“Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
She thought to herself, `This is now.’
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
I closed the book and cradled it on my chest, stroking its honey-brown cover with one finger. As its enchantment faded, I was no longer with Laura in the log cabin built by Pa with his own hands but back in my ordinary life in my ordinary house in my ordinary town. A life that became extraordinary only inside the covers of a book. And I now faced the moment dreaded by every book lover when you have finished your last book without a new one in sight. It was only Friday and I had already read each of my library books twice, saving my special favorite, Little House in the Big Woods, for last. But even that was over and I was alone again with nothing to read.
My childhood home did possess a few shelves of children’s books—among them The Little Engine That Could, The Cat in the Hat, Little Women, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Harriet the Spy, and The Phantom Tollbooth. My parents weren’t stingy, but back then book buying was reserved for special occasions. My mother became the elementary school librarian when I was in 4th grade, which gave me some extra book access along with an enhanced knowledge of the Dewey decimal system. But throughout my childhood the main supplier of my book addiction was the local public library.
Built in 1959 and still standing, the Wyoming (OH) Branch Library is one of 41 branches of the Cincinnati Public Library. The building represents a prime example of mid 20th-century America’s lack of imagination in institutional construction. When facing the squat red brick building, you would see two offset but interconnected boxes that made the building look unbalanced. Floor-to-ceiling windows provided light, but the choice of red brick for the left-hand mullions undermined this effect by reinforcing the building’s prison-like appearance. After walking up the stairs past the flagpole on the right and the small flower garden on the left, you would enter through the double glass doors. Inside you would be greeted by buzzing fluorescent overhead lights, checkerboard black and cream linoleum floors that smelled of Lysol but always looked dingy, and rows of beige birch wooden tables and chairs. Tall battleship-grey metal shelves lined each wall except in the preschool section, whose low wooden shelves were reachable by and gentle on little hands. Because the windows occupied so much real estate, additional metal shelves were arranged perpendicularly to the back walls. This unremarkable building would win no design prizes then or now, but to me it represented absolute perfection.
Located at the corner of my town’s two busiest streets, the library sat directly across from the elementary school where I spent five mostly happy years and the middle school where I spent four mostly miserable ones. The library was a 15-minute walk, a 5-minute bike ride–no need to lock your bike–or a 2-minute drive from our house and when we were toddlers, my mother would load us into our station wagon for afternoon story hour. For a stay-at-home mother with three little girls, this activity filled some of the long daytime hours before we started school.
In kindergarten or thereabouts (here I confess that the passage of time has compelled me to recreate some events), I was deemed old enough for my own library card. I don’t remember its color, but I do remember the delicious feel of its slippery laminated surface and the thrill of reading my own name typed on its front. My mother kept my library card in a kitchen drawer nestled in between rubber bands, paper clips, and extra batteries, and from time to time I would open that drawer to make sure it hadn’t been stolen. That fall, after I started walking home from school without parental supervision, I was allowed to make solo library trips. Every Monday I would gather the previous week’s books and deposit them in our red metal Radio Flyer. The checkout limit for a child’s library card was 7 books, which seldom lasted a week for me. My father was amazed that I could read so quickly. He would tease, “Are you sure you’ve read all these books, Katie?” to which I would answer, “Of course Daddy!” He would settle back against the mound of pillows and stuffed animals on my bed and say, “Tell me about this one.” As I would relate the latest adventures of Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, his eyelids would drift shut and he might even start to snore. At which point I would poke him and shout, “Wake up Daddy!”
With my library card clutched tightly in one hand and the wagon handle in the other, I would head down the driveway onto the bumpy sidewalk. My mother would remind me to wait for the crossing guard at Springfield Pike and my younger sisters would wave good-bye as if I were Laura Ingalls Wilder setting off across the continent on her family’s wagon. To me, that one-mile walk felt as full of wonder. At the library, I would ditch the wagon at the bottom of the stairs and enter through the glass doors with my armload of books. The children’s room was on the left and the adults-only room on the right, with the librarian’s desk directly in between. As a child I thought her main job was to police the border and ensure that no one under 13 crossed over into that forbidden right-hand territory without parental permission. In my memory, the librarian’s enormous desk was covered by towering stacks of books and encircled by library carts jammed full of more books waiting to be reshelved. The librarian sat behind that desk surveying her domain. I picture her with dark braids pinned on top of her head, glasses on a chain around her neck, and a severe expression. As she checked in my books, she would examine each one to confirm I hadn’t done any damage. Perhaps she suspected that my favorite co-reading activity was eating Oreos on my bed even though my mother had forbidden food in the bedrooms, and I was worried a stray crumb might betray me and get me banned forever. That never happened, not even when I accidentally drowned a library book in the bathtub in my tween years. “No-o-o-o-o” I still screech in my head as the plastic-covered hardback book (stress has obliterated the title) slips slowly through my wet hands and falls with a little splash into the Mr. Bubble-scented water below. The memory of that moment is magnified by the pain of losing many weeks’ allowance to pay the book’s replacement cost. Even now when bathtub reading is still part of my evening routine, “never ever take a library book in the bathtub” is an unbreakable household rule.
