“Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.” —Ray Bradbury
It was a dark, castle-like place, sitting looming and immovable on a quiet street off a busy freeway in a hurried, tired city. It was where I learned that heaven will be three stories tall and smell like pencil shavings, and come with polyester armchairs and four shelves of Agatha Christie books. We went there at least once a week, my mom and my kid brother and me, on the way to the grocery store or the doctor or a haircut, or sometimes just to go; it makes sense now that taking us to the public library might have been a way just to get us to keep quiet.
“It was something fun to do instead of sitting at home,” my mother swears, but my brother and I, we know the truth.
She tells me I was three when I got my first library card, though I think that sounds somewhat improbable. Maybe somewhere, in some dusty filing cabinet, there is proof of it.
“How can you be three and have a library card?” I asked her once.
“Because you could sign your own name,” she said. “And because we let you.”
As a child, I read like I was running out of time. I guess that, without knowing it, I was. When I was in junior high, I checked out every novel in the library’s card catalogue about dragons, and read them all in a matter of months. These days, it seems like I’m scraping together leftover minutes just to turn a few pages in a book I’ve been nursing for weeks.
“You’ve probably read more books up to now than I’ve read in my entire life,” my father told 12-year-old me. I didn’t believe him then, because how could someone who’d lived so many years not have read a thousand, ten thousand books? I didn’t believe him, not for nearly a decade, until, on one late winter night, I watched as he nodded off on the couch in the blue glow of an e-reader screen, and realized he was just scraping together minutes, too.
I recently visited another library, on another road off another freeway in another busy city I now call my home. This place was not the monolithic paradise of my childhood: It was brighter and smaller. It smelled more like new paint than new pencils, and I could not yet speak to its collection of Poirot and Miss Marple. I was waiting in line to apply for a library card—legitimately, this time—when I saw the little girl. Her chin barely reached the countertop, but she set her book down with purpose, and surrendered her own card to the woman in black.
“You owe a $6.29 fine,” I heard the clerk say, “and I can’t let you check out a book until you pay at least $0.29 toward it.”
I was only half-paying attention as the little girl slowly slid the book off the counter and looked around. I realized there was no one with her to pay it.
“Hey,” someone said; it was the teenage boy behind her in line. He set down his own stack of books and dug around in the pockets of his gym shorts, pulling out some change. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got it.”
My mother always let me check out as many books as I could carry. I would stretch out my arms and stack them up to my chin; more than once I dropped them all and was left scrambling to pick them up, for fear that some other nine-year-old was also gunning for the one remaining copy of “The Hobbit.” (They weren’t.) Checking out books in such large numbers meant that, every few weeks, one or two would be left behind on a return trip, forgotten under a car seat or in a desk drawer. The little girl at the counter was like me all those years ago, pony-tailed and tennis-shoed and trusting, but she also wasn’t: I never had to look around and wonder if I would get to take my books home. My mom was always there, sliding bills or coins or both across the counter, paying my debts.
As those quarters clinked against the cash register drawer, the little girl whispered a thank-you and walked away. I waited a few more minutes in line to turn in my paperwork, and then tucked my new library card into my wallet. As I walked toward the door—all that was separating me from my frenzied, hectic world with too many pages and never enough minutes—I saw the little girl. She was settled into an oversized chair, the book open on her lap.
“What a great place to read,” I said to myself, “while she has the time.”