In Praise of Libraries

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I started John Burdett’s Godfather of Kathmandu a few weeks ago. I liked the other books Burdett wrote—Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo—and thought Godfather would be a nice thriller with which to start the summer (nothing, of course, will measure up to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. RIP, Steig).

Wrong. I read about sixty pages or so and decided it wasn’t spending my precious pre-sleep minutes wading through Inspector Jitpleecheep’s thoughts about crime, punishment, and reincarnation. Life is too short to finish books I don’t like, especially now, when my reading time is usually the twenty minutes or so before my eyelids come crashing down at day’s end. (For the record, I also feel free to skip articles in The New Yorker, which I know some people consider a kind of heresy.)

So you know what I did with the Burdett book? I returned to the library.

Can you imagine how freeing that is? Now I don’t have to find room for a book I don’t like on my overcrowded shelves; I don’t have to foist it off on an unsuspecting friend.  I’m sure Burdett would have preferred that I spend 18$ for his book on Amazon (or $14 for the Kindle edition), but I’d prefer to keep that eighteen bucks and spend it on something important, like bacon-peanut brittle at The Redhead. I guess you could say that I’m a big believer in read-and-return (sort of like catch-and-release, in fly-fishing). Besides, at the risk of boasting, without a library, I couldn’t afford my reading habit: in a good month, I crank through almost a book a week, which is way more than I can afford to buy (digitally or actually).

As my jammed bookshelves attest, we still buy books—sometimes it can’t be avoided—but mostly, I put books on reserve at the library and then anywhere from a week to a couple of months later, the book appears in my local branch. Yes, it means that my literary repartee at cocktail parties is always a bit belated, but that’s okay – I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties. (Of course, if my repartee were more up-to-date, maybe I would have a more active social life. Hmm…)

Husband points out that I could be reading everything digitally and thus avoiding the jammed-bookshelf problem, but storage is not entirely the issue. As I’ve said before, I like books, the physical thing that is a cover and pages in between. When I was a little girl, maybe seven or eight, I was allowed to start riding my bike alone to our village library. I’d pedal over there on my green Schwinn, and spend hours in the stacks. It seemed impossibly generous to me that I could check out anything I wanted! (Or, at least, as many books as would fit in my basket.)

The largesse of a library still amazes me. Do you have an overdue book? Well, that’s okay, they’ll let you check out books anyway and you can pay next time (or the next or the next or the next).  Or perhaps you’d like to check out a laptop and use it in-house for an hour, or use the desktop terminals and printers? Do you need language instruction, tax help, or job search advice? Looking for a census form or a neighborhood map? Need a toddler reading group or a kids craft activity, a poetry reading, or a movie night? Or perhaps you’re just one of those errant urban wanderers who needs a place to sit quietly and mutter while you read the paper (and occasionally use the bathroom).

It’s all there. And it’s all free. (Even the bathrooms.)

But if Bloomberg and the city (not to mention the budget geniuses in Albany) have their way, the library budgets will be cut by $37 million bucks.  Some branches will close altogether; others will have their hours of operation reduced from six days a week to four; and let’s not even think about the list of services that will go out the window.

Why is it that when government officials want to save money, things having to do with kids (schools, libraries, parks) are always first on the chopping block?  What does that say about us as a society, that we would let this happen?

And once again, I have to turn to my default answer for New York’s money woes: let’s call that guy who got the 4 billion dollar bonus last year. With money like that, he’s gotta be BFF with Mayor Mike, so why not just agree to rename the library system the David Tepper Libraries in exchange for a big ol’ check? About forty million ought to cover it – chump change.

In case Mr. Tepper doesn’t step up to the plate, you can click here for more information about library budgets and where to send your letters of outrage.

After all, Caleb just got his very own library card, and while he seems to have learned to read, we’re going to need our local branch to stay open because he’s clearly going to need some spelling help. 

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