Having just completed a two-year MFA in Creative Writing, I learned the hard way that even ordering my books on Half.com added up, as did the bulk on my bookshelves (the best kind of bulk, as long as they’re all bangers). Each semester I was responsible for reading and formally responding to 10 novels and/or story collections, so this was no small burden.
Thus, I introduced myself to my local branch of Enoch Pratt Free Library to get my books quickly and cheaply. It brought back all my memories of the Rockville Library: the murals and Dr. Seuss display, the princess-voiced librarian who read Frog and Toad books to us, the smell of paper and the deep thwack of hard covers as the librarians flipped them over to find the barcode.
As an adult, the pleasures are just as subtle, and tempered by a vague unsettling feeling, possibly brought on by thoughts of desktop porn watchers and aisle creepers. I may not lounge long afternoons there, but the brief visit is nonetheless rewarding, and the reasons are five-fold:
Amazon Prime is great with next-day delivery, but sometimes you have no time to waste. And if you’re smart, you’ll check out the library’s website and search for what you want ahead of time, so that you can see if it’s available there or requires an interlibrary loan. In some cases you may be better off Amazonning.
If you can meet deadlines. You just need an address. You need both with Amazon, plus you have to have a credit card.
And this reason leads to the next:
The library is the proud physical collection of all uncensored knowledge. It is there for everyone to discover. The same book you read for school will be read by someone wealthy but desperately sad, or an apathetic teen, or your pizza delivery guy, or else they’re all the same person but they’re so different from you, can you help but be touched by the connection? And if you need up-to-the-minute information, there are the free computers. You just need a library card.
Libraries smell good.
Some paper is nutty. Other kinds are sweet and death-like, like funeral lilies. The glossy-coats are chemically and headachey, like a metro car full of opera-goers. Then the crinkly plastic of the library covers, the keyboards perspiring under the weight of fingers, the carpet meeting the wood shelves, and the pungent mélange of the clientele farting softly in the stacks.
The best reason to go anywhere. Homogeny is boring. Spontaneity is inspiring. Danger is motivating. And I would argue that the Central Library in Midtown Baltimore is extra weird.
Usually libraries are trailer-looking buildings with wood paneling and sputtering fluorescents, maybe some cheerful decals on the windows and sullen teens lurking just outside. But Enoch Pratt was originally built in 1886 then rebuilt in 1931, and even after several key restorations it has retained its splendor. It is a temple to knowledge and promise of thought, where everyone is welcome to be as strange as they like.
As we turn to the Internet more and more for every need, we eliminate the occasions we used to have to interact with one another. One could argue that it was natural progress, that it was only a matter of time before we all found out we generally can’t stand each other. And no one likes to be compelled to do anything if it’s pitched as “good for you,” like choking down broccoli at family dinner.
But humanity is at a crossroads. Do we continue to avoid that which is uncomfortable or inconvenient? We must hold to reasons beyond entitlement and misanthropy in favor of the greater good. And the greater good is people of all walks browsing the same books.
There will never be a replacement for the physicality of the paper book. And if we turn exclusively to publishing and purchasing books online we might miss the beautiful awkwardness and nobility of the public library visit.