Fridays after school, especially when the weather was lousy, Mom would take me to the library. She’d let me check out whatever I wanted, and I checked out a lot. Some of my choices were predictable ones like Stephen King or Beverly Cleary or Charles Schulz. But other Fridays I checked out writers I doubt more than three souls in the whole county had heard of: writers like Italo Calvino or Tadeusz Borowski or Chinua Achebe. Often their books were too weird for me, and I’d only manage to stagger through their landscapes for a few pages.
But sometimes I fell in love.
I read Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat’’ when I was 11. (“Mom, what’s a dinghy ?’’) I read Paul Bowles’s “The Sheltering Sky’’ when I was 12. (“Mom, what’s hashish?’’)
Here’s what I think about now: No one ever told me no. Not Mom, not the prim librarians stamping return dates onto slip after slip. No one ever said: This book is outside your age range; this book is too complicated.
2. We live in a culture that venerates scores. We affix numbers to how much fat is in our mochachinos, how quickly our telephones suck information from the air, how much pain we’re in. Reading, too, has become a skill to quantifiably assess. My twin sons’ most recent report cards, for example, have them reading at a “proficient’’ level for their grade.
Proficiency! Happy news, I suppose. But I worry that we are presenting reading to our kids as a labor to suffer through for which a reward can be earned at the end: Read these two pages, Timmy, and then you can go play your Nintendo DS! Finish three more books this summer, Claire, and you’ll cross the competence threshold!
These are, of course, credible and well-intentioned approaches. The message to young people is obvious: Books are good for you. What’s missing, however, is the idea that sustained reading is magic, a kind of magic that can be wildly addictive, even dangerous.
Books, remember, used to be considered as compulsively all-consuming for young people as “Call of Duty 3’’ or binge-texting is now. Lovely Emma Bovary read too many romance novels and the next thing she knew she was cheating on her husband, running up huge debts, and putting fistfuls of arsenic in her mouth. Don Quixote read so many chivalric adventures he could no longer tell the difference between a belligerent giant and a windmill.
Pretty much every night of their lives, my 8-year-old sons have absorbed themselves entirely in books. As toddlers they pointed out pictures, made conjectures; lately we find them in their bunk beds embarked upon two-hour comic-reading benders. They want joke books, caveman books, books about a baby that gets magic powers and flies around in his diaper.
What my kids remind me, every evening, is that books are not always parboiled eggplant or overcooked asparagus; they’re not giant horse pills stuffed with mental-multivitamin-dust meant to be choked down before dessert.
Some books are roasted lobsters soaked with butter; some are molten tubs of dark chocolate; some are luminescent piles of narcotics.
3. Supposedly the brain excretes endorphins when a person’s mind is stimulated, when a person is thinking imaginatively and creatively. Endorphins are opioids, as you may have heard; they have a similar chemical structure to morphine. So I don’t think it’s too far off to suggest that great books are like drugs, readers like junkies, and, yes, to stretch the analogy into absurdity, good librarians like drug dealers.
So, to all you beautiful librarians out there, with National Library Week in the offing, keep slinging the rock, pushing the product. Keep on putting books in the hands of readers, because as every good dealer knows, all it takes is one fix and your patrons are hooked.
There were a lot of exceptional books for me, but there was one in particular. A librarian in Bainbridge, Ohio, gave it to me when I was 14. It was written by a girl about my age. Her name was Anne Frank.
“I see the eight of us in the Annex,’’ she wrote, “as if we were a patch of blue sky surrounded by menacing black clouds. The perfectly round spot on which we’re standing is still safe, but the clouds are moving in on us, and the ring between us and the approaching danger is being pulled tighter and tighter.’’
That has everything to do with the power and magic of reading - the coming darkness, the danger, and the little trembling packets of magic that are words. In those sentences, in those paragraphs, a murdered girl still lives.
4. In an era when some state governments are basing estimates for their future prison populations on the literacy rates of their third-graders, there are many justifications for the continued existence of public libraries. People who don’t have jobs turn to them. People who don’t have childcare turn to them. People who don’t have computer skills turn to them. Libraries are deeply useful.
But is “usefulness’’ the only criteria we should consider? Can’t the books inside libraries also show readers beauty, wake them up to the startling, breathtaking phenomenon of being alive?
These are things that cannot be scored or quantified. And yet they are considered the most important reasons, perhaps, for sustaining libraries.
On the map of my life, with its dark spots and blank spots and smudged spots, few spots glow more brightly than the libraries, those luminous repositories of stories and lives, little holy lands that have taught me, all my life, about the mysterious, dangerous, profound, and addictive magic of our shared language.