Of Libraries and the Books that are in Them

My hometown library when it was new.
It looks much the same today.
When I was growing up, Tuesday was library day, or maybe it was Thursday. I can’t remember now, but I do remember going with my mom every week without fail. I grew up in a small post-industrial town south of Buffalo and north of Pennsylvania surrounded by farmland. Its heyday, as a center of tool and die, brick, and furniture manufacture was history long before I was born. But Western New York was a lovely place to grow up, and Jamestown had an excellent library.

My mom dumped me in the children’s room (fine with me) and went off to collect her reserves and pore over the new book shelf and maybe read a few pages of the New York Times. Once I was finished assembling my own pile of books, I would swing by the little art gallery or maybe fiddle around with the microfische machines or just go directly to bugging my mom. 

I have always loved reading. Earning my English degree forced me to read broadly and taught me to read deeply. Throughout my education, including my masters in Library Science, I assumed that everyone read for the same reasons I did, to encounter great thinkers’ thoughts directly on the page, to wallow in lavish prose, to savor poetry. For me, reading is an adventure, as with all good adventures, I thought some exertion should be involved. I still look for books and authors that will challenge me, show me new horizons, maybe even change my mind. 

After I got my MLS degree I moved to New York City to work at the central branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Living in the city was eye-opening, so was working in a big public library. I discovered that I was only one kind of reader, and that people read for a myriad of different reasons. *

Queens is an incredibly diverse borough, and QPBL carries a huge range of material. I remember looking at a spin rack of Korean romance novels. Inside, the back covers were covered with Korean symbols that the readers had penned. I asked the librarian who worked in that department about it. She said that each reader would write their Korean initial in the back of the book once they’d read it, so that they wouldn’t read it again by mistake. I thought, how satisfying could a book be if you could accidentally read it over and not know? Yet those books were read to pieces, the back covers of every one filled with readers’ marks. 

It slowly dawned on me that I had a very narrow idea of what I thought reading was. Like most unexamined definitions, it encompassed exactly one person, me. Sure there are like minded souls out there, but there are also rafts of readers who seek entirely different pleasures than I do. 

As Shakespeare said, “There’s more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” ** 

This understanding has made me a better writer. Right off the bat, I know I’m not trying to write for everyone. I think, I’m not so much trying to find an audience as I’m trying to find my tribe. Fiction or non-fiction, no matter the genre, all a writer can do is try to reach across time and space, to connect with those readers who seek to share the same challenge or solace or sense of humor with them. I’m looking for that reader who will share my world for a few hours and mark the back cover of my book with their initial. 

* Of course, people come to the library for more than just books. They come to to get music and DVDs. They come to learn English or Spanish or Farsi. They come to look for a job, to surf the web, to learn to type, or sew, or meet friends. They come to play computer games. And if they don’t have a home, they come in just to sit in the air-conditioning, and that’s okay too.

**  Hamlet (1.5.166-7)

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