rescued by reading

Bee's picture
Thu, 02/02/2012 - 12:06 -- Bee

When I was small I would beg for a ride to the regional library, far away across the bay. My father, muttering about the inconvenience, would sometimes take me there on the way to his job. This was fine because I didn't need to browse: I was working my way alphabetically through the stacks.

With a dozen or so books clutched in my arms I would go to work with my father at the gas station. In the hot months I curled up in a stack of tires, one lone lightbulb far away overhead illuminating the pages of the books I read, indiscriminately, voraciously. On cold days I sat in the lobby next to the customers waiting to pick up their cars, ignoring their chatter, ignoring the mechanics and my grandfather in his pristine uniform, ignoring everything except the book in my hand.

I went to the gas station because I was too young, and then too sick, to stay home alone. When weather and illness put the tire room and even the lobby off-limits I retreated to my dad's pickup truck, running the engine for heat, and reading - anything - just reading.

Sometimes this routine was interrupted by a visit with my grandmother; the drive to the library was even more of an imposition for her, but she loaded up the car with small dogs and angry cousins and we set out on the drive - in those days, before the big roads were built connecting all the little towns on the peninsula, perhaps an hour away from the farm.

On those trips I would beg the librarian for an extension on the lending limit, and the people at the counter would purse their lips and consider me: a scrawny, misshapen girl with blue lips, a hacking cough, fresh red scars trailing across my neck. They always said yes, and I would leave with two dozen books, generally novels but also reference works on guinea pigs or woodworking or whatever I was obsessed with at the time.

The librarians frowned when my selections exceeded the strength of my arms, but eventually I was allowed to take up to thirty books at a time. Because I would read them - and because, presumably, I obviously needed them.

I was the most ambitious member of the summer reading program for a couple of years, but then I finished all the available works in the children's section. A policy problem: should a child be allowed gold stars for reading adult literature? I was still young enough for story time and puppet shows, but too ambitious for the prize program meant to tempt or induce or trick other children into literacy.

By the time I was twelve I was already up to "L" in the adult stacks of that low-ceilinged brown-carpeted building. This was another problem for the librarians: while they could authorise loaning the Sinclair Lewis with no qualms, there were many titles on the shelves that might have been forbidden to a child. But they just shook their heads, stamped the due date, and wished me well.

Indiscriminate reading took me through mystery, romance, science fiction, biography, history. Agatha Christie, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, anything, everything: I craved the words. From Alexandre Dumas to Marguerite Duras, Goethe to Rilke, with grimier pitstops on the way, my world was expanded - inexorably. In my mind I did not live in the 1980's, or on a woebegone peninsula west of Seattle. I was adrift in an alternate universe of fiction and poetry, where anything was possible, if not probable.

I have very few intact memories of hospitals, doctors, surgery, the violence and misery at the corners of my eyesight. What I remember from my childhood is books, literature, and libraries.

Back in those days the library was also a crucial source of information in the form of directories and phonebooks - the place where a confused rural youth would go to look up the contact information for colleges, in order to write or call for catalogs.

I was old enough to drive by the time I was researching colleges, and had lots of schemes and activities to occupy my time. But I still loved the library, still considered it a haven and refuge from real life. I visited less, but more efficiently, and my memories are more precise, like the regular book sales; always so tragic as my old friends were removed from the stacks forever, and I never had enough money to rescue the titles I had loved the most.

The most vivid memory is from this period: I was wearing a peacock printed minidress, psychedelic blue tights, and knee-high black boots on the day I sat with my back to the children's section researching the university scholarships I would apply for, and win.

The scholarships allowed me to leave town, but I took my library card with me, and I have it still, on the other side of the world, in the top drawer of my grandfather's desk. I sit at the desk and stare at the ephemera on my wall, photographs and paintings of the Northwest, and wonder how I managed to get here - but then I look down at the book in my hand, and start reading again.

The college library was housed in a brutalist architectural monument, all poured concrete and views of a dripping forest. That is where I first read Foucault, along with the collected letters of Thomas Jefferson. I studied, finished my degree, chased my daughter, went to graduate school, started my first career, fell in love - all in the shadows of a library.

