Transcript — This American Life
Episode 664: The Room of Requirement
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My Note: This transcript includes only Act 2: American Book Fishing. This is the
part about The Brautigan Library. For the full transcript, visit the This
American Life website, and look for Episode 664.
Act Two: Book Fishing In America
Act Two, Book Fishing in America. OK, so our program today, of course, is about
people who want libraries to satisfy some very deep, and sometimes, very
idiosyncratic desires. And the people in this act, they wish for a library that can
give them something that only ever existed inside the pages of a book. Sean Cole,
tell us what happened.
There's this book I've always really loved, a novel by Richard Brautigan. If you
haven't heard of him, he was a really funny, almost surreal, hippyish writer in the
'60s and '70s, probably best known for the book, Trout Fishing in
America, a very short and deeply experimental piece of fiction, part
travelogue, part fever dream. It's what made people cultish about Brautigan. A kid
who went to my college legally changed his name to Trout Fishing In America.
But the novel I'm talking about is lesser known. It's called The
Abortion, subtitle, An Historical Romance 1966. And it's not
so much the story that gets me. It's the setting. It takes place in a library in San
Francisco. But instead of coming to take books out of the library, people come to
submit unpublished books they've written to the library, forever.
The books are there to stay. They can bring a book in anytime. The library never
closes. And the librarian—there is only one—is always there to greet
them. He lives at the library, and he's the narrator of the story.
This is from the first chapter. The librarian says, "We don't use the Dewey decimal
classification or any index system to keep track of our books. We record their
entrance into the library in the Library Contents Ledger, and then we give the book
back to its author, who is free to place it anywhere he wants in the library, on
whatever shelf catches his fancy.
It doesn't make any difference where a book is placed because nobody ever checks
them out and nobody ever comes here to read them. This is not that kind of library.
This is another kind of library."
The librarian is reflexively polite and effusive. He might say to someone, "I don't
think we have a book like this in the entire library. This is a first." He puts
people at ease. He says, "My clothes are not expensive but they are friendly and
neat and my human presence is welcoming."
Eventually, a woman comes in with a book, and she's very beautiful. They fall in
love. She gets pregnant, but they're not ready to have a child. So because this
takes place in 1966, the two of them travel to Mexico to get an abortion, which is
why the novel is called The Abortion. But just the spectacle of this
library, it's hilarious, and heartbreaking, and democratic, and other-dimensional
all at the same time.
Brautigan imagined a great anonymous wash of humanity marching through, with a lot
on its mind. Kind of the Utopian ideal of the public square, except completely
silent, all written down on rows and rows of unread books. The librarian says the
main purpose of the library is, quote, "to gather pleasantly together the unwanted,
the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing." And when you talk to other
people who've read The Abortion, the conversation usually winds its way
to this one chapter.
"The 23." [LAUGHS]
This is Todd Lockwood, a photographer and music producer in Burlington, Vermont.
I'll tell you why I got in touch with him in a minute. "The 23" is essentially a
list of all 23 books that came into the library this one particular day, by little
kids, old people. And the chapter's made up of just little descriptions of the 23
books that the librarian wrote down in his ledger.
There's one called It's the Queen of Darkness, Pal, a science fiction
novel written by sewer worker. There's a book called Leather Clothes and the
History of Man, which is somehow entirely made of leather. Not just the
binding, but the pages. Richard Brautigan himself comes into the library with a book
called Moose. And a doctor comes in looking, quote, "doctory and very
nervous," with a book entitled The Need for Legalized Abortion.
I asked Todd what some of his favorites were, and he pointed to this one.
Just the title alone is just wonderful. It's called Bacon Death by
Marcia Patterson. "The author was a totally nondescript young woman except for the
look of anguish on her face. She handed me this fantastically greasy book and fled
the library in terror. The book actually looked like a pound of bacon. I was going
to open it and see what it was about, but I changed my mind. I didn't know whether
to fry the book or put it on the shelf. Being a librarian here is sometimes a
Todd first read The Abortion when it came out in the early '70s. A
friend of his gave it to him with a little inscription that said, "This book will
change your life."
