I’ll start with a confession: I currently have over 45 library books checked out, and 19 more are on hold. But here’s the real confession: For me, those are pretty modest numbers. I once had over 80 books checked out, from seven different libraries — five public and two academic — and I might have reached 100 if I hadn’t graduated and moved out of state. It’s not unusual for me to visit two or three branches of the library each week and leave with my arms full each time. No matter how many I have, I never seem quite full.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about my library books, probably more time than I spend thinking about my own books, and maybe even more time than I spend writing them. I track my library books like some people track the stock market or their bank account balance. I still know the basics: how much I checked; when they are due; how many more times can I renew them; and which volumes belong to which branches.
In the event of a memory failure, I set up reminders in my phone’s calendar and dutifully renew them online on their respective due dates. After reaching the renewal limit (three times per book, for a total loan period of nine weeks), I return to the library and reluctantly return them.
Where, my wife often asks me, did this obsession with the library come from? As with most of my faults, I blame my family. But in this case, the fault lies with my father.
Growing up, my dad took me to libraries the way other dads take their kids to the park or the movies. It wasn’t just that he liked them or appreciated them – he believed in them the way some people believe in churches, religions, God. He was a poet and an English teacher, so it made sense that the library – as an idea and a literal place – was sacred to him. He liked the calm and the large, empty tables; he admired their creations, such as the great hall of the Brooklyn Central Library, where he got his first library card as a boy. But what he loved most were the books themselves, the thousands of volumes that filled their collection. And he taught me and my brothers to do the same.
Our first library was in a small town in Massachusetts, an architecturally distinguished Beaux-Arts building, built in the same style my father frequented in Brooklyn, which is probably why we moved there. He would take us on Saturday mornings after swimming lessons, my braid dripping with water and my hands smelling of chlorine, and we would part in the hall, each going in a different direction. We met again an hour later and went home in silence, the three children with their heads in a book, my father whistling a jazz tune on the radio.
When I grew up a bit, read all the books in my class and picked the best ones from my brothers’ shelves, I asked to go more often. My dad and I started a new routine, without my brothers. We’ve always been close, but these trips forged an even deeper bond as my father began to see me differently – not just a member of the pack, but an individual, a person with ideas and questions, talents even . I was a fellow worshiper, a member of the tribe; her daughter. And I started to see myself differently too. I was becoming a writer on these trips, years before I articulated this dream to myself or anyone else, and when the time came, I never had to explain it to my father; he had been there to see it flourish. I had seen it in me from the start and helped bring it to life – one library visit at a time.
I found myself in the libraries, in the buildings as well as in the books themselves. I didn’t have a terrible home life that I was forced to escape from, but I still needed to go somewhere; I needed my own special place where I could leave my usual life behind for a few hours and escape into someone else’s story; I needed the freedom, the silence of an open space in my mind. “Runnin’ space,” as Sterling Brown called it in one of my father’s favorite poems, where the speaker “thinks with winter / Her troubles are gone; / Ten unplanted acres / To make people dream. My mother was a country girl; she needed those acres of land and the open sky to work below, as her farming ancestors had always done.
I was becoming a writer on these trips, years before I articulated this dream to myself or anyone else, and when the time came, I never had to explain it to my father.
I also needed an open canvas, but like my dad, mine had polished walls and floors and hand-painted ceilings filled with stars. My tree was the library, and my favorite branch was the one I discovered in downtown Providence, a few blocks from our new home, a former jewelry factory that a group of artists bought and transformed. in lofts. I was nine the first time I went alone. I did the trail alone, straight down Chestnut Street until it turned into Empire.
I passed several bars, a hair salon, two donut shops and the police station. The smell of fried dough stayed with me as I climbed the marble steps and struggled to push open the heavy wooden doors. It was cold outside and my ears were burning from the heat as I entered the building. First I went to the children’s room, as I had done on trips with my father, and found all the books I wanted. Since he wasn’t there to help me, I carried them in a big canvas tote bag, the one I usually saved for picking up apples that fell from my mother’s trees.
But instead of staying there with the other children and their parents, I took my bag of books into the reference room as my father had shown me, on the wide wooden tables with their bright green lamps, where the grownups spread out newspapers and atlases and other books that didn’t interest me yet, and I made my own space. At home, I shared a big room with my big brothers, but here it was quiet; the air was still and warm, and the leather chairs in the corner were so big they could hold me and all my books, and I didn’t have to move or talk or do anything that I didn’t want to do for the rest of the afternoon.
At the height of the LA County lockdown, when I couldn’t set foot in any branch of the library for over a year, I was desperate for my usual routine. I felt lonely without my library books and went into a particular state of withdrawal. The desire was intense, like I was missing out on a favorite childhood food that I might never taste again. It wasn’t just the books, it was the ritual that I missed; hold due dates in my head, browse options for bedtime reading; put on hold a new book I heard about on NPR, or something a student recommended; chat casually with librarians in our common language – a language not just of literature but of democracy, of civic engagement and history, of participating in a shared collective of words, ideas and values, of something greater than ourselves: holy.
But I came to understand something else about the library, something my father never said, but perhaps knew in his heart: Libraries convey a sense of urgency; the books are only yours for a limited time, and you have to make a choice: finish a library book before it’s due, or let it go. When I think of the last ten books I finished, eight of them are from the library. Of the others I purchased during the same period, more than half of them remain unread. Why? Because I know they don’t have to go back. Without that sense of urgency, I often overlook them and push them to the back of the pile.
As in life, library books come with a countdown, and a person prone to procrastination, distraction from what is essential, soon learns that the library provides necessary discipline, a powerful appeal to the ‘Warning. This understanding came to me late, and I wonder if the same could be said of my father. Or if on the contrary, it was one of his many intentional lessons.
Perhaps he knew, just as he had first known that I would be a writer, that I would need an outside force to remind me that our time here is not infinite; it can be counted in minutes, hours and days, in pages and in the number of books; that even though there seems to be plenty, in the end we can only take what we can carry.
The other mother by Rachel M. Harper is now available through Counterpoint Press.