The other day, Matt Bell posted a nice status update about a childhood library experience, and it quickly become clear from the comments that followed how much libraries shaped our literary childhoods–well, at least for those of us of a certain age. I remembered my elementary school librarian’s kindness, and that warm memory triggered the released of many more, all relating to libraries past. Because remember how important libraries used to be? Before we had (and then didn’t) big box bookstores? Before we had the internet? If you were like me – and I suspect many of you were – then you spent vast swaths of your formative years searching for treasure on the shelves of your school library or your local library or your college library. You spent hours curled up in the big comfy chairs they used to have there, or sprawled on the floor for story time, or, later, using those study rooms for something very much other than studying. (You know you did. Don’t even pretend.)
You maybe fell in love for the first time at the library: with the shapes and sounds of words, the dusty whoosh of old book covers opening like a magic box, the hushed quiet that seemed to evoke a kind of prayerful reverence. If you’re like me, you fell in love with books at the library and books returned your love in gallons. Or rather, in volumes and quartos and encyclopedias and old maps and slick art books and soft, worn paperbacks. You and I, we’re still in love with books thanks to libraries.
Those of you who read me here, or over at my own blog, probably know that I don’t tend to share a lot about my own life. I think it’s cool when other people do, but I’m a fairly private person so it’s just not for me. But because it’s fall, and Friday, and because I’m feeling very nostalgic today, I’d like to share a few memories of libraries. After the post, I’d love for you to share yours, too. It feels like that kind of day.
I learned to read when I was four. My parents bought a bunch of Dick and Jane books at a yard sale and taught me to read, mostly because I wouldn’t nap (I’ve never napped in my life) and so they wanted me to be able to quietly entertain myself for an hour or so. It worked. But by the time I went to school, I was bored out of my gourd with picture books. I wanted to read the big kid books. My first grade teacher kept us in the picture book section, but my school librarian noticed how bored I was and when she found out why, she gave me special permission to visit the big kids section of the library and borrow books from there. (This may not sound like much, but it was the COOLEST THING EVER when I was six years old.)
It’s not too much to say that my life opened up that day and became something entirely different, more expansive, full of possibility and feedback and the noise of the whole entire universe. I read Amelia-Bedelia, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, the Narnia books, Susan Cooper’s Under Sea Over Stone series (and then everything else she wrote), Diana Wynne Jones’ available books, the Wrinkle in Time series, The Hobbit, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The Borrowers, Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books, E.L Konigsburg’s books, Sideways Stories, Daniel Pink’s crazy novels, the Ramona books, all the Shoes books for girls, the Encyclopedia Brown books, the Doctor Doolittle books, Charlotte’s Web, the Gorey-illustrated John Bellairs books, The Phantom Tollbooth, The February Towers, Hans Christian Anderson’s stories, and everything Ellen Raskin wrote. And many, many more. My elementary school library years were kind of like a baby’s first year, when they learn a million things about the sensory world around them–except that mine was a giant working of the imagination. I was finding out how the brain could wrap itself around everything that existed and some things that had never existed at all, and could paint the world in pages and hand it to you in a book.
