These summer days have me feeling nostalgic for the summers of my youth, when I’d ride my bike to the local library for another stack of paperbacks. It was experiences like that that helped make me a reader for life.
With that in mind, I asked our panelists this question:
Here is how they responded…
I’m one of those annoying people who can’t ever just pick ONE favorite thing, so I have to share two memories. The first is the day I got my very own library card. I don’t remember exactly how old I was; I think maybe 8 or 9, but I remember just standing there at the counter after the nice librarian handed it to me, holding it and looking at my name on it and thinking “Wow, I can’t believe I have my OWN library card!” It’s probably hard to be much more of a nerd than that, but there was something almost magical to me about the idea of being able to check out books in my own name, rather than having to add my books to the pile that my mom was getting. I COULD CHECK OUT ALL THE BOOKS IN THE WORLD. I felt proud and a little grown up, and maybe slightly drunk with power. Or whatever the equivalent of drunk with power is for a kid. Maybe sugar-high-with-power.
The second is less of a specific memory and more of the warm impression I have when I think about the old B. Dalton bookstore I used to frequent. I’ve never been a fan of shopping and don’t care much for malls, but whenever my mom forced me to go along with her, she almost always let me stop by the bookstore (which I always called “B. Dalton’s” even though apparently there was no “‘s” in the name). Even if it was just for a few minutes, wandering the aisles and browsing all the books (especially the SFF sections towards the back) made every trip worthwhile, no matter how many pairs of pants I had to try on.
When I was growing up, the library was the great shining joy of my afternoons. I was raised in a small town, and our library was proportionately small, though it came complete with that dusty, papery smell of books and the requisite, bespectacled librarian. I remember watching Ghostbusters for the first time. I was young–maybe only eight or nine–but I wasn’t scared. The thing that struck me the most was the New York City Public Library, at the very beginning. I would gladly have lived there. I had no idea that so many books even existed.
The Vermontville Township Library (where I was a daily patron) was housed in the basement of the historic Vermontville Opera House. Its door was nestled discreetly beyond the parking lot of the local, full-service gas station. Many times, when I was there, I was the only visitor–and I would watch the librarian as she sat behind the large check-out desk and read.
She had the best job in the world, in my young, uninformed opinion. (As an adult, I’ve come to realize that she may have been a volunteer–which wipes away some of my awe at her having a job where she could read all day, but makes me love her all the more.)
The children’s section was a low shelf of picture books and short chapter books, with puzzles and blocks to play with and soft rugs to sit on. One shelf over were the teen books, and I had graduated to the taller, more “grown up” section by the time I finished second grade. One spinning, wire rack of paperbacks (Sweet Valley High and Babysitter’s Club, mostly), and a 6′ x 4′ section of wall shelves housed the teen novels in all their glittering glory.
By fourth grade, I’d read them all. The librarian would make mention of new books that had arrived, but by the time I was ten, I was reading two paperbacks an evening, and five or six each weekend – rereading, mostly – until finally, I worked up the courage to make my way over to the adult books.
I came to the library alone, most days, and there had never been much oversight into what I read. It wasn’t that I was forbidden to read books from the adult section. It was simply the small, defiant act of walking across the room, from where I belonged, to the Oz of a thousand new stories that waited there. There might be bad words! There might be bad people! They might be scary or even sexy–which was a word that I had heard, but still only vaguely understood. My mouth watered at the possibilities until, in Fifth Grade, I made the leap.
My favorite library memory is this walk-through: meeting the tales of Stephen King, Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Colleen McCullough, and V.C. Andrews for the first time. Wandering, adrenaline-churned, through the stacks of tantalizing and unknown worlds. Breathing in the smell of the forbidden. I chose Peter Benchley’s The Island, that day. It was the first novel that I couldn’t finish in a night, and I awoke with that trembling, nauseous craving to know more. That was the day that I went from being a recreational library user to becoming a true addict.
