Revisiting Dewey the beloved library cat
By Judith A. Proffer
He was the cat’s pajamas.
He cat-apulted to a feline fame dwarfed only by Morris and Garfield.
And the book chronicling his days as a small-town library cat was the meow heard around the globe.
Given a less-than-auspicious entry into a world where he would go on to captivate hearts for nearly two decades, Dewey — the wide-eyed and big-hearted library cat of Spencer, Iowa — claimed a handful of his allotted nine lives early on.
Hoisted through a library book-drop box on a 15-degrees-below-zero winter Sunday when he was just 8 weeks old, it’s uncertain whether he was cruelly abandoned or left by misguided compassion.
The itty-bitty kitten weighed all of 1 pound and sat in the cold, sealed metal box for up to 24 hours, until librarian Vicki Myron opened it and found the frostbitten waif. Falling in love at first sight, Myron facilitated an adoption by the library — sanctioned by the city council and board of trustees with the understanding that he would be declawed*, neutered, and vaccinated — and a contest that dubbed him Dewey Readmore Books.
For a town wounded by a farm crisis, the folly and friendship of a library cat was a salve. Residents dusted off library cards to pay a visit, eager to interface with a local who was beginning to receive some fame. Dewey comforted people who were suffering. He brought joy to a day that needed a little perk. And he knew just whose lap to land in when someone needed a dose of affection. Myron called it “Dewey Magic,” a charisma that “allowed him to spread his joyous, friendly, and relaxed attitude toward life to everyone he met.”
She logged his formidable legacy in the bestseller Dewey, written after the cat died peacefully at the age of 19. (His obituary appeared in over 275 newspapers, including The New York Times.) The book sold nearly a million copies and generated thousands of letters, all emphasizing the purpose and meaning that their own cats (and other animals) have brought to their lives. Even in death, Dewey continued to connect people, a testament to the power of feline friendship.
Dewey’s Nine Lives: The Legacy of the Small-Town Library Cat Who Inspired Millions was inspired by these stories. In this new book (written with Bret Witter), Myron shares nine tales of love and loss, hope and meaning, and the undisputed richness and revelry that is inherent in loving a cat, whether it’s yours or one that lives in your local library. The stories tug heartstrings, are smile worthy and a living tribute to Dewey.
While the book doesn’t necessarily beguile the way Dewey did, the effort is honest, and Myron’s love and respect for Dewey and all things cat is apparent. She tells the story of Bill Bezanson, a Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder whose life is forever changed by a petite black kitten. And Yvonne Barry, a Spencer Library patron who turned to Dewey after the loss of her beloved cat, Tobi. And seven other “life is hard, it’s complicated, and, yes, sometimes a cat makes it not only bearable but very much worth living out loud” stories.
Above all, the book validates the deep and timeless love that humans possess for their cats. One letter to Myron sums it up: “I was embarrassed to admit to myself how important these cats were in my life. Then I read your book and realized there was nothing wrong with loving an animal to the depths that I do.”
* Note: While we’re very glad that Dewey found a home at the library, Zoe does not recommend the declawing of cats.
More about library cats
The best known catalog of library cats is kept by Gary Roma of Iron Frog Productions, who maintains a map here.
Last updated in May 2009, the map recognizes 301 cats currently working and/or living in libraries worldwide, of whom 235 live in the United States, 21 in the UK, 12 in Canada, 11 in New Zealand, 11 in continental Europe, 6 in Australia, 3 in Africa and one each in Asia and Iceland.
At Wesleyan College’s Willet Memorial Library, the official cat is Libris, who took over from his predecessor, Squeakers, who passed away in 2008. According to the Wesleyan website, “697 cats have been recorded as official library cats. Of the 573 on record in the US, 383 have passed away after serving their institutions well, 32 are permanent cats-in-residence, 22 have been immortalized as statues, five are virtual eCats, four are stuffed mascots and one haunts a reference room as a ghost. All can be reached by e-mail.”
Reggie, the cat-in-residence at the Bryant Public Library in Sauk, Minnesota inspired librarian Phyllis Lahti to found The Library Cat Society in 1987. She authored an anthology about library cats: Cats, Librarians, and Libraries: Essays for and About the Library Cat Society. The book is out of print, but is referenced in the article Library Cats by Nancy Marano.
A history of library cats can be found here.
Judith A. Proffer is Vice-Chair of Meteor 17 and founder of Magpye Media/Huqua Press. Former publisher of LA Weekly, she was owner and editor of Sun Community Newspapers and is writing her first book, “How to Love Your Dog.” She lives in California with two remarkable pugs.