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Libraries – a modern day miracle

According to the Guardian and other sources, an extremely successful author has come out against libraries on the grounds that (a) the concept is no longer relevant and (b) they prevent money from going to authors and bookstores.

If I could speak with this gentleman, I’d ask the following question: when did you lose your love of books? Of reading? Of a joyful, magical world where thoughts and pages and possibilities are endless?

It’s almost axiomatic that every author started out as a reader.  Sometimes that author was frustrated that the story he/she wanted to read hadn’t yet been written; or maybe not enough of his preferred genre existed; or maybe he or she simply had a story to tell, and wanted to tell it in book form. But we started as readers.  Some were reluctant readers, forced into the act by teachers and parents; and some were voraciously self-motivated.

In any case, at some point, every author fell in love with books. With reading. With the whole scene.

I never realized one could fall out of love with it.  Sure, we can love money/income and love books, but to be so myopic as to say everyone, regardless of the level of their love of reading, regardless of the level of their income, regardless of any circumstance, cannot read a book unless they have plunked down cash for it?


Most people can’t possibly afford to buy all the books they want to read. But the miracle is, they want to read them! And we want them to want to read them, because it’s the single most encouraging sign that civilization – while morphing – is still evolving in a wonderfully positive direction.  Sure there are a zillion entertainment and educational choices these days, all of them admirable. Video games, travel, music, Googling – our brains are dancing to a myriad of different drummers.

Can we afford them all? No. In particular, video games and travel are greatly limited by budget constraints (and time restraints, equipment, etc)

But video games are seductive in the same way TV and movies are. Words plus pictures plus soundtrack plus instant characters. You don’t have to work for it, it’s just there on the buffet.

Reading is a little different. It seduces by variety; by scope; by the ability to curl up in a corner and experience it. It seduces by coaxing a partnership out of a child’s imagination. It seduces by offering someone the world – in fact, the universe!

And that limitless universe is free for the taking – as long as you return it in 14 days. To me, that makes it even better. Like a magic spell, it has conditions. You must treasure it. You mustn’t abuse it. It’s fragile, but you can have a tast of it. And if you want to own a particular piece of that magic forever, well, that’s when money enters the equation.

I’ve certainly read thousands of books in my time, and skimmed tens of thousands of them. How many do I own in hard copy? Probably 500 at the moment, and of those, I probably bought 100 in used book stores. (I’ve also donated a ton of books to library sales, so over my lifetime thus far, I’ve owned far more than I currently possess/dust on my shelves.)

These days, we own a fair amount of ebooks as well.

But I could never afford what a library still gives me– the ability to sit at a table with a stack of books, absorbing all I can possibly absorb, checking out a handful for 14 days, and making note of the ones that didn’t quite make the cut (just in case I flash back fondly on them).  Sure I could use the internet for research – and I do – but there’s no substitute for a pile of books.

And as a child? I probably read hundreds of books every year, but couldn’t possibly own even a fraction of them. For one thing, my parents couldn’t afford it. For another, they were prudent with their dollars. And most importantly, when choosing a book to buy, to own, to waste a precious “what do you want for your birthday” moment on – well, I had to be really sure. Because shelve space and money aren’t limitless – except at the library. And to be fair to my parents, I think they loved libraries too. They didn’t see them as a way to save money, but rather, as a way of giving their children the whole, wide world.

Mr. Well Known Author argues that libraries have become irrelevant. I contend that it’s just the opposite – in this world of entertainment choices and shortening attention spans, we need to make books more widely available than ever if we want to nurture a new generation of voracious readers. If we still value literacy. If we want to spawn a new generation of authors.

If we still believe in magic, then we must believe in libraries.

p.s. My thanks to John Scalzi for mentioning this on his blog. It made me re-live those magical days when I approached the very building with such reverence I practically genuflected. The best of all was Barrington Public Library, an imposing building that had stacks upon stacks upon stacks. I haven’t seen it in years, and I’m sure there are computers and DVDs and all manner of tempting morsels there now, and good for them, but in my mind, it’s all books, and most of them have my junior fingerprints on them.

Oh and don’t get me started on used book stores! I have dozens upon dozens of reference books on shipbuilding, on the American West, on horses, on Celtic folklore, even on the origin of words and language, on King Arthur – well, the list goes on. Pure treasure, but I never could have justified buying these fabulous hardbacks at full price, and so I would have settled for reading them at the library rather than drooling over and cherishing them forever.


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