And that turned out to be more than prophetic.
He ended up reading it about once a year for the next 15 years.
And every time I'd read it, I'd get the same feeling from it. First thing I would
say to myself is, when is somebody going to build this library? When is somebody
going to do this? To eventually becoming, when am I going to do this?
A real life library for unpublished books submitted by their authors. A home for
anything anyone felt a burning need to express, or explain, or somehow get off their
chests. Todd dreamed for years about one day creating a place like that. And there
was clearly a desire for it.
In The Abortion, Brautigan gives an address for his fictional library.
3150 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, California, 94115, which is the real life
address of the Presidio branch of the San Francisco Public Library. So for a while,
people were actually sending their unpublished manuscripts there and had to be
informed, this is not that kind of library. This is a normal kind of library
Anyway, Todd kept putting off his dream, thinking, I'll put that library together
someday. And then two things happened, the first one being very tragic.
My sister died in a plane crash . . .
Oh, my God.
. . . in 1989. This was the United DC-10 that went down in Sioux City, Iowa. So
losing a sibling is one of those things that really causes you to look at the things
that you've done in your life and ask yourself, are these really the best things I
can be doing right now? And so at any rate, about a month and a half or two months
after the crash, I thought, you know what? I need to just get away from this
constant sorrow here and take myself to the movies.
And there was this movie that had come out earlier that year that Todd hadn't seen
yet, a Kevin Costner vehicle about an Iowa farmer who plows up his corn to build a
(WHISPERING) If you build it, he will come.
So I went to see Field of Dreams, and about halfway into that film, it
became really obvious to me that Brautigan's library is my baseball field. If I
build it, people will come.
It wasn't even before the movie was over that that struck you?
Yeah. Yeah, as soon as that part of the film started to unfold, I was just astounded
at the parallel. I was like, this is weird. I felt literally as if I'm supposed to
be sitting here right now watching this. This is all part of a big plan.
Which, if you remember, is exactly the way Kevin Costner's character felt in the
And I'm not a person that gets too caught up in the metaphysical aspects of life.
But when I stepped outside the theater afterward, I just . . .
I feel it as strongly as I've ever felt anything in my life.
I'd never felt so sure about anything in my life.
Todd immediately started calling around, putting a board of advisors together,
appealing for funding. It took about half a year. And then finally . . .
And around here on the side is our entrance.
. . . the library opened its doors in Burlington, Vermont in 1990. This tape is from
a BBC Radio story that aired a few years in. Todd led the producers past The Vermont
Institute of Massage Therapy . . .
And here we are.
. . . to a modest wooden building, outfitted with comfy chairs and shelves for the
books. A swinging placard out front said, in capital letters . . .
The Brautigan Library.
And underneath that, the words, "A Very Public Library."
Now it's one thing to adapt a piece of fiction into a movie. It's another thing to
adapt a piece of fiction into a library. As soon as they started talking about how
The Brautigan Library would work in real life, Todd and his advisors and volunteers
realized that they were going to need to make some concessions, such as whereas in
the novel, there's just one librarian, in real life, there were many. All volunteer,
and none of them lived there. Certainly never impregnated anyone there, or not to
And unlike in the novel, the books were almost exclusively submitted by mail. And
the authors had to kick in a little money, $25 or so, to cover the cost of binding
their manuscripts. And people actually came to read the books, from all over the
I was sitting there one day, and a couple comes in the front door. And they
announce, we're here! And I said, well, welcome. Where are you from? And this couple
had flown from Houston for the weekend, specifically to hang out in The Brautigan
Library for a couple of days.
And we had many of those.