Having survived the ordeal of returning the previous week’s books, I would turn to the more pleasant task of selecting the next week’s treasures. I would head to the fiction shelves in the children’s room, where I would pace back and forth from A (Aiken) to W (Wilder). An appealing cover or intriguing title might catch my eye and I would reach for the book, standing on tiptoe for the top shelves. As I slid the book from its wedged-in position, its plastic cover would crackle in greeting. After repeating this ritual 10 or 15 times, I would sink to the floor, crossing my saddle-shoed, knee-socked legs and opening the book on my lap to see if we would be a good match. With only 7 spots available, I felt pressured to make good choices. What if I made a mistake and brought home a dud?
I preferred books about children swept from their mundane lives into magical worlds. I was enchanted by Edward Eager’s Half Magic series, which begins when 4 siblings who live in a boring small town find a magic coin that grants their wishes. The problem is that this coin grants only half of each wish–for example, the family cat does start talking but can speak only nonsense words–until the children overcome this obstacle and start having real adventures. For a time after reading these books I would gaze down at the sidewalk searching for my own transformative coin. The Narnia books, whose children are transported into a magical land through a bedroom closet, were also heavenly, and had me knocking on the back wall of my own closet and listening for (but never finding) a hollow sound. When I ran out of books about magical adventures, historical settings were almost as good, as my ongoing devotion to the Little House series attests. Stories of contemporary girls like Harriet-the-Spy or Ramona-the-Pest also appealed, especially when they outsmarted the grown-ups or better yet, the school bullies. I rarely glanced at the nonfiction section at the back of the children’s room. I did enjoy reading the few biographies of women in the Childhood of Famous Americans series housed in that section; Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, and Queen Liliuokalani were my heroes in succession. The tall wooden card catalogue near the librarian’s desk was consulted only for school projects on topics like the solar system, the history of Ohio, or African mammals. I usually used the good enough school library for that purpose or the multi-volume World Book Encyclopedia at home, which I, a true fiction devotee, consulted only when necessary.
Once I arrived home with my wagonful of precious cargo, how I would savor the long afternoons after school when I could lock my door, lie on my bed under a blanket crocheted by my grandmother, and disappear for a couple of hours into the pages of a book. I outwitted my cruel governess in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and ran wild in the Wisconsin woods with Caddie Woodlawn. I forgave my little brother Fudge for killing my turtle in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and learned the value of true friendship from Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. I was a lonely bookish child who didn’t fit into my homogenous Midwestern town. In elementary school I did have friends, but I preferred to spend time with the imaginary friends in books than with my flesh-and-blood peers. In the middle of playing Life or Operation or Barbies, I would peer at my friend through thick glasses and announce, “It’s time for you to go home.” “But we haven’t finished the game—and I’m winning!” she might reply. I would make this (to me) perfectly logical response, “I want to read—so you should go home now.” She would look at me, shrug, say “OK, see you at school” and depart, and before she was even out the door, I would grab a book and dive back in. This might explain why by middle school I had few friends and why the library was my favorite place.
Then one day the library betrayed me in the most unthinkable of ways: I ran out of books! By age 12, I could no longer find new books to read and had grown tired of rereading the ones I knew so well. I appealed to my mother: “Mommy, would you give me permission to check out books from the adult room at the library?” My mother, who had always viewed me as mature for my age (the blessing and curse of the eldest child), said “of course, Katie!” So with little ceremony, I traded in my beloved child’s library card for one that allowed me to cross the invisible border into the adult room.
Like the half-magic of Edward Eager’s coin, my new “adult” library card delivered only half my wish: it did permit me to check out an unlimited number of books, but I now struggled to find books I wanted to read. If the children’s room had been a place of color, joy, friendship, and magic, the adult room was mostly a grey and barren wasteland. It wasn’t all terrible. My earlier love of magical lands and faraway places translated into a passion for Victorian novels (Jane Eyre was a particular favorite), sci fi, and fantasy. I first encountered Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on the adult room shelves, and I followed Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo throughout the 1500 pages of their dangerous, terrifying, thrilling, and satisfying adventures. I checked out those four Tolkien books so often that eventually I bought my own paperback copies—which represented a lot of 1970s babysitting hours.
