A few months back, the public library posted a job opening for a part-time bookkeeper, and my heart leapt. “I want to keep the books!” I thought. “I will dust them and shelve them and fix their covers when they get torn ...”
Those weren’t the books that needed keeping.
I’ve always harbored a secret desire to be a librarian. Being surrounded by books makes me indescribably happy. I hesitate to admit this in public, but I even love the smell of books. Back in high school, a new English teacher stood up in front of our class one day and announced that she liked to sniff books. I knew exactly what she meant, but I was not fool enough to say it out loud in front of a bunch of teenage boys.
Back in elementary school, my mom used to take me to the public library at least once a week. I went through the children’s books pretty quickly, and wandered into the adult aisles in search of something new to read, until one day I stumbled across a passage I was not ready for and went scurrying back to the children’s section for another few years.
(And that, boys and girls, is how YA books were invented.)
I still remember the first time I laid eyes on my favorite book. It was at my elementary school’s book sale, held in the library. It was a paperback book with a shiny silver cover. “The Phantom Tollbooth,” a funny, modern fairy tale by Norton Juster (illustrations by Jules Feiffer). I still have it. I still read it. It’s my literary equivalent of comfort food.
Only once do I remember not wanting to go to the library. In fifth grade, we each had to spend several weeks working in the school library. My shift fell during rehearsals for the school play, “The Wizard of Oz,” which meant I couldn’t have a part in the play. I had to make do with being the prop mistress and the understudy for all the actors.
It all worked out in the end, after the Tin Man came down with appendicitis.
When I grew up and had children of my own, I started taking them to the library almost as soon as they were old enough to go out in public. I had a grand time in the children’s section, revisiting old friends — Henry and Beezus, Pippi Longstocking, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle — and meeting new ones — Henry and Mudge, the Mysterious Benedict Society, Pigeon.
When my kids went off to elementary school, I wormed my way back into the school library by volunteering to re-shelve books a few afternoons a week. I made a new best friend there, another mom who had also volunteered to re-shelve books.
Bookstores have lots and lots of books, but they’re just not the same as libraries. Before I walk into a big-box bookstore, I have a pretty good idea what’s going to be inside. But a library, with those rows and rows of books that are old and new, good and bad, beloved and obscure ... that is a place ripe for exploration and discovery.
Plus, new books just don’t smell right.