Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In the interest of libraries

When I was little, we didn't live far from where the small public library sat at the big bend in the road on the main street in town. On Saturdays, my mom and I would take the short trip to switch out read books for unread ones. Mom would disappear leaving me to one of my few moments of complete freedom to search and discover whatever I wanted. When the right adventures were gathered into a stack, I'd put my selections on the counter with the help of a wooden footstool and watch as the librarian stamped the little card in the back with the date the books were to be returned. I felt so grown up being trusted to choose what I liked best and having my own library card. It was the beginning of independence! Just a taste of the freedoms to come!

Sadly, I can hardly remember which books I checked out besides one series, which I devoured. I suspect I remember the series because there were so many volumes, but whatever the reason, I have distinct memories of walking three shelves back from the front door down an aisle on the right where a row of white spines sat just low enough for me to reach:

Choose Your Own Adventure. To me, these books were amazing. They could be read multiple times through with a million different plot lines and endings. Yes, they're cheesy and ridiculous and gimmicky, but in kid language, that just means they're really entertaining. I almost always chose the wrong ending. In fact, I don't know if I ever had a happy ending without cheating. But it didn't matter because just like when it came to checking out books, the choice was mine.
I have an entire room in my brain dedicated to memories from elementary school, many of which happened in the school library. There was the after school reading club called Junior Great Books and the Scholastic fairs where I never had enough money to buy all I wanted and the Christmas store where I got my mom those tiny glass angels with bells in their skirts and those few minutes we were allowed to check out books to take home each week. All wonderful memories! But looking back, I find my favorite moments to be those when we gathered in the reading circle. Inside the library to the right of the door was a high wall which hid a tiny amphitheater of carpeted steps where our class would file in and sit down in front of the librarian who sat in a chair at the bottom of the steps and read aloud from a book she'd chosen for us. And guess what. We actually listened. Because the books were really good and she was really good at reading them. I loved hearing her read. In those few minutes, I was taken away from history and spelling and geography and red smiley face stamps and science projects and minute-math quizzes and annoying boys and everything else that made my brain hurt. I entered another world.

For some reason, of all the books she must have read to us, the book I have the most clear memories of hearing in the reading circle is one I called my favorite for many years after. I think that's because, like all books I end up loving, it was melancholy. It didn't matter to me that the author was a creative genius. What did I care? All I knew was, it was a very good story:

The second most memorable book was usually only read briefly if there was extra time before reading circle was finished. Thank goodness for our librarian's sense of humor because without it we may never have heard the irreverent poetry or seen the slightly disturbing illustrations of a man called Shel:

I was recently reminded of these memories (and many more grownup library experiences) after hearing about libraries being threatened with closure in the UK. It's been such a big issue that Pullman put a word in (he makes a terrific speech) along with lots of other famous and unfamous folks. Save the libraries, they're saying. And I'd say the same thing if our libraries were at risk because, as you've seen, I have lovely and tender memories of going to the library as a child. But as wonderful as those thoughts are, I wonder, if it were my library being threatened, would I actually go check out a book?

See, there's a small gas station not too far from our house. They sell hotdogs and produce and gas, and the place looks like some guy's garage from the outside. Recently, while passing this neighborhood icon, someone started a conversation about how they're to build a fancy new gas station, a BP or something, a few hundred yards away. When I heard this news, I made a passionate speech about how awful it was that the big guys were coming in and would push out the neighborhood store. I said many things I won't take back but can't quite remember now. Just know that it was all very high and mighty.

The only problem is, I've never actually been to the neighborhood store. Never. In six whole years. So why do I care? If I don't support the local store, why do I make a huge speech about it? You know why. Because of nostalgia and ideals and fighting the man and blah blah blah. But talk doesn't mean anything or do anything. Action does. If I really cared, I'd at least stop and buy a pack of gum, wouldn't I?

I'm not saying people shouldn't get on the bandwagon when the time is right or that people aren't allowed to decide they love something once it's threatened with death. That's perfectly human. Good for us for having the right to come to realizations and change our minds and act. I'm just saying, do act. Act before it's down to the wire if you can, but if you can't, then at least act in the final hour. Because libraries are really and truly worth fighting for. They're just sitting there waiting to serve you, to bring you adventure and knowledge. They quite literally exist to broaden your mind. For free! Think how rare that is! Libraries provide moments of discovery and individualism and revelation and freedom. There aren't a lot of places that do that for us and there aren't a lot of those moments given to us freely in life. So, go. Check out a book. Join a reading group. Take your kids to story time. Volunteer to shelve books or sweep the entryway. Research. Read. Imagine. Be free.
"All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted . . . what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what's going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book . . . And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?" ~ Philip Pullman