The Magic of Libraries

I am convinced that there is only one form of magic in the world: reading. Think about it for a moment. Reading is a form of telepathy. As you read this post, thoughts that were in my head are being transmitted to your head. This is happening without my actually speaking to you. In many instance, we have never even met, and yet I am getting my ideas across because you can read what I am writing.

Beyond that, reading is magic because it can transport you to places you've never been and never will go. I can remember very clearly my mom explaining this to me when I was five or six years old. I don't remember her exact works, but they were along the lines of, “You can go anywhere in the world in a book.” As I discovered, she far underestimated where I would go. I wasn't reading long before I was leaving Earth's atmosphere and exploring the entire solar system. Reading has taken me to the surface of the moon, the core of the sun, the event horizon of a black hole, the dimmest edges of the known universe. Each of these places is impossible for me to reach and yet, because reading is magic, I've reached them.

Reading is not fenced in by mere physics. Time does not hold it captive. I've been to ancient Rome. I've watched the Great Pyramid of Giza being constructed. I've marched through the French countryside with the 101st Airbourne Division. I've sat nervously in Tube tunnels during the Blitz. I've followed Captain James Cook around the world. I've begged on the streets of London. I was a groupie of Odysseus and I saw King Harry at Agincourt. I've seen ancient cities constructed on Mexican lakes and Great Walls built in China. What else but magic could make such things possible?

In the legends, those who wish to learn magic must seek out the wizards in their towers. Growing up, I learned my magic the same way. My towers were libraries and my wizards were librarians.

The first library that I remember visiting was the Franklin Township Library not far from where I lived in Somerset, New Jersey. I'm not certain I understood the concept of a library the moment I set foot in the door, but I knew it was a place of magic. And over time, I learned that each book on the shelf was like a new magic spell. Some spells would take you places, others would teach you things, others still would entertain you.

The first book I remember checking out of the library was The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. I checked the book out again, and again. I couldn't get enough of it.

The library I remember best of all, and the one out of which I go the most use was the Granada Hills library in Granada Hills, California. The library was about a mile from where I lived. I would walk there, lugging along whatever books I'd checked out. I'd spend hours there browing the shelves, finding new book, until finally I emerged with books in my hands. The walk back was always slower because I was usually reading while I walked.

There was freedom in that library. I could go to whatever section I wanted. I could pull any book off the shelf and look at it. I could check out the book if I was interested and read it at my leisure. I don't recall anyone–not my parents, not a librarian–refusing me a book or guiding me in one direction or another without first being asked. In many ways, the Granada Hills library was like the Internet is today. I'd start in one section, looking at a book about geography, perhaps. That book might talk about deserts and mention the pyramids in Egypt, which would send me off looking for a book on the construction of the pyramids. This in turn might get me interested in engineering. Or it might pique my interest in Middle-Eastern mythology.

The summers in the library were the most magical to me. It would be 100 degrees in the Valley and that made the mile long walk a hot one. But then I'd pull open the door to the library and be greeted with a blast of arctic air and the smell of books and dust. There, I would linger among the stacks, sometimes looking for something in the sciences, sometimes browsing science fiction or history. Sometimes, I'd go off on oddball tangents. I can remember spending a day with a book on how to take shorthand, thinking it would make it easier to take notes in my junior high school classes. I can remember another time trying to teach myself sign language from a book I found in the library. The air was always cool inside and it was always quiet, with the constant hum of the lights in the background and the ocassional riffling of pages or the sqeaky wheel of a cart shattering the silence. I could find a place to sit and, with my stack of books, keep myself busy from open to close, virtually oblivious to the other accolytes learning their own forms of magic.

It seems that if there is any gift I could pass on to my own kids, it would be this one. Teaching them that reading is magic–true magic–and that libraries are the best places to learn that magic. Teching them that reading is indeed the most powerful magic that exists. Once you've mastered it, there isn't anything you can't learn; there is no place that you can't go; there isn't any life you can't live, or time can't visit. Reading is a magic that opens a door to all of human civilization and all of human knowledge.

And libraries are sancturaries for that magic. They are places where newcomers can be introduced to the magic, and oldtimers can revel in it, one page at a time.

2 thoughts on “The Magic of Libraries

  1. Jamie, I know you are much more a SF guy, but with that attitude, I am certain you would love Libriomancer by Jim Hines (it comes out in a couple of weeks).

    My first real library was the New Dorp library…if you don’t count the library in the Intermediate school I went to.

    The Roseville Public Library, brand spanking new, is pretty sweet. Also Minneapolis Public in downtown.

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