When I was in fifth or sixth grade, Omaha (where I was growing up) got a brand new library and my brother I were either there or at the swimming pool everyday in the summer. It was this huge, vast white building, very modern and filled with books. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. There were all these fancy corrals that had headphones for this new fangled “audiobooks” thing that had just been invented. (I am old.) And that was neat, but the best thing about that library was just the overwhelming, giant expanse of shelves filled with books, books, books on everything you could possibly imagine. It was that summer, and the following years, that I become interested in four things: history, sci-fi, horror and sex. I read every history book about everything I could get my hands on. I read all the Ray Bradbury and Asimov I could get my hands on. I read all the Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and V.C. Andrews I could get my hands on. And I discovered the most brilliant thing ever: historical bodice rippers. My favorite was Victoria Holt. They weren’t quite romance novels, but man, those books were the trashiest things ever. I read every single one of them again and again, and then I’d read the Lord of the Rings and then I’d go back and read another trashy Victoria Holt. That library had these big giant plush chairs that I’d sit curled up in for hours and hours, reading Dune or The Dark Tower. I think now about how much time I had to read then, how many books my hungry mind would devour in a single day, and I am in awe and in jealousy. I want to be that kid again, just to have that time and single focus and total lack of outside concerns, job, family obligations, etc. That was an amazing thing and it’s even more amazing to think how much we took it for granted, this gift of time. I’d pay a lot of money for it now.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my family moved to Madison, early in the summer, which totally sucked because I had no opportunity to make friends since school was already out. So instead I walked to the local library every day, checked out books, and laid on a lawn chair in our backyard and read. (Unfortunately this was before people knew how dumb tanning was. Yay.) I wasn’t sure what to read and I was tired of all the horror books and sci-fi by then. I wanted to read “great books,” whatever that meant. The librarian, who (horrifying thought) was probably the age I am now but seemed impossibly middle-aged, made me lists. She sent me off to the theatre section (because I’d already decided I was going to be an actress) and told me which Shakespeare to read. She told me about the Bronte sisters and Dickens and Jane Austen. When she found out I liked horror movies and books, she pointed me to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In that same library, I also found Steinbeck and Mark Twain and Orwell, and Marquez and Salinger. I found great books, books that I still love today, and books that were roadmaps and markers pointing the way to still more great literature that would eventually make me a writer. The library, and librarian, saved my summer. That summer, lonely though it was, was also special because it was to be my last free summer. The year after I got my first job at a fast food joint and I hung out with friends and had school activities in my free time, and ever since I’ve never had a free summer to read and read and read, never again. I suppose not until I retire.
There were other libraries, too; I loved the UW-Madison library where I felt like a grown up pulling French history books to do my research on the French Revolution in high school. My dad was an adjunct there so he could check out the books for me and I felt so cool because of that. I loved how old the books were, how I couldn’t read the French but felt like it was a secret code I might read someday, how the shelves hid the books until you pushed a button and they magically expanded to let you inside the stacks.
Of course, I went to college when the internet was in its infancy, and before cell phones were ubiquitous, so the library was still the most important and central place on campus. We spent a lot of time there in those quiet, musty stacks, sitting at the tables, notebooks spread out everywhere and studying. (Or sometimes in those little private study rooms, the ones you needed the key for, not-studying.) There was a little place at my university’s library that hardly anyone knew about: a little recessed window on an upper floor that looked out over the campus and was almost hidden from view. I used to sit in there and read for hours, reading Beckett and Ionesco or Derrida and Foucault or Shelley and Keats or Plato and Heidegger or Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. And sometimes, when I was supposed to be reading these guys, I’d be reading graphic novels or thumbing through art books or ‘zines instead. I remember the bathroom was right next to this alcove, but on the other side of a thick wall and series of columns, so every once in a while you’d hear a faint flush that would bring you back to the world with the earthiest of reminders.
I haven’t been to the library very much in the last few years. I’ve spent more hours than I can count at bookstores, but I just haven’t had a need to go to the library. And libraries just aren’t the same. In grad school, I had to spend a fair amount of time at the library but used to avoid it like the plague because everyone, EVERYONE was on their cell phone having loud conversations. There were signs posted, but no one seemed to notice or care but me. I felt old and sad. I try to go to the library sometimes now, but the libraries in D.C. smell like pee and are full of homeless people and have no books. Well, there’s one library that has lots of books, but it’s far away from me (kind of; you know how you get when you live in the city) and has the most homeless people of all. (I’m not opposed to a few quiet homeless people in the library, but getting harassed for food and money or other, weirder things does not make for a peaceful reading experience. )
I miss the library. I wouldn’t be a reader, or a writer, without it. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. But is it the same? Or maybe now that big box bookstores are going away (some anyway) will libraries come back? Will they be the same in the age of e-books? (And I like the idea of borrowing books on my Kindle in the library, by the way–the books themselves are lovely and aesthetically pleasing but I am by no means opposed to e-books.) I know a lot of libraries are in trouble or closing or closed because they rely on public money that isn’t there anymore.
What about you? Memories? Thoughts? Did you grow up with libraries? Where do you think they’ve gone and where do you think they’re going? Though I’m agnostic, I’ve always secretly hoped, like Borges, that “Paradise will be a kind of library.” Like the end of that Twilight Zone episode but with an endless supply of glasses. Do you hope so, too?