Monday, August 25, 2008

The Public Library

I have lately found solace and inspiration in a place that I never thought to even look for it.

Peace, blessed hushed voices, soft muffled thumps of books, and the click of shoes on a polished floor. The sound of solitude.

Slightly dusty, yellow musty cornucopia of bliss. Hemp from the old man behind the counter. Cheerios in a bag, clutched by the sleeping toddler. The smell of familiarity.

Rows and rows and rows and more. The room is filled with the whispering voices of so many, so many now gone. The wisdom and folly, production and sweat and pride of many are shown now on shelves. Just for me. Just for the taking, the perusing, the delight.

Welcome to the Public Library.

My parents encouraged my sister and I to read when we could barely speak intelligible sentences. This was partly because we didn't have access to a television, and had few toys. But mostly it was because my parents loved to read.

If you are ever lucky enough to see my father in his natural habitat (the bookstore) you will note that he is categorically incapable of leaving the store without a book. Or several books, in fact. He will look at the religion section, followed by the history shelves and the philosophy tables. These are a necessity, and life will stop if he does not peruse these sections. After these, he might look at health or finance or psychology. Usually this is the 'of the moment' slot. I'm trying to move 'fiction' into this category, but Rome was not built in a day.

All of this relatively useless information to let you know that my family of origin

I went to the library on occasion as a child; but usually was taken to the bookstore. I have to be honest and say that I treated the bookstore as a library. While my father looked around, I sat and read. And then I read another book. And then another.

When it was time to leave, I was often successful in getting my dad to pay for whatever book was in my hand at the moment. Despite being quite without financial resources at times, he bought books for my sister and I whenever we wanted them.

Reading, I was taught, was an adventure into education, entertainment, and so much more.

I read to learn, to lose myself, and to be utterly enchanted by the world beyond my own. I cannot remember a time when I was without a book or a favorite author.

A few years ago, Austin and I ventured into the exciting world of debt-reduction. Huzzah.

My personal pocket money was to cover makeup, haircuts, coffee breaks, expensive tea that wasn't sold at the grocery story, and almost anything else you can imagine that didn't fit into the categories of 'food', 'healthcare' and 'car maintenance'. This meant that when I saw a lovely sweater on sale, I most likely had to put it back, unless I was lucky enough to not need razors or mascara. (Did I mention that my pocket money = $30 per month? There is a good reason why I only cut my hair every six months or so.) But hey, I'm not complaining. I really am quite lucky to get that $30 per month to use however I want. And in the end, I usually buy something for the kids. Who needs shaved legs, anyways? As my Very Good Friend Denise often quotes, "Sometimes hairy legs are your only connection to reality".

Enough of that, back to books.

I very quickly learned that books are much too expensive. I know that authors need to be paid, editors need to be paid, and bookstore owners need to be paid. And I would be happy to do my part to stimulate this overlooked part of the economy, except that this would imply my reading only one book per month. That's right; many books are now debuting at the lovely price of $24.99, plus tax. And that is actually a low figure. I have yearned for books that easily cost twice that amount.

Don't get me wrong; I do purchase books. But I want to really love the books that I purchase. Otherwise my home would be completely eaten up with every book that ever aroused my curiosity. It would looks parent's.

I turned to the library, feeling somewhat foolish that this hadn't occurred to be sooner. And thus began a love affair that will hopefully see me through to the end of my days.

I recently alighted upon the realization that not only do I save money, but I actually prefer the library to the bookstore.


The first reason is economically related. Saving money is no small deal, especially when you want to read everything ever written about the European courts of yore. But I love what this implies about our society: in an age when everything is about the bottom line, bottom dollar, the library remains. Somehow in our sleepy state of self-preservation, the library beckons us. It exists so that we might better ourselves, learn about our past, and make more informed decisions for the future. The library lets us entangle ourselves in a community that transcends even time. I can sit and listen to Jane Austen for awhile because I take the time to look at the words she so lovingly committed to paper. In short, I am in pleasant shock that the ultra technological world I live in still puts some worth within the bindings of a real book. I save money at the hands of the state. And the state still deems it worthwhile to extend the hand of literacy and learning, just for the express purpose of existing. Amazing.

Secondly, I love the comfort of knowing that hundreds of hands have touched the books I am looking at. Now, sometimes this can make me squeamish, particularly during flu season. But I try to look at it with this perspective (and some hand sanitizer): I am part of something bigger than myself. I am participating in a world with people I will never meet. But our hands have touched the same books, and we have both laughed at Dickens' 'glob of mustard and undigested potato'. And for whatever reason, this makes me feel small, insignificant, and strangely at peace.

I love the PBS, embroidered skirt, tempeh and tofu, bring your quilt and sit on the grass community that the library embraces. Obviously not everyone fits into this group; myself included. I love PBS and would live in patchwork skirts and sandals if I could. But tofu would kill the half of my family that is allergic to soy, and then I would be very sad. But everyone can bring their quilt and sit a while, right? We can all afford to sit and share a bottle of Naked Juice while watching the kids play with flowers that will give them chigger bites. The library reminds me to slow down and enjoy life in the way that Borders does not. And that isn't because Borders in inherently evil and a symbol of The Man. It is just my personality, and I welcome the reminder that the library (quietly) gives.

Lastly, and perhaps importantly, the library helps me to be in contact with a million authors. I want to be a writer, and somehow I gain strength from being so close to those who are brave enough to publish their work. It takes strength of mind and a large dose of self-esteem to put your hours of writing and editing, slaving and creating into the hands of readers. I look at the shelves and see the pages and the print...and it just amazes me that after all the years of the written word, there are still things to be said and new worlds to create. If I am desperate for affirmation or encouragement (and believe me, it happens), I can hear the mingled words of old pages coming together, and I feel the authors telling me to plod on.

One day I hope to have my own books sitting on a shelf. I want the pages to become yellowed, and the jacket to be tattered. I want to be read. And so I return, week after week, sometimes day after day, to do this service for all those authors who are no longer with us in body, but yet still in spirit.

I've never known any trouble that an hour's reading didn't assuage.
~Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, Pensées Diverses

No man can be called friendless who has God and the companionship of good books.
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The love of learning, the sequestered nooks,And all the sweet serenity of books.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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