I am grateful that my parents, my teachers, and the phonics-heavy “Alice and Jerry” series in first grade taught me how to read. Beyond these seminal reflections, I hold in memory two distinct episodes of what were, without exaggeration, life-changing experiences of the introduction of books into my life – books as physical objects of learning and enjoyment. I was apparently a good reader from the start. But it was these experiences that turned me into a book reader:
It was probably the summers after third, fourth, and fifth grades that I would ride my bike the eight blocks from our house to the Huron Public Library. At least part of the time I must have been participating in an organized summer reading program for kids. (Here’s to summer reading programs for kids!) I think I had a chart to fill out. The memory is as much physical and tactile as it is mental: The cool marble floors of the 1909 Carnegie Library building, the hot summer day left behind outdoors, the meaningful hush produced by the neck-craning grandeur of the high ceilings and book-lined walls, the kid-height bookcase island in one of the alcoves. And, of course, the solid feel of the book as I pulled it from that case – just browsing, I discovered it myself – and the light riffle of the pages as it falls open to “How the Leopard Got His Spots” in Kipling’s “Just-So Stories,” and the scrape of the chair as I take the book to the nearest table. I can’t wait until I get home – I’ve got to read this here: “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “The Elephant’s Child,”…. The memory is of the book – and the place of the book. The temple of the book.
Then, comic books (now I am exaggerating), until:
In my junior year in high school I was looking for something in a back corner of our basement, and I came upon a box of books. Hard-cover books with slip-covers intact. Not musty and smelly, but clean and almost like new. Like all smart young moderns, my parents had belonged to the Book-Of-The-Month club in the early years of their marriage, and this was a trove they had packed away in our move from Huron to Rapid City (or maybe earlier). It was the thrill of discovering “Just-So Stories” all over again – and the weighty feel of these tomes: “Clarence Darrow For The Defense,” “Dear and Glorious Physician” (a novel about the Apostle Luke – with some authentic, uh, earthy parts in it if you get my meaning), a novel called “Yankee Pasha.” I read book after book out of this box. And, like the bookcase in the Huron Library, I still have a picture in my mind’s eye of exactly where I found that box, and I’ve been a book reader ever since. (I didn’t return to comic books, although I’d kill for a good copy of “Donald Duck and the Pony Express Rider,” c. 1958.)
The rapid development and acceptance of the e-book (ten of the last twelve books I’ve purchased have been on Kindle) cause me to wonder (not rant – just wonder) what experiences children will have in the future that may be equivalent to the cool alcoves of the Carnegie Library or finding that box of books in my basement.
It is obvious from the modest building pictured in the photo, above, that I am remembering it from my kid's-eye view. But it does kind of look like a temple, doesn't it? It was torn down in 1965 and replaced by a blond brick building of one level. You know what that looks like. It doesn't look like a temple.
I have another Carnegie Library memory. In the sumer after my junior year in college, I had a job selling dictionaries door-to-door (forgive me) in Washington, Indiana. There, too, I came upon the cool confines of an historic Carnegie Library on a hot day. I visited again and again, my dictionary bag slung on the back of the chair. It was during those visits that I discovered the treasures of The New Yorker, Harpers, and The Atlantic magazines -- which have become part of my life. The lure of the library was such that it, shall we say, interfered with my sales performance. I ended the summer owing the dictionary company twelve dollars.
This now-classic video depicts similar wonderment at the transition between the use of the scroll and the printed book. (Just in case you haven't seen it.)
I have reflected on my gratitude to those who introduced books and reading to me in this post: "Thank You, Miss Zamow," -- and more experiences with discovering books in "The Lord of The Plastic Revolving Book Rack."
I am proud, happy, pleased, and excited that one of our daughters is a librarian. She and her lively colleagues have moved far beyond Carnegie 1909, and have answers to book questions that I haven't even thought of asking.