Probably because of the barrage of media stories about the library. New York
Times, Wall Street Journal, a wire story that got picked up
by hundreds of papers across the country. Everyone treated it as a quirky human
interest story. The first and, at the time, only library for unpublished books,
which started off as a piece of make-believe in a weirdo novel written 20 years
There was a ledger the librarians used, but they didn't write down descriptions of
the books that came in. Rather they wrote down descriptions of the people that came
in. This is from that BBC story.
This is March 20, '93. "A man stopped by from Washington. 'Is this the library?' he
asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'It's The Brautigan.' 'What's a Brautigan? Is it the city
library?' I told him it was a home for unpublished manuscripts.
'Why?' he asked. 'So they can stay alive, and people can read them,' I said. He
wasn't impressed. 'Where's the real library?' he wanted to know. 'Same street, three
blocks up.' He left."
A lot of people have asked that question—why? And over the years, Todd has
tended to give a pretty short and well-honed answer, almost like an artist
statement. In fact, he used almost exactly the same words with the BBC producers in
1993, as he did with me in 2018.
The beauty of it is that it doesn't make sense. For me, one of the beauties of this
whole thing was that it didn't make any sense.
It was illogical.
Just like in Field of Dreams, where he says, I have done something
Right. Right. Oh, yeah.
I have just created something totally illogical.
That's what I like about it.
It's what I liked about Todd's library, and it's what I'd always loved about the
library in the novel, the fictional one. It wasn't just illogical. It was
impossible. And I loved sitting with the librarian in that impossible place,
surrounded by books that only he and the people who wrote them knew about.
So for someone to transform an imaginary magical place I loved into an actual
location I could maybe visit one day, it was like finding out there was a real life
chocolate factory, like the one Charlie visited, or a wardrobe that opened up unto a
forest with talking animals in it.
But there was something else, something stranger, that The Brautigan Library had in
common with Field of Dreams. The story goes like this. In 1991, about a
year after the library opened, the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle asked Todd
if he wanted to set up a mini version of the library at the festival, an exhibit. So
Todd, his wife, and about 100 of the books they'd amassed up to that point got on a
plane, flew out there, and set up shop in this indoor event space.
And so first day at the exhibit, I'm showing people around. And this gentleman walks
up to me, and puts out his hand, and says, Hi, I'm Bill Kinsella, the author of
Shoeless Joe, the book Field of Dreams was based on.
No way. No way.
And I was just dumbfounded. I said, you have no idea how wildly fantastic it is that
you are here right now. I said, if you hadn't have written that, I might never have
stepped up to the plate and really done this.
You just said, "stepped up to the plate."
It just so happened that Bill Kinsella, or WP Kinsella is what it says on his book
jackets, was a featured speaker at Bumbershoot that year.
And he said, well. He said, I've got one for you. Were it not for Richard Brautigan,
I would never have written that book.
In fact, he said I would never have gotten into being a fiction writer, were it not
for Richard Brautigan.
This is the part of the story that when I tell it to people, their eyes get really
wide. The part where one twin in a fairy tale figures out why she's been wearing
half a locket around her neck the entire time. Todd hadn't known it, but no other
writer had as much of an impact on Kinsella's life and career as Richard Brautigan.
In 1985, Kinsella published a book of weird, vignettey short stories that he called
his Brautigans. He dedicated the collection to Richard Brautigan, including, in the
dedication, a fan letter he'd written to Brautigan, in which he said, quote, "I have
just written a novel about a man who drives from Iowa to New Hampshire, kidnaps J.
D. Salinger, and takes him to a baseball game at Fenway Park." He was talking about
Shoeless Joe. That was part of the plot.
[NOTE: Michell Burns adds some interesting details. "I just listened to the episode
about [The Brautigan Library] on This American Life yesterday, and I
was struck with the coincidences surrounding William Kinsella and Brautigan's work.
I am in the middle of teaching The Catcher in the Rye to my 10th grade
students. Today, while re-reading the book, for the 100th time, I noticed that there
is a character in the book named Richard Kinsella. He is one of the boys Holden went
to school with, and Holden is remembering him while recounting his failure in Oral
Expression class to Mr. Antolini (chapter 24). I know that Kinsella writes about
kidnapping J.D. Salinger in Field of Dreams, and that is the story that
inspired The Brautigan Library. It is all full circle. I just noticed it, and
thought I would share.
