Friday, June 18, 2021

Things the Library Taught Me

by Eric

Last month I visited the library for the first time in a year to make copies of our tax forms. Years ago a week wouldn't have passed without my going to the library, let alone a year, but recently I've turned to e-books and never need to leave the house for reading material.

My grade school was a short walk from the local library and every week our teachers would have the class troop single file to the white wood frame building to exchange our borrowed books for new ones. That was my introduction to libraries and over the years they taught me a lot, quite apart from a love for reading.

Even during my picture book phase those weekly school excursions weren't sufficient. Saturday mornings it wasn't uncommon for me to trek from home to the library to stock up on Dr Seuss and the like, exhaust my selections by afternoon and return for more. Unfortunately the walk to the library was close to a mile with steep hills at both ends. I greedily piled up books until I had far too many to carry under one skinny arm, and nearly too many to see over cradled in both arms. I staggered outside, nose more or less resting on a Lorax or Horton the elephant. My thick lensed glasses kept slipping down as I stumbled along, more and more slowly, arms beginning to ache from the weight of all those delightful flights of imagination. Thus I learned about one's reach exceeding one's grasp.

When I was on fourth grade I learned about censorship. I had read all the Tom Swift Junior books my parents had bought for me and desperately craved more science fiction. (Instead of a monkey on my back I had an alien). Unfortunately the science fiction section of the library was upstairs in what must once have been a small bedroom. It was adults only. Apparently certain science fiction, including juveniles by Andre Norton and Lester del Rey, were unsuitable for young minds. Maybe an irate parent had shown them Heinlein's The Puppet Masters, or else someone didn't think kids should be reading about futures that held out the possibility of things being different than they are. Luckily, before long my parents were able to straighten out the strait-laced librarian and I was no longer barred from reading Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 which condemned book burning, and plenty of other science fiction which railed against the suppression of knowledge and freedom.

Speaking of freedom, libraries also gave me a foretaste of the surveillance state and not just via science fiction. Are you old enough to remember when library books had borrowing cards in a pocket on the inside back cover? You'd sign and date them when you took a book out. It was interesting to see how many times the book had been borrowed, when, and by whom. But at the library I went to this system also allowed the librarians to keep track of how many books each patron had borrowed. Which one time led to the librarian checking my books out to admonish me that I ought to read more. My classmate Nancy C----- had read twice as many books as I had! Despite the great loads of books I'd lugged home. What can I say? As a girl Nancy was not obligated to spend hours of potential reading time with friends reenacting the Gunfight at the OK Corral with cap guns.

The library also taught me not to lose my head in financial dealings. No, I didn't read books of investment advice while growing up (nor since). Rather I went to the annual library auction with a buddy. Usually what attracted me to the fund raiser were the food vendors and used book tables but one year the big speakers by the auction platform in front of the barn blared out that the next item up for bid was a trio of hamsters. My friend and I excitedly counted our pocket change and immediately began bidding furiously. Against each other. Solely against each other. Who other than a ten year old wants three hamsters? I guess we were naive but the whole point of an auction is bidding. What's the fun if you don't bid? Not surprisingly we eventually exhausted our funds and took our furry little prizes to my friend's house. We'd agreed to share custody and trade them back and forth. But I never got to keep them at my place.They turned out to be a bad investment because they got along worse than the Three Stooges. The next morning one was eviscerated and one decapitated. The survivor of the fight (I suppose he would have been Moe) we set loose in the woods. God help the chipmunks.

So I learned a lot from libraries but today I sit here typing electronic words which you'll read off a screen. I can't help remembering lurching homeward, gasping for breath, legs trembling, under the burden of those picture books and thinking that maybe books that weigh nothing are not a bad idea.

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