Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the Road to Find Out

I was evicted once—from the adult section of the Rondebosch Branch of the Cape Town Municipal Library—for trying to check out Great Battles of World War II. I was 8 or 9 then, my library cards were an oak green with my name and the expiration date printed boldly across the front, 1976-03-03. The adult cards were bright yellow. I suppose that was the librarian’s first clue. The other must have been the small brown hand that came sneaking over the top of the counter, clutching three tattered cards, wilted by the summer heat. If she had peered over the edge, she would have seen me on the tip of my toes, nose crushed against the wood, straining for those extra inches. She told me, not too unkindly, that I was to go downstairs. I think the mortification of discovery was edged out by the pang I felt as I saw the Great Battles of World War II disappearing under her desk.

Children were not allowed in the adult library. We had our own library. It was at the bottom of the sweeping staircase to the right, behind tall doors with brass handles and a window in each, across which windows was spelled, in gold block letters like an old fashioned lawyer’s office, Children’s Library. We had our own librarian, our own books, even our own little armchairs with chopped-off legs. The library was beautiful. The light came through twenty-foot, white framed windows, sandwiched like archer’s holes between the sandstone cornices. The floors were hardwood, yellowish, maybe teak to match the staircase that wound up the center of the building.

I spent months of my childhood there, even with the strangely colonial hours of operation: Mondays and Fridays, 10.00-18.00; Tuesdays, 10-13.00 (adults), 13.00-18.00 (children); Wednesdays, 10.00-13.00; Thursdays, 13.00-20.00; Saturdays, 9.00-12.00 (to coincide with the farmer’s market taking place in the alley between the library and the train station). I can't count all the times I would walk over the granite threshold, holding my breath in anticipation to be faced by closed doors. I had forgotten it was Wednesday, and with ruthless Afrikaner/British efficiency, those doors were closed at precisely 13.00. It was a long walk home on those days.

The summers were long; we had no television; the library was close by; and the walk took us through the river and along the railroad tracks where the engineers would wave to us from the steam engine. Why not go to the library? Besides, it was a place my mother would let us walk alone from a young age. So, I spent my summers walking to the library, wading in the river, waving to the engineers, dawdling alongside the tennis courts. Each visit I checked out three books—one for each card. Each day, I would read as fast as I could, and then return. I remember one zenith of almost psychotic reading, when I checked out By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, and Little Town on the Prairie one day and returned them the next, all read from cover to cover. I had lived in a Dutch attic for months to evade, without ultimate success, the invading Nazis, and tunneled for what seemed like miles through German dirt, dropping that same dirt pocketful by pocketful as I walked the fenced perimeter.

Reading transported me; overcame the limits of my physicality; made other worlds and experiences possible. The day of my expulsion I already knew what it was like to fight in the American Civil War—I had read Across Five Aprils four times. I had already poured molasses on the snow and made toffee men; what molasses was, or snow for that matter, I had no actual idea, but Alamanzo had done it, and, therefore, so had I. I had caught clams, and picked blueberries in my overalls and gappy teeth.

I had one of those time-collapsing moments a few weeks ago. I ran into our public library to pick up Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs for book club. We were meeting that afternoon, around the lunch table, and I had about two hours to read those 90 pages. I had originally planned to check out the book, run home, ditch stinky gym clothes, shower, get presentable (not having a job to dress up for anymore makes every moment out of the house an occasion) and then sit down to speed read through the turn of the twentieth-century novella about Dunnet Landing, a fishing village in Maine. Then I saw, under the window, a row of armchairs with an end table a Shetland pony leg-length apart from one of them. My perfect fit. I thought I would sit down for just a minute. I sank into the armchair, pulled the table a little closer with my heel, crossed one leg over the other on top of the table, and began to read.

It wasn’t a quick read. Sarah had set coastal Maine—tongue, life and hearts—to paper. To rush through would be like running into the gift shop at Gettysburg and buying a t-shirt to say you’d been on the battlefield. So, I curled up and read. Then spread out, spread over, curled up again, and read more. Took the fifteen-minute snooze that tends to come on about twenty minutes into reading. You know that fugue state where the words start to blur, the patrons start whispering underwater, and your body goes noodle warm. Waking from such a state is gentle; the shift from sleep to wake unnoticeable. Then I read more in the hushed, twilight, dustmote sound that seems to permeate libraries the world over.

