Featured Image: Valentin Antonini
I was a loud kid. Not shouting on the playground, tear-stricken tantrum in the grocery store loud, but I’d rather hear the sound of myself talking than silence at any given time loud. It’s an ailment many suffer from, even into adulthood. And as it turns out, a chronic need to be occupied and a penchant for showing off is a deadly cocktail to be coursing through a four-year-old. So blessed was the day my parents found the only place that subdued me for a few days: the public library. Maybe that’s the reason it soon turned into my favorite place in the world, because even I tired of hearing my own incessant voice monologuing to an exhausted audience. Or maybe there’s just something about the libraries we grew up in, the ones where we fell in love with slipping out of our realities and slipping into another’s. Either way, when the pandemic hit and the initial novelty of an apocalyptic lockdown wore off to make way for a fatigued, more ominous burnout with no end in sight, it was the library I missed the most.
I remember the one near the first house I ever lived in, next to a creek full of geese that I’d zealously feed, until one day when they nipped at my knees when I ran out of bread. It was a dated, two-story building, and for a kid that grew up in a tiny two-bedroom apartment unit, it might as well have been The Plaza. I’d rummage through the aisles that always smelled faintly of mothballs, talcum powder, and mildew, carrying a precariously wobbly stack of storybooks up the stairs to the adult sections. I still recall the futile precautionary tale my mom would tell me to (unsuccessfully) dull the novelty of the winding staircase, a little girl just like you was carrying so many books she couldn’t see where she was going and she fell all the way down the stairs and cracked her skull open. And while she browsed, I would dump my pile onto the noisy metal stools with perpetually peeling paint, and read for hours in those cushy armchairs so old that I would sink deep, deep into them.
Every summer as a kid, I would make the weekly trip with my reading challenge board game in hand, ready to stamp more squares on my way to that coveted free book and personal pan size pizza. One year, I committed myself to finish the board game in four weeks, insistent on checking out twelve books at once. I already wasn’t leaving my room except for meals, pretending like I was Harry Potter in the Dursley’s attic and reading by flashlight under the covers at odd hours of the night. After a few rounds of negotiations, I compromised at eight. I vowed to come back the summer I graduated high school and be one of the reading challenge volunteers, so I could get to hand little kids the stamp and inkpad, let them have a shot at the flimsy prize spinners, lead them to the shelves where they could carefully select which book they could take home to keep forever. It’s things like this that I had all but forgotten looking forward to until I remember them a little too well and a dull wave of sadness washes over me. Maybe next summer I’ll get the chance, but then again, what are the odds?
It doesn’t feel the same, reading on tablets and phones and laptops. I read my first fiction novel in months last week; I felt almost foolish going out of my way to find a digital copy of a cheesy whodunnit murder mystery only to deduce the in-plain-sight killer in the first seven chapters and abandon the PDF in a sea of tabs atop my laptop, another fatality in the I’ll come back to this when I have less shit to do graveyard.
I used to scoff at those who griped at the reliance on technology for casual reading, who insisted that nothing compared to the smell of fresh glue and ink, but now I see that it was never about the books themselves. I read a tweet that said libraries are one of the only places left where we’re no longer expected to spend our money, and I think there’s so much truth to that. On the ever-growing list of things this pandemic has taken from us is a place to just be for as long as we want, without feeling like we’re taking up too much time or space or attendance from workers. And now, more than ever, we could all use a place where we can go to escape, even if only for a few hours.