I sang a concert a few weeks ago in a small-town library—not in a community room or a more formal performance space, but in the library proper, the nave-like center. There, with all the bookshelves, broad tables, and reading chairs, they keep an excellent 1910 Steinway parked under a potted coffee tree. Twenty-five or thirty people sat drinking tea from mismatched china, listening in company, not talking about politics for perhaps the first time all week. Together we anticipated spring with Felix Mendelssohn, celebrated romance in a gondola with Gaetano Donizetti, and visited Lahore and Jaipur as Maurice Delage saw them in 1912.
Coincidentally, I had just finished reading Ali Smith’s Public Library (borrowed, I might add, from another public library). It’s a collection of short stories, at once weighty and charming, linked by reminiscences about libraries and laments for their closing. Communication and memory are central themes of the stories, but beyond that, they're often about letting—or rather making—the dead live again. Just one of literature’s miracles.
As a parent, I have sometimes regretted encouraging unbridled library patronage. I have found myself trying to keep tabs on upwards of 60 books that my boys have borrowed from 6 or more different libraries—classroom libraries, the school library, various town libraries, the library at the college where my husband teaches. I once told the school librarian, while reassuring her that we really had returned that overdue item, that I devoted 90 percent of my brain function to keeping track of other people’s library books. Nevertheless, I’m proud of my 10-year-old for having discovered that he can order in any book he wants simply by asking, and for having the confidence to ask. My 8-year-old is much more interested in building things than in reading about them, and he often has to be dragged along, grumbling, on our Wednesday afternoon library excursions. All the same, as soon as we walk through the doors, he’s reading on the floor between the stacks. The place itself is a persuasion.
We go home, then, and tend to our mundane concerns. But every week, as we return and check out, we collectively affirm both the value of books and the value of libraries, where we learn, discover, shift focus, reinvigorate our interests, vivify our memory, grow, commune.
The first Saturday of February was Take Your Child to the Library Day, but literary mamas know that every day is Take Your Child to the Library Day. The free exchange of words has no season. We hope that this month and every month you'll support your local public library—that place that wishes you the world.
Welcome to the February issue!
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Going South by Robin Littell
Photos by Heather Vrattos