There weren’t books in my house growing up. There was reading material, however. Two newspapers were delivered daily, and a third came once a week. There were magazines. I think the parents subscribed to Reader’s Digest. I read some of its articles, but mostly I went to the anecdotes and jokes. There were many other magazines that came from friends of my mother’s who passed them on to her when they were through with them—Life, Look, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal. And I exaggerate when I say no books were in the house. There was an encyclopedia and a few textbooks that seemed as if they came from my father’s high school days, but there were not the kind of books a second grader who discovered he liked reading wanted.
I soon found the public library. It may have been a mile from the house, but in those days, a mile was nothing. A two-story building with the adult section on the entrance floor and the youth books upstairs. I fell in love with two series: Freddy the Pig books and what I thought of as orange biographies. I don’t remember much about the Freddy tales, but the biographies were so labeled in my mind because they all had orange covers. Of appropriate length for a third grader, they were hero books with an emphasis on the childhoods of Thomas Edison or Andrew Jackson, but they also contained enough about the subject’s adulthoods for me to learn much about history. I believe that these books have stayed with me, forming much of my background knowledge about various personages and historical eras.
Perhaps because I was shy, I read constantly, even while walking to and from school. It was not long before I felt I had exhausted the offerings of the children’s section of the local public library. Luck befell me in the person of Miss Dahlberg, my sixth-grade teacher. She recognized my dilemma and went with me to the public library. I don’t remember at what age one qualified to take books out of the adult section, but it certainly was not the sixth grade. Miss Dahlberg talked with library directors, and then some higher-up library directors. She knew how to hold her ground. (None of us kids would have been surprised. We all knew she had been a WAC during WWII and had even parachuted out of a plane!) What had been rigid rules for the library were no match for her, and I walked out with a library card that granted me adult privileges. (Actually, inked on it was “Adult Priviledges.” Miss Dahlberg knew how to be gracious in victory. She noted the misspelling and told me that it would not matter, and we left the library.)
This golden card allowed me to enter a new stage in my reading. There was no one to tell me what were good books or what books they had enjoyed. I certainly did not then read book reviews. Instead, I would walk the stacks, read jacket copy, read a few paragraphs or pages and then used gut intuition to take out books. Thus, the reading at this stage was random. Only years later did I gain direction and would perhaps read one Hemingway or Fitzgerald after the other. Well, there was one direction that came before that. I was soon at the age where there was an interest in male-female relationships, and I would spend many hours skimming books back in the shelves looking for some sort of sex scene, but I seldom checked such books out.
I remember little of what I read from these directionless days except, perhaps, for The Mouse that Roared, and its sequels, by Leonard Wibberley. The Cold War satire was a delight, a precursor in my mind to Dr. Strangelove, but like that movie, it also hit my emerging views that the powerful– whether the military, political, corporate, or social–were to be distrusted. If I had then talked about books with others, I would have insisted that all read it.
The other book I remember from that period was different in that I did not stumble across it—From Here to Eternity by James Jones. I am not sure how I became aware of the book; even if I had read about books, I would have been too young when the book was published, or even when the movie of it came out, for it to have registered with me. But somehow a half dozen years or so after its publication, I decided I wanted to read it, and I went looking for it on the shelves of the Mead Public Library. I did not find it, and then I learned that in that staid period the book was too explosive or controversial to be allowed on the shelves. A potential reader had to ask for it at the front desk. I did, and this caused consternation. No one apparently wanted to be the one responsible for corrupting this youth by giving him this book, but I insisted that the library had granted me “adult priviledges.” After much discussion behind closed doors, the book was produced, and I was allowed to check it out. Perhaps the library staff did not want to take on Miss Dahlberg again.
This was the first adult book that mesmerized me. The beach scene famous from the movie was not the real draw. The sprawling narrative was captivating, but it was the character of Robert E. Lee Prewitt that totally grabbed me—a Hamlet, a Tony Zale, a Miles Davis, a Kierkegaardian zen figure, a lover, a friend, an anti-authoritarian, a patriot. Of course I was not alone in these reactions, but I did feel that the character talked especially to me.
Life moved on, and I went off to college. Now a library was different. It was a research institution, not a place for browsing to find material to fill up my idle hours. I said good-bye to the kind of library that had helped form me. Now I did what had once been a radical act for me; I bought books and rather than checking them out of libraries.
That pattern remained for decades. It only got altered when I started spending summers in the Poconos and finally became a regular patron of the Barrett Friendly Library. It is smaller than my hometown one, but it has a similar feel. Of course, libraries have changed since my youth. Many still go to that library for its books, but now many also come to use the computers, but even this latter group really come to the library for the reasons I did. I didn’t have books at home, and they do not have books and computers at their home. Recently I read about a county out West that had slashed its already low taxes more and as a result was closing its public library. I felt a despair for the place and a grief for all the kids there who did not have access to books and computers.
Owning computers, I am one who goes to the library for the books, and the library has brought back some of my old browsing ways. I don’t wander the general fiction and nonfiction shelves as I would have in olden days. Instead, I browse the bookcases of “new releases,” an often generous ascription in this small library because a volume can remain “new” for over a year. At the beginning of summer, I concentrate on the nonfiction and biography sections. While on occasion I spot a title that I have heard about from elsewhere, most of the books are previously unknown to me. I just look for topics that I might find interesting, and since the collections are diverse, this has led to varied subjects. Last year from the library I read about class and poverty in America, a North Korean pilot who defected, the CIA, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, the connection between corporate America and a form of Christianity, surfing, modern China, and a Jesuit traveling in the Holy Land.
I feel like this library has returned me full circle to reading habits I had when still in Wisconsin public schools, but more important, it has reminded me of how important the library was in my formation and how important it must still be for the many who are raised in homes without the resources that too many of us just take for granted. A long time ago I had vowed that if I ever published a book, I would make a donation to my childhood library, and both events eventually happened. Now the wife and I have given money to the Friendly Library, and of course, I urge you to support a local library—volunteer or donate money, or both.