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The Writer’s Page: Ex Libris

While I know there must be many books that feature great scenes 
set in libraries, one book that I’ve often thought about over the years is The Abortion (1971) by Richard Brautigan, whose narrator works in — and makes his home in — a public library whose shelves are filled with unpublished manuscripts that writers bind themselves and personally bring in, sometimes after hours. Brautigan details these books — titles like Growing Flowers by Candlelight in Hotel Rooms and Leather Clothes and the History of Man. Even ignoring the fact that he presciently describes the coming phenomenon of self-publishing, he’s also on-target about library as shape-shifter — a place that can simply be what it needs to be in order to meet the needs of its population.

But beyond that, there’s a delectable idea at work here of library as container for everything: every thought and creation and wish. In a sense, the library of Brautigan’s novel is like the museum in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Those of us adults who love and occasionally fetishize libraries have the vague, underlying desire to spend the night in one, which isn’t really such a stretch to imagine, since we already feel that, like Brautigan’s narrator, we live in them. I have never, in fact, spent the night in a library, but I do feel as if I have always lived in them, and that my reading, writing, and thinking selves were quietly built inside a series of libraries, from childhood on.

So, to the best of my memory, 
here is a brief account of a life lived 
in libraries.

* * *

slip with dates in 1962My 1960s suburb had a storefront library downtown, not much different from the nearby shoe store with the blindingly clean Thom McAn saddle-shoes in the window, or the delicatessen with the boar’s head in profile on its glass door. The library was small, modest, with a compact children’s section. I would stand and select a couple of Betsy-Tacy titles, or a Rumer Godden doll book. The pages of all those books felt as soft as chamois. One day the library announced that there would be a children’s book club that summer, which I eagerly joined.

“Look,” my mother said, pointing to the big notebook that had been laid out on a table in the library, “you can record journal entries about anything you’ve read.”

But it was summertime, not school time, and I emphatically did not want to do this part. I read the requisite books, and several extras. At the end of summer, there was a magic show for all participants, and Sun Dew orange drink in little containers. And at that show, everyone was handed a copy of a stapled-together journal in which the commentary of the kids who’d written in the notebook appeared in print. I burst into tears when I realized I’d had a chance to be “published,” but had missed it. My mother refrained from saying, “I told you so,” and I’m sure she felt bad for me. I had the uneasy sense, as I sat on the floor with everyone else at that magic show, a dove or two being released above our heads, that if I wanted to be a writer, it would be entirely up to me.

* * *

As much as my childhood had been informed by the moon landing and the promise of all the modern changes that would follow (chiefly, I was afraid of America “going metric,” which had become an active threat), so was it also informed by the new public library, a massive building with glass and light and wide spaces and a central rock garden, and, most critically to me, its own children’s room.

Mrs. Fluckiger was the children’s librarian, and her name registered as whimsical, the kind of name you might give to a children’s librarian in a novel. Mrs. Fluckiger handed me a succession of wonderful books, and I was grateful to her, but it seemed that it wasn’t long before I left that sweet, large room, with its afterschool murmur of children and mothers, and moved into the small and sometimes neglected teen section, where I energetically read compelling books about girls having nervous breakdowns or accidentally getting pregnant (viz: Lisa, Bright and Dark and My Darling, My Hamburger).

Distantly, the adult section waited. I have a sense of the smell of coffee wafting from that part of the building, but that can’t be right; this was long before someone had the idea of luring people to books through café incentives. I think, instead, it’s just that I sensed that adulthood itself waited for me in that section — adulthood with all its aromas and sounds and excitements and privileges.

* * *

It was supposed to be an honor to have been asked to join Great Books, which was held in the basement of the library. The class, facilitated by the mother of one of my friends, was held on Saturday afternoons, at least in my memory, and we were each given special softcover versions of classic adult novels with identical plain, mud-colored covers. The books had to stand on their own based on their contents; no jacket art was there to seduce us. I thought back to children’s books like Johnny Tremain, with its painting of big-headed, ponytailed Johnny, an entire army of Redcoats behind him; and A Wrinkle in Time, with its overlapping sci-fi spheres, and felt a longing for all that I was giving up in exchange for, as best I can remember, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and White Fang.

I was bad in that Great Books class; I barely contributed, barely read the books, but instead I slouched and daydreamed. (I seem to recall that we read a lot of Jack London, but maybe it only felt like a lot at the time.)

Years later, after I’d become a novelist and returned to this library to give a talk, the mother who ran Great Books said to me, slightly bewildered, “You know, it’s funny. You weren’t very good in that class. You seemed sort of uninterested.”

