegie said to Hill that, if he were clever, he could get from these people the “secret” of how to get rich. This “secret” is not explicit. It must be deduced. Hill may be the person who can do it and put that “secret” in a book so other industrious and ambitious people can deduce it, succeed with it, and get rich.

But most importantly, they must help others.

Napoleon deduced the “secret” because he became rich himself selling his book.

Last Saturday, I returned to the Mount Pleasant library for the first time in 65 years. It was closed. The sign said that there was a substantial renovation underway.

I intend to return a few months from now to make an inspection. As with other local libraries, the Mount Pleasant facility will have done away with the card catalogue. It will have computers, CDs, and DVDs.

But there will still be books to take down and flip through. I know that as I read a few pages, I will experience the emotion of those happy times at the Mount Pleasant library. I may even read a few pages of Remembrance of Things Past.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at [email protected].