Public libraries shaped my life.
In the sixth grade I went regularly to a library in Queens. Most of my friends who went there were more intrigued by the bakery across the street. The main attraction was at a side window where this new food called pizza was being served. But I was going to the library for a project. My class was assigned what was called a special interest report. I wrote mine about Israel. This subject choice would have astonished my Hebrew school teachers. They had rarely encountered a student who so exquisitely combined indifference and inability. I wasn’t sure why I picked Israel. No one ever talked about the country. This was 1958, and it wasn’t particularly in the news. For whatever reason, I dutifully scanned the shelves, taking down books, reading them. I met another boy from another school. We agreed to meet each week so we could read together. That was a special kind of friendship. My work was the first research I had ever done. I didn’t know it then, but doing that research prepared me for my entire life.
My family moved to Sag Harbor, a small town on the eastern end of Long Island, a year later. The John Jermain Library was a few minutes walk from my house. It was a pleasant place, even if its collection was restricted. I read my first adult novel there. I was thirteen, unsure what to read. I was in the library looking for material when the librarian told me the place was closing in a few minutes, and I had to choose. My mind rushed. I didn’t know any title or any author. Then I saw the title Babbitt. I had no idea what the book was about, but I did recall that I had seen an Abbott and Costello cartoon in which the Costello character had called the Abbott character “Babbitt.” I thought the book must be funny. I took it home, sat on a couch, and began reading. I hadn’t finished half a page before I rested it against my chest and said words to myself to the effect that I couldn’t believe someone could get down so much truth on a page.
And so I began serious adult reading, starting with all the Sinclair Lewis books in the library. This resulted in a problem later that year. The film version of Elmer Gantry was released in July 1960. Following the advice of her sister, my mother told me that I was not allowed to see the film. I argued that I had read the book and so I knew what the film was about. It didn’t work. She wouldn’t change. I was still thirteen, and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t see that I was old enough to watch the film. As I got older, I found it easy to forgive her. For the rest of her life, though, she periodically apologized to me for what I thought was the only parenting mistake she ever made in her life.
The library in Sag Harbor was an unusual place. One day I stood in line next to John Steinbeck waiting to check out books. I had some strange experiences in the library. When I was fourteen, I took to reading novels about World War II. I read The Naked and the Dead, The Young Lions, and others. I wanted next to read From Here to Eternity, in part because James Jones was then living in nearby East Hampton. I went to the appropriate library shelf, but no Jones book was there. It was famous, I thought, and so it had to be there. Finally, I asked the librarian. “Oh,” she said, “We keep it up in the attic.” I gently asked if it would be possible for her to get it because I wanted to read it. “Do your parents know you’re getting the book?” she asked. My eyes were unblinking. “Absolutely,” I unashamedly lied, “In fact they suggested it.” This seemed to provide enough emotional cover for her, and she got me the dusty copy of a great book.
My mother was drafted into driving me to the much larger library in Southampton. There I could get books on philosophy. I read The Myth of Sisyphus and Bertrand Russell’s history of philosophy. I was quite taken by Kant and was determined to read him. I took out Critique of Pure Reason. I read through two pages and thought that perhaps I had gotten the Ukrainian edition. Kant went back to his place in the library.
That was the beginning. Later, there were many other libraries in my life, the lives of my children, and, soon, in the lives of my grandchildren.
But libraries are changing. People research on the internet. They go to the libraries to rent CDs and videos as much as books. I don’t know what the libraries will be like in ten or twenty years. Perhaps they will transform into community centers. I don’t mind change. And it wouldn’t matter if I did. It is just that, in my mind, the library in its traditional form saved my life. I want them to be around to save others.