One of the few compensations of being a four-eyed girl was the knee-jerk assumption on the part of others that I was bookish. And I was. By the time I got glasses at the age of eight—when a compulsory eye exam at school revealed to my overworked parents that I was nearsighted as a bat—I had been devouring books for three years. No wonder I loved libraries from the get-go.
Not that we didn’t have a few resources at home. One of the very few valuable items my parents invested in when I was a young child was a set of encyclopedias. Diving randomly into a volume was, for me, as engrossing as surfing the Internet on an iPad is to a child today. The only other place one could get access to so many fascinating words and stories was through the periodic delivery of cheap but entertaining Scholastic Books at school, or . . . the library.
When I think of libraries, the first one to come to mind is the two-story converted house on dusty Eva Street in Sunnyslope Arizona in the early 1960s. It was probably a much smaller house than I remember, but walking up the front curved staircase to the second floor made me feel I was a guest at a country manor with rooms of hidden delights. Indeed, the stacks where I hunkered down pulling books from the crammed shelves were just that: vast chambers where my imagination took flight. On Eva Street I discovered my first Arabian Knights, endless books about ballet, early historical fiction—one I remember is The Oregon Trail—stories from different lands, and biographies for youngsters. It never mattered to me that I’d have to trudge home balancing my load of six or seven or eight books. That one could take as many books as one could carry—and for free!—was more license than a child could hope for.
Other libraries came and went. By high school the public ones were cleaner but rather institutional brick-and-mortar buildings. By then I was mixing more serious fiction (the English and American classics) with Gothic Romance: Victoria Holt’s Mistress of Mellyn (the classic governess-falls-for-the-master-of-the-house tale) was one I reread a dozen times. To balance that frivolity, I remember checking out Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Libraries are nothing if not pluralistic.
Then there was the vast Carl Hayden Library at Arizona State University in the late 1970s, where I struggled with the Dewey Decimal system to find texts on Spanish literary greats and Latin American politics. And the narrow, secluded stacks in the back of the building on the top floor of the campus library at Beppu Daigaku (University) a decade later, where I had no competition checking out the works in English of one Japanese master after another: Mishima Yukio’s heartrendingly simple tale, The Sound of Waves; Kawabata Yasunari ‘s Snow Country and The Old Capital; Oliver Statler’s delightful history, Japanese Inn.
I still love libraries today. For a decade or so, Borders and Barnes and Noble stole me away, but before long both chains betrayed their original promise, revealing their insensible, market-driven hearts of mud. Navigating paths through Star Wars toys and shelves of YA Hunger Games knock-offs does not, for this reader, make for a positive book-browsing experience. And though I turn to Amazon from time to time, it’s the library that calls me, with its quiet shelves of books, its diversity, its knowledgeable and universally helpful staff, and it noble mission to advance literacy and thinking in the nation’s people, no matter what our origins or means.
Today I am fortunate in that I inhabit a fairly decent library of my own, thanks largely to “the professor” (aka Tom, my husband.) Tom was so devastated at having been forced to sell his Encyclopedia Britannia during a particularly bad stretch of “down-and-out” back in 1978 that he has never parted with a book since.
This post was inspired by Charli Mills’s flash fiction challenge over at Carrot Ranch: March 2, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a library. You can honor the libraries in your own experience, dream about libraries of the future or explore a community without one.
I’ve chosen for mine, a particular kind of community…
A Free Man
The Protective Custody yard wasn’t quite solitary confinement. He could hear inmates in the other cells. Could call out to them. One hour a day he stretched in the barren exercise yard. The rest of the time, it was the eight-by-ten cell. Time seemed to stop.
Except when the book cart rattled by. Beats me, he thought, how a prison can have such a great library. The Brothers Karamazov, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Vonnegut. Joseph Conrad. It was the only thing keeping him sane. The only thing reminding him he was, where it counted, a free man.