Dewey, The Small Town Library Cat that Harnessed The Secret Of Man’s Red Flower, Amongst Other Things
Being who I am and doing what I do for a living I was slightly surprised not to receive a copy of ‘Dewey, The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched The World’ for Christmas in 2009. It’s a book about a cat! That lives in a library! That touches lives! Come ON family, get with the programme!
Fortunately, every single other library practitioner in the world did, including three of the women I work with, so I got to read this massive bestseller eventually last week.
What can I say? This is the true life story of Dewey Readmore Books (awwww), found as a kitten on the coldest night of the year (of course) in the book bin of Spencer Public Library in Iowa and subsequently adopted by the staff and patrons there.
Written by Dewey’s ‘Mom’, library director Vicki Myron, this isn’t so much the story of the cat as the story of the town. Spencer is a typical small town, serving the farming community of Iowa. Being a bit of a Midwest nut (if you haven’t already, read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, in fact read anything by Jane Smiley as she is phenomenal) I found the history of the town and the community fascinating and uplifting, if a little ‘big society’ for my commune-lovin’ tastes.
The book starts in the late 80s, when times were incredibly hard for Spencer, and shows how the community pulls together to shape the town into a place they can be proud of, and sees off Evil Big Business on more than one occasion to maintain the ‘Mom and Pop’ ethos of the Iowa spirit. The book also describes Myron’s often tragically sad history of illness and coping with an alcoholic husband, and the, to me, alien world of growing up in a small farm in the 50s. I loved these aspects of the book, flew through them and instantly wanted to read more about the American Midwest and its people.
Unfortunately however, this book was mostly about a cat.
Now its not that I don’t like cats. I do. I have several friends with cats I love to visit, cat-sitting is always fun. I’m allergic to their fleas, which isn’t a great thing to be allergic to as any bites do result in scarring but other than that, me and cats get along fine.
Not being able to massively relate to the outpourings of love for this one animal that, at the end of the day , is a cat behaving like cats behave, did make me feel a little bit like a heartless cow. Seriously the way the woman describes how amazing Dewey is, how he ‘touched’ so many BY BEHAVING LIKE A CAT, how handsome and clever and distinguished and wonderful and superlative and another superlative and you know what, just for fun another fucking superlative with knobs on she might as well have been using the cat as a masturbatory aid for a great percentage of the book. Every single chapter, no matter what it was describing, ended with a schmaltzy reference to some remarkable feet that Dewey performed.
Dewey lives in the library and behaves like a cat, but because people respond to cute fluffy things, and Dewey, being a cat, responded back, somehow he became a celebrity and the town was saved. The library increased in standing in the community (because clearly the library that was providing a great service before could never have done it without A CAT). People travelled from all over the world to see Dewey, a cat, and give him cat toys. Dewey resurrected the relationship between Myron and her daughter. If Dewey had actually stood for Governor in Iowa, he probably would have won, and saved the world accordingly, if this book is anything to go by.
This annoyed me so much because apart from what it was about this was a great book! Parts were really well written, accessible and informative, why spoil it with stock lines like “Dewey was one more reason to love this hardy little town on the Iowa plains”. Some propaganda lines were so shamelessly inserted as to ruin whole chapters. Why include lines like “the heartland isn’t just a place in the middle of the country; it’s also the place in the middle of your chest”, which made me burst out laughing, in the middle of an important chapter on Spencer’s development?
Because this book is designed for a specific purpose; to make you cry, and thereby make the publishers money. Did I cry at the ending? Of course I did, a tiny bit, the same way I cry at anything with a soppy ending. But they were brief, ‘awww what a lov-er-ly story’ tears, brought on by a combination of schmaltz and a hormonal reaction to wuffy kittens. Not the endless, endless sobs I cried at the end of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, nor the fearful bitter hold-back-the-flood at Never Let Me Go. If I hadn’t enjoyed mocking this book so much I probably wouldn’t have finished it, and this makes me the worst kind of book snob and for that I am ashamed.
Millions of people have read and loved this book. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place. But it’s a book about a cat, when it should have been a book about a town, and that is a real, real shame.