Monday, February 6, 2012


I've been thinking about libraries recently, and how grateful I am that they exist. Reading and books are such a major part of my life that I simply can't imagine a world where they weren't readily available.

I grew up in the country. The grade schools I went to in first through third grade (in Nineveh and Rogersville, PA respectively), were small community schools. In Nineveh there were only three classrooms and three teachers for six grades. First and second grade kids shared a room and a teacher, as did third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. Neither of these two schools were big enough for an actual library. One day a week the Bookmobile would show up. This was the traveling library for the entire school district and I assume it spent the rest of the week at other grade schools. It was essentially a large motor home lined with bookshelves and books.

The librarian was a wonderful woman by the name of Mary Berryman. She was small built, with gray hair, catseye glasses, and a sweater held on by clasps. I know how amazingly cliché this description sounds, but it is the truth. When I was six I thought she was old, but she continued as the district grade school librarian well past the time I graduated college, so my perceptions are a little skewed.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I learned to read, mostly from comic books, well before I began first grade. Mom is an avid reader and instilled her love of books in me very early. Library day was my favorite day of the week.

I'm not exactly sure of the chronology of this, but I also remember the Library came to our community during the summer months as well, for a summer reading program. It's possible I went to the Bookmobile before I actually started school. Mom tells me that once when she took me I chose the books I wanted and when I took them to check out Mrs. Berryman asked my Mom if they weren't a little too advanced for me. Mom said they were what I wanted, and if they were too advanced, well then, there was something for me to learn from them. She continues the story that when we returned the books I couldn't wait to tell Mrs. Berryman all about them.

Mrs. Berryman guided thousands of students through the hallowed shelves of her library over the years, but I think it's accurate to say I was one of her favorite kids. Mom instilled my love of books. Mrs. Berryman and the school library facilitated my access to them in a way my family could never have afforded. I was voracious (still am).

Oddly enough, the first three real books (chapter books instead of stuff written primarily for kids), did not come from the library. Mom bought me a copy of the Howard Pyle version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I inherited copies of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from my older brother. I had read all of these by the time I finished third grade.

By the time I entered fourth grade the school district had built a brand new school building in Graysville, PA and consolidated several of the smaller grade schools in this new location. Mrs. Berryman finally had a permanent home for her library, and for the first time I had access to one every day. I couldn't begin to tell you the number of books I read there.

In addition to the library we were periodically given a catalog from Scholastic (or the 1970's equivalent) that we could order books from. I remember getting several in this fashion, including my first copy of All In Color For A Dime, a collection of essays about comics of the Golden Age. This was probably my first, conscious knowledge of comic book history, and definitely my first exposure to the concept of comics scholarship (just as an aside... I loaned my copy of this to the Chatham student I'm advising this semester because one of the essays ties in specifically with the topic she is writing about for her thesis.)

My original copy, with this cover, is long gone.
A revised edition came out a few years ago.

In seventh grade I went to the West Greene High School building (there was no separate middle school then; grades seven through twelve all wandered the same halls and used the same facilities). Of course I very quickly made myself at home in the library there and became a very familiar face to the new librarian, Mrs. Hildreth. The books housed there were aimed at an older audience of course.

During my teen years, in addition to the books I read from the library, I began to buy a lot of cheap paperbacks: Westerns, spy novels, and men's adventure stories with guns and girls. They were the kind of books that were probably inappropriate for my age and certainly not available at the school library. Eventually I discovered Science Fiction and Fantasy and was somewhat redeemed.

During my last year in high school there was a day when the seniors went to work as an assistant with one of the grade school teachers and help with their classes. I couldn't think of anyone back at Graysville I would rather spend the day with than Mrs. Berryman. She proudly introduced me to her classes as someone she was proud of and who had a bright future, because as she told them, I had always read books.

Mary Berryman did eventually retire and lived a long life. She's gone now but shines in my memory as the absolute Platonic ideal of a Librarian.

During college and grad school I had access to libraries of course. I used them primarily for research and class projects, but there was always the reading for pleasure aspect of it. I read a lot of Hesse, Henry Miller, Proust, and Kerouac while at Edinboro.

Somehow though, once I was out of school, I simply didn't go to a library very frequently. I still read, but I was buying most of my material by that time. I felt like I needed to own everything I read. One of my high school teachers, Will Hinerman (more on him in another post), had a large library of books in his home. There were always books around when I was growing up, but I don't think the idea of a personal library ever crossed my mind until I saw his. It became a goal. To supplement the books I bought at the big chain stores and local book stores I haunted used book stores and flea markets. I suppose I have a little bit of the hoarder in me.

So over time I accumulated a lot of books, a fact that was brought home to me a couple of years ago when, for the first time in many years, I needed to move them.

I started going back to the library regularly when I started working in Oakland. The main branch of the Carnegie Library is around the corner from my store. Over time I have realized I don't need to own everything I read (I would already be out of room in my house if that were the case). I'm there frequently and take advantage of many of their services. I have come to know many of the librarians there, and they are all exemplars of the Berryman credo.

There are two people in my life who I consider close, dear friends who are librarians, one at the Carnegie and one at a university library far away. One of them tells me that every day in the stacks she hears the books sing to her and feels it is a sacred duty to take care of them. The other one refers to the library as a “Temple for the Secular Soul.” I love that they both use the language of the sacred to refer to what they do.

For most of recorded history the ability to read was reserved to a special few. It was one of the things only the very privileged ever learned. The idea of archiving the collected knowledge of the world, its history and its stories, is one of the greatest ideas in our history. Today, when the skill of reading is taught to everyone, I fear it is all too often taken for granted. The ability to read was kept from the lower classes, slaves specifically, in an effort to keep people uninformed and more easily controlled. Ideas can be dangerous things, especially to the status quo. Today, when information is at our fingertips, when the wisdom of the ages is readily available, far too many people choose to remain willfully illiterate. Books are gateways to other worlds, to other ways of thinking, to knowledge and wisdom, to entertainment and enlightenment and empowerment.

In a recent conversation with one of my librarian friends she told me that someone had accused her of reading too much. My immediate response was to say that there's no such thing as reading too much. This was based on my own belief that there are far more books I want to read than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. After giving it some more thought I do want to amend my initial kneejerk reaction. It is possible to read too much if you never actually go out and have a life as well. Your life is your story; you are writing your own book every day. It should be filled with something other than reading. But reading provides guideposts and maps for the kind of life you want to live.

In spite of the pages I devour, I don't think I live to read.

I read to live.

1 comment:

  1. Well, said, sir! Now I'm going to have to blog on libraries and reading, Reading has been crucial to my life, and my family's. As a child, I had three library cards-- the El Paso public library, the grade school library, and the Bookmobile. I usually had the maximum checked out from each one, and I generally read them all. Our book journeys have a lot of similarities.