This was originally posted on my old CarolynHayesUber blog. There’s been so much talk in both of my hometowns about libraries, their funding (or lack thereof), hours cut, outsourcing, and even closures, I remembered this post and wanted to share with you my personal love of libraries. How about you?
Some years back, puttering around a used bookstore, I came across a first reader, Many Surprises. Picking it up and leafing through the pages, a growing sense of familiarity overtook me. Monte Vista Elementary School. Miss Bird. First grade. I suppose we must have worked first on the alphabet and the sounds of the letters. I don’t really recall that. What I do remember is the day the teacher put us in a circle on the floor and passed out a copy of Many Surprises to each child. We preceeded to “read” about Jane and Billy, Miss Bird helping us sound out the words. All at once, I “got” it. It made sense. I could decode these collections of letters and spaces into words. I was in awe. I was R E A D I N G. Reading! What a gift this new skill would be for my entire life. I discovered the magical world of the book. To be transported to another time, another place, merely by opening a book. I became a bookworm. I would rather read than nearly anything. My mother was a regular library patron and as soon as I started reading, checking out books for me became part of the weekend regime as well. The Ontario Library on Euclid Avenue was a Carnegie-funded edifice (talk about a philanthropist who made a difference!) of speckled gray granite. The children’s department was in the basement (in Southern California, a basement was a novelty in itself). It was cool and dark with the musty smell of old and well-used books. I thought it was heaven. Since these books had to last me a whole week, I’d select an armful, and the librarian would make me put half of them back. There was a limit, after all, something like three or four. After a while, the librarian would overlook the limit requirement and let me take home five or six. Eventually, I’d read the entire young children’s collection, several times over. I’ll never forget the day the children’s librarian took me by the hand and led me upstairs to find my mom. A discussion ensued concerning letting me check out books from the adult section. It was agreed that the adult librarian would have to approve anything I took, but I was granted this very special exemption. The librarian, who was initially very disapproving of this notion of a CHILD reading these books, took it upon herself to make selections for me. Now I was reading REAL books — you know, the big thick kind with pages of words and no pictures. I was happier than ever when I discovered the simple world of kid’s books was now this deliciously complex place of plots and characters and story arcs and subplots in the “big” books. If I was hooked on books before, I became an addict. Besides the library, I was able to build a small book collection of my own. We’d often go to the Goodwill or Salvation Army, and I’d be allowed to select one used book (they sold for five cents each). The pickings were somewhat slim. Mary Poppins, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Elsie Dinsmore, Litte Women (my favorite!), Trixie Belden, Tom Sawyer — I still have them all. Christmas or a birthday usually brought a coveted and brand-new Nancy Drew. Nancy, who always drove a convertible, had a boyfriend Ned and a BFF George, seemed to live a life of impossible adventure and independence. When I was nine, my Aunt Evelyn gave me a copy of Lamb’s Shakespeare for Children. I still have it. I read that book over and over and over. The Tempest. A Mid-Summer’s Night. The Taming of the Shrew. All dumbed down a bit to a suitable level for children, but curious and a bit incomprehensible to me. Years later, when we read Shakespeare in high school, I felt like I was visiting an old friend. I can’t possibly define the difference reading books has made in my life. Here I am, all grown up and a grandma, no less, and I still marvel at the joy and magic that is reading.