I had so many questions: Is a blue whale really the size of a bus? How far away is Jupiter? How many frozen peas can fit inside a Boeing 747? This was when I was a kid, of course, in that glorious pre-smartphone era when acquiring answers required some actual doing, when you had time to refine the questions you thought you might have while riding in the way-back of a green Dodge station wagon. Well, let’s go, my mother said, on so many days. Let’s go find out. Let’s go to the library.
I loved our little branch library. I loved the big downtown library, too, and the occasional university library I’d land in. (And still do: Go find yourself a quiet corner, I tell my students, and write near actual books.) But I loved our branch library best. The branch library signals the best of our best intentions: stainless steel, ’50s-style, sans-serif lettering out front (a modern font — we were headed to the moon and beyond!), the wooden double doors, the return slot, the sound of the book clunking home when the drawer shut again.
The basic premise boggled the mind then, and it does still. The machinery of capitalism hums beneath almost any rug whose corner we might turn up, but the library just smiles and says, Yes, we might have a book about that. And not only that, but you may borrow it for two weeks. We trust you. Take it home. Crawl up on your top bunk and trace, with one finger, each and every bird of prey. Bring it back when you’re finished, please.
• • •
The library contains multitudes: Sing with me of the Dewey decimal system, of tracking through the rows of books, of moving down the line from windmills to Michelangelo to the Wright brothers to NASA. I think I learned to love words at the card catalog, stumbling through 16 things I didn’t think I needed to know about in order to find the one I was originally looking for. The library seemed limitless when I was a kid, and it does still. Every branch library in this state, it seems, has a large picture window between the kids’ room and the adult sections, and a wooden chair to sit at a wooden table and just read. You can look up every now and then, if only to confirm that the wider world still exists out there, catching a slice of North Carolina forest through the glass before you fall back into, say, Capt. Ted W. Lawson’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, a book that captivated me the year I was 9.
The smell is some cross between a used bookstore and a middle-school art classroom. The carpets are the same industrial green fleck in every branch in the state. The books are all covered in clear plastic, and in the front or back of each is the magical borrowing card, bearing the names of those who’ve come before you, their due dates inked in red or blue or black. I gave my library card the space in my wallet usually reserved for a driver’s license — it was a passport to anywhere. Anything seemed possible at the library. Everything did.
These days, I cut my own kids loose in the stacks, chase them through books about the history of Lego and the Bermuda Triangle and literally any reptile anywhere. The librarians at our local branch give me the same smile I’m sure the folks at my childhood library gave my mom, a smile that means: Yes, we are supposed to whisper, but we understand, too, that “whisper” can mean a lot of things. What’s that? Snakes of North Carolina? Certainly we have a book about that. Follow me. It’ll be right this way.