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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

It’s National Book Lovers Day.

Why? Nobody knows. Who started it? Nobody knows. When did it become a day? Nobody knows. But the internet is nothing if not a place where people will repeat the same unsubstantiated thing ad nauseam.

In this case I happen not to care, because books are involved. And if someone wants to celebrate books, I’m in.

Unfortunately I’ve already covered books as a word, and while repeating a topic is not against the rules that I wholly and arbitrarily invented, I am trying not to. But that gave me another idea.


What is a library if not a magnificent collection of books? Free ones!

New ones. Old ones. Classics. Dime store trash. I mean really, anything you want in all their excellence and awfulness, the happy endings and the glum predictions. The thought provoking prose and mind boggling verse. The guilty pleasures and the life changers. Even 50 Shades of Gray.

Hey, you can’t win them all.

I’ve been in love with libraries since as far back as I can remember. I was that nerdy kid in school who found sanctuary in those narrow stacks of books, a safe space where no bully dared to tread. The Wild Things might have eaten them.

Libraries are where ideas are born, where worlds are explored, and passions incited or satiated. Stupid people don’t go to libraries. It makes them gloriously silent.

I remember many a magical Saturday in the sunny children’s section of my hometown library, carefully choosing the books that went home with me that day. My mother took us often, a little field trip to soothe the savage beasts, especially during long summer vacations.

I don’t remember what the limit was on the number of books you could take out at once, but I know there was one. I hit it, every time. What’s more satisfying than waddling out of a library with a stack of books too tall to see over?

A book person can’t not love libraries. So many stories not yet explored, all those dazzling book jackets covered in shiny, protective plastic, the dusty smell of old pages turned and turned and turned again.

One of the first things that Ralph and I do when we visit a new place – even before we find the best cocktails or a good ice cream cone, if you can believe it – is find the library.

Libraries make wonderful places to work. They are quiet by default, they are cozy by nature, and when you need a break you can escape into any possibility you can imagine.

I’ve been to libraries from New York to California, and they aren’t all the most physically beautiful things in the world, but there is always something uniquely bookish about them.

In California we worked at a tiny library with books piled to the ceiling and old, creaky floors. We sat at a solid wood table in solid hardwood chairs. There was no air conditioning, and it was summer, so we sat as close to the solitary fan as possible. It was perfect.

Here, we work at shiny, new libraries, with vaulted glass ceilings and outdoor courtyards. One of them will not only loan books, but art that you can take home and use to adorn your home for a few weeks at a time. They’re perfect.

A panoramic shot of the rotunda at our local library. It sits under a large domed glass ceiling that is fabulous in the rain.

This is the part where I wish I was more poetic, because libraries, so full of more words than even I could conceive, deserve more than these few feeble ones.

I did, however, find a most excellent poem about libraries. I invite you to read it here.

A lovely courtyard outside another local library with gardens, water fountains and excellent spots for reading.

One of my favorite parts of a library is the banned books section. It’s fascinating to read them, and even more so to see which titles made the list and why. The Grapes of Wrath has not only been banned at various times but burned. It apparently has “all kinds of profanity in it,” not to mention “unfavorable propaganda.” It is one of my favorites.

To Kill A Mockingbird, that genius of literature, was banned for, among other things, using the word “damn” and for being a “filthy, trashy novel.” Oh, and don’t flatter yourself to think this was done by some old-timey back-in-my-day rednecks. It was most recently challenged, though not officially banned, in 1980 in New York.

If the book burners had their way you could say goodbye to nearly every great author, from J.R.R. Tolkein right to Ernest Hemingway.

Those crazy authors and their ideas! Their use of language to tell a story and wrench an emotion, good or bad. How dare they!

Somehow, though, 50 Shades of Gray still exists.

Just saying.

I recently read The Turner Diaries, which is notorious for its violent racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. It’s what passes as a blueprint for a certain faction of our political culture today. Clippings from the book were found in Timothy McVeigh’s car when he was arrested after the Oklahoma City bombing. It was practically a confession.

The book is almost impossible to come by, as it has essentially been removed from circulation by Amazon and other prominent sites like Goodreads. It is certainly their right to choose what to sell, whether it’s a book or a little plastic cup that you can hang onto the air vent in your car to hold the barbecue sauce for your chicken nuggets. Yes, that’s a thing that exists.

Still, I hesitate to say it should be banned. The book, not the barbecue cup. Though I won’t be attending any protests if the latter goes by the wayside.

I don’t think any book should be banned, not even the truly awful ones. They all come from the human spirit, and sometimes that spirit is dark.

If we have any hope of knowing or recognizing ourselves, we’d better be vigilant about our libraries.

When Al Qaeda militants swept through Africa in 2012, one of the world’s greatest libraries and home to a wealth of some of the world’s most ancient texts was under threat. Jihadists burned nearly 4200 manuscripts in their quest to rid the world of the evils of intellectualism and anything opposing their worldview.

One librarian and an underground network of locals smuggled out more than 370,000 manuscripts, one SUV and one boat ride at a time. To appreciate the enormity of this task, remember that this happened in the middle of a war zone, during a time when movement of any kind was strictly monitored, music was banned, stoning made a comeback, and women were beaten to death for the sin of walking with a man.

That should give you an inkling of the value of libraries.

Mostly, we just think of them as a place where we can get our Nora Ephron fix, but libraries across the world hold the totality of our collective humanity, or lack of it. They can inspire to good just as to evil. They are sanctuaries and museums, cultural time capsules and future possibilities.

They are truly the great equalizer, where, for the price of a few minutes of silence you can explore any avenue you desire.

There is a special place in my heart for libraries, even the smallest, creakiest, least air conditioned ones.

Some beautiful art outside a local library.

I leave you with a random library memory: when I went to school at St. Frances of Rome, the library would charge you a nickel for every day your book way late. Now and again I’d have to show up with my five cent penance, but not often. Returning library books on time was about as much of a given as church on Sunday.

I did, however, take a book out of the library just before we were set to move from the Bronx to Mahopac – an hour drive away. I was not going to be able to return that book before we left because I wouldn’t be going back to that school. I panicked. Not return a library book! That was going to be a lot of nickels.

I’m fairly certain I waited to alert my parents to this fact until we were all buckled up in the car and about to leave for our new home.

My mother ended up calling a friend and having them come pick it up before we departed so they could return it for me. I don’t think she was particularly thrilled, amidst the massive undertaking of collecting three children and all of our worldly possessions, to have to figure out what to do about my library book, or the fact that I had taken it out in the first place.

But that book was dutifully returned, on time, obstacles notwithstanding.

All I can say is that I’m glad I live in a world where Hobbits exist, where I can spend time on Mars amidst potato crops, where I can read books about books and books about libraries. As long as there are libraries, there is hope.

Photo: one small section of our local library. Just look at those beauties!