The walk to Kingsbridge Library meant passing a ferocious dog. I dreaded that stretch of sidewalk. Running as fast as I could, heart pounding, I kept my eyes on the corner ahead, willing the dog not to leap from the second floor terrace from where he snarled. But on the day I went to sign up for my first library card, my heart beat with anticipation so I barely noticed the barking canine. The requirement was you needed to be able to write your name and after practicing like mad, I was ready to sign on the dotted line. I can still conjure that moment when I received the manila piece of cardboard, my name typed on it, a ticket to borrow books for free. The first and most precious document I’d ever signed up for and I was 5. Through the library and reading I entered a world beyond any walls or city streets I knew.
A few years later we moved to our new neighborhood on Broadway across from VanCortlandt Park and Riverdale Library became my new destination. According to my memory, walking to either library took about half an hour but a quick Mapquest search of my old addresses indicates that they’re both less than 15 minutes on foot from where we lived, the distance greater because of the always heavy load of books I carried each way.
In elementary school, I tore through books about dogs and especially Collies, obsessed by Lad and the Sunnybank Collie series by Albert Payson Terhune. By 6th grade and through Junior High School, I haunted the Nature section particularly loving memoirs by naturalists and accounts and guides about surviving in nature. A country girl trapped in the city, I became a Euell Gibbons devotee, stalking mostly park dandelions and my favorite – fragrant Black Locust Blossoms delicious because of the sugar and batter they were fried in.
When adolescence hit, I discovered May Sarton and coveted a life like hers, observing nature, befriending the animals. Now, as an adult, I recognize a loneliness in her pronounced solitude and realize that probably resonated with me too. I read travel books and dreamed of living in Australia with all that weird wildlife. From a library in the Bronx I learned about tracking animals and when my parents bought a weekend house in the Berkshires, I wandered the forest searching mud and snow for prints and once, came upon a deer walking ahead of me on the quiet path – the ultimate prize for my solitary walks.
Reading was a common thread in my otherwise fractured family. Our faces were in books the way today’s kids are in their phones. The day my father moved out he told me he wanted to pursue his dream of writing, (not that he’d fallen in love with another woman) and that reading was his excuse for not writing. Within an hour of his reveal, he began packing his books, removing familiar titles I’d grown up with, leaving empty, dusty shelves.
My mother devoured The New Yorker, novels, and religiously, The New York Times. When she gave a sharp shake of her paper, I knew that meant she was about to read a passage that incensed or amused her, wanting to share her outrage or joy with me. If I also had a section of the paper, I’d do my best to snap my own pages to communicate my annoyance, on the ridiculous chance that she might understand my code and be quiet. I confess, now a mother myself, I do this — wanting to read something with my daughter who of course, also hates it but tells me so and I stop.
My sister and I are crazy about each other and in our weekly phone gabs, drill each other about our lives. What are you making for dinner tonight? (We wish we were at each other’s tables …) How’s work? What are you doing this weekend? And of course, what are you reading? Inevitably, we both have a few titles to recommend and so my daunting tower of books-to-be read grows.
Family Christmas presents are easy – we all love books. Kevin is an omnivorous reader with eclectic, far ranging interests. My other brother always has something specific and often obscure – a literary title or the latest guide to wild mushrooms.
When Molly was little, our Saturday morning of errands always included a stop at the Westport library – not our town but a far better endowed one than the one I live in with a beautiful space and key: lots of parking. We’d go through the shelves together, picking out picture books to add to the vast choice she already owned, for our nightly 5 books-a-bed reading. We lingered in the play area, her scouting out new friends over the wooden toy collection while I scanned the new book section. Did I tell you I work in a bookstore? My librarian friends who knew me from the store teased me about my ‘bus-man’s holiday’ – and of course, I knew them too. We’re like that, us book people, we just can’t get enough.
I cannot imagine my life without reading, without the crazy towers of books around me and it astounds me that not everyone shares this pleasure. During the years I gave tours at the United Nations, when I had groups of children, I always paused in front of the beautiful photo above, taken by former UN photographer and dear friend John Isaac, to talk about literacy. I’d ask them, “What can you do if you can read?” The children piped up and I’d add “Cook!” (because I believe anyone can) and we’d go on endlessly with our list concluding, that if you can read, you can do ANYTHING.
IF YOU CAN READ YOU CAN DO ANYTHING! Sorry to yell but I just want to shout that from the rooftops.
PS: Conversely, if you can’t read… well, you’re screwed. Here’s some depressing information about the unnecessary illiteracy rate in the United States: http://literacyprojectfoundation.org/community/statistics/