— Michell Burns, email to The Librarian, 2 Jan. 2019]
And so you're both kind of shocked. I'm imagining two shocked men.
Yeah, right. [LAUGHING] I was like, perhaps someway or other, Brautigan himself is
playing some sort of role in all this. That we're like marionettes, and he's up
there just with a great big smile on his face, just having a blast, messing with the
Or haunting it somehow, like he was saying, playfully, better not forget me. I
wanted to talk with Bill Kinsella for this story, but he died in 2016 on September
16, the same day Richard Brautigan had died in 1984. Both of them chose that day to
end their lives. Kinsella was terminally ill and opted for doctor-assisted suicide,
which is legal now in Canada, where he's from. Brautigan shot himself with a
The Brautigan Library chugged along in its original location for about six years.
But as Todd once wrote in an issue of the library newsletter, reality can be so
clankingly real at times. By 1996, fewer and fewer manuscripts were coming in. Money
was tight. Here and there, Todd had to make ends meet with funds from his own bank
And finally, the entire Brautigan Library was moved to a room in the Fletcher Free
Library, the regular public library down the road in Burlington. It stopped
accepting new books but people could still come and read the ones that existed. 10
years went by, and then the Fletcher Library decided it needed the space for other
things. So all The Brautigan Library books, more than 300 of them, found themselves
shrink wrapped on a wooden pallet in Todd Lockwood's basement.
And this is the moment in the library's history when I first heard about it. I've
been wanting to tell the story and see the books for myself for about 10 years. But
way back when Todd and I started talking about this, he said he needed to wait, that
he was in negotiations with a couple of academic libraries that might be interested,
couldn't do an interview until something was finalized, et cetera and so on.
Certainly the books weren't available to look at. I said I'd keep checking in, but I
And then this past summer, I started thinking about the library again. So I looked
it up, and the library had finally found a new home in Vancouver, Washington, about
3,000 miles away from where it was born.
Watch your head here, low ceiling.
And it had a new librarian, John Barber, a professor at one of the universities in
town. He led me down into the basement of the Clark County Historical Museum.
And here it is, The Brautigan Library.
These are all the manuscripts.
Oh, my gosh.
Come to find, the manuscripts have been housed in this building since 2010, and John
Barber was instrumental in making that happen. If there's such a thing as a
Brautigan scholar, it's him. He may know more about Richard Brautigan than anyone
else alive. He was a student of Brautigan's and hung out with him.
So naturally, he was a big supporter of the library from early on. And when the
library shut down, he was sad to think of all the books being mothballed in Todd's
basement. Until finally, he just got inspired and organized to have them all moved
to this place. And he's taken on the mantle of the librarian.
Also, I should say, Richard Brautigan once told me that he would haunt me.
Wait, he said, I will haunt you?
This was in 1982, two years before Brautigan killed himself. Brautigan's friend,
Nikki Arai, had just died of complications from cancer.
And I said, you have your memories of her. You could write about those memories.
You're a writer. That's what you do. And he said, I don't write for therapy, and
actually got really upset with me. Then he said, but then again—and he turned
and walked away. And he came back after a few minutes with a little slip of paper,
on which he had written, "Where you are now, I will join you soon."
After dinner and another bottle of whiskey, they went out to the yard and burned the
note in a kind of ritual to send those words to Brautigan's friend.
And I went home that night—slowly because of all the whiskey—and wrote
about that experience. And I showed it to him, and he said, if you ever show this to
anybody before I'm dead, I will haunt you. And I did. And he does.
After all, John, for all intents and purposes, now inhabits a physical manifestation
of an idea Brautigan had in his head. And what's a little startling when you meet
John is that he is the librarian from the novel. Like he's just like him. His
clothes are not expensive but friendly and neat, and his human presence welcoming.