In my postage stamp-sized hometown of nine hundred people, a village, really, tucked into the rain-soaked hinterlands of Western Washington State, there was no bookstore. Whatever new releases we had were found at the local grocery store jammed into wire carousels that squeaked when you turned them. My only option when it came to scratching my book itch was the library.
If one were to do Library Card Forensics – is there such a thing? Probably not – my careful childish scrawl would be found littering dozens of cards stuck in every horror novel and picture book they carried. Which was less than dozens, now that I think about it.
So my favorite childhood memory is less about an event or the discovery of a book. It’s of the place itself. Of the heady scent of yellowing paper and cracked hardcovers and tattered paperbacks. Of all those pages needing to be turned and poured over and appreciated. Of sitting in the upper back left corner where, tucked out of sight on the bottom three shelves, my friends waited.
The Salem witch trials. Dangerous looking demons. The evils of witchcraft and the threat of possesion. Snarling monsters and grim faced inquisitors and wrinkled hags casting spells over bubbling cauldrons under ominous full moons. Names like KING, RICE, BLATTY emblazoned on creased spines. Salem’s Lot. Interview with a Vampire. The Exorcist. A desolate strip of carpeted silence where I first flipped through V.C. Andrews and found myself entranced by Lovecraft.
You see? It isn’t a memory, per se. It’s many. But it’s more than that. It’s the beginning of who I am today. A part of the voice I’ve found as a writer, the endless possibilities tucked between those pages in that non-descript building on First Street leading me, many years later, to the heartbreaking brutality that is Martuk.
And that’s why the library is my favorite childhood memory.
I know most folks will have whimsical and misty-eyed tales of their childhood library experiences. There’ll be talk of shadowed private collections like the Providence Athenaeum, or the rich mahogany and stately leather-bound volumes of their grandfather’s library, or even the plucky, earnest high school librarian who saved them from the isolation of awkward adolescence through the magic of reading.
That’s great. It really is. I’m all about resonance and wonder. Even when I don’t have much of either going on.
You see, my fondest book space was the biggest box, corporate, ubiquitous one around – the cafe at the Barnes & Noble bookstore.
Sorry, sorry. Wait. Why am I apologizing? You guys asked me.
B&N actually didn’t have a cafe in those early days. It was before the economy had proven that folks will pay $7 for a small cup of coffee provided that the size of said cup is delivered in dubious sounding Italian. In those days, they didn’t want you hanging around the stacks reading. Heck, they didn’t even sell comics when I haunted the aisles of the location on Central Avenue in the New York City suburb where I grew up.
But they had a lot of, you know, books. And it was walking distance from my house. And usually if I spotted something I wanted and I bugged my mom enough, she’d get it for me. Reading was one of the few leisure time activities she permitted me to indulge in to excess. And I *was* that awkward adolescent without any friends. I’d come home from school, ground my book bag and then walk down to B&N. The walk was always a bit . . . challenging. I’d be left alone with my brain along a crappy stretch of poorly manicured sidewalk in the middle of strip-mall country, there to ponder why other kids were tossing around a football or blowing up each other’s GI Joes with lady-fingers, delighting in one-another’s company. But that only lasted until I got to the fantasy and science fiction section and saw the covers of the mass-market-paperbacks (people actually bought those in some quantity back then). If it had a knight on the cover, I noted the author and title, attached myself to my mom’s leg, and proceeded to draw attention to myself.
But the emotional resonance actually comes as an adult. I decided I wanted to be a professional writer in 1998, nearly 15 years before my first novel was published. By then, B&N had really come into its own as a “big box” store, with the cafes becoming a de facto study hall for the communities around them. I spent many of my evenings and weekends in those cafes, renting workspace in exchange for a grossly oversized cup of coffee and maybe one of those walnut-blondie things they sometimes sell that taste south of cardboard. As the years progressed, so did laptop technology, free wifi, the comprehensiveness of Wikipedia and the collapse of the American library system. More and more, the B&N cafe was the place studious folks went to prep for tests, spruce up their resumes, research a paper, or waste time on Facebook.
