I’m on Chapter 2 of The Library Book by Susan Orlean, the New Yorker writer of one of my very favorite books The Orchid Thief. She is describing the cataclysmic fire at the Los Angeles Central Library, April 29, 1986. It’s riveting.
But of course, she started the book by reviewing her own childhood relationship with the public library. And of course, it got me thinking about mine.
If I have any memory at all of my mom taking me to a library in my early school years, it is only the faintest glimmer. I discovered the magic of public libraries when we moved to south St. Louis in 1959–5th grade, age 11. My friend Frances lived catty-corner from the Fyler Branch, so it was a place to hang out when we weren’t sitting at her family’s kitchen table drawing and writing stories.
I was a shy kid, but somehow always knew how to advocate for my rights. Bored with the kiddy section, I made a successful case for getting an adult library card. My mother may have had to sign something, but (young Nancy Drew that I was) I never acknowledged the hand of my mother in my early assertions of independence.
Summers in my corner of the planet meant freedom from school (yay) but endless haranguing from my parents to socialize at the local playground (stupid games and crafts) or to play intramural sports (humiliating). For me, the bliss of summer meant going to the Fyler Branch and stocking up on mysteries and science fiction. St. Louis was hot. Children were supposed to play outside. But outside was full of bugs and itchiness. I preferred my oven-warm bedroom with a powerful fan, stretching out on the bed, reading. Sherlock Holmes. Ray Bradbury. Robert Heinlein. Isaac Asimov. Father Brown. Mary Higgins Clark.
When high school started, I sort of got validated as an “intellectual” and went to summer school every summer of my life till I got popped out of the academic womb into the real world (only to fight like hell to get back in). I had a different, more fervid relationship with libraries then.
But in my middle school years–ahhhh–the library was liberation, the passport to letting my imagination roam. Just me, out there on Baker Street solving crimes or on Perelandra hobnobbing with people from other planets.
What a gift.