Thursday, September 17, 2009

Where Has All the Magic Gone?

Growing up, trips to the library were full of magic.  Shelf after shelf overflowed with books: reference books, entertaining books, small books, big books, colorful books, stately books, old books, new books.  I couldn't imagine more types of books than what our local library had to offer.  The smell of all those books mingling together remains to be one of my favorite smells in the world--it is the enhanced version of what I smelled every time I held a book in my thumbs and let the pages slide one after the other off my thumb.  The puffs of air that wafted toward my nose smelled of adventure, knowledge, the unknown.  To this day, when I get a new book, I open it and smell the pages.  Maybe that is admitting too much to people who may not know me, yet I can't apologize for loving the smell of books.  Not only did the library have books, it also had activities.  Story hours, reading programs for kids to get involved in, summer activities...

When I walked into the library as a child, I rarely walked in with a specific book or author to look for; instead, I walked through the doors with an open mind and lazily scanned the titles on the shelves until a book caught my eye.  Then I planted myself in that aisle and pulled books from the shelves until I had a small stack of books I wanted to read.  Being able to borrow books was liberating for my young self--the library trusted me with its property.  When I passed some unknown test of responsibility, my parents let me get my very own library card, which I thought was the coolest, most adult-like gift I could have been given.  The librarian placed my card in front of me to sign, and my hand held the pen just over the surface, where it hovered.  I contemplated whether I should use my newly minted cursive signature or rely on my more trustworthy printed version.  I chose the cursive, let the pen hit the card, and immediately regretted my decision as my signature came out looking clumpy.  I wanted to cross it out and try again, but I had only had one shot at signing my name.  The child-like signature secretly embarrassed me every time I pulled that card out to use it.

I stopped going to the library when I began using book fairs and school book orders as my preferred method of finding books to read.  I liked owning my books, having them on my shelves without a stamp telling me to return them by a certain date.  And so the library became a thing of the past for me.  Recently, I got my first library card since my childhood card because my budget no longer cooperated with my lengthy visits to bookstores.  I walked into the local library in the town I was then living in, expecting some wave of familiarity to rush over me.  Rather than a soothing wave, though, I got a crashing tidal wave.  The library was too clean, too impersonal, too full of computers.  Once I got over the embarrassment of having to ask for help (I could, after all, find my way around academic libraries and so could not understand why a local library would pose so many difficulties), I went to the shelves to find the books I had come to find.  But they weren't there.  I was so frustrated that I couldn't find the books I was looking for that I didn't give myself extra time in the aisles to wander and find a treasure I hadn't even considered looking for.  My adult self was far too cynical to have an open mind and walked out the doors empty-handed.

As I sit here writing this, I'm saddened by the loss of the awe of libraries that I once held onto so dearly.  I am also saddened by the loss of my ability to share reading with those around me.  I used to love going to the activities and programs libraries coordinated for kids, but as an adult, I can't even bring myself to join a book club out of fear that talking about the books I'm reading with other people could somehow put dents in my reading experience, making me enjoy it less.  Writing this blog is my own personal throwing down of the gauntlet to myself.  Can I learn to share reading?

I hope to relearn to love the local library.  Now that I live in yet another new town (and thus have another new library to learn my way around), I have a plan: I will go get a library card.  And maybe, just maybe, I'll think about signing up for a book club...

Happy reading, whether the books are yours or borrowed!

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