Or write their novel.
The B&N cafe was like a second home for me. I dated a girl I met there, still have friends who had been sitting at the next table over and happened to share an exacerbated glance with me over the work they were struggling with. I met aspiring nurses, earnest math students, vet school hopefuls, folks prepping to take police and military entry exams. There were dreamers, of course, artists with sketchpads, inventors scribbling on pads of graph paper, and, of course, small armies of writers, clacking away at their keyboards, taking breaks to walk the stacks and read the names there as a reminder that if other folks could do it, they could too.
The aspiration was the thing that united all of us. The B&N cafe was a place to hope, and more importantly, a place to do the work that would eventually turn those hopes into reality.
Once in a while, I’d walk the stacks myself, after leaving my laptop under the watchful eye of the person behind the coffee counter, second family by then (the manager went through a phase of trying to hire me every time I came in). I’d find books by Glen Cook and David Coe, maybe make a little space where a Cole could plug in.
I could almost hear the chatter of the excited little boy who’d been coming there for years, reading and reading and reading some more, laying the foundation that would later turn into the seminal thought, a switch flipping in a dark place – Maybe, just maybe, I could do this someday.
I was intimate with my childhood library from its first moments—it opened when I was eight, and the public was invited to tour it the day before began service. I remember running through all the hidden back rooms that later would be off limits to patrons. It felt 100 percent mine. The library also had this neat architectural feature that my friends and I used to like to try to run up.
My memories of the library are all jostling one another and waving their arms and shouting “Me, me! Pick me!” It’s hard to choose a favorite! But I’ll tell you the story of a magical encounter. It was the summer between eighth and ninth grade. I was in the children’s room, headed toward the fiction section, and I heard someone say,
“It’s an oak door, with strong iron hinges. You can hear something muffled from the other side.”
I stopped in my tracks.
“I press my ear to the door,” said another voice. “Can I hear anything more clearly?”
“No, but you notice that the door feels hot, and you catch a whiff of sulfur.”
I honestly couldn’t believe my ears. It sounded like a fantasy novel unfolding right in the library. I sauntered toward the voices. Two high-school-aged boys (it would turn out they were two years older than I was) were sitting at a table. I cast a nonchalant glance their way.
One of them had a staff. A tall, thick, palewood staff that spiraled at the top like a unicorn’s horn. The boy himself was tall, with curly black hair and bright eyes. On the table in front of him were a strange array of multisided talismans and oracular devices (so it seemed to me), which this boy would toss before answering his friend’s questions.
His friend had a piece of graph paper on which there seemed to be some sort of floor plan, to which, judging by the pencil he had at the ready, he was gradually adding.
I lingered on the periphery and heard a few more exchanges. I went away mystified and fascinated. I didn’t know I’d been witnessing a one-on-one session of pre-
computer-era Dungeons & Dragons. Little did I know that before the year was out, the boy with the staff and the fortune-determining dice would be my friend and dungeonmaster, and I’d have a plus-two sword and my own golden dragon. The library really was for me then what the online world is for me now—a place of serendipity, stories, and friendship.
Although I was only 3 years old when Batesburg’s “new,” modern library opened in 1967, can remember as a toddler being carried by my mother into the original library building, a repurposed 19th-century carriage barn facing the railroad.
Neither of my parents had much formal education, but luckily for me, both were constant readers. My mother plowed nightly through stacks of whodunits, police procedurals, and Gothic romances – all of which, interestingly, had the same cover: a beautiful woman standing alone in the night in front of a tower with a single lighted window — while my father endlessly combed legal tomes, genealogical records, and Bible commentaries. My mother wanted entertainment; my father, evidence.
