My first visit to a Carnegie library impressed me as much as any grand cathedral might. The steep front stairs ascended to a portal flanked by great columns. Just inside, one entered a small antechamber blessed by free books instead of votive candles.
The sanctuary itself seemed expansive to a 4-year-old, though it was crowded with long, towering bookshelves. A church-like atmosphere pervaded every space, thanks to reverent silence and a profound sense of imminent power, emanating from books to be savored, not thumped. Knowledge is power; we revere it through the investment of our time and concentration. We court the favor of ignorance with periodic animal sacrifices.
In time, I came to regard the square brick building as my own equivalent to the Temple of Diana, or Abu Simbel. In fact, that little library was where I first encountered those grand temples and tombs, and the civilizations that built them.
That was 1952, Stafford, Kan.
I began daily visits to the Stafford Library as a kindergartner. In that placid Kansas town, nobody worried about sending a 5-year-old pedestrian across town and back without a chaperone. I knew to “look both ways,” and to decline rides from strangers; that was protection enough.
The main library occupied the elevated “ground” floor. A brilliant stained-glass window graced one alcove. Above an interior door hung a pair of Philippine water-buffalo horns, next to crossed iron spears from Mindanao. In another nook stood an upright glassed-in cabinet displaying exotic objects — seashells, arrowheads, artifacts from around the world.
But the basement was my realm and my refuge — the kids’ section. I had no interest at all in simple-minded rhymes, a la Dr. Seuss; I wanted substance. L. Frank Baum provided it.
Most of us know little about the universe of Oz, save for the sticky-sweet Hollywood version which contrasted the colorfully melodic world of Oz against the drab, depressing state-of-mind-and-being known as Kansas.
The Oz series was so much more. Adventures on a vast scale, populated by critters even more fantastic than the Tin Woodman. For a little tyke, some parts were actually scary — Dorothy, et al, encountered a tribe of cannibals who could remove their bulbous heads and hurl them to bring down a fleeing hero. For some reason cannibals always worried me, but the book was so good I read it several times.
Shelves along the opposite wall held a line of orange-clad volumes offering biographies of historical figures, focusing on their childhood years. I exhausted those that featured boy heroes. When those ran out, I grudgingly began the ones about — yuck — girls. Those turned out to be just as good, go figure. Nancy Lincoln, Abe’s mom, was a pretty decent adventuress herself.
I can still picture those shelves, their locations, their color-coded book covers.
Later, we moved to Stockton, where Dad took me to meet my fourth-grade teacher. After a brief introduction to Mrs. Snyder, I beelined for the classroom library shelves. “He’ll have those read by Christmas,” said Dad. She thought he was joking.
Before long, I found a new sanctuary, another Carnegie library; Stockton had one, too.
Though I got plenty of exercise, Mom worried that hours spent reading would somehow damage my eyes. By first grade, I was wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses, which tended to reinforce Mom’s concern. But she couldn’t get me to stop, or even “cut back.” (I was sneaky when necessary.) At least one book a day — a real book — was my minimum standard.
Late fees were 2 cents a day. I never incurred any. It would’ve been humiliating; also, I couldn’t afford it.
I began working my way through teen lit into adult products. The Science Fiction section fell first. Back then, we didn’t see much “hard” SF based on real science. Every planet — even the gas giants — had a solid surface supporting a suspiciously humanoid population; some even spoke English.
Then came the Edgar Rice Burroughs collection, not only the voluminous Tarzan series, but the worlds of Barsoom (Mars), Venus, the Moon, the Wild West and even a hollow Earth.
The military history section lasted all one summer. What on earth is a “Guadalcanal?”
Recently Belva and I visited the Stockton library, entering from the side via the new building. Though it was vacant, no longer stuffed with shelves, it seemed smaller than I remembered.
But it still conveyed the same gravitas — the cool, dimly-lit spaces whispering of the wide-eyed wonder I experienced every time I entered. I still do.
I gestured as we wandered. Here were the SF books, inner covers a collage of ray-shooting robots and ringed planets. Next shelf over, historical fiction — The Egyptian. Over here, jutting into the center, military history. Down there, Burroughs.
I found myself drawn to one particular space, where I reached up, plucked a phantom copy from the long-since shelf, and cradled the invisible tome: On the Origin of Species. Thank you for daring to offer it, Town Fathers. Thank you for daring to let me read it, Dad.
Today, the new library still has an SF section, but not a single volume of E.R. Burroughs. Often the books on those shelves show little sign of wear — many are thick paperbacks, and the spines aren’t even creased.
Has reading for pleasure become too tedious? Too irrelevant?
I hope not. We have so many books, so little time.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired
family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.