Toronto Mayor Rob Ford threatens to kill our libraries.
I’d like him to walk–or drive–to his home branch, unsnap his cell phone, cram himself into a chair and make his way through Farenheit 451. Unfortunately, that’ s a thinking man’s book for a man who doesn’t. Here are my thoughts on why we need to keep our libraries (and not keep our mayor.)
Studying lives keeps me idling among the volumes, stamping me among the many who would be lost without our everyday journeys to books. Ever since Miss Patterson slid her bifocals toward the tip of her nose and spoke to us about the Dewey Decimal System, I have been a lover of libraries.
Miss Patterson led our kindergarten class upstairs, a tidy clump of five-year-olds from Our Lady of Sorrows, wanting more. We poked around picture books bigger than our laps, mouthed tiny, bright syllables with pride. That “dewy” word and what it suggested tore open my imagination and drew me hundreds of thousands of times through the doors of Toronto’s public libraries: I have loved them all, each with their varied personalities and patrons.
My Aunt Kathleen taught me feminism, she taught me Laurence, Munro, Atwood. That very evening of the day with Miss Patterson, she took me to my home branch and helped me apply for my first library card, holding me up high so the woman at the desk could see me. “I want to take books home, ” I said, “I want to read myself to sleep at night.”
And the lives I studied–the lives sprouted and stormed and expanded my world. Lives held between the pages but also strolling among alphabetized aisles. Curious people, like me, some of them with old, etched faces reaching for the fat books with big type. “I’ll never have to read those,” I thought, before I turned fifty last year.
Libraries are my sanctuary the same way my parents had church. I inflate with thousands of stories and what’s not there in type–I make up: Who is that man, I might ask myself, I saw him last week at the Runnymede branch and now he’s across town at Jones. I wonder if he’s like me, a bit afraid of stumbling into traffic while clutching a hot new-read?
When I was 15, Kathleen also introduced me to Richard Brautigan’s novel The Abortion. The storyline intrigued me and not because it had anything to do with sex or an abortion (I was a Catholic school girl taught a lot of routes to hell); what stuck with me was the story of a peculiar but enticing San Francisco library.
On the shelves in this library were stories not of published authors but of library visitors. This library never loaned books, it only received them: unpublished novel, poems, or plays left by patrons. “The unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.”
These folks are free to visit their books, to lift them from the shelves and lose themselves inside their own stories. Visiting Toronto’s public libraries lets me imagine these unpublished authors and, more importantly, let’s me guess at what they might want the world to know. I watch them, fellow patrons, as we peruse the shelves and keep on reaching, keep on dreaming.
And then as we step carefully through the doors to the bigger world with bulging TPL blue book bags.