It may not surprise you to know that I was a bookish kid. The thrill of summer vacation was, for me, the string of sunny days that pearled before me, each one a shimmering bead that would find me lying on my white bedspread before a window that overlooked a brilliant split-trunked magnolia tree, with a glass of lemonade on the sill and a pile of books at my side. Sure, I played in seasonal soccer and softball leagues (enthusiastically, if not skillfully). I did my share of long bike rides that took me to unfamiliar neighborhoods that I promptly imagined as being filled with magic and with tricks. Once, I decided I would run away. I was making myself a sandwich and wrapping it into a scarf that I would in turn tie onto a stick, hobo-style, when my mother asked me what I was doing. ‘Running away,’ I informed her. ‘I just want to see what it’s like.’ She said, ‘okay,’ and she eyed my preparations. Dangerously, I left out of the backdoor without saying good-bye first. With my stick propped on my shoulder, I made my way to the other side of the block. There, I sat down beneath a telephone pole and ate my sandwich. And read a book. After an hour or so, I was a tad bored. I didn’t know what else a runaway was supposed to do (‘crossing the street’ didn’t come to mind, apparently). So I headed back to my yard. It had started to rain a bit, but sweetly so. I picked a bouquet of lilacs, and then went around to the front door, where I delighted in the novelty of ringing my own doorbell. My mother opened the door; the ironing table was behind her, with the iron steaming, and the television was on. I gave her the flowers, and I got a hug in return.
Outside such adventures, I spent years and years just reading. With the occasional break to write, and to submit my mystery novels to Random House. (Random House to ten-year-old Anna: ‘No.’) To this day, my mispronunciation of dozens of words aligns with a past spent mostly with pages, and less in real-life conversation with others. I still write a better story than I tell one.
A few blocks away from my home was the Maud Preston Palenske Memorial Library. A little red-bricked place near the lakeshore bluffs in St. Joseph, with an abandoned chipped-white fountain out back and ambitious white columns out front. There is a children’s room with tiny chairs in the basement. On the ground floor, there are lines of bookshelves trailing back to a bright open space where you can find the newspapers and the armchairs, and the people who read newspapers in armchairs. There is also, in the foyer, a portrait of the library’s namesake, wearing pink and with a white corsage. Her gray hair is pinned back, and she’s wearing pearls. On a field trip to the library in third grade, Mrs. Thurkettle told us about how when this library opened — moving into the new space from what now seems an impossibly small corner building a few blocks away — the city’s three elementary schools all volunteered to transport books. Students lined down the blocks from the old brick building to the new one, passing books one to the other. I wished I’d been there for that.
This library was the first place in the world that I chose for myself. It was the first place I went to regularly — by myself, at my own initiative, for my own purposes. I would walk over, or bike over, when I needed a break from my room and my white bedspread. I would spend a long, long time, sitting in between the bookshelves, reading the books I was too embarrassed to check out and concocting impossibly intricate schemes for how to choose what, among the hundreds of possibilities, I would take home with me. Nobody bothered me, or even spoke to me, and that was fine. Once, I was walking back from the library with an enormous stack of book in my hands that seemed to teeter from my waist to my chin. A classmate of mine, Lua Filstrup, happened to walk by, coming down the alley. She said, ‘Oh, hi, Anna!’ I was so startled — such was the thick of my readerly reverie, and it being fairly uncommon for me to see most of my classmates during the summers. But most of all, I felt shy about being seen with such a nerdish number of books. I am certain I blushed, and I may have forgotten to say hello back. I scurried off as fast as I could.
It is partly coincidence and partly intentional that in my adult life, libraries have always been a stone-toss away from where I live. In East Quad at the University of Michigan, we had a library in the dorm, and when I later lived in a co-op and apartment, I was still immersed in the combined library culture of Ann Arbor and the college. In Boston, the main branch of the library in Copley Square wasn’t more than six blocks away. Here, in my first experience with an urban library, I was staggered. There was a courtyard and a ‘map room cafe’ and a reading room with green lamps that romanced me. There were Sargent paintings on the walls, and the names of philosophers carved in columns that wrapped around the ornate library’s edifice — as was the ticker-tape-style pronouncement of the library being created by the public, for the public. I fancied writing a short story about one of the homeless men who hung out in Copley Square taking it upon himself to make that list of philosophers a personal syllabus. And, god, the BPL had so many books! In just that one part of a 25-branch system! Here is where I went when I needed to create space between myself and the intensive experience of living in an intentional community. Here’s where I went when I was hungry to experience myself as a singular entity whose individual spirit and mind needed attention, and time, and a place. I’ve kept my BPL library card to this day. It’s still active.
And then, again, in Detroit, I found a place to live that was two blocks away from the city’s central library. To be honest, the Detroit Public Library surprised me with a selection that was intriguing and up-to-date, including a collection of plays that I return to again and again. The library opens itself outward with shows and events, with music and art-making on Noel Night, and it is, every time I go there, bustling with activity. Like Eastern Market, the library is a rare space in the Detroit area where people who live radically different lives convene in a common place.
It is here in Nairobi where I am for the first time in a place with no public libraries. Instead, there are private, small-scale collections around the city, most available for a paid membership, as well as the National Archives. I’m also without my own books, and local bookshops have a notoriously patchy selection that emphasizes self-help, money, and fundamentalist Christianity. I’ve taken to borrowing titles from the small collection at Kwani, which was largely donated by the British Institute. And I’m thinking a lot about how this experience of reading what’s before me, without much choice, affects me. The little cards that Kwani pasted into the book covers to archive the titles are coming unglued; I use them as bookmarks.
When I was nearly 24, I visited the Maud Preston Palenske Memorial Library in my hometown once more. My parents had long moved out of the house I grew up in, so I drove to the library’s doors. It had undergone substantive renovations recently, and I wanted to see what it was like. It turned out to be more of a radical change than I expected: things were neater, brighter, more fashionable (if still simple), and it was arranged differently, so that the way you moved through the space was not how I’d known it.
It was about 5pm; for my small town, that meant it was nearing closing time. I was there looking around, walking around, trying to catch a whiff of the scent that had stayed with me, and I was realizing that I didn’t know where the books I’d once read where shelved in this new set-up. I was asking the librarian questions about the renovation, and I started to cry. Not sweetly, but painfully, red-faced, my throat choking. I was at a time of profound dislocation in my life that summer, feeling consumed with the loss of a community I’d loved while in college, feeling harmed by a romantic relationship that had gone terribly awry, feeling like I had no idea in hell where I wanted to go next, or who would want me there when I arrived. Visiting the library — this place that was the very first place beyond the walls my earliest bedroom that I felt I belonged to — and seeing it now so changed: it hurt. At the time, I chalked up my feelings to a case of too much nostalgia, threaded by a season of over-sensitivity. Looking back, I think it was more than that.
The librarian smiled and empathized with me. She told me about how her own childhood library had burned to the ground; “there was nothing left.” That, I agreed, was worse than a renovation. We talked more. We seemed to understand one another. Soon, I left, and she closed up.
This is all to say: on the centenary of the iconic Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library, Laura Miller has a great essay in Salon about the purpose of libraries as places — a particularly crucial conversation not just in “the digital age,” but as budget cuts are closing up branches in Boston, in Detroit, places everywhere.