For some time now, my partner and I have been taking Fridays as our day off: it's the end of my teaching week, and she doesn't teach on Fridays either. So we usually go out to lunch on Fridays, and every 2 or 3 weeks we go to the big public library downtown. She is the only girlfriend I've ever had who liked libraries as much as I do -- and who thinks that spending an hour browsing in the library and returning home with a big stack of books is a great way to have a date afternoon. One of many reasons we're right for each other.
I got my first library card when I was about 4 -- my favorite babysitter, the same one who had taken me to see the circus train come to town when I was 3, took me downtown and signed me up for a card. Surprising my parents, readers and academics themselves, who hadn't yet considered that it was time to introduce me to the library.
During childhood my parents -- often my mother, sometimes both of them -- would take us to the library on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. On the best days -- rainy cold winter days -- we'd make popcorn or hot chocolate when we returned home with our loot. We went pretty regularly -- returning books on time was a serious moral obligation, according to my mother, and the fact that I did return my books was the only reason the children's librarian was willing to relax the five-book-at-a-time rule for me.
Did I say I was a voracious reader? I learned early, on my own -- and many of my strongest childhood memories are of reading -- not just the contents of certain books, but the thrill of waking up before the rest of the household to read, nestled in a quilt; hiding books under my desk at school to read while the teacher was lecturing; and especially the freedom represented by the library. There I could learn anything, become anyone. That library card gave me as much right as anyone else to be there. A kind of equality that didn't operate in all of the other spaces of my life.
As I got older, I didn't need my mother to drive me anymore -- I could walk downtown on my own, and so took to spending several afternoons a week at the library. I was basically a good nerdy kid, so that's really what I was doing. Reading, daydreaming, plotting my escape from small town life. As the years went by, I graduated from the Children's section to Young Adult -- and then to Science Fiction for several years, until I was ready for Classic Literature and Adult Fiction. Eventually I started doing my school research at the College's library, but never entirely gave up my attachment to the public library's easy display of the good stuff: new novels, new magazines, all the possibilities laid out on a big table in the front.
Except for a couple of years during college, I've never been without a public library card. Even during graduate school, I had to have at least one book on hand to read just for me, just for fun. What my third grade teacher would call "free reading." The last 15 minutes before sleep have to be for free reading -- not academic work, not a news magazine, nothing too stressful or taxing. And library books really are free reading -- that feeling of walking in the front doors of the building and not yet knowing what I'll walk out with -- the freedom in being able to ditch a book after a few chapters if it doesn't really grab me -- the freedom to explore, to be wrong, to be delighted by something unexpected.
I love library Fridays. Today I came home with The Time Traveller's Wife -- I'm already 80 pages into it, hooked. (Thanks to profgrrrrl, who was reading this earlier in the summer.)