In Praise of the Small Town Library
In Rural Pennsylvania, Four Bookshelves Are a Passport to the Outside World
The Renovo Public Library, in North-Central Pennsylvania, isn’t a handsome wood or brick building on the town square. It certainly isn’t anything like the New York Public Library’s main branch, on Fifth Avenue, with its marble lion guards outside and palatial rooms and hallways. Instead, it’s a small, squat former auto garage built with concrete blocks painted white. The building was remodeled and opened in 1968, in a campaign led by a group of schoolteachers and local residents to obtain, for our remote end of the county, a branch library. It sits on a rise overlooking the Susquehanna river, at the end of a dead-end street, all but hidden from the currents of town life.
Frequently, I was the only person in the building, other than our librarian, Viv. I lingered there on drowsy after-school afternoons because I loved the sweet damp smell of paper and glue slowly decaying, because I loved pulling some forgotten old hardcover from the shelves, and because, simply, I loved being in a room filled with books. Two rooms, actually. There was a small-town stillness, an atmosphere of benign neglect inside our little library that suggested the great works of Western lit were mine alone to discover. A translation of the Greek epic poem the Odyssey had, according to its date-stamped card, an equally epic lending history: checked out twice in 1968, once in 1980, and again in 1992, before I came along, in March of 1994, when I was 17, and removed Homer’s masterpiece from its place for the fifth time in more than a quarter century.
The persistent feeling that the public library belonged to me, that it was a clean, well-lighted place built and kept open for one reader, was reinforced in other ways. In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty describes in fearsome terms a Mrs. Calloway, the librarian at Jackson’s Carnegie Library, who sat facing the stairs, “her dragon eye on the front door.” If Mrs. Calloway could see through a young woman’s skirt, Welty wrote, “she sent you straight back home.” Viv was no library overlord. She kept an ashtray in her top desk drawer to sneak drags of her cigarettes. She spoke in a Kool rasp. But mostly she silently communicated a do-as-you-please air, as if you had entered a self-serve cafeteria. Just like the desserts under glass, it was up to you to discover your favorites.
I didn’t mind this one bit. I liked being my own guide. It created a sense of accidental discovery; and, simultaneously, the opposite feeling, that I had been led to certain books and authors by divining rod. Four blue metal bookcases, or stacks, each about eight feet tall with double-sided shelves and grouped in a single row, held the entire collection for adults—a small, manageable garden from which I drew nourishment over many seasons. I could stand amid those four bookshelves an hour or all day, the hum of the cooling fan and the squeak of Viv’s metal chair the only intrusions.
How many other rural and small-town children have sought the outside world inside a library? Stephen King, Richard Russo, and Bobbie Ann Mason, to name a few, have talked about this. “It was the only place a relatively poor kid like me could get all the books he wanted,” King once said. “I just have this feeling that if it weren’t for the Gloversville Free Library that I probably would not be a writer,” Russo reflected. If you don’t happen to live near a college or a bookstore, if your relatives aren’t bookish, the public library is literary culture in its entirety.
In a lucky stroke, the library was two blocks from my house. My mother enrolled me in a children’s reading program when I was four or five. Though not a patron herself, she knew that a library card was a passport, a way for her only child to travel beyond the hemmed-in mountain hollows and valley town. First imaginatively, and then for real.
I grew up in a world in which books were not topics of conversation nor easy to obtain. The closest bookstore, Otto’s, was in Williamsport, a 50-mile drive—unless you counted the Christian gift shop, in Lock Haven, selling Billy Graham’s How to Be Born Again. This part of Pennsylvania, though mountainous and cut off, lacked the widespread tradition of reading to fill the quiet hours that you find throughout rural New England or the upper prairie states. “Nose always in a book,” some hardworking adult you knew would remark, not disapprovingly, but not exactly enthusiastically, either. Serious readers existed, of course; but as islands, unaware of one another. A few years ago, my childhood friend Mayers’s father died, and I was invited to the house and given some of his books. In an upstairs room, I found novels by Iris Murdoch and Peter Matthiessen and The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, which surprised me, and I thought, regretfully, of how Gene Mayers and I only ever talked about the Phillies.
My own household was stuffed with books, of a sort: coffee-table doorstoppers illustrated with color photos on the subjects of decorating, Christmas, houses, antique dolls and the Amish (my mother’s books), and railroad history in general and the Pennsylvania Railroad in particular (my father’s). My socially isolated mother was a big magazine subscriber, too; her issues of Country Living, House Beautiful, and similar titles were “my best friends,” she said, and they gathered around her in a teeming, teetering party wherever she sat. The magazines brought a little of the world of Manhattan publishing into our house, a big-city hum at a vibrational level.
