I love books. I love to read books, to smell books, to touch books and I love talking about books. There has been no time in my life that I have not been surrounded by books. Which means there has been no time in my life when the whole world has not been available to me. Never have I been unable to travel to an African village, or an Amish community, or a planet past the stars. So the most powerful place in the world, in my opinion, is a library with its stacks and stacks of portals into other worlds.
Growing up in a tiny agricultural community in the middle of a wheat field, the public library was one of the two cultural oases available to me. (I’m sure most folks would pick other places to classify as a cultural oasis, such as the local tavern, but not me.) My mom would take my sister and I to the library every two weeks and we would haul home colorful rectangles promising to show us the world.
As a voracious reader, one summer I decided I would read every book in the children’s section. Every single one of them. I remember sitting on the floor in front of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and emptying the whole section into my bag.
In reality, I didn’t read the whole children’s section. The truth is, I got bored with “little kid” books and moved to the grown-up “mystery” section. But I still remember the feel of the carpet on my bare skin as I pulled book after book from the shelf to read. It felt like freedom.
Years later, I moved to an even small community which meant the library came to me via a book-mobile. No longer was I able to sit down on the carpet and plan where in the world I was going to travel next. Instead I taught myself to “listen to the books”. In other words, I would just let the colors and fonts “speak” to me and randomly select books to read.
In the late 1990s I read what would become one of my favorite books, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Week after week I went to the shelf where I hoped to find Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits only to find it was still missing. My finger would trace the spines and week after week it was Alvarez there instead of Allende. It seemed to speak to me like the sweet boy who asks you to the dance because he knows you will be sitting at home otherwise. But like some “pity dates” a magic transpired. Alvarez’s telling of the Mirabal sisters rattled about my head for several years until I finally talked my department into teaching it.
I like to think of books at night. The lights are dimmed and the people gone. And slowly, one at a time, the characters pull their heads out of the covers, checking for humans. And if all is clear, they come out. Dressed in their regalia or rags or hairy coats, each character runs about, stretching and playing, until the sunlight creeps over the horizon and they all must go back to their pages, to wait. To wait and hope for gentle hands and a mind hungry to meet them.
And the library, a public place for all the citizens regardless of financial and social status in this nation, lets anyone who enters its doors find this magic for themselves, for free. Giving such a gift is a powerful thing indeed.
What book transported you? What about it did you love? What surprised you?