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April 12, 2011 / missmarymax

In Which Our Heroine Declares Her Love for the Library

We interrupt your previously scheduled F**k Perfectionism series to wish you a happy Nat’l Library Week.  When you’ve finished here, keep the celebration alive by checking out perhaps-my-favorite Anne Lamott essay or exploring these 50 handy ways you can support your public hub o’ books.

It’s gorgeous today – the kind of Midwestern morning still early enough in the summer that I don’t take it for granted. Tulips have kindly reminded us they exist; fallen blossoms have replaced ice on the sidewalks. It’s the kind of day when you can’t even hate on the allergens (much) because they’ve taken such pleasing forms.

For me, this is a kind of day marked by books. For years, I had a tradition of starting every summer with a mystery, and I still feel the pull, this morning, to track down Miss Marple or Cordelia Gray and blend the sensory pleasures of the present moment with the escapist pleasures of a quick read. I fall into memories of summers spent sprawled on the Illinois grass, reading Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles Or, years after I’d left Illinois, finding Dandelion Wine and suddenly feeling its grass beneath me again. Five years removed from my own Illinois summers (and fifty from Bradybury’s), I still smelled summer in that text.

But this is not just a love letter to Bradbury, or Christie, or Wrede. This is a love letter to the library, and – therefore – to Sweet Valley High.

Now, Sweet Valley High ranked about as low on my list of reads as anything could. This is significant- because I read everything from cereal boxes to classics, Kellogs to Austen.  I devoured my brothers’ Hardy Boys and my sister’s Bronte with equal veracity. I was one of those kids who read in nearly every free moment of every day—in summer, almost constantly. But I only read Sweet Valley High in one circumstance: I read Sweet Valley High at the library.

More specifically, I read Sweet Valley High in the hour or so I spent at the library, while my mom ran errands on a summer afternoon. The books were hardly my cup of Quik, but they were easy and they were short.  Risk a Boxcar Children adventure or a Beverly Cleary romp, and my mom might pull up with a trunk full of perishables just as things got interesting. At the library, I read a series I didn’t especially like to avoid leaving any good books half-finished.

I did this because I did not have a library card.

The short version: Those aforementioned Illinois plains—the backdrop to so many of my best reading memories—were just far enough outside the city limits that our cards were not free. While my mom told stories of childhood summers sponsored by bookmobiles, my own coming-of-age occurred outside the realm even of ice cream trucks, at an address that literally began “Rural Route.” Yearly, my class would field trip to the public library and I’d graze oversized felt puppets through their plastic bags, page through Rainbow Fish’s startling illustrations, and imagine –like Matilda—being able to devour books by the wagonload. Like Francie, being able to start with the As and move through the collection from there.

In fact, when we did get a card, years later, I did just that. (I made it through roughly Ab before resorting back to less systematic selection methods.) Still, those first shelves of the fiction sections remain clear as a bell in my memory. Like my sister, I eventually tracked down the exact edition of Jane Eyre the library owned. I still know the location of the poetry section (811) where I first discovered Millay. The library has a mythical place in my childhood story, the kind of place all the best childhood stories have. It didn’t just house Narnia, Terabithia, and Fantasia. It gave them a run for their money. It was as magical – moreso, for how long it stayed beyond my reach.

Like most writers, the library’s role in my story has only deepened as I’ve grown older. At seventeen, the shabby library housed in a new town’s storefront would affirm the wrongness of a recent move.  (And still offer some comfort.)  About two years later–exported to the city and expanding past the sphere of my agoraphobia, I’d stop in at the library to regain my calm. And just four months ago, when I moved into my first apartment, I thrilled over the (thoroughly urban) address that allowed me to procure a card.  In fact, I acquired two library cards a good week before I wrangled myself a bed. Like my niece’s hero, Dora, I now trek through the city with (not a wagon) but a backpack. I spend afternoons loading it with books, and at least one bus driver has taken to calling me Professor.

I admit: I love my local library. I love returning to the place where my love of stories expanded beyond my sister’s and brothers’ shelves—where I found the stories that first spoke to me. I lived the library Lady Bird Johnson described when she ranked it “perhaps the most totally democratic” social institution. …I also lived the limitations of that dream. I saw how much crappier the rural library was then the one in my small suburban town. I saw how both could be off-limits to those too removed, geographically and financially, to partake. Substituting library books for bookstore texts allowed me to cut fees at college, but only paying tuition gave me access to the glory of EBSCO.  Likewise, between my two library cards, I now have three hours, 10 minutes of Internet allotted me on any given day, but that Internet is fettered, — restrained in protection of a public taste that does not always align with my own.

When I speak of the library I would fight for and protect, it’s the library of my childhood, the library that was limitless, massive in scope. It’s also that library, in which my favorite authors had to give an understanding nod as I passed over them for quicker fare, that I protect against. I strive to make the place the library held in my imagination the place it actually holds in reality.

Having grown up usurping the Trunchbull with Matilda and fighting off the Nothing at Atreyu’s side, this victory seems not only necessary, but inevitable. It’s a given: Give space to imagination and it develops new and better ways to build such space. Cultivate the secret garden and it not only blooms – it cures.

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