Book 'em

If Ketchikan, Alaska, can have a $223 million bridge, can the nation's English majors score some swanky libraries?

By Garrison Keillor

Published August 17, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

Minnesota came out OK on the federal transportation bill, considering that we voted for John Kerry last year. Of course we didn't do as magnificently as Alaska did because Alaska has more unpopulated areas where you can put bridges and highways without bothering anybody, but we got some nice stuff -- a few guardrails, some reflective strips on bridge abutments, a few "Slow Children" signs, that sort of thing.

For Alaska, the Republicans earmarked $223 million for a bridge almost as long as the Golden Gate to link the town of Ketchikan (pop. 8,000) -- which is a town that exists to sell T-shirts and postcards to cruise passengers for three months a year -- to the local airport on Gravina Island, replacing a seven-minute ferry ride. Alaskans also will receive a billion-dollar two-mile-long bridge connecting Anchorage to hundreds of square miles of undeveloped wetlands, a great convenience for bird-watchers who now, instead of having to kayak across the water to observe the red-bellied grommet, can drive over in their Explorers and bring a mobile home with them.

Had Minnesota voted Republican, as Alaska wisely did, we might have gotten a canal connecting the Mississippi to Lake Superior and a high-speed rail link between Bemidji and Roseau and maybe a 10,000-foot runway at the Waseca (pop. 8,389) International Airport.

I once was a passenger in a single-engine plane flying into a little town in western Wisconsin late at night and as we descended, the pilot clicked a button on the control stick and suddenly the runway below lit up like a video game, an enormous strip of fresh asphalt outlined in bright light, and we landed and taxied to the hangars where I saw about 30 planes like ours parked. For 30 hobbyists, the federal government had installed a state-of-the-art night-landing system, and if you weren't a pilot, you might never be aware of it. You might live two miles away, with your kids in a school where music education and foreign languages have been cut from the curriculum for lack of funds, but anybody who wants to land a Cessna at 2 a.m. in an unmanned airport can do so, no problem, which must be a godsend to dope smugglers, but never mind.

There is no fighting these boondoggles and politicians know it. The stuff gets passed and signed into law and taxpayer groups fire off a barrage of press releases and a week later it's old news. The sensible thing is to fight for your own boondoggle.

I belong to an enormous special-interest group that, unlike Alaskans or hobby pilots, has never exercised much clout, and that is the English-major community. For us, the equivalent of the Gravina Island bridge is the public library equipped with leather sofas and an espresso bar and librarians who are trained in pressure-point massage. Greek columns would be nice, and a pair of stone lions, and a rare book collection and a three-story lobby with marble floors so your footsteps echo as if you were in an Edith Wharton novel. And a statue of Minerva.

I imagine that a super-library of that caliber might cost $223 million if you add in the books, the banks of computers with high-speed Internet connections, the movie theater, the Children's Room, the Steam Room, the Nap Room, the Hobnob Room where English majors can gather for a libation, the underground parking garage, and the kindly reference librarian with the bun, the faint mustache on the upper lip, the navy-blue knit dress, the sensible shoes, and the glasses on a chain around her neck. Those ladies have become rare and do not come cheap.

We English majors need a mouthpiece in Congress of the caliber of Rep. Don Young of Alaska. And we need to promote public libraries as a tool in the war against terror.

How many readers of Edith Wharton have engaged in terroristic acts? I challenge you to name one. Therefore, the reading of Edith Wharton is a proven deterrent to terror. Do we need to wait until our cities lie in smoking ruins before we wake up to the fact that a first-class public library is a vital link in national defense?

Which side is your congressman on? If we English majors would make our voices heard and flood Congress with angry sonnets, we would get a major library bill passed. I hope that Minnesota will get the first $223 million library, but if Ketchikan wants one too, fine.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)


Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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