Yes, we look an awful lot alike. Tall, mustache, glasses.
He's reflexively polite and effusive. I had all three meals with him the day we
spent together. And each time, he said to the server, in all earnestness, "Thank you
for your hospitality." Same as when the museum's director let us in early before it
Thanks so much for accommodating us.
It's much smaller than I imagined somehow.
Well, there's that, certainly. There's 300-plus manuscripts that are associated with
the library. So we might actually say that it's small but mighty. Because each of
these 300-plus manuscripts that we're standing in the middle of has dreams, and
aspirations, memories, and hopes for the future associated with it.
In fact, it's just two long sets of bookshelves at one end of the museum's research
library. And all of the books have the same plain black, brown, gray, or blue
bindings. The host of that BBC piece said they looked like body bags for whatever
was inside of them. I really wonder how many of them were ever read cover to cover.
I wanted to see if being in the library gave me the same feeling I had as when I
read The Abortion. And I have to say more and more, it really did feel
like I had climbed into the pages of that novel, with its messy expanse of humanity
marching through. Some of the books were silly. Others were mournfully nostalgic.
Still others were deadly serious.
Enjoy the War, Peace will be Terrible.
Which is about the lives of two teen girls in World War II Vienna. Others promoted
Three Essays Advocating the Abolishing of Money.
Almost 50 poetry collections. I opened up one called I'd Be Your Roadkill,
Baby. The poetry reading.
"He greased me with his words . . ." oh! OK, I can't say that on the radio.
Instead of using Dewey Decimal, the books are organized according to what they call
the Mayonnaise System. It's a Brautigan in-joke. He ended Trout Fishing in
America with the word "mayonnaise." And it goes by category. So there's
adventure, family, future, humor, love, meaning of life, poetry, natural world,
social, political, cultural, spirituality . . .
street life, war and peace, and my favorite, all the rest.
There's always the miscellaneous drawer, right? Where something is just too offbeat
to fit in.
And instead of the summaries being in a big library contents ledger, there's a
summary printed out on the first page of each book. Of course, almost all of the
books are offbeat. Like this is the summary of a novel called Did She Leave Me
It says, "A philosophical comedy about men, money, motivation, winning strategies,
architecture, nudism, trucking, corporate assassinations, heart attacks, sexual
politics, hometown parades, spiritual warriors, and the dredging of Willapa Bay."
This is something a bunch of the books have in common. It's like their authors are
gushing forth with everything they've been wanting to talk about their whole lives.
And with a lot of them, there's this sense of, this is important. I alone have the
answer. Just like with a lot of the books in Brautigan's novel. For instance,
there's the most prolific contributor to The Brautigan Library, Albert E. Helzner.
He's got 19 books here, three under an assumed name. And they're mostly comprised of
his own personal scientific theories and observations. Titles like A
Revolutionary Way of Looking at the Earth as a Planet, or, more to the
point, The World is Wrong. The only way I can think to describe
it—and I do so admiringly—it's like PhD-level stoner thinking.
Everything and everyone in the Helzner-verse is interconnected and impactful.
In his book, October 6, 1990, Helzner said that every year on October
6, he'd go to the maternity ward of a hospital, look at a newborn baby through the
glass, and ask himself, how did this birth come about? What is the long-range
effect? And what is the significance of any birth? Addressing the baby he went to
see in 1990, he says he wants to tell her what transpired on the day before she was
"I spent the whole day thinking about you," he writes. "On that day, the moon was
shining on my town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. It was a bright full moon sitting
in a clear sky. My wife and I drove to Seaside 5 Corners for a bite to eat. We saw
the moon as we drove along. We saw the old buildings. You'll see the same moon and
the same old buildings when you grow up."
Albert Helzner died in June 2016, but his books are still at the library. God knows
where that baby is now.
I asked John if there were any books in particular that he wanted to show me. And he
was really enthusiastic about this one that he thought gave a sense of what the
library was there for. It's called . . .
