Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On Libraries

I remember being raised by the library for large chunks of my childhood.  This is not a criticism of my parents in any way - they both did (and do) wonderful things for their children, and in all honesty?  The library was my preferred babysitter, one that I would pout about not getting to see.

Around first grade or so I snuck out of the children's area and started trawling the far more imposing shelves of the adult sections.  It's a bit of a laughable cliche to say that 'books are worlds', one used to try (and usually fail) to persuade a recalcitrant child into reading.  At the same time, what I learned growing up is that those three words are completely true: books are worlds.  Brushing my fingers along the spines of shelved books was like spotting a new planet through a telescope.  Pulling one down and reading the cover flaps was like sending a probe into the upper atmosphere.  And when I finally worked up the courage to read one...

... well, I remember telling my first grade speech therapist that I had just read my very first Stephen King book.  "Oh Mainn," I remember her saying, "please don't read those."  I readily agreed, and if I noticed her shock through my childish self-absorption, it's only because I was pretty shocked myself.  'The Long Walk' (review) is one of King's more existential horror novels, and it more than broadened my horizons; it shattered them.  Through that book I glimpsed hazy vistas of mortality and pain and sacrifice and the implacably uncaring nature of life.  After reading 'The Long Walk', I wanted nothing more than to return to my safe and comfortable world of fairy tales and easy adventures.

Except a) I couldn't, and b) I didn't really want to.

I'll spare you the rest of my childhood, except to mention that whenever I was particularly disobedient as a child (this usually involved really not wanting to practice a musical instrument), my mother would threaten to take the library away from me, and I would throw a tantrum for a few minutes before giving in.

Fast forward 15 years or so.  As a freshly employed college graduate I was overcome by the high of having an income of my own for the first time in my life.  How did I waste my money?  I bought a laptop and a Playstation to play the newest Final Fantasy.  I bought a few DVDs.  And then I went to the bookstore and purchased whatever book I damned well felt like.

I marched out of that bookstore supremely self-satisfied.  I returned home to my new apartment, plopped down on my sleeping bag (did I mention that I didn't think it necessary to buy a bed?), started reading... and made a terrible discovery: the books I had picked were terrible.

What I hadn't realized is that although the library had taught me to love books, it hadn't taught me to be discerning about choosing them.  Taking a book home from a library is cost-free; if you make a mistake, just exchange the book the next time you're at the library.  The return policy at a bookstore is not always so forgiving.

And you know what?  I think that lack of discernment is great!  Books are worlds, and while it is easy and safe to visit and explore worlds that are all the same - and there's nothing wrong with wanting a comfort book - we don't broaden our horizons that way.  We don't grow, we don't change, we don't challenge ourselves.  And I think that's a bit of a shame.

I don't have a grand point here (just a desire to force myself to write a bit every single day), so I'll end somewhat anti-climatically with a few numbers.  In the past year I've checked out 89 items for myself from the library.  Assuming an average cost of $10, that's a savings of $890.  And the psychic savings for not having paid for the five or so books that I thought were terrible and did not finish?  Well, as they say in that old credit card commercial, that's priceless.

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