As a result, I was in that library at least once a week for my first 21 years of life, until I graduated college and moved away from home. When I was old enough to bicycle the 2 miles from home, I could spend as many hours at the library as I wanted – in summertime, at least – without my parents hurrying me along. Although, come to think of it, on many afternoons I heard a librarian call across the room: “Andy, that was your mom. She says it’s time to come home!” (The stereotype of the whispering, shushing librarian did not apply in Batesburg; I recall only forthright, brassy women, with carrying voices.)
On my bike, I was limited to checking out only one or two books at a time, the number I safely could carry under my arm. (Of the existence of backpacks I was innocent.) For me, the great advantage to turning 16 and getting my driver’s license was that I now could check out a dozen books at once!
At one crucial early point, the librarians became my advocates. When I was about 10, the whole staff (or so it seemed to me) had a serious conversation with my mother — as I stood there at the circulation desk, looking gravely on – informing her that Andy had read every children’s book, middle-grade book and teen book in the library multiple times (except of course the ones in which animals died at the end; I would flip to the back, to see), had indeed exhausted the possibilities of that entire southwest corner of the building, and perhaps it was time to ease him, despite his young age, into the – ahem – adult stacks?
My mother readily agreed, and somehow, the consensus was that Andy should, initially, focus on three adult genres: mysteries, humor, and science fiction. And so it was that 10-year-old me was suddenly devouring the likes of Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, The Collected Plays of Neil Simon (which fit in a single volume, then), and Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. I don’t think the humor books were labeled, but the spines of the mysteries bore little magnifying glasses, and the spines of the sf books bore little rocketships, though a lot of fantasy was labeled that way too (for example, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, a crucial text for me). The librarians were right: from Eleanor Cameron and Freddy the Pig to Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie and J.R.R. Tolkien was a pretty painless step, certainly more so than any other step toward adulthood I ever took.
As I look back over those crucial reading years, I am struck most powerfully by the fact that my parents – though they were, in many ways, temperamentally cautious and politically conservative people – never once declared any book, any author, any subject, off limits. Yes, that went for comics and Mad magazine, too; even, later, National Lampoon. More than once, someone in their presence would start to grouse about my odd tastes in books, and my parents would say, practically in unison: “Leave him alone. He’s reading, isn’t he?”
I remember only two titles that even raised eyebrows: My mother warned me that Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels (of which the library had lovely, lurid first editions) had given her terrible nightmares – they didn’t for me, though The War of the Worlds and Donald Rumbelow’s The Complete Jack the Ripper certainly did – and my father once carefully explained, at some length, that the d’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants did not represent our family’s religious beliefs. “I know,” I said, and that was that.
Of all the many things that my parents did right, ushering me into the world of books strikes me as perhaps the rightest of all, and that could not have happened without our public library.
My town library in Larchmont, New York, was the first place I remember feeling a sense of independence, being on my own. I must have been four or five years old. Usually, my mother and I would browse the shelves together at least once a week. But this time was special because as we walked into the adult section of the building, my mother told me I could go downstairs by myself to the children’s library.
By myself? This was a frightening but exciting proposition. It involved going through at least one door, down a flight of stairs, through another door and then hopefully ending up in the children’s library. Yet, even at that young age I had a wild imagination. Who knows where I would end up? I remember being nervous, and probably imagined getting lost in a strange cobweb-covered storage basement full of old books, or a forgotten room swirling with ghosts of librarians past. Perhaps I’d end up on the other side of town.
As my mother trotted off in search of books, I must have decided to give it a go. It was a familiar route and I probably made the journey in about 10 seconds. I remember that feeling of being all alone and staring at the long shelves of children’s books, yet I wasn’t scared. I was elated. This was my library after all and no place felt safer. I remember this terrific sensation of being a grown-up, allowed to pick out my own books for the first time. I found the juvenile section, but they had too many words, so I went to the picture books. In the darkest corner were tiny books about three inches high that fit snugly in my little hands. Some of them came inside a tiny bookcase. Those had bunnies on the covers and I believe they were the Tales of Peter Rabbit.
