A couple nights ago, we asked each other what our favorite book was. Usually, it is challenging for me to name anything as a favorite, because my favorites change day to day, depending on assorted variables. But when it comes to books, there is one which, hands down, has been and always will be my favorite. Wuthering Heights. Read it the first time when I was thirteen, and have reread it at least once a year since, and sometimes more than just once a year. When I was explaining why it is my favorite, I talked on and on about it, because it is that good of a read.
After everyone had retired for the evening, I continued thinking on books and the love of reading; without a doubt the greatest, most valuable gift one can give to others and to oneself. As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I realized early on how fortunate I was to have parents and grandparents who read. I cannot recall a single day where someone was not reading a book; that was what adults did in the evening when everything else about their day was done. Nor can I recall, as a preschooler, ever going to bed without one of my parents reading to us after we were scrubbed, in our jammies, and tucked in bed for the night. I, personally, seldom made it too far past “Once upon a time…” before I was sound asleep; a triggered behavior, I believe, that has made it virtually impossible for me to listen to audio books, or someone reading to me or a group, aloud. Just a couple words into the story, and I will find myself nodding off, completely unable to stay awake. Needless to say, that definitely is not an activity for driving a car, nor for sharing in with people, outside of family members, who do not understand my peculiar narcoleptic response to the spoken words of a book.
As I got older and was in school, I read for myself, and thus discovered, what was to me the most wonderful place, ever. The public library. There are few events in my life that I look back upon that were filled with more joy and excitement than the day I got my first library card; a small, yellow card that had the date I became a patron stamped on it, some details about the responsibilities that went along with checking out books, and my signature at the bottom. It was a yellow ticket issued to a little girl who was ready to explore the world, learn anything she was curious about, and become acquainted with anyone ever written about. I felt giddy at the prospect of accessing all that this world of print contained.
The children’s library was downstairs from the main library, and had its own outside entrance to a large room filled with shelves of books. At the time, I thought this was because we were being recognized and treated as special, independent, capable people. It did not occur to me it could be because kids were noisy, disruptive annoyances in a time when libraries were bastions of courtesy and silence. Even so, we were extra quiet when we entered the building, and if we forgot to use our indoor whisper voices, there was the ever-present children’s librarian, who was so scary and cranky, I am positive an entire generation of future librarians ran as fast as they could in the opposite direction of that particular calling, due entirely to the terror she struck in hearts of young local readers who spoke out loud in her sacred domain.
The neighborhood in which I lived was on the outskirts of town, and in the 50’s, very few families had more than one car. Since my dad drove our car to work everyday, there was no way to get downtown, where the library was located, until after he came home. By that time of day, our traditional Tuesday evening trip to the library was for the purpose of my parents obtaining a week’s worth of reading, not to entertain their overly energetic children. When my parents went into the library to get their books, my siblings and I remained in the car which was parked on the street along side of the building. Periodically, either my mother or father would look out one of the second story windows at us, and then proceed with their browsing. I do not know if they never saw the pinching, shoving and pummeling going on in the backseat of the car, or if they just did not care; I do know it was a weekly free-for-all as we waited for them, and I always was glad when they finally came back, and our visit to the library was over.
Being excluded from going inside the library, and having to wait in the car instead of being able to mosey up and down the aisles of books with my parents was not a deterrent to my reading. Our little valley town had a bookmobile that came to our neighborhood, and I never missed a single one of its visits. It arrived in the late afternoon every week, and parked in an old, deserted, dusty lot at the end of our road. When it lumbered to a stop and opened its doors, the adventure would begin. Inside that beautiful over-sized bus, where the floors creaked and the interior was lit by a tiny dim light bulb in the ceiling, the musty smell overpowered this young reader who saw the many shelves of books, and was challenged to read everyone of them. Wandering from front to back, looking at and touching all those titles, it was pure joy to finally decide upon the one to check out and take home.
Although I cannot recall the title, I do remember the very first one I borrowed was a picture book about spilled milk, and different shapes the liquid took, somewhat like wet white clouds on a dark table. I also remember, after finishing reading it, the amount of trouble I brought upon myself when I got a bottle of milk from our refrigerator, and proceeded to pour puddles of it on our kitchen table, curious as to what shapes I could make from my own spilled milk. That was an early lesson in just because I read it did not mean I had to try it myself. No. Sometimes, just reading and appreciating were enough.
It has been a long time since obtaining my first library card, and tramping through the dusty vacant lot to visit that old bookmobile. Many thousands of books read over the years have provided me with as much satisfaction as one ever could hope for, and more. It is without hesitation I recommend libraries to anyone of any age, and I have a library secret to share: If you are attempting to learn something particularly difficult, and cannot understand the instructions in any publication on the subject, either online or in adult books, go to the children’s section of your library. There, you will find every topic you can imagine; the books and periodicals written simply with an abundance of pictures, thereby helping the willing learner to accomplish their goal.
Finally, it is with mixed feelings I mention the days of library silence, enforced by an ever vigilant librarian, whose craggy stone face, and harsh “shhhh!!” struck terror in the heart of any child who ever thought of uttering a word not whispered, are over. In the interest of encouraging today’s children to appreciate and utilize their local library, silence has been given over to exuberant, happy readers who treat those hallowed book filled rooms with the same volume and vigor found on a playground. It is not a bad trade off; I wish for all children to experience the wonder of books; and if quiet is more important than youthful enthusiasm, I know where one can buy earplugs, and they are just as effective and a lot less fierce than the grouchy silencer of days gone by. No, not a bad trade at all.