A few weeks ago, I drove past my hometown library which has recently undergone extensive renovations. In a town that’s seen its share of struggles, this library is a stunning jewel, a symbol of hope, education, and an opportunity for a better life. Like many of today’s libraries, it offers everything from knitting classes to career counseling and has become the hub of the community. As the friend I was visiting at the time said, “Sometimes I go there just to sit and read and catch my breath.”
My grandmother introduced me to the wonders of that library. We started with Saturday morning story hour, presided over by a rather intimidating librarian named Mrs. Eisele. When Mrs. Eisele said “Shh!” she meant it, and no one made a peep. I moved on to getting my own library card and going every other week to pick out two books, shyly handing them over the counter as my card was stamped with a satisfying, metallic click. The library smelled of fresh wood and paper and was gently quiet—the only sound the murmur of whispered voices and the crinkling of those plastic covers that protected the books from sticky fingers and spilled drinks. Later, I would come to the library to do research for school, using the card catalog, encyclopedias and actual books and magazines, the only options available in those pre-internet days.
I grew up listening to, and subsequently reading, good stories. My mother would read Uncle Wiggly and little Golden Books to me, but my dad was more likely to read Dr. Seuss and occasionally, Edward Lear limericks, not all of which were appropriate for young ears. (I loved them and would laugh hysterically.) My grandmother would read from The Book House, an exquisite six-volume set of children’s stories that had belonged to my dad and which still graces a bookshelf in my living room. No electronic means of communication can ever replace wonderful tales read by the voices of people who love you.
Mrs. Cleland, an elderly woman who lived across the street from us, was a retired English teacher whose family owned the local newspaper. I would dutifully take a small poinsettia and plate of cookies to her at Christmas and she would gift me with whatever book had won the Newberry Award or Caldecott medal that year. She would say, “I know this one’s a little advanced, dear, but you’re ready for it. Let me hear you read the first few pages.” I would rip off the wrapping paper to reveal the cover with its shiny gold embossed seal, crack open the spine and in the fading light of a December late afternoon, begin to read to Mrs. Cleland.
When our second-grade teacher started reading The Secret Garden to us, I couldn’t wait to get to school each day to discover what was going to happen to Mary. The Secret Garden inspired my lifelong passion for literature set in Great Britain. Always an animal-lover, I wept over Lassie, Come Home and Albert Terhune’s Lad, A Dog, and read every book in the Black Stallion series. I read biographies of Helen Keller and FDR. I read classics like Heidi, Little Women and Black Beauty in versions with shiny covers and pulpy pages that in those days, you could buy at almost any five-and-ten. When our Scholastic Book orders arrived, I would rush home with a stack of fresh paperbacks, anxious to dig into the latest and greatest “young adult” mysteries and novels. I developed a taste for books filled with beautiful language, interesting characters and a dramatic storyline. Trite and hackneyed didn’t do it for me, (even then, and nothing’s changed) so I was not a Nancy Drew or Bobbsey Twins fan.
Today I enjoy the convenience of my e-reader, but I still occasionally like to hold a real, hard-copy book in my hands. I love the sensory experience of breathing in the smell, feeling the texture of the pages, and using a cardboard bookmark. I love when a good story takes hold of you to the point that everything else falls away and that seems to happen more frequently with a real book—maybe because it evokes memories of reading with a flashlight under the covers. I’ve noticed that I occasionally forget the titles of books I read on my e-reader and I think that’s because I don’t see the cover looking back at me when I put it down. Holding a real book takes me back to my hometown library, to Mrs. Cleland’s living room, to the magic of The Secret Garden. To the places and people who introduced me to the love of words.