My Love Affair With Libraries
I was smitten early on. As a preschooler growing up in St. Paul, a special reward for enduring a doctor’s visit was a visit to the glorious downtown library that faced Mears Park, in which the Children’s Room merited its own special entrance.
There, a Valkyrie of a librarian, straight out of the prevailing stereotype (gray pompadour, pince-nez glasses on a chain which rested on an imposing bosom) led me to the picture books. I remember “reading” the stories of Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and something involving the Land of Nod.
Soon I was actually reading, all by myself! Magic! From then on I binged on the “series” books: Bobbsey Twins, Raggedy Ann, Nancy Drew, the Wizard of Oz, and finally—this is sixth grade by now—the addictive Betsy-Tacy series. These companions escorted me all the way to Junior High.
Back then, before the advent of paperbacks, a book was a rare and (for my family) costly purchase. Fortunately, I received a volume on every birthday from a favorite maiden aunt, starting with Pinocchio (far more scary than the later Disney version). One important year, the birthday gift introduced me to The Three Musketeers. The library—how foresighted!—provided the rest of author Dumas’ tales, which led me to those of Sir Walter Scott. (Oh, Ivanhoe, my new hero!) Soon, thanks to a school assignment, Dickens burst onto the scene. The library served as my literary candy store, supplying volume after volume of my new Victorian idol.
By now, of course, I had outgrown the Children’s Room but was wary about entering the Adult Fiction section. (Surely a security guard would raise a baton and summon my parents?) As I sidled in that direction, however, I got waylaid in a small chamber devoted to scripts of plays. I had been taken to a couple of traveling performances (I remember the words to every song of “Oklahoma!” to this day), so I started with those familiar titles, then graduated to volumes that simultaneously intrigued and mystified me (“Death of a Salesman,” “Come Back, Little Sheba”). Even “Mr. Roberts,” a wartime drama, which contained words I had been taught would send one straight to perdition.
From the script alcove, it was just a few steps to the stacks where Adult Fiction lived. No one to monitor me, I gathered volumes penned by my new fancy, Pearl Buck, who had won the Nobel Prize for writing about China (although I had to ask my mother what “concubine” meant and blushed to learn the answer). A few more years and off to college at the U. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with two roommates who seemed to be majoring in boyfriends, so I crept nightly to the Walter Library aside Northrop Mall for peace in which to study at those ponderous wooden tables in rooms quiet as a church.
After marriage came children, and the cycle started anew. Story hour at the library saved many a day. We then loaded up the stroller with titles to carry us through the week: Blueberries for Sal, Where the Wild Things Are, and on to Mary Poppins (in print, she’s illustrated as a stick-thin, unsmiling nanny, to be treated with far more reverence than one who later grinned from a Broadway stage or movie screen.)
Nothing has pleased—nay, sustained—me more, from that time to the present, than wandering among the shelves of our public libraries, tracking down every last volume written by a pantheon of authors as vast and various as Richard Powers (my current literary god) to John Sanford, whose spunky mysteries include car chases across the Lake Street bridge.
By now, of course, I’ve widening my horizons with non-fiction accounts as well—biographies, travel accounts, political essays, recipe books: whatever grabs my attention at the moment. And during the recent corona virus episode, although my beloved libraries have been temporarily closed, I still have a stack of unreturned volumes on loan in corners of my apartment, assuring me badly-needed happy moments in my day.
Thank you, libraries!