Very few books in the adult section inspired that kind of devotion or even the desire to read them more than once and as I grew up, I visited the library less and less. School became increasingly demanding. In middle and high school, we were assigned challenging books like To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Grapes of Wrath, and Camus’ The Stranger, and were taught to read and write about these books symbolically and thematically.
Even in my teen years, books rescued me from my sometimes less than satisfying surroundings. My high school friends were bookish like me, good at school and devoted to uncool pursuits like youth symphony and drama club. Like the geeks in a John Hughes movie, I wanted to be accepted, even befriended, by the popular crowd—those football-playing boys and their cheerleader girlfriends—but that seemed as likely as finding a door to a magical land in the back of my closet. Each September my mother would say “this year will be better, Katie,” but by October I would once again be crying in my room after school. It didn’t help that my mother had been a popular cheerleader who dated the quarterback and that although I knew she loved and admired me, she didn’t understand her introverted eldest daughter. When I wasn’t invited to Junior Prom (which in those days was couples-only), I threw a not-too-bad dinner party for my promless female friends. But the worst moment was that morning when the jocks thought it would be funny to sit in front of the school library’s floor-to-ceiling windows and hold up a number ranking from one to ten each unlucky female student who walked by. Although the “game” was soon ended by the assistant principal, I don’t remember its players getting any serious punishment. I do remember, however, that I got a “3.” That day I ran home and hid in my room, where after crying for a few minutes, I grabbed Jane Eyre from my bookshelf and lost myself in her words once more: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.” On such a day reading would soothe my hurt feelings and give me hope that things might eventually get better, which my high-school self defined as “someday my prince will come.” Like “plain Jane” Eyre, I dreamed of being rescued by my own Rochester, whose love would transform me into a beautiful swan. Instead of a fairytale rescue, I was able to create my own escape by leaving home my senior year for boarding school, then on to college and a happy enough adult life.
I am grateful to that first library for giving me a home in books that has outlasted its physical presence in my life. My love of books led me to become a literature major in college and then to pursue a literature PhD. I spent many many hours in the pre-internet days hunting down relevant information about the origins of the English novel in the books of various libraries. At least for my job as an English professor, analyzing and writing about books and teaching others to do the same has become second nature. While books are now what I “do,” I still love to lose myself in a novel anywhere I can–in bed, on the couch, at the breakfast table, on the subway. I still dread running out of reading material and always have a pile of books on my nightstand; currently Ann Patchett’s latest essay collection resides next to Alison Bechdel’s most recent graphic novel next to Toni Morrison’s Home. I am also an addictive book buyer, as evidenced by the 30 boxes of books during my last move. I prefer the feel and weight of an actual paper book in my hands, the tactile sensation as I turn the pages, but I do read on a tablet sometimes, even checking out books on my local public library’s Libby app (but never reading those books in the bathtub!).
I still need books, but with a life filled with work, love, family, and friendship, I haven’t needed them quite as much. Or so I thought. I keep a list of books read each year and have generally averaged 60 books/year—until the pandemic. I read 60 of 2020’s 75 books after the March lockdown, while 2021’s list includes an improbable 115 titles. Not only the number of books but the categories of books during this strange time are also revealing. One third of 2020’s and 2021’s books are rereads (among them Jane Eyre and The Lord of the Rings) and one third are fantasy novels. Just like in my lonely childhood and anxious adolescence, I have been using books to escape the stress, pain, boredom, and uncertainties of real life. I’ve revisited old friends like Jane Eyre and Frodo Baggins along with newer companions like Harry Potter (oh how I would have loved that series as a child!), Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon in His Dark Materials, and Claire and Jamie in the Outlander series. After voyaging awhile to other times and places, I re-emerge from these pages with the strength and courage to face whatever comes next.
Kate Levin is an educator and writer who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in New York City. She taught in the Barnard College English department for many years and also worked as an academic advisor at CUNY. She now serves on several nonprofit boards in education and the arts. Her writing has been published in multiple academic and non-academic venues. During the pandemic she has been writing, playing violin, exercising, and reading a lot of books. She looks forward to traveling, singing, seeing theater, and hugging family and friends without fear.