But my father preferred to work with his hands. And my mother, confronted with anything text-heavy, would raise a palm in resistance and say, “I’m not a big reader.” We got our news and entertainment the way many families did: watching eye-frying amounts of TV. Sometimes I’d go on archeological digs of rooms and drawers in search of more absorbing reading material, a novel or work of nonfiction. The closest I came was Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, the pink paperback edition. My mother had left it under my old baby blankets in the bottom drawer of the walnut dresser in my bedroom. As a book in my personal space, it radiated a signal, but dimly.
The library, by contrast, was a charged space. My skin now breaks into the same expectant tingle in favorite used bookstores. All those carefully arranged volumes, offering all those portals, all there for my choosing! In late elementary school and early junior high, I read juvenile mysteries from the children’s room—Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, the series that follows Jupiter Jones and his pals as they puzzle out riddles from a trailer beached in Jupiter’s uncle’s scrapyard. The rusty, postindustrial setting reminded me of the emptied PRR workshops across the tracks uptown. The essential theme of every book, that reason and logic could be applied to explain bizarre or supernatural phenomenon—a screaming clock, a whispering mummy, (puberty?)—appealed equally to my sense of intellectual superiority and my seventh-grade unease.
By high school, I needed harder stuff. I was filled with hormones and feeling inwardly deformed—you may remember it as 16. The adult reading room was on the other side of the building, past the librarian’s desk which separated the two wings. Besides the four bookcases, on one wall there was a Renovo street map dated 1882, framed and faded sepia, and below the map, a wooden cabinet that held the town’s dead citizens, their birth and death dates and where they were buried recorded on file cards arranged alphabetically, my blood relatives included. When I was a kid, you were forbidden to enter the adult room until you turned 12. Even Viv enforced this rule. There was a thrill in crossing that threshold officially, the rite of passage of graduating from child to adult reader, of being unleashed on all those banned books.“‘Nose always in a book,’ some hardworking adult you knew would remark, not disapprovingly, but not exactly enthusiastically, either.”
I devoured true crime hardcovers with lurid photos. In salacious tales of California hippie sex cults and serial killers more emotionally warped than me, I took morbid satisfaction. But when I discovered the two fiction shelves, especially Cannery Row among the S’s, it brought me out of myself and into the joyful, moral universe of literature. Cannery Row was, for me, one of those books. Meaning it was the book. I recognized, in its portrayal of the marginally poor but richly interesting men and women of a working waterfront community 3,000 miles away, my own streets and neighbors. My first appreciation of the alchemical properties of storytelling. Another revelation: the rural underclass was worthy of a novel by a Nobel Prize winner.
Cannery Row stirred the first desire to capture Renovo as Steinbeck did Monterey, and to give other readers the same pleasure I’d received. In short, to be a writer. I read at night in my childhood bed, feeling less childlike with each turned page.
During my last college summer, I moved right into the four blue shelves and camped there for three months. It was a sweet summer of leisurely, rapturous reading, heightened by the awareness that my days of leisure were numbered; in a year’s time, I’d be reading job listings. I’d brought home my most prized textbook, Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories (7th Edition), 1,429 pages of 10-point type. I’d study the table of contents, then search out writers at the library.
The stacks were a kind of magic garden, fixed but boundless. The more you read, the more your interests and knowledge expanded, the more books you discovered. If there weren’t tens of thousands of books, there were enough to get a basic self-education. Twain, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austin, Faulkner, Hemingway, Cather—the recognized masters were present, usually in the form of thick omnibus volumes with titles like The Complete Novels of. I learned to look for the stellar, mid-century editions of the Modern Library (“The Best of the World’s Best Books”), identified by the colophon, on the spine, of a tiny, naked, leaping torchbearer.
Sometimes, I’d discover a book totally alien in its surroundings. For instance, The Portable Dorothy Parker, an anthology of her stories and poems. Parker had written one of my favorite stories in Fiction 100, “Big Blonde.” But what was the wit of Manhattan’s Jazz Age doing here? Who’d put it there? The Parker anthology had gone out even less than the Odyssey—just twice since the library had come into existence. Its presence seemed a miracle waiting to be discovered.
