Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Library Week! The Countless Words To Guide Us

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To imagine a world without books is impossibly hard. As I look around my home I can see I never intend to do so. I haven’t once bothered–or dared–to count them. I have sorted, passed on and re-sold physical books numerous times, have bought new volumes (and read a few online). I often buy books for gifts and rarely turn down a good freebie in a streetside Little Free Library or languishing in a cardboard box by trash receptacles. It’s not that I will read anything at all…we do have our preferences…but, then again, if there was nothing at hand but an ancient census report, I would gladly read that. And read it again. I am definitely one of those who reads fine print on packaging, randomly peruses dictionaries and reads every sign that catches my fancy on a road trip. So one might conclude it is the basic act of noting letters, then reading them that “rings my bell”. Perhaps that’s partly true–it lights up that language portion of human brain instantly–but only a small part of the story.

I like to learn about almost anything. To be gathered into another’s life or informed of another culture or to ride the wave of an epic tale. I like to find the path in storyland and follow it with mind and arms open, whether fact or fiction. Books, books, books. They are friends and teachers, distractors and challengers, quiet partners in my life.

And I write of this as it is National Library Week in the USA; School Librarian Day was April 4th. And April 16 is National Librarian Day. A time to consider how fortunate we are to have books at our fingertips–or not far away. Library books are a blessing shared by the community with ever changing and diverse residents. Hopefully, this week even more people, young and older, will take advantage of it.

I have much to consider when I consider how books have helped shape and even transform my life. Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, R.N. kept me up late with my flashlight as a 9 year old. I devoured books for fun, but I was also reading because I also was writing my own stories and plays and poems by then…I was learning by osmosis, perhaps. But later I read a variety of works by poets Denise Levertov, ee cummings, Theodore Roethke, William Wordsworth and Kahlil Gibran– as well as wide ranging writers as Hermann Hesse, Dag Hammarskjold, or Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck, for a few examples. They each strongly impacted me both as a young writer and spiritual seeeker. Books and their libraries were good escapes, yet also a deeper balm for the troubled youth I was. Reading provided me with greater perspective and stimulated more hope. More than a few times, what I sought and discovered helped me keep my head above water. They still can have the same power for children and youth.

I read as a hungry creature grazes in a field of delectable offerings, often and with excitement. I most often read not what any class reading lists recommended… and have not ever been in a book club. But I’ve made it a weekly, even daily, habit to study multiple book reviews or simply wandered through libraries and bookstores, on the lookout for the next fitting volume.

Recommendations, anyone? Let’s talk it over–I’d give it good thought. I do enjoy swapping personal preferences, such as with my neighbor today.

Public and school libraries have been particularly important because they require only a library card and my time and respect. They are ubiquitous in this country–and free! I like them so much that when we travel, Marc and I often seek out local libraries. And any ole bokstore, of course. To see what there is on offer, to experience the electric yet cocooning, amiable energy the presence of books in hands perpetuates. I’ve visited tiny, dusty libraries that have perhaps not purchased new books for years yet offer many gems. And light-dappled, multi-storied, shiny buildings I could move into with sleeping bag to spend a year or more. (The stalled novel I wrote features a country library in several scenes, so that tells me something.)

In elementary school I anticipated library hour as much or more than most other things in the school week. I lingered as long as feasible, content with browsing then slipping a book from its cozy place within the company of like-minded books. The librarians–rarely stern ones, the mythical library policers of the stacks– were eager to help aid me. And they seemed to know everything, or could find out in a flash. Best yet, I was often pointed toward resources to find out my own answers. Patient and appreciative of young, inquisitive minds, librarians were congenial and supportive watchers over children as we strove to enlargen our minds, stoke imaginations. On the way home, I hugged my “find” close, eager to get reading if only between other activites until bedtime. –It is this way even now.