Autobiography about a Nobody. And it's written by Etherley Murray of
Pittman, New Jersey. And she may have said, oh look, here's a library that accepts
manuscripts, regardless of subject matter.
I'm a nobody. They'll be interested.
It's mainly the story of her growing up during the Depression in Altoona,
Pennsylvania, eating onion sandwiches and, quote, "wearing coats that belonged to
women who had just departed this life." Except it was in the humor article,
intentionally so. There's a cartoon horse in a red union suit on the title page,
tears cascading from behind its blinders.
She says, in the notes that came along with the submission, that she had submitted
it to 40 publishers, who, although they liked the story, did not publish manuscripts
In Brautigan's novel, a guy in his 50s walks into the library with a book he wrote
when he was 17. "'This book has set the world's record for rejections,' he says. 'It
has been rejected 459 times, and now I am an old man.'"
You know, there'd be a sense of completion, for one thing.
This is Todd Lockwood again, the founder of the library.
And we heard this from numerous writers that sent us works. After their book had
been in the collection for a while, we'd hear back from them, hear back from writers
who would say, wow, this really is a weight off. I just feel like the project is
done finally. Even though it technically was finished, it's the fact that it's
sitting on a shelf in a public place, where someone that that person doesn't know
will cross paths with that book, and take it off the shelf, and perhaps read it.
That sort of completes the circle, and I can get on to the next thing.
It's funny to think about, but in some ways, The Brautigan Library is more like the
library in the novel now than it ever has been. The books are housed in a building
that looks more like the Presidio branch. They aren't often read by anyone. And it
has one librarian, who actually is available at all hours of the day and night to
accept new books, but only digitized ones, PDFs submitted online.
But the more I think about it, it's not about how perfectly or imperfectly Todd or
John turned a fictional place into a real one. That's not the point. It's that
Richard Brautigan in his novel predicted with perfect accuracy what would happen if
you did create a library like this. That being there would give you a feeling like
you're walking down the street and noticing that everyone has a book they've made
tucked under one arm, a jumbled woolly individual transcription of how the world
feels to that person.
It's the feeling of being able to read everyone's mind for a moment and being
startled by their unedited thoughts because they're nothing like yours, but they're
just as weird. It's like the librarian says in chapter two of the novel, "There just
simply had to be a library like this."
Sean Cole, who's one of the producers of our program. . . . Today on our program,
"The Room of Requirement," we have stories of how libraries function like a
real-life version of that room in Harry Potter, the Room of Requirement. Where when
you need something, the room just makes it appear for you, just like librarians try
to do. Seriously, all over the world. Whatever your request.
Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo. The people who put our show
together includes Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Jared Floyd, Michelle Harris,
Chana Joffe-Walt, Jay Kang, David Kestenbaum, Anna Martin, Stone Nelson, Nadia
Reiman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney. Our
senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.
The reporters who went to libraries for us at the top of the show. Jude Joffe-Block
was in Phoenix. Liza Veale was in San Francisco. Rachael London was in Florida. And
our producer, Anna Martin, was at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.
Thanks today to Eric Klinenberg, who spoke about libraries as palaces for the
people. It was helpful to us as we thought about this week's show, as was Susan
Orlean's book, The Library Book.
Thanks also today to Ianthe Brautigan, William Steele, Elizabeth Jensen, William
Hartston, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, Brian Belfiglio, Annie Proulx, Marcia Popper, Brad
Richardson and everybody at the Clark County Historical Museum, Michael Fast Buffalo
Horse, Joe Rutherford, Bridgit Bowden, and Zach Goelman. Also thanks to the staffs
of the Phoenix Public Library, the Queens Public Library, the Sumter County Public
Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and the Medicine Spring Library.
Our web site, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600
episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public
radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always our program's
co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. We had the biggest fight the other day, him and me. I
told him, look, it's like you think you're God or something. He didn't deny it.
Yes, we look an awful lot alike. Tall, mustache, glasses.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.