I felt ashamed, but she was right. I hadn’t yet been ready to make the full leap from childhood and adolescence to what struck me suddenly and disappointingly as the far drier plains of adulthood. There may have initially been an imaginary coffee smell in the air of the adult room of the library, but it didn’t exist in the library basement on Saturday afternoons. I was disappointed by Great Books, and irritated, too; but somehow those feelings helped me form strong ideas about what I liked and did not like as a reader. (Perhaps relatedly, no sled dogs have ever appeared in my novels.)

* * *

The author, age 15.

The author, age 15.

Like my older sister before me, I applied for and was given a job as a page at the library. After school I punched a time clock and spent a few hours rolling a metal cart over an ocean of industrial carpet in order to shelve books. Sometimes I would run into a couple of kids from school, and I felt a flush of both embarrassment and pride when they saw me — me with my goody-goody job, and them hunched over a glossy table, writing each other’s names in giant bubble letters on the covers of their loose-leaf binders.

Just as I had not been a very good member of Great Books, neither was I a very good page. The books on the carts had begun to excite and interest me a little too much: I would sometimes sit down in a quiet corner, and instead of shelving books I would read Margaret Drabble or Erica Jong or John Updike or Virginia Woolf.

But the best experiences happened after hours. I was occasionally asked to screen a movie, a coveted task because it paid extra. One night I screened Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, with Liza Minnelli as a woman whose face has been disfigured after her boyfriend throws acid at her. The movie was disturbing, but in the darkness of the library, with the projector ticking away and dust fluttering in the cone of light, and with the sparse audience watching, I felt weirdly content. I was deep in adolescence by this point, a long, fallow period of self-absorption and mild self-loathing. But in the library after hours, I experienced an extended moment of peacefulness. Before I left work, I would sometimes walk around upstairs, taking a tour through the building as if it were in fact Konigsburg’s sleeping museum.

Books, to people who love them, are tantalizing things. Unread, they remain inert, waiting, passive, exciting. The books loomed in the darkness, the shelves hulked, and the copy machine — on which a couple of us pages had been known to photocopy our smushed faces — was still. Everything was paused and waiting, not only for the next day to begin but for people like me to grow up a little more and come and claim it.

* * *

Away from home for the first time, I objectified the image of myself in the library studying. Look at that intellectual girl, I would think. My, she is working hard. I loved reading at a carrel, a word I had never heard before coming to college. The building stayed open far later than the library of my childhood, because college students’ studies had an urgency about them, and needed to be met with correspondingly urgent hours. As much as I remember reading and studying in the college library, I also remember sleeping, my head dropped down onto wood, possessed of a gravity made up of equal parts homesickness, overstimulation, and exhaustion. Leaving the library late, going from its coatroom-damp warmth and out into the cold night with a backpack full of spine-killing books, I was on a new mission that made sense to me, even as I didn’t entirely feel prepared for it.

* * *

Sitting with my young son on my lap on a beanbag chair in the children’s room of one of the New York City branch libraries, I thought it was likely that nothing again would ever be as pleasurable as this. (Though I owed a manuscript to my publisher and it was already late, the only book whose lateness I cared about was a library book: The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, which had entered my apartment and had promptly been sucked into another dimension.) My son sat for long stretches of time, and we read Where the Wild Things Are, and other picture books I’d loved when I was young, and many that were new to me. Reading to him felt as essential as any of my own experiences in libraries. The place hissed with steam, and was shabby and underfunded but lively, and I was always exhilarated to take him there.

* * *

A life spent in libraries has created in me something far beyond “a love of books,” a phrase that I often hear people say when they talk about libraries. Instead, it has created an assumption; an ingrained idea that these places are natural destinations; that even if you’re not ready to use them fully, they wait for you during your reluctant or recalcitrant periods, when you can’t see the Greatness of Great Books. They wait for you, and they offer themselves up patiently, regardless, and somehow eventually you think of them as buildings you would of course need and want to spend time in. (In fact, if there were an animals-in-assembly name for a group of them, like a wake of buzzards or a murder of crows, I think it should be an assumption of libraries.)

Maybe this whole accounting is really an elegy more than anything else, because libraries are different now; they have to be. Everything is different now. And it’s different in my own life, too. My books are in many public libraries, and I didn’t need to bring them in there myself, as in Brautigan’s novel (but I almost feel as if I did — as if I placed each copy personally on the shelf, leaving it there and hoping for the best). And my son, who once sat on my lap in a library reading Sendak, and is now fully and beautifully grown (cause and effect, perhaps?), has a different relationship to libraries. While he too spends a great deal of time in them, he also reminds me that you can use a library remotely, though that word, in connection with these buildings, seems strange. I realize that what I love is the unremoteness of a library: the containment, the holding, the reading, the living.

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Meg Wolitzer About Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer’s most recent work is the YA novel Belzhar (Dutton). Previous books include The Interestings, The Uncoupling, and The Wife (for adults); and the middle-grade novel The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman (Dutton). She is a frequent book reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered and lives in New York City.

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