By Bret Witter with Vicki Myron
Why was Dewey written? Because I was asked to write it. Not just by one person, but by hundreds, for years. Local people, visitors, book agents, professional writers (they wanted to help), people who had only read about him in magazines or seen him in a documentary. There was something magical about this lovable orange cat named Dewey Readmore Books and the small town library where he lived. It was obvious. And people wanted to know more.
So, after years of saying no, I finally said yes. Dewey had recently died, and part of me must have known writing a book would keep him in my life. Not that he could ever go away. I loved him for almost twenty years; everything in the library reminded me of him: the copier where he warmed himself, the front desk where he perched, the Western section where he hid, the book cart he used to ride on. Every morning, he sat at the door waiting for me. When he saw me coming, he’d wave. No matter how bad I felt, that wave made me believe the world was wonderful and everything would be alright. How could I ever forget that?
So with the help of a writer (one finally got to me!), I started putting down on paper all those memories: how Dewey wouldn’t come down from the overhead lights no matter how we begged, lounged in front of the heater until his fur was too hot to touch, slept in the box so the patrons couldn’t get their tax forms, tortured us over his food and litter, enticed us to play hide and seek with him, attended every children’s Story Hour, ran every meeting, and generally turned a cold library into a warm, inviting, friendly place.
I wrote about how he sought out those in need: the elderly man who had just lost his wife; an unemployed farmhand; the homeless man. I told how whenever I wanted to give up, because I was a single mother working full-time and going to school, Dewey sensed it and jumped on my lap. And how when I agonized over a double mastectomy or a less invasive treatment (I chose the mastectomy, but never told anyone until this book), he sat beside me while I cried. He was my best friend; he was always there for me. Always. I hope I’ve honored his life by capturing some of his magic.
I hope I’ve also captured something else: the magic of libraries. Libraries aren’t warehouses for books; they are meeting houses for human beings. A good library is less an institution than a home. It has comfortable seats, desks, computers, friendly people and, yes, sometimes even a cat. Libraries are society’s great leveling agent: they offer job listings, financial information, technology, entertainment, any book you want. For free. I hate it when people tip-toe through a library. “This isn’t a graveyard,” I want to shout. “It’s alive. So live a little!”
Librarians aren’t little old ladies who spend all day stamping books and shushing people. We love to have fun, for one thing. But we also have interesting jobs that entail, among other things, planning community events; adopting new technologies; battling censorship; and reaching out to underprivileged groups. We provide job banks in tough times, free child care for working parents, and, in Spencer at least, translators for errands and doctors visits, the town’s only Spanish-language outreach. Be warned: librarians are studying you, and they know what you need. That’s their job.
I will never forget Dewey’s friend Crystal, a severely mentally and physically handicapped girl so withdrawn that everyone thought she was dead inside. But Dewey sensed something, and he started following her wheelchair. Then he started climbing up and sitting on her wooden tray. She couldn’t control her muscles, so she couldn’t pet him, but she would squeal with delight. One day, I placed him inside her jacket. Dewey put his head on her chest and purred, and Crystal…she just exploded. She was alive with joy. That, to me, is a Dewey story; that’s the kind of cat he was. And that’s what libraries do. They change lives. Everywhere in this country. Every day.
I have been surprised by the reaction to Dewey. People love the portrayal of Iowa. They are awed by Spencer, a small town that has overcome adversity by pulling together and resisting simple answers (a slaughterhouse, a casino). I agree with them, I love Iowa and Spencer too, but I never thought this was a book about a place. I thought it was a book about an extraordinary cat, and the deep bond that developed between that cat and a woman, and how the two of them dedicated their lives to the last great free enterprise in American society: the library.
Copyright © 2008 by Bret Witter with Vicki Myron