Saturday, September 10, 2011

I grew up in a library

I'm not sure how old I was when I first stepped into the Placentia Public Library. It seems to me I couldn't have been more than twenty-four months out of my mother's womb when I had the urge to read something--anything!--cereal boxes, labels, the tag on my blanket that said "Do Not Remove Or You Will Suffer A Painful Death," the side of a carton of my father's Rothman's cigarettes. I have no recall of learning to read. It just seems it was something I always did. Adults in my family have told me I was reading at two years old, but I guess I was too engrossed in Anna Karenina to pay much attention to the date or time passing. I don't dispute the posibility since it feeds my fantasy of having been a child prodigy as well as my personal myth of having been somewhat of an oddity and an outsider.  Besides, I'm actually thinking I should have been reading before the age of two--some serious neglect there on somebody's part. I recall being asked to read something for strangers who'd come to visit my parents' house. I felt a strange combination of pride and awkwardness at being asked to perform, but any misgivings usually evaporated when they rewarded me with money--usually a quarter, but, hey, the stuff I needed to buy was cheap.

But I digress.

I've been asked to read at the A.C. Hunter library on Wednesday evening, Sept. 21st and it's gotten me to thinking how much "Da Liberry" meant to me as a child. It was my oldest brother Charlie who took me there for the first time. He was, and is, a voracious reader and I'd like to think he simply thought it was a life-changing experience he wanted to share with his much younger brother. I will always be grateful to him for that.

On that first trip to the library, I couldn't choose just one measly book--I took home a stack of ten. The librarian was skeptical, I remember, suggesting perhaps I should just try one or two--and besides there was a limit to how many books a person could take home in one trip. But I must have seemed slightly heartbroken (and heartbreakingly so), for she allowed me to cart the works of it home. Two days later, I was back and the librarian assumed I must not have found anything among them to my liking, since surely I'd had enough books to do me for a month's worth of reading. When I breathlessly explained that I'd read them all--some of them more than once--she didn't question me again when I brought another carefully (yet somewhat randomly) chosen stack to the desk for her approval and checkout. In fact, she seemed rather pleased with me and, after that, began to treat me like a favourite patron of hers. (But then, I'm sure she had many favourites.)

There's a hurricane raging outside today, and it's Saturday morning, and I can't help but think about all those wonderful, dreamy Saturdays (not just mornings, but sometimes all day) I would spend in Da Liberry, regardless of the weather, curled up in a big cozy armchair, perusing books of all kinds, discovering new magazines like Popular Mechanics and Sports Illustrated and, of course, the ubiquitous National Geographics with their pictures of naked pygmy women that both startled and titillated at the same time.

But there were books, too--not nearly enough, unfortunately. I realize now it was a matter of government funding, but at the time I recall being very frustrated when, at the age of 8 or 9 (can't recall exactly) I had already read every book in the so-called "children's section" of the library. I had devoured the Narnia series, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, anything by Enid Blyton, all the fairy tales and bedtime stories of just about every country that had them, and every single Hardy Boys book I could get my hands on.

So when I not-so-innocently asked the librarian, Mrs. Patterson, "Would it be okay if I started reading from the adult section?" it was rather a big deal for me--and apparently for her too. She said there must be SOME books in the child's section I hadn't read. She listed them all for me, but I just kept saying, "Yep. Read it. Yep. Read it." until she became slightly bemused, if not a little exasperated. "I'll have to ask your mother," she said. I don't remember how exactly my mother responded. I only know that the two days I had to wait until I could go back to the library and begin my adventures in adult reading were some of the longest hours of my life. She must have said yes to my request, and I recall a phone call to the library in my favour. But the library was closed on Sunday (!) and I had to wait until Monday. When my brother wasn't able to drive me there (which was often), I would walk. It was somewhere around 2 or 3 miles from our door to the door of the library, but for me it was like leaving home in order to go to my other home.--a journey in pursuit of comfort, a quest for exotic knowledge.

To me, entering the previously forbidden "Adult Section" of the public library was like the first time I left home to live in the city, the first time I went skating on the ocean by myself or, much later and many years ago, the first time I went to a strip club-- for a young fellow in a small town, there was a huge curiosity factor. I just wanted to know what was in there that could possibly be off limits to anyone. There were books with swear words and nudity (although it was word nudity, it was still real to me). But there was also adventure and murder more real than anything in the Hardy Boys. It was there that I first read Hemingway, Shakespeare, Joyce and Woolf--all before the age of thirteen, just because I was curious. I'd heard these names and wanted to read them for myself, to see what the big deal was about. My idea of summer reading back then was to pick up a copy of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and lie in a sunbeam in my bedroom, imagining every scene as if I were there...or so I thought. My mother was always telling me that I should "get outdoors and play," and I did, but I often took my book with me.

And, again, these were library books. They not only changed and set the course of my life, but enhanced my existence in a way that nothing else could have. Not even the internet, if it had existed, could have served as such a companion and friend. The feel of a heavy book in my sweaty little hands, the smell of library dust on textured paper, the crinkle of the clear plastic covers that had been handled by so many like-minded readers before me--it all lent a sense of a communal experience with complete strangers, all of whom loved words as much as I do, or so I assumed.

In many ways, I owe my life to libraries. Of course, I owe it to a lot of other things and people as well, but libraries are at or near the top of the list of things for which I am grateful. In a small town of little cultural activity, the library was the gateway to the infinite, fodder for an imagination just beginning to sprout.

So, thanks not only to the libraries and governments who (sometimes) sponsor their existence, but also to the wonderful librarians who are not just doing their job, but doing it joyfully, as if it mattered. Trust me: it does.

I wish I still had my original library card. I think I'd frame it.


1 comment:

  1. Gerard , I really enjoyed your story..I rem your Straight A's in all your subjects in school.
    Great pic too ! Keep up the great work!
    Aunt Alice