Yesterday I spent an hour at the public library, alone, browsing through the aisles. The public library has been one of the most constant institutions in my life. At some point in my early childhood I became closely attached to books. I think I probably saw reading as a way to create an identity: I would read well and be smart, other people would be popular, athletic or cool. The small library in our Oregon town struggled to find a permanent home. Sometimes it was in it’s own rented space at the strip mall; other times it was tucked away in a nook at Safeway, or relegated to the Bookmobile. But in each location I have strong and positive memories of visiting the library and finding a sense of identity in the books.
My relationship with libraries and book stores since childhood has grown even closer. During high school I would ride my bicycle 15 miles one way just to visit the larger public library of a neighboring city. My grades as a college freshman were poor partly because I couldn’t stay away from the enormous university library, where books on subjects other than those in my classes kept me up late on weekends. While my classmates were discovering the social liberation of college life, I was discovering five floors of seemingly endless shelves, with nooks and corners all to my own on Friday nights. As a working adult, I make a habit of visiting the local libraries in any town where I travel. I have been in huge library palaces in New York, dusty oppressive libraries in St. Petersburg, tiny forgotten libraries in Russian villages, and creaking, musty libraries all along the plains of Kansas. I’ve sought aloneness among the crowds at Powell’s in Portland, and in the silence of a basement room that I optimistically call my own library.
I’ve come to realize that it is not necessarily the books themselves which make libraries an attraction: it is the aloneness. I have an extraordinary need to be alone during my free time, and the dark, twisting labyrinth of shelves provides the needed space for my thoughts. I dislike crowded libraries, and will even stoop to hiding in the children’s section if it means that I can think undisturbed.
The last few years have kept me more aloof from the library. I spend most of my time working outside, creating the landscape and finding solitude in manual labor and the outdoors. When I do return to the library, I immediately sense that old feeling of coming home, of belonging to the quiet stillness of the place. And I realize that even though I’ve changed, the books are still inside me, and will always welcome me back.