I’ve had a library card continuously since the age of 6. Those halcyon days when I first learned that the world lent out free books are forever enshrined in memory. Mrs. Craig, the town librarian: combination priestess/nurse with her iron-gray hair and sensible oxfords. The heating register, with its filigreed wrought iron grate, that all through the long, frigid winters exhaled the medicinal smell of heating oil. The shelves of books: balm, even a child could understand, for the wounded human soul.
I kept my card through elementary and high school, college and law school, through 20 years of hard drinking. Living in a cockroach-infested “loft” on Boston’s Merrimac Street, I still made a bi-monthly pilgrimage to the BPL. Even at my worst, I was still enough of a human being to be allowed free books. Friendless, despairing, I still had Anne Frank, and Ivan Ilyich, and Gregor Samsa.
For those of us who can’t afford to buy all the books we read, the library is as essential—perhaps more essential—than a grocery store. We need books to remind us how deeply we are connected. We need books because we know we are going to die. Decades later, the LAPL still gives me reason to live: my online account where I can reserve, renew, and check for due dates; the catalog that allows me to troll for Hans Christian Andersen biographies, or Rouault paintings, or the photos of Larry Clark; the “Hold” section at the Edendale branch in Echo Park where my heart skips a beat when I spot the fuchsia slip with my name inked in black Magic Marker. Is there a more vivid sign of hope that a small schoolgirl, or schoolboy, shifting from one foot to the other, standing in the checkout line with an armload of books? How is the next generation to govern itself, order its priorities, care for its sick, poor, unlucky, unlearned if we fail as a culture and a community to acknowledge the importance of the library?
After 20 years, I recently left L.A. and went on the road. Maybe my time here is up, I thought. Maybe I’m done with Los Angeles. In New Mexico I got a temporary card. I walked through the snow to check out Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Winter in Taos, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. I walked from the library to evening Mass, pondering the connection between libraries and churches. Religion from the Latin religare: to bind together again. Books, that bring all of humanity back to the table. The memorial of St. Agnes, a 14-year-old who was martyred—beheaded—for refusing to yield her virginity; having consecrated herself to God, for dying rather than consent to an arranged marriage. What do you do with that? How do you deliver a homily on such an act–which reveals even the most radical contemporary “feminism” to be decidedly lukewarm–in this culture? “It’s about love,” said Father Brito, in his simple, earnest way. “The saints remind us that the point is always love.”
At the Lebh Shomea House of Prayer on the Gulf Coast of Texas, I read Caryll Houselander’s Guilt and Malcolm Muggeridge’s Jesus and Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Poustinia. In Spencer, West Virginia, I stayed in a phoneless, wifi-less cabin and went to the library every day to check my e-mail. I read Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Joseph Conrad’s “The Nigger of the Narcissus” and The Way of a Pilgrim. After awhile I got homesick. I missed the Southern California light. I missed the farmers’ markets. And I missed the L.A. Public Library.
Because as the children, the teenagers, the elderly, the poor, and those of us who would sooner go without food than without our red, blue, and gold LAPL card know, libraries are about love. The point is always love.