I showed up late to book club, unshowered, in my pilling Winter Olympics 2002 sweatshirt, and took the end seat at the lunch table. But I had met Mrs. Todd, the local herbalist whose rumbling, wide-bodied passage through her garden is marked by the scent of rosemary and thyme crushed by her skirts; and Mrs. Blackett, her 86-year old mother who lives with her bachelor son and her very best tea set on Green Island off the coast. And soon I would know Joanna who, after being jilted on her wedding day, put herself away to hermitage on a solitary island. She was, her neighbors said, one of those people better at “being loved than loving.” There—my shaft of light.

Andrew Carnegie paid for the construction of almost 1,700 libraries in the United States. According to his terms, he would provide the construction funds, and the town would provide the land and the operating budgets. Each town chose the design. There are Beaux Arts, Italian Rennaisance, Baroque, Classical Revival and Spanish-American Carnegie libraries in insignificant places like Grass Valley, California; Greencastle, Indiana; Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania; and Jefferson, Texas, population 2,024.

Yet, among them all, there were constant design features: Each library had a prominent, welcoming doorway. Each doorway was accessed by ascending a staircase, so that when the person entered the library, their physical movement would presage their intellectual. In both body and mind, they were be elevated by learning. Outside every library there was supposed to a lantern or light post. For enlightenment. Inside, the shelves were open stacks. An innovation. Prior to Carnegie libraries, a person had to request a book from a librarian, like a perpetual Special Collections. One book at a time. Now, each person would be able to choose their books for themselves.

Thank you Mr. Carnegie for that innovation. Does anybody else love those pregnant moments when you run your finger over book spines as you walk down the stack, feeling the curve of an author’s courage swelling beneath. A literary roulette. Where will the ball land? Where will the wheel stop spinning? Who’s the lucky winner today? In the library, me, always me.

I love the sensations the library makes possible. Simultaneously slowing and lengthening my steps. Running my fingers along the spines of books. Hooking my index finger over the spine and pulling out the book for a 45-degree angled peruse of the cover. The dilation of my pupils when a book I’ve been tracking finally shows up on the shelf. The whiff of papery air that puffs up when I open the cover. The author’s eyes that stare at me when I turn, mid-chapter, to look at his picture, thinking, “How on earth did that face, living as it does with its wife, two children and three cats in Birmingham, give birth to these words?”

I know I’m waxing lyrical. But just this afternoon, I asked Julia to copy pages of my favorite books before we returned them to the library. “Why are you doing this, Mom?” she says. “Because I need to keep these passages.” “Oh Mom, you are such a nerd.” She ruffles my curls. “Such a nerd.” I suppose I am. But these words have moved upon me. Wind on my water. I have become Zeno’s arrow that is caught, stationary in flight, page after page, words piercing my here and now with their shaft of light. For me, it is no mistake he is called The Word, given the power of words to transform, transport and transfigure.

Title: On the Road to Find Out, by Cat Stevens.


  1. I feel the same way about books and reading. I remember reading for hours as a kid, laying on my bed, but being transported to other places. Every year when I plant pumpkins I think of Almanzo's milk fed pumpkin and wonder if I should try to grow a pumpkin like he did. The characers that I have known are my cherished friends..Anne, Elizabeth, Laura, Jo the list goes on. I could spend hours in the library.

  2. I love the magic of the look of ALL THOSE BOOKS just waiting for me! I love the smell of books and the feel of books. If they would let me, I would put up a cot clear in the back stacks and just stay there--probably a lot healthier for everyone that they won't!

    I love old Carnegie libraries, too.

    Once I invited all of my bookish friends to have a contest to see who has had the most library cards. It was interesting to see where they were from, and how many we averaged!

  3. This post is lovely!

    I've been to the library in Grass Valley, and it was definitely breath taking. I'm in Rhode Island now, and I can't tell you how excited I was when my little town got a library of it's very own, just walking distance from my apartment. I talk my boys there in the summers.

  4. This is a delightful account of what many will themselves identify with.

    The small town I grew up in had only the school libraries to count upon. As schoolgoing kids we exchanged books sourced from acquaintances studying at other schools.

    Your account brings to the fore the joy of books, the reading, and the library experience in full.

    Wonderfully written.