I was four the first time I remember reading in a library. The book was “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman, and I’m not sure which I found more captivating — the adventure of the hatchling that sets off to find its mother, or my own adventure of picking out a book from what seemed an endless array of enticing titles.
I was hooked early, on books and libraries both. To this day I can visualize precisely the shelves in the fiction section of my school’s library, where I first discovered many of my favorite children’s novels: “The Twenty-One Balloons,” “Harriet the Spy,” “A Wrinkle in Time.”
But the small library in my Cleveland-area day school was merely a gateway drug to the local public library. I spent innumerable hours there as a boy, addicted as much to the serendipitous pleasures of searching for a good book as to the satisfying relish of losing myself in its pages once I found one. My parents, raising five kids on a meager income, had little money to spare for buying books. But my library card was free, and I made heavy use of it.
The University Heights Library was my home away from home. Nothing was off-limits to a curious reader. From the Edward Eager magic books that fascinated me when I was little to “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask,” which held a different fascination as I grew older, it was all available. All I had to do was choose.
I can’t imagine life without libraries. And by “libraries,” I mean actual books. I don’t mean bookless digital-content centers like San Antonio’s BiblioTech, an all-electronic reading venue that looks, as Time magazine wrote, “like an orange-hued Apple store,” outfitted with 500 e-readers, 48 computers, and 20 iPads and laptops. I would never discourage reading, but rows of iMacs do not a library make. The ability to browse goes to the essence of the library experience, along with the egalitarian access that puts books in plain sight of all comers.
Happily, that experience is alive and well. As British journalist Alex Johnson documents in a wonderful new volume, “Improbable Libraries,” even in our digital age readers yearn for printed books, and librarians go to amazing and creative lengths to supply them.
Johnson highlights libraries that have opened in airports, train stations, and hotels, the better to serve readers on the move in this hypermobile era. In Santiago, Chile, there are lending libraries in the subways: The Bibliometro system lends 440,000 books a year from 20 underground stations, and has become the largest public library in the country. A global tiny-library movement has blossomed in the form of honor-system book nooks on street corners, at bus stops, and even in front yards of private homes. In Great Britain, hundreds of iconic red telephone boxes, no longer needed, have been repurposed into mini-lending libraries.
Smartphones and tablets have grown ubiquitous, but reading on screens is not the same — and for many people, not nearly as satisfying — as reading in print. Clicking links on an electronic device is efficient, but it can’t replace the tactile engagement of wandering the stacks, pulling a book from the shelf, reading the dust jacket, flipping through its pages.
The hunger for books knows no boundary. In Laos, the Big Brother Mouse project uses elephants to carry books to remote villages for children to borrow and exchange. The Mongolian Children’s Mobile Library, using camels, does the same thing in the Gobi desert. So does Luis Soriano’s Biblioburro library in rural Colombia — with donkeys.
Life without books and libraries in which to discover them would be unimaginably poorer. “Improbable Libraries” makes that point beautifully. Then again, if you’re anything like me, you’ve known it since you were four.