Photo credit: Nicola Goode
If you’re like me, you don’t feel fully at home in a new city until you’ve gotten a library card.
My first was for the Montgomery County Public Libraries, in the D.C. suburb where I grew up; I remember the tattered edges of its laminate in my first wallet, just as I remember the smell of the carpets in the Davis Branch on Democracy Boulevard.
Every phase of my life is associated with a library. Wandering in libraries, sitting in libraries, and most of all reading in them: Reading for pleasure, reading for inspiration, reading for research, reading out of the persistent anxiety that one day I will die not having read all the books I want to.
At Washington University in St. Louis, it was the Olin Library, a hulking academic library of beige stone, recessed into the center of the central quad. As a very-young adult in Chicago, lacking a job or friends, I spent hours in the Harold Washington Library with the crazy green roof. After Chicago was Brooklyn and the gorgeous Central Library by Prospect Park, designed like a book, open to Grand Army Plaza and the world. Then came Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then Indianapolis, Indiana—both cities where they’ve taken stately old brick libraries and expanded them with sleek modernist exoskeletons.
Now I live in Los Angeles and get to hang out in the magnificent Art Deco charmer that stars in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book.
It's easy to forget what an astonishment libraries are. Free and open to the public, filled with every category of information and inspiration; staffed by smart and civic-minded professionals…oh, and then there's the whole thing where you can just, you know, take a book home and keep it for a while. Libraries are like daily newspapers—at some point we forget to remember how amazing it was, how for fifty cents or a buck every day you could get this compendium of the word’s events, tossed right onto the driveway.
Maybe we kind of screwed up, back around the turn of the century, with all our fervent celebration of the internet and its promise. Remember how frothy with excitement we were about all that information, freely offered, and now look where we are: privacy breaches and tweet storms and filter bubbles and the corruption of public discourse and poisonous tidal waves of misinformation and disinformation and information warfare.
And all along, right under our noses—on Democracy Boulevard, in Cambridge, Mass, in Indy and LA—there were these huge buildings full of books, and each book full of truth and beauty. Just bursting with the stuff.
Ben H. Winters is the New York Times bestselling author of Underground Airlines and the Last Policeman trilogy. The second novel in the trilogy, Countdown City, was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick award. The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award, and was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate. Ben lives with his family in Los Angeles, California.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews January 2019 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.