The truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is. -Nadine Gordimer, novelist, Nobel laureate
Ray Bradbury wrote “Libraries raised me” and they raised me as well. Here are some excerpts from my forthcoming autobiography due out this spring.
“She (A teacher) lit a fire in me and reading became my passion. I became a familiar figure around the children’s reading room at the wonderful old Ansonia library. It was built in 1891 as a gift of the fabulously rich Phelps family.
A large building by Ansonia standards, the library was made of local granite and unglazed red Spanish tiles, with three towers, natural quartered oak, and stone mosaic floors with representations of Pegasus and Bellerophon, a Greek hero who specialized in killing monsters. It had a large fireplace with a chimneypiece of rubbed red Lake Superior freestone, ribbed barrel-vault ceilings and two tiers of leaded glass windows. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, rested in the gable end of the roof above the heavy oak doors of the entrance.
I spent hours in the children’s reading room, perusing the titles, meticulously making my way through picture books meant for children five years younger than I. But there in the wonderful quiet security of the library, this place dedicated to learning and reason and knowledge, where Walter couldn’t lean over my shoulder and berate me, I could take ten or fifