I Grew Up In Libraries
On learning how to read
Before she got her Master’s in children’s literature, my mother was a reference librarian at a public library in Montreal where her job was to be the internet before the internet. People would call the desk and ask her a question, and she would walk the aisles to find the book or the periodical with the answer. “What time is it in Newfoundland?” “What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?” “What is a p value in research?” I’d often go to work with her on Sundays. I was free to roam around by myself, and there was a cafeteria with snacks, which is all kids really want — a sense of independence in a well-lit place, and snacks.
Before he retired, my father was a philosophy professor. I went to libraries with him too. Unlike my mother’s modern bungalow set back on a patch of grass, my father’s library was a stone building, dimly lit with dark wood and tall shelves stacked with solid-colored spines. I went to this library less frequently. I remember looking up at the books piled so high you’d need a ladder and thinking to myself, “One day I will read every single book in the world.”
I have never taken my son to a library. He was two when the pandemic hit, and he was loud before that (he is still loud), so it’s on my to-do-later list. But our apartment is full of books. Art books, picture books, cookbooks, a shelf of weird spiritual stuff I go back to over and over, diaries, novels, collections of essays, a book about how to cut vegetables, Irelandopedia, Basquiat. Every few years I prune the collection to keep myself honest. I get rid of the books I didn’t finish, that my kid has outgrown, or that I bought because I thought it would look cool on the shelf and never read.
Before I dropped out of college, I had an intimidating professor who taught me that to understand James Joyce (who it seemed to me made no sense whatsoever), you must first read him out loud. I ran into her at the campus library at the end of the semester—me: effusive, speaking quickly; her, elegant and commanding. I babbled, told her it was the best class I’d ever taken, that I loved-loved-loved the book (yes, that one), and I thanked her for teaching me how to read. “You’re a very good reader,” she said, changing my life.
When the time comes, I’ll take my kid to the Brooklyn Public Library. We’ll name the animals and icons on the stained glass above the doorway, then we’ll walk between the gilded pillars and into the well-lit entrance hall. His loud little voice will echo in the chamber (he will love this), and we’ll pick a spot to park with a pile of books, gigantic new universes to explore. We won’t get through every single book in the world, but we’ll start, reading them together in a corner, out loud to catch the meaning.