When I was 4 years old, my mother took me to get my first library card. There are many childhood memories I’ve forgotten, but I’ll never forget Mama hoisting me to the library counter so I could autograph that card.
Of course, I couldn’t spell at that age, so my name came out looking like drunken Mandarin. But the card served me well over the years.
I grew up in libraries. I lived in them. I never quit visiting them. They were my safe haven. They were a place free of judgement.
When I worked construction, I was the guy who visited the library on lunch breaks. I would check out stacks of 10 sometimes 15 Louis L’Amour books.
A library was the only educational institution where blue-collar guys like me weren’t embarrassed about our low pedigrees and decades of bad grades. This is why, to me, libraries are the greatest institution.
All mankind’s children are welcome at the library to partake in ideas, knowledge, classic literature, and above all, free Abbott and Costello DVDs. No entrance exams, no tuition, no standardized tests. It’s enough to make you believe in God.
Over the course of my life, however, I lost touch with the library. I attended community college as an adult, and eventually quit construction. I became a halfwit author, I got writing gigs, had back surgery, I got married, got a mortgage. Life got in the way.
Until the pandemic.
Suddenly I was at the library again. The Walton County Library system became a safe haven. In fact, it was one of the only places I felt comfortable visiting during lockdowns.
One reason is because librarians are obsessive compulsive about sanitation. They sterilize each book like they’re prepping for neurosurgery. And they always take visitors’ temperatures with their little Star Wars laser thermometers.
Throughout this pandemic I’ve gotten to know the library workers from a distance.
There’s the employee who is wild about Mister Spock from “Star Trek.” She has Spock earrings, Spock stickers, Spock jewelry, and she’s always cheerful. When I check out books I have to fight the urge to show a full Vulcan salute.
There’s the older guy with the laser thermometer I was just telling you about. When he zaps my forehead he always tells me to “have a great day.” Sometimes he is the only person who says this to me all week.
There’s the gal in the back office. I once ran into this same lady when doing an author event in Nashville. I’ll never forget it. It was a big event, I was a hack author, out of my league and homesick, stuck in an overwhelming city with unfamiliar faces. I was even wearing a sportcoat—if you can just imagine.
That day I shook hundreds of hands in a busy convention center, and just generally spent the afternoon feeling like a fat idiot in a jumpsuit.
But out of the septillions of librarians visiting the book event from across the globe, I managed to find the ONE person from Walton County. I lost my mind with excitement.
We got our picture made together. And right before the camera flash, this woman turned to me and in a moment of heartfelt sincerity said something like, “You owe $7 in late fees.”
So I cannot describe how much I adore libraries. I love walking the aisles of books. I even love the process of selecting books.
Oh, there is an artform to choosing the perfect book. Like my granny used to say: “You can’t judge a book by its cover, so judge it by the author’s photograph instead.”
Which is true for me. The author photo matters when selecting a book. The picture cannot be cheesy. The author can’t be too young. Nobody wants to read serious literature written by a kid with a $10 haircut and a used-car-salesman smile. Take me, for example. My haircuts cost about $9.50.
But anyway, a lot goes into book selection. It’s a holy process. A gut feeling. It cannot be rushed. Which is why this morning at my local library I was gratified to see an artist at work.
I was in the fiction aisle when I saw a young man browsing. He was skinny, wearing a surgical mask, and he wore a neon construction vest. He carried a mile-high stack of books.
What impressed me was HOW he selected these books. This man knew what he was doing. He would glance across an entire shelf with the eyes of a falcon, gravitate toward a book, open it, inspect the author photo, and make a split-second decision. This guy was a pro.
I didn’t mean to, but I followed him. I watched him check out. I saw how friendly Mister-Spock Lady treated him. Then I watched the young man jog through the parking lot, climb into a work truck, eat a sandwich, and read during his lunch hour, blissfully turning pages.
And I was reminded of myself.
You see, I don’t fit the profile of a book guy. I never have. I come from humble people. I was a terrible student. But this unassuming American institution of learning gave me a chance. Librarians never told me what I couldn’t do, they only granted me access to the greatest ideas mankind ever produced. Books.
I owe as much to libraries as I do to the beautiful people who run them.
Maybe someday I’ll finally get around to paying that seven bucks in late fees.