In Praise of Libraries, Books, and Reading
April 10, 2019
I write today in praise of libraries, books, and reading. This is National Library Week. Its organizers have invited the public to “share your library story” on social media. My library story is bathed in the soft, gauzy glow of boyhood memories of the library of my youth.
As a child, I lived a block away from the public library in South Pasadena, California. It was a stately two-story Carnegie library built in mixed Classical and Mediterranean Revival styles and leisurely situated in the middle of a city block of its own. The building was surrounded by lawns and large magnolia trees with heavy, tangy-smelling blossoms that summon up still childhood memories of summer days playing “No Bears Are Out Tonight” on the grounds and catching Tiger Swallowtail butterflies in nets fashioned out of old pillowcases.
I spent many happy hours inside the library as well, browsing the collection and checking out as many books as I could carry home. Inside was cool, quiet, and welcoming. Since my siblings and I were practically daily patrons, the librarians knew us well. Sometimes they scooted us out because we were too noisy. No doubt we deserved it. But mostly the children’s librarians were our cheerleaders and guides to a world of books. They would read books aloud each week for “Reading Hour.” One time, a librarian singled me out to be the first patron to read a brand-new young adult novel and tell her what I thought of it. It was called A Wrinkle in Time. What a read that was!
In those halcyon days, I dreamed of becoming a herpetologist. So, I read everything in the library I could find on snakes. I also read adventure books, such as Willard Price’s “Adventure” series: South Sea Adventure, Amazon Adventure, Underwater Adventure , etc. I read children’s versions of the Greek myths and World War II books, such as Guadalcanal Diary and The Silver Sword (later retitled Escape from Warsaw). ). I read sports stories by the dozens. Each summer my siblings and I participated in a library-sponsored contest to see what child could read the most books. We tried to read the daily limit. For every book we read, the librarian would put stickers on a chart so that the whole community could see which child read the most books. I was a slow reader. I still am. I did not win. But I relish memories of summer reading.
The library had two entrances: one for adults that led to the main collection and another for children that led to the juvenile collection. The children’s library was our domain. It was a magical place. Even the entrance promised that worlds of adventure lay within. It was flanked by statues atop two pillars: one depicting a sailing ship and the other a knight slaying a dragon, each emerging from the pages of a book—romantic scenes from the world of story. I think about that ship statue every time I read Emily Dickinson’s poem “There is no frigate like a book”
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
I have often been borne by library books to lands of learning and pleasure. I encourage you to catch this same frugal chariot of the soul. Visit a library, browse the collection, borrow a book or recording of a book and read or listen to it.
If you need suggestions for good reads, I suggest that you explore my sister Janet’s podcast, “Nonfiction4Life.” And if you want to catch fire from a bibliophile, go to the podcast Janet produced on her 56th birthday. Janet describes falling in love with books and libraries. This podcast also includes pictures of the South Pasadena public library. Here is a link https://www.nonfiction4life.com/56-janet-perry-loves-books/.
Susan and I often learn about fun books to read from Janet. At her suggestion, for example, I recently read Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, the story of a gritty grandma who walked the Appalachian Trail in tennis shoes and a light knapsack. I also read When Books Went to War, the intriguing story of how American GI’s were given cheap paperbacks—millions of them—which they read on transport ships and in trenches. This was part of a deliberate program, initiated by librarians, to promote democratic values. It was the Allies’ answer to Hitler’s book burnings.
As the author observes, America fought Hitler “not just with men and bullets but with books.” “It is estimated that more than 100 million books perished over the course of the war.” However, America printed and distributed to the troops 123 million lightweight American Service Editions. Hence, “more books were given to the American armed services than Hitler destroyed.”
So, I encourage you again to do something retro, something democratic, something worth waging a war for: visit a library and rediscover the joy of books. If possible, take a child with you. Help them get a library card. And read a book out loud to them. Something fun, compelling, wonderful. It will revive your spirits and may become a child’s portal to a lifetime of voyages on fabulous frigates to take them lands away.