January 7, 2021

This morning I woke up remembering newspaper sticks—the old-fashioned ingenuity of their form, the honey-colored gleam of the polished wood. Does anyone still use them? My freshman year in college I worked ten hours a week in the periodicals department, and that’s when I learned there even was such a thing—they looked, I thought, like a flagpole, or a spine, for all the news that’s fit to print.

The library was midcentury modern, all concrete and glass. The south entrance looked toward the president’s house—nineteenth-century porte-cochère and red-tiled roof—where, just a decade earlier, protesters massed in the last few days before the murders at Kent State. On the corner stood the old Normal School with an entrance like a plantation-style portico—it housed the departments of English and Foreign Languages, on separate floors. In poetry workshops, we spent a lot of time discussing tone. The French club hung out in the language lab, headphones on and a cassette tape playing, practicing the shapes of new words. Où se trouve, the pursed lips of inquiry; pourquoi, the way the tongue pushes the breath into an unfamiliar r.

The memory feels like the wave of French sentence-sound—a mid-syntax crest, and then the tumbling surf of everything that comes after.

The library job could be tooth-grindingly dull. Hours spent creeping along the shelves, re-alphabetizing anything out of place, opening the day’s mail, wheeling my cart full of new issues to set out: Armed Forces and Society, The Explicator, Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Copies of Playboy never made it to the shelves—my supervisor, a tiny woman with bowl-cut bangs, laid them in a drawer under the emergency flashlight (“people try to steal them,” she whispered).

My favorite task was called “fixing the papers.” Like drab bunting, they hung in racks near the west windows, and I loved working there while the daylight waned. September, October, November; by the end of the term, I could watch the horizon flood with color while I finished my shift. First, you rolled off the rubber ring. When you pulled out the old pages, the wooden slats splayed open like the stylized body of a stiffened squid. I remember the physicality of it, the smell of newsprint and dust, the dry rasp of the pages, the stick’s handle rubbed smooth with use.

From distant capitals, the papers came weekly. On delivery days, international students came to the reading room and waited while I put out the new arrivals—headlines in Arabic or Cyrillic, the first stories of the European Parliament. As soon as I finished, they’d come to the rack for the news back home. Sometimes they came alone, sometimes with a friend or two, to read together. This was 1979, you understand: two years before Jacques Chirac’s first, right-wing run. Sometime in October, Park Chung-hee was slain. The Shah’s slow revolution was coming to an end; Khomeini ascended a little before finals week.

This morning, before I turn to the day’s ruinous headlines, I’m remembering the way readers sat side by side at those the tables by the windows, bending together over the page while the sunset only looked like blood.

Elizabeth Dodd teaches creative nonfiction, poetry, and environmental literature courses at Kansas State University. With Derek Sheffield and Simmons Buntin, she is co-editor of Dear America: Letters of HopeHabitatDefiance, and Democracy, a collection of poems and essays published in 2020. Her most recent essay collection is Horizon’s Lens from University of Nebraska Press. She is Nonfiction Editor for Terrain.org, the oldest online journal of place-based writing. 

Photo by Dinah Lenney