So I sat on a wooden chair and looked at the pictures. Every now and then I would look up to make sure I was still on my own, hoping my mother would take her time. As an author, I’ve always thought it fitting that my first solo venture into the world was in a library.
Raised by a single mother and being the youngest of three, summer was always a bit of a traveling show. I spent more time in vacation Bible schools than any child should, but as I got older I also spent hours upon hours at our local library with my brother and sister. After finishing morning chores and eating lunch, we would ride our bikes the mile or so to the library, agree on a time to regroup, then disappear into the stacks of books, loosing ourselves, enjoying the safety and solitude only a library can provide.
I remember how crisp and clean the air inside felt, a welcoming coolness after a long, vigorous bike ride in the summer heat. I don’t know where my sister would go, but being six years older than I she likely was off chatting with friends or perusing teen mags. My brother usually went his own way as well, but on one serendipitous occasion he introduced me to the records section.
I stuck mostly to light hearted children’s books, things like The Berenstein Bears or Dr. Suess, but my older brother thought it time to introduce me to something a little more mature, a little more… engaging? He took me to the library’s records section and pulled out a few comedy LPs– Steve Martin, Bill Cosby — and we hunkered down in a carol, record player with dual jacks, and we listened. I remember hearing Cosby’s “Chicken Heart” routine, thick headphones, just a little too bulky, pressed tight to my ears, my brother and I doing our best not to laugh out loud.
If you’ve never heard this routine, Cosby talks about how his parents were going out for the night and warned him not to get out of his crib (he was seven) and listen to some crazy radio program called Lights Out (by Arch Oboler). To make a long, hilarious routine short, Cosby gets out of his crib, listens to the eponymous story on the radio, and smears jello all over his kitchen out of fear.
I got to wondering what could be so frightening as to make a boy my age vandalize his house with a tasty dessert, so I convinced my brother to help me find a copy of Lights Out. After some bit of dark library magic, my brother found an LP called Drop Dead! An Exercise in Horror. We settled back in our carol, slipped on our headphones, and listened. After hearing Cosby’s routine, “Chicken Heart” turned out not to be so creepy, but there was another story that really stuck in my mind–The Dark. It’s a short, simple story in which a mysterious dark fog turns people inside out.
I was amazed. Here was a side of the library I never imagined existed, a place full of dark fantastics. This is when my reading really took off. This old time radio show–from the thirties!–ratcheted up my interest in horror. My brother helped me find “age appropriate” adaptations of Poe and Hitchcock (a couple of which still sit on my shelf today), and showed me how to use the card catalog so I could go spinning off into my own explorations. I dove into reading–witchcraft, cults, UFOs, myths, fairies, demons, astronomy, ghosts–anything fantastic and wonderful and inspiring, much of which my mother most certainly wouldn’t approve, but without which I would never have taken the writing path I’m on now.
As a reader from a young age, I have spent so much time in libraries and bookstores that it is difficult to pinpoint a single favorite memory. When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent countless hours hanging out in bookstores, discussing the new releases in speculative fiction. Of course, there was quite a lot of book buying involved in these trips as well, as my multiple overloaded bookshelves would attest.
For my favorite memory, though, I’d have to go with the era when I was about six or seven years old, and forbidden from the section of the elementary school library with the ‘grown-up’ chapter books. Of course, I refused to let this hold me back, and I bravely snuck into the forbidden section. In other words, I walked over while the librarian wasn’t looking, and no one stopped me from checking out the books I wanted. In retrospect, I doubt many teachers or school librarians would enforce rules restricting their students’ reading, but I sure felt like a sneaky rebel at the time.
