When I was in elementary school, I took swimming lessons at our town’s YMCA. Never very daring, I remained a Minnow for a Very Long Time because I flatly refused to do the sit-down dive. “Plummet head first into darkness?” I asked myself. “I think not.”
No, I far preferred the building next to the YMCA. It was Nichols library, and it housed untold adventure. What could be behind the gold link chain separating the Adult section from the Children’s? How come only the librarians were permitted to climb the stairs to the balcony? What would happen to you if you dared to speak above a whisper? The answer to these questions were unknowable for a child.
Instead, I had to content myself with checking out books using my pink, cardboard library card, with a little metal disc inserted into the lower corner. The librarian would stamp it somehow, I don’t recall the exact details, and she would use a little roller stamp with the correct date scrolled onto its bottom to mark the due date in little rectangles on the paper attached to the inside of the book’s front cover.
Oh, the due date! Another detail in my childhood which escaped me. What was I to do when Toby Tyler and The Circus could not be found for months?! (Later it would appear, between my bedstead and the wall, in the darkest corner of my room.) How could I pay for the 5 cent daily accrual of fines, which in middle school became 10 cents? It was horribly embarrassing to ask my mother for the totals, admitting that I had been careless with borrowed property. Irresponsible about returning what wasn’t mine when there was No Good Reason.
When I returned from teaching in Germany, our town had developed into such a place that there were actually bookstores now. (As well as a McDonald’s!) Barnes and Noble, Borders and other small shops competed for my attention. “Fines?” I thought. “I may as well just buy the book outright.” Which I did.
And then, there appeared e-readers. Nooks, to be specific. Now I didn’t even need to leave my own home. I could install gift cards from the children in my class, peruse samples, and hit Buy Now whenever I wanted. It was luxury beyond compare…
I went to the library today. I was just curious if they had some of the books I want to read, some for the Venice in February Challenge: Venetian Betrayal by Steven Berry, The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri, even a new Penny Vincenzi novel. What do you know? They did! They had the books I wanted! For free!
I sat in the depth of a library armchair, with afternoon sun streaming on my book’s page, and I sniffed. I’d forgotten the scent of the paper. The feel of the binding loosened from the book’s previous readers. The crackle of the protective plastic cover. I’d forgotten the almost holy quietness which pervades most libraries. Ah, it was heaven.
If only I can remember to return them in time.