Libraries. I have, since a child, had a love affair with libraries. When I was barely twelve, I rode my bike across town to the public library, walked in, and boldly asked to see the head librarian. A moment later she came out, looked me over head to foot, and asked what I wanted.
“I want to be a Renaissance Man,” I said, my voice low but firm.
She tilted her head slightly and I could tell she wasn’t sure if I was messing with her or not. “And you know what that is?”
“Yes, Ma’am. And I want to be one.”
“And you read, right?” she asked still not sure if I was messing with her or not as she invited me into her office and started to ask questions.
“Yes, Ma’am. I started reading when I was five.”
“No, I’m asking what have you read and I don’t mean comic books or things of that nature. Have you ever read anything of substance?”
It took me a while to convince her, but when I explained I’d read Guy de Maupassant, Victor Hugo, some Shakespeare, etc., she tilted her head again and frowned. A moment later, she shook her head, took a book off a shelf in her office, and handed it to me.
“This is my personal book. Read it and if you come back next Saturday we’ll talk then.”
I left, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in my bike’s basket, and when they opened the following Saturday, I was there, waiting for the doors to open. We did this for over a year, with me coming in on Saturdays and then discussing what I’d read with her before she gave me another book to read. Sometimes it would be fiction – Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, or maybe London. Other times it would be non-fiction – maybe one about the Roman Empire, some part of World War II, or a biography of someone important (I real a lot of biographies). I almost always had them read before the following Saturday, though sometimes other things got in the way, especially in the summers.
That was many years ago and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank my mother for teaching me to read and for sharing her love of books with me. Thanks, Mom, I really, really mean it. Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened to the head librarian at the local library. One day she was simply gone.
As I got older, I carried piles of book out of the library – usually 6-7 or more – at least until I could afford to buy books for my own library. That experience is a part of why it pains me so to discover my students, college freshmen for the most part, have never read a novel. Not one. Ever. And it’s also why, when I do have a student who discovers that marvelous world, I try to stay in touch with them. Several still email me for reading suggestions. One discovered Hemingway, then Steinbeck, Faulkner, and London from me and I can’t help but hope it in some way it pays the librarian back for not laughing at a skinny twelve year-old with lofty ambitions who still reads 2-3 books a week around classes and my own writing of fiction.