The Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, a building of pale concrete and greenish glass, rises four stories in midtown Memphis. Walking through its automatic doors on a weekday afternoon, I hear unexpected sounds, muffled but unmistakable, almost shocking in a library context: the deep, quaking bass beats of Memphis hip-hop, plus a faint whine of power tools cutting through metal.
It’s difficult to summarize the myriad changes taking place in American public libraries, but one thing is certain. Libraries are no longer hushed repositories of books.
Here at the Central branch in Memphis, ukulele flash mobs materialize and seniors dance the fox trot in upstairs rooms. The library hosts U.S. naturalization ceremonies, job fairs, financial literacy seminars, jazz concerts, cooking classes, film screenings and many other events—more than 7,000 at last count.
You can check out books and movies, to be sure, but also sewing machines, bicycle repair kits and laptop computers. And late fees? A thing of the past.
In early April, when my husband, Neil, and I had both secured vaccine appointments, he suggested a road trip.
He had been fixing up a sporty old car — one of his many pandemic sanity projects — and wanted to put it to the test, driving it from our home in Chicago to a serpentine stretch of road called Tail of the Dragon, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina state line.
At the same time, I had been thinking about how much I would love to see a couple of friends in North Carolina, a state I had never visited. And why not add places we had been meaning to explore to the list? Nashville, Louisville, and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park rounded out the itinerary, and our first trip since December 2019 started coming together.
The Manhattan Project, the program that developed the first nuclear weapons during World War II, worked out of three purpose-built cities in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington state. A new exhibition considers their design and legacy.