The books I most vividly remember discovering this way were Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn and G. Clifton Wisler’s The Mind Trap. The allure of the forbidden probably gave these two books a little more influence over my imagination than they might have had otherwise, and my daydreams for the next few years were full of unicorn skeletons and telepathic alien kids. It’s possible the librarians were right, though, and that these were above my reading level. For instance, in Black Unicorn, Tanaquil had a furry animal called a ‘peeve’ for a pet. I didn’t really know what a pet peeve was, but I knew I wanted one. These days, I have several…
Mommy and I pretty much lived in the Corbin Public Library. We were there all the time. When I got big enough for my own library card, that was huge excitement. I remember signing my name on the card at the counter. I was six and in the first grade. Even before then, though, I wouldn’t hardly stay in my age-related section. I liked looking at and reading anything I could get my hands on, even back then. I’d slip out of the little kids section to read maps, pore through magazines, flip through reader’s digest – anything I could reach. And in June, I went back to that library and had my first novel reading there.
I grew up in Levittown in the 1960s. Ten square miles of uniformity, hundreds of houses just like mine, thousands of people just like me. To escape the normalcy, my friends and I imagined strange worlds with alien landscapes, adventures in places where weird became the new normal, where anything could happen.
A few times a month, when we’d saved enough pocket change to make the trip worthwhile, we mounted our bikes and rode into a dimension of color and imagination that waited in the corner store of an ordinary-looking strip mall on the edge of town. The sign over the door read PHARMACY, but we went there for the wonder – for the books and magazines that had the power to transport us to distance worlds.
Back then, the major paperback publishers were doing hundreds of titles a year, books with covers by the likes of Kelly Freas, whose starfields offered glimpses of worlds beyond the Levittown sky; and Richard Powers, whose fluid patterns defied the plumb, right-angled structures of our tract homes.
I still have some of those books: Poul Anderson’s World Without Stars, Eric Frank Russell’s Somewhere a Voice, Algis Budrys’ Inferno. Each still has the power to transport me – both back in time and beyond the stars.
But the wonders of that store didn’t end with paperbacks. There were magazines as well, legendary titles such as Amazing, Analog, F&SF, Fantastic, Galaxy, and If sharing the shelves with Famous Monsters of Filmland, Monster World, and Spacemen.
And there were comics too: urban superheroes from DC and Marvel (Superman, Spiderman, et al), city-destroying monsters from Charlton (Gorgo, Konga, Reptiicus, and Reptisaurs), and primordial jungles from Dell and Gold Key (Turok, Kona, Korak, and Tarzan).
Best of all, for a handful of nickels and dimes, a kid could pedal away with enough material to hold the tyrannies of normalcy at bay for a week or more – long enough to save up for another wonder run.
Stores like that one are long gone. Fortunately, the memories and books remain.
As a kid, reading did not come easy for me. Regardless, about once a week my Mom would load my brothers and me into our red and white VW bus named “Gus” and drive us to the public library. The funny thing is, up until just about a minute ago, I never realized what remarkable moments in my life those visits were. My Mom took us there all the time, which made it seem usual and ordinary, but without the public library my life would have been poorer. It was a big picture window onto the greater world, set into the front room of an insular small town.
Near the edge of my memory I recall one particular book that I checked out pretty much every other visit. It was the Return of the Jedi Sketchbook, a sort of concept collection of pencil and ink drawings accompanied by dense descriptions of stuff from the screen-play. It contained concepts from throughout the movie, such as the sand barges and rebel cruisers. But my favorite part was the Imperial troops on the Moon of Endor. The speeder bikes and the Imperial Scouts in particular grabbed ahold of my imagination.
That whole sequence in the movie was frantic and fast paced, it was the part of the film I saved my allowance to see at the theater. I remember loving the greenness of Endor, and wishing that was a real place that I could visit. The Sketchbook was an alternate imagining of that place and time in the movie. Even the AT-STs were somehow better there, in the pages of that book.