I grew up in a city that was fortunate to have wonderful arts, sciences and other educational facilities. Our public library was one designed by Alden B. Dow, a protege of Frank Loyd Wright. It opened in 1955 and was contemporary by common standards, with its angularity and stark elegance and turquoise trim (or perhaps a wide flashing) right below the roof edge. It had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked lush landscaping. It had a big study space that was open to a second floor mezzanine with more rooms: more books. The smells and colors and shapes… I was transported being there.

As a kid, I made myself comfortable in the children’s ample room with a pile at my feet. Later on, I sat huddled over books read for academic needs or pleasure, soaking up the hush of a place that harbored readers and those who researched. The wooden drawers of card catalogs held more than I could begin to think of; I took my time thumbing through them, as one thing led to another. Among the aisles between tall shelving I found nonfiction sections as fascinating as fiction or poetry sections. How could there be that much to investigate? Awe, perplexity, and pleasure flooded my being.

It was a pleasure to enter the high-ceilinged two-story building and so difficult to leave. Time evaprotated. A visit might also be a ruse for meeting friends (or a boyfriend), during which we’d surround oursleves with tomes then whisper intently back and forth or write furious notes. But more often visiting the library meant a treasure trove to delve into, plus a pause from life’s ordeals and uncertainties. I felt at home in the grand but often undefined scheme of things more than in most places. The library: sanctuary, a repository of wide-ranging wisdom, a safe place for bookish entertainment, a haven for those who thirsted after curious places and peoples which lay beyond those sturdy walls.

Of course, there were magazines as well, and music, then movies and over the years surprising things (we can check out all sorts of odd and useful items at our present library). Most of which I don’t utilize, I’m afraid. My priority has remained simple book hunting.

The greatest feature: all the public is welcome. Everyone can be sparked by the thrill of learning, nourished by engaging or challenging tales. Or a quiet nook with a comfy chair within which one may doze, reading material in hand. The word library means simply a collection of books or bookshop; in Old English etymology it is a “book hoard.” Makes sense to me.

One view of part of my childhood’s Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, Midland, MI-in this shot, magazines take front and center, as does the view. Ahhh…

When Covid-19 roared into our lives and many public places became inacessible, I turned to online offerings of local libraries (and virtual bookstores). Though I greatly missed prowling the stacks of our smaller city branch, I was glad to browse and put “on hold” many titles to later pick up. In fact, I chose more books than I might have otherwise; it became a meditative experience to search and find. I read a wider variety as there was more time than ever. (I also read more and differently to further inspire my own writing; the more I read the more I always learn.) But I also enjoyed lining up with other people to get the choices in hand. We began to converse as we waited for the librarian to bring out our orders to an outdoor shelving unit. It was a pleasant ritual in otherwise worrisome months… then more months.

When our actual library doors opened again, only 5 people were allowed in fifteen minutes at a time. But what surprising happiness! I could see it in everyone as they browsed and fingered books and other items: a sense of contented relief, just for a brief spell. I am certain that those who visited libraries online or in person have felt that this has been a favored event. Perhaps it was even a lifesaver, emotionally. When all else was fraught with fear or loneliness, health issues–that loss of bearings in society at large–we could still, thank goodness, generously welcome books into our ives.

I recall once during that time that I searched for a certain novel, reportedly available, within my fifteen minutes. To no avail. So I asked a librarian if she knew the author and if the book was misplaced. She did; the author was a respected, long deceased one not often checked out, anymore. She searched further. Failing to locate the one I wanted, she announced she’d purchase the book–and two more by that author–so that I and others could have access to his work. This was said with a triumphant smile. I was flabberghasted. She was, as she noted, “here to support our patrons and provide great materials whenever I can.” And she did, and she always has done so.

So, here is to libraries and librarians. Here’s to the hours of work put in for us (work we often do not see or think about), and to their patient, knowledgeable and kindly assistance. The countless books and other materials kept track of and then offed to us have given me, for one, more freedom to roam far reaches of mind, heart and soul, to critically consider diverse notions and gather quite useful information. Books give good medicine as well as good direction more often than not.

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