What else could a bookish poor kid do? The best I could hope for, the absolute limit of my horizon, was a job in state government. Nothing else was on offer, and I didn't even know I was allowed to wish for more. My undergraduate mentor tried to advise, tried to tell me that I was a writer, but I thought his comments nonsensical. I couldn't afford that kind of fantasy.

Instead I chose a practical, conservative program that would lead to a proper job. Two days before I finished a masters in public administration the director of the program looked up from a copy of my thesis with a frown, and said "You should publish this; you should really consider a PhD."

But I didn't know what PhD even stood for, and publishing was not a viable option. I needed to earn a living, I needed health insurance, I had a kid to raise. I set aside books and buckled down to be an adult.

Within a year it was clear I was not suited to a real job: too opinionated, too dreamy, and also still too sick, I wanted to go back to the library.

I moved to Portland and started a new itinerant career as a writer and publisher - a pursuit that generates sufficient income for my worried working class brain (even as I fret about lack of benefits, a pension, and a job title easy to describe to strangers at dinner parties) if not a regular pay-check. The disadvantages do not matter, because I feel vastly more satisfied and secure. Why? Because I am best equipped for solitary, private pursuit of knowledge. I am thoroughly enamoured with discursive thought. I like puzzles and errata. But most of all, because I am more at home with books, and words, than with people.

But I was surprised to find that the main library was under renovation. I cobbled together a solution with satellite libraries smaller than the parking lot of the library of my youth, and frequent trips to Powell's, which had a better reference section than my alma mater.

It seemed like a coincidence when I moved to Seattle and found that the main library was being demolished to make way for a new lavish modern building that would not open before I left town. But when I moved to Cambridge, England as the main library was similarly dismantled it started to feel like something else entirely: judgement, curse?

I'm not superstitious but I started to take it personally when I found that the municipal lending library was a bookmobile in the market square. I had outgrown the benefits of a bookmobile by age ten, and back then I lived in a place where hardly anyone else was reading. Cambridge is a venerated academic town: everyone is reading.

Most of my friends didn't notice or care because they used the university library and college collections. But I was not affiliated with the university, and thus had no privileges. I could not borrow, and I could not browse. I was allowed to stand in the lobby of a library that included books with my name on the spine, but I was never granted the right to walk in those hallowed halls.

London did not hold much promise because I didn't live there, but also because I lacked the correct credentials for a reader pass at the British Library. Of all the many depressing aspects of my time in the United Kingdom, this remains the worst, outdistancing by far the imprecations of life as an immigrant.

By the time I moved to London I'd been a professional writer and publisher for thirteen years, without ever having access to a decent library.

During that time libraries had themselves changed, moving away from books to an emphasis on information technology. My local library in London is called an "Idea Store" - without any irony whatsoever.

This might be fine for poor kids born in this century who crave words, like I craved words in my impoverished youth. I don't know; maybe they are getting what they need from these new glassy buildings full of computer terminals. But I have a computer at home. What I want, what I need, is books.

It didn't take me long to figure out that there was a solution: the London Library, founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle and friends. Virginia Woolf, John Betjeman, Rebecca West, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Edith Sitwell, Vita Sackville-West, George Eliot, Charles Darwin, Henry James, TS Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, W. M. Thackeray, Siegfried Sassoon, Winston Churchill, and Arthur Conan Doyle were all members: the list goes on from there. EM Forster was given a lifetime membership as a 21st birthday present from a rich aunt.

But there you have the source of my problem, because the library, while eminent and in all ways exquisite, is not free. It does not aspire to be.

This fact was enough to convince me not to join, mainly because I remember the little girl with armloads of books dreaming of a life without sickness, poverty, and pain. If the Kitsap County Regional Library had charged for subscription, I would not have been able to join.

These niceties are not recognised by my immediate family members. The people who live in my house are middle class, educated, entitled, and dismissive. They tell me that I should think more about how that little girl was rescued by reading, and that it is my duty to write stories she would want to read. They say I'm not fit for any other purpose.

And for my birthday this year, they bought me a membership card for the London Library.


maggles's picture
Submitted by maggles on

I loved this post. Thank you. I am trying to launch my heart into writing on a deeper level, which includes reading more, and your post helped my resolution. Best to you,
brave leader and reader.