Back then I dabbled in other science fiction and fantasy, but I don’t think it would have taken hold of my imagination so completely if it had not been for that one book. I could not have known it then, but what I was experiencing was the immensity of my own imagination when an idea is sparked by a couple of words. Star Wars was better in my mind than on the screen. Even today I relish that sensation, that the stories that get played out inside my imagination are always orders of magnitude better than the ones I can see on a movie screen. It was the context, the background that I imagined — the options, permutations, all the little hidden details of any scene — those were the things that helped me overcome my childhood difficulty with reading. I became deeply involved in the story and thus I wanted to read, to revisit that universe.
I can still close my eyes and see those white and black clad scouts, deadly matte black carbines slung over one shoulder, creeping through the understory of the forest moon of Endor. Today, it’s not the movie sequence I see, littered with saccharin Ewoks oozing cuteness. Better, it is a squad of dedicated, well-trained, lethal storm troopers on patrol searching for galactic rebel elements.
I grew up in a small town with a tiny library about a mile and a half from my house. My little brother and I would walk down there by way of the main street. I remember waving at every car that drove by. We knew everybody.
I read every book the library had. Children’s books, at first. Moonbird stories. Richard Scarry’s Busytown. After that, I moved up to chapter books, and read them extremely quickly. I read all of the Sweet Valley High books by the time I was eight. I was introduced to the magic of Lloyd Alexander. Then I read Ouida Sebestyen’s The Girl in the Box and was promptly scarred for life. That book has stayed with me ever since.
When I was a bit older, Mom signed a card saying I could read things in the adult section. I read Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Finished up the Stephen King books. Found Dean Koontz, Erma Bombeck, Sue Grafton, and then I fell in love with every word that Elizabeth Berg wrote.
I’d fill my backpack. Ghost stories, poems, and cook books, romances and dream interpretation guides. I read about Native American art, learned the alphabet in sign language, read a little bit of Manga, and learned far too much about human anatomy than was necessary at the time.
My brother and I would read as we walked home. Sometimes I’d read aloud to him and he’d make sure I didn’t stagger off of the sidewalk. Now I have my books in that same library, hoping some hungry kid will pick them up and devour them just like I did.
Honestly, the library was just okay. It was the tiny Venice branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and I remember it being dark and colorless and without comfortable places to sit. If it had a good collection of books, I don’t remember it, primarily because between the ages of four and six all I wanted to read was Curious George and Babar. But, as with so many things, going to the library wasn’t about the destination.
We lived only two blocks away, but it was a weird two blocks. For some reason, my mom always took us through the alleys. The first block was The Forest, flanked by tall wooden fences spilling over with ivy and hiding the kind of sagging, ramshackle houses where hippies or witches or murder cults probably lived. When you walked past the splintering fence boards they would shake with the impacts of giant, ravenous dogs or possibly bears. I’d clutch my mom’s hand and she would continue talking about whatever she was talking about as if she didn’t recognize the extreme and immediate peril we were in.
If we survived The Forest and made it to the next alley, things only got worse. Because now we were faced with The Jungle. Darker. Creepier. More overgrown. And in the middle of it towered a tree with gray-green bark, studded with thorns as large as the teeth of a great white shark. I’m sure they were poisonous. It’s easy enough to avoid most trees, but this one wasn’t content to remain imprisoned in earth. Its roots stretched under the alley, buckling the pavement, probing, seeking a way out. Seeking its way to me. It was a horrific tree, and I feared it and loved it.
Arriving at the library was a bit anticlimactic after a journey through The Forest and The Jungle. But thinking back, I suppose it represented a refuge, and libraries and bookstores have largely remained refuges for me ever since. Even if the Venice branch had been a wonderful library filled with bean bag chairs and bright carpets with planets on them and shelves stuffed with thousands of amazing books, I don’t think I would have traded it for the crummy little library at the end of a dangerous path. Walking there taught me how to create magic out of fear, and I think that’s a useful skill for anyone.