For the love of books

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In the last year or so, I rediscovered how much I love reading. It’s sad to say that I somehow forgot. Partly, in the first three years or so of my life as a professor, I did enough reading on the job to make wanting to come home and read for pleasure seem like a bit too much. Television is much easier on the brain when you’ve already spent your day performing brain surgery on 20-somethings without the aid of surgical instruments, which is kind of what teaching is like. Also, I had this vague sense that I should be reading sociology when I wasn’t teaching sociology. A misguided notion, but part of my naivete that I was going to really keep on the ball of what was out there in my discipline. And then there was also someone who had espoused a particular theory of “literature” or books, or what the hell ever. They needed a purpose. Why would you write if you didn’t have something important to say? I’m sad to admit that that kept me away from books for a while. I wanted to read only things that taught me something important about the world. How pretentious is that? The answer to that question, why would you write something if you didn’t have anything important to say is fairly simple. Because telling stories is what we do, and the story is the important thing you have to say, even if there is no particularly important message. Stories are fun and diverting and at their core, human, and also, quite enjoyable to read, regardless of whether or not they have an “important” message.

This was the important thing I had forgotten. When I was a child, two of the most exciting regularly occurring events in my life were the book fair at school, and a trip to the library in the summer. God bless my mother, who took my sister and I fairly regularly during the summer months. I can still remember my budding snobbery at the book fair, where I would go straight for the Newberry Award winners. At the library, my sister and I read Edward Eager’s magic series, and the Black Couldron. The sensation I had forgotten was the absolute thrill of living inside the story in a book, and the deep sadness that came when it ended, or especially, when I came to the last book in a series, and knew that the story was over. I forgot the way a really good book can draw you in and become something you can’t wait to climb back into. I forgot the sheer delight of living inside the mind of a good character, seeing the world through their eyes, and then seeing your own life in a different way.

I could go on with a long list of things I had forgotten about reading, but let me add two of the most important: mysteries and libraries. I discovered Agatha Christie at a book fair, probably Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) and I was addicted. Most of what I know about England and the former British empire comes from Agatha Christie. My view of India is irrevocably filtered through Christie novels and the countless Colonel’s who have returned from India. My mother and I read every Agatha Christie mystery we could find and then some. Then we spent some time searching for an author very like Christie, but never found one. I gave up on the mystery. After all, there was no “important message” in the mystery. They are little puzzles, all designed to create a built-in suspense that pulls you through the narrative. Not worth the time, I thought. And then one day in a Barnes and Noble, my eyes lit upon the ubiquitous book turned with it’s cover towards you rather than it’s spine, the book that through some machination of it’s publisher, has earned this very special, eye-catching privilege. It was in the mystery section, but didn’t look like your typical mystery. It was hard-cover and described as a “novel.” What is the difference between a mystery and a novel? That’s for another time, but I picked this book up and decided to give it a try (my snobbery runs deep…a “novel” was more likely to have an “important message” than a mere mystery). This was a particularly good mystery, and I would say, not really so much a mystery at all, The Likeness, by Tana French. The important thing is that the book brought me right back to the old days, when I couldn’t put the book down and became decidedly annoyed at anyone or anything who came between me and the story. Why exactly did I stop doing this, I thought.

And then I rediscovered the library. In this particular instance, the Madison-Jefferson County Public Library, which is about half a mile down the road. Perhaps this particular part of Indiana is under-served library-wise, but it’s a particularly busy little library. I had never bothered to get a library card, which says a lot when you think about it. I had the college library, and that was enough to service all my needs, because I thought of my needs as largely academic. That I might have other reading needs hadn’t really occurred to me. To be fair, there was also a period of being economically flush enough to just buy the books I wanted to read. There weren’t a lot I wanted to read, so I wasn’t buying an extravagant amount of books. But there is something qualitatively different about buying books to read and going to a library. It’s the entrance cost, I guess, or some technical term economists would have. You can certainly browse in a bookstore. But in a library, you can just pick up the interesting book that’s next to the book you were looking for, and check it out for free. No penalty incurred for pursuing this particular line of interest. At our library, you could check out 100 books at a time. Imagine the possibilities.

But here’s the other thing I had forgotten about the library. The Madison library is not particularly large as libraries go. It has about 117,000 items, including books as well as CD’s, DVD’s, etc. That compares to 4.6 million volumes in just the main library at Bloomington (the Death Star). A relatively small library, but how long would it take one person to read every book in its collection? Say you have a life and can read about one book a week, then you can read 48 books in a year. Which isn’t bad, but isn’t going to get you anywhere close to 117,000 in your lifetime. This was one of the things about libraries I had forgotten–they represent the kind of infinite quality of reading in a way bookstores just don’t. You’ll never run out of good and interesting books to read. You’ll definitely never run out of books to read, period. I read somewhere the last time someone could have realistically read every book that had ever been written, but that time is long past. How did I forget this and how exciting that sensation is? The book you’re reading right now, the one you’re absolutely in love with–it ends, but the supply of other good books doesn’t. And people keep writing more! Perhaps I became frustrated by the difficulty of finding those good and interesting books, and certainly that can require some work. The library is exciting for its vastness, but also intimidating. But how comforting it is every few weeks to walk into that building and know that I have barely scratched the surface, and that it’s resources will never run dry.

Perhaps it’s part of getting older, and returning to the things you loved when you were younger. Or the space in my day just finally opening up as the brain surgery of teaching gets a little easier. Or dating someone with a similar passion and satisfaction with reading. But in the end, here’s what I rediscovered that the library means. It is a physical symbol, a large building taking up space in your community, of the infinite amount of things there are to be learned in the world. Not all of them can be learned through books, but it is almost always a good place to begin. The volume of things we do not know in the world is infinite, filling up all the space in this world and then some. The small space inside a library is a place where you can begin to confront that vastness, and this is what makes it so exciting.

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