I remember the smell. And the way the silence changed once you got inside. I lived in a quiet town, but beyond the library doors the nature of that tranquility changed. It was a live silence, a curious one. It radiated. There wasn't an ounce of complacency in the silence within those walls. Everyone there was searching for something, and that was exciting.
For me, the other excitement was that there were no limits. Or rather, not any of the important ones that beleaguered my daily existence as a child. I mean, I wasn't permitted to speak loudly, but somehow it didn't matter. I couldn't run, but who cared? I could take out as many books as I pleased. No limits. I could leave the building with a pile of books under each arm, my little knees buckling under the delicious heft of them all, and no one would stop me at the door. It was a safe expression of the child's tendency toward gluttony; a field day for the Id. The supply was endless, and so was my joy at this prospect.
My maternal grandmother grew up as one of many children during the Dust Bowl. She passed on a spirit of wastelessness and gratitude, of contentment and acceptance. And my mother, then, taught my brothers and I that no, we couldn't have a candy bar just because we were in the check out line at the supermarket (and as an aside, has anyone else felt humiliated for our generation upon spying the "candy-free" aisles at the supermarket? I mean, can't we just say "no" anymore? Are we so weak that we need a candy-free aisle to stop us from plying our kids with sugar if they wheedle long enough?).
We weren't poor, but there weren't frivolous gifts purchased simply for the sake of consumerism, like a reflex, a quick and temporary satisfaction that soon gives way to a rise of the impulse to buy again and again. My mother wanted the gifts she gave to have lasting meaning. She read to me, she cooked me good meals that took time to prepare. She valued intelligence and fresh air, nature and simplicity. And letting kids get dirty. Thank goodness for a mother who didn't wrap me in ribbons and instruct me not to climb trees. Thank goodness for a mother who loves books, even now.
And what better place to loosen the reins and give over to a child's impulsive, sticky-handed grabbing then a library? Knowledge dictates a healthy hunger, a yearning whose satisfaction can only benefit those afflicted with it. Sitting on the carpet, leaning back on a shelf taller than any adult in the building, I pored over pictures of Little Bear and Eloise, George and Martha. Of Madeline, and a whole cast of characters, the specifications of whom have faded over time, but who, I'm sure, are still with me in all the important ways. And when I got the books home, my mother would read them to me, or we'd sit side by side, reading to ourselves. It wasn't a vibrant silence, like the one in the library, but a happy one nonetheless.
I still love the sound of my mother reading. When she reads to my daughter, I love to listen too. In those moments, I don't even have to close my eyes to be a child again myself. And when I take my own daughter to the library, I hope I am giving her what my mother gave me: a love of books, a feeling of freedom, and a chance to find herself between two covers, over and over again.