When I wasn’t at the library that summer, I was working for PennDOT, a job I’d taken to earn tuition money. During our lunch breaks and on rainout days and while waiting on the roadside for a piece of heavy equipment to arrive, while the big, side-burned men on the full-time highway crew bantered around me and rested their bad backs, I had my nose in a book. In those inner-expanding years, beginning a new book produced an actual physical response, a smooth internal uncoupling akin to the first inhale of a joint. Viv would be there behind the lending desk when I burst in after work in dirty jeans and boots in need of another hit.
In New York City, where I now live, there are three bookstores within a short walk of my apartment, and countless fellow writers and bookish types with whom to have windy bookish discussions. The public library is a pillar of civilized culture. Funny, though, I’ve made few visits to the NYPL over the years, and when I do visit, I become agitated and overwhelmed. There are 92 branches spread across Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island (Brooklyn and Queens have their own networks). The busiest is the Mid-Manhattan Library, at 41st Street. The seven-story pile buzzes with all the chaos and crowds and enormity of the city, embodied by the uniformed guard at the exit doing bag checks. Confronted with the number 53 million, the NYPL’s collection size at last count, my brain trips a circuit. I miss my four shelves.
It turns out the formalized book culture I sought and found as a professional writer isn’t only about books. It’s equally (and sometimes more) about which book has sold for “mid-six-figures” or been hyped at this or that industry expo or made it onto this or that bestseller list. Sometimes, passing the giveaway tables in the newsroom where I work, I find—the horror!—pre-publication copies and brand-new books discarded in a heap, a sobering sight for any author. This sort of corrupting is inevitable when you turn something you love into your industry. Books are commodities. But still, I feel it as a loss of innocence, a low-grade sadness.
In the Renovo Library, books were simple containers for pleasure. Far from leaving it in the past, I have never let my lending card lapse. When I brought my wife home to Pennsylvania the first time, I took her to the library. Later, I was invited to become an honorary board member. I find myself returning there again and again, the way a competitive swimmer might return to the clear, still pool where he first moved through water for the joy of it.“Confronted with the number 53 million, the NYPL’s collection size at last count, my brain trips a circuit. I miss my four shelves.”
Another small-town Pennsylvania boy, John Updike, once lamented returning to his childhood library as an adult. “I loved the Reading public library and read through whole shelves of P.G. Wodehouse and mystery novels and humor and all the stuff that was very congenial to me,” Updike recalled. “And I went back recently thinking I’d find the same shelves and the same books I read, and of course I was wrong. They’ve all been replaced by people like me who have come along since.”
It’s remarkable, a gift really, how this unique spot, this holy spot, is so little changed. Everything is still as it always has been: The children’s room to the left, the adult room to the right, and the librarian’s desk between them, the town map and the cabinet of dead citizens, the empty, tranquil feeling inside, with the time to browse unhurried, in happy near-solitude. The algorithms have yet to find it out. Six desktop monitors on a folding table place you vaguely in the 21st century. Viv has since departed from the library, and the planet; Barbara now sits behind the lending desk. There’s a wall-mounted big-screen TV for movie nights and lectures, part of Barbara’s active efforts to create a vital community center. The exterior has been spruced up, a new roof put on, a mural painted.*
But the blue bookcases still number four in a single row. When I stand among them, I am in a museum of my own reading life.
Not long ago, I was back poking around in the fiction shelves. I’d recently been reading 19th century novelists, and was on the hunt for more, and there appeared a Nathaniel Hawthorne anthology I’d somehow never noticed. Even after 30 years of raking these shelves, the tiny garden keeps giving.
After a few shuffle steps, I found myself in the S’s, reaching for a faded brown spine that carried the filing letters Ste—the same 1966 Viking edition of Cannery Row, in the same spot. How comforting to hold it in my hands again! How impossible to do that in a big-city library! I removed the check-out card from the paper sleeve inside: A tiny column of dates stamped in fuzzy purplish ink, one of them returning me to that spring afternoon at 16.
There are new kids who come in here now. I see them on the computers in the adult wing playing Roblox, a game of virtual worlds. The over-12 rule has been lifted to provide them internet access. I hope in time their curiosity leads them back into the four shelves, where new books wait to be found. Despite all that has remained the same, no library can be static ground; the Encyclopædia Britannica, 1985 edition, has to be weeded out, the shelves like the earth turned over. Some of these new books I myself have donated. I try to choose broadening reads unexpected in the setting. So that a boy or girl growing up in this town today might walk in one afternoon and discover The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or Eleanor & Park or Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom and wonder, Who put this here?
* Some of the language in this paragraph intentionally echoes E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”