Thursday, May 18, 2006

Renewing with Libraries

Helen Keller's autobiography was the first book on my first library card. I was six, I believe, at the Queens Borough Public Library. The book had the Braille alphabet on the back. A few years later I was lucky enough to get a copy of it, maybe through RIF.

Anyway, I loved going to the library throughout my childhood. My friends and I would return home with stacks of books and aching arms. We would nourish ourselves with chocolate bars bought en route.

When we moved to NJ, I was 13 and did not ask the librarian where the teen books were. I saw the children's section and the adult's books. So, I coolly wandered through the adult sections and picked up classics, contemporary fiction and nonfiction. The things I read! I didn't really understand a lot of it until I was older. I think by the time I found the few shelves of teen novels, I didn't care for them by then.

In college, I lived at the library like everyone else. However, it drove me nuts to have read my assignments instead of all the great books on the shelves. I would dream for the day when I would have nothing to do, but sit and read there. Actually, I remember studying for calculus and my eyes wandered to a shelf. There was "The Hobbit." A beautifully illustrated version, and I had never read it before. Of course, let's read this instead of studying calculus!

Actually, in college, books like "The Hobbit" were like chocolate bars. I just break off one piece at a time and savor it. Put the rest away for later.

My first "real" job was in the development office of a major city library. I loved walking into the grand hall every morning, after I passed the homeless people who slept on the steps. I didn't particularly like the librarians. They were very possessive about books and knowledge in general; this assessment was later confirmed to me by someone who was trading in his MLS for an MBA in a less cutthroat environment. Our office was tight and not glamorous at all. My pay was meager and tasks were endless. But, I loved walking down the grand staircase or being in the Rare Books Department for a special events and hovering around authors. I was in an elevator with Chaim Potok and was totally starstruck and tongue-tied.

Then I feel like I lost my libraries. I got busy with my life. Found some local libraries that sufficed for the time being. My town actually does not have a library of its own. So, like others, I was lured by the mega-bookstores that offered overpriced cappucinos and biscottis. I could get the latest and greatest, as well as a clearance rack that offered treasures. I pulled out my credit card as books called to me.

Now, a neighboring town has a new library and it's just lovely. It's a new building and the shelves are still bare. However, the collection is new and diverse offering. I loved finding old friends like Seth, Divakaruni, Rushdie and Selvadurai on the shelves. The best part is that it's free. Just the idea of "here's a book for you. Just read it and give it back" is so refreshing.

I'll buy books that I want to keep. My weakness is South Asian and Asian writers. I think for so long it was rare to find any books, that I snatched them up. Now, I can't keep up.

Anyway, that's my walk through the libraries. A few more stories came to mind when I was writing, but I think I'll save those. By the way, I was such a geeky bookworm when I was little, I used to pretend my 10 books at home were my library and I'd sign books in and out. Interesting though - I never wanted to be a librarian.

2 comments:

J.Doe said...

The public library by me is a little shack with opening hours of maybe 3 hours a day. I browse at the big bookstores but buy on Amazon.

prope//er said...

Public libraries are one of the best things about America; they are up there along with the interstate highways, downtown skylines that are so unique to America.

However, thanks to consumer culture, there are a few things I do not like about libraries

[*] I hate drivethrough blook drops at libraries. Books aren't meant to be dropped like that. You don't drop Feynman's lectures or the ZMM like that. Books need to be respected.

[*] Librarians should be more stern. Librarians are too accommodating. Once you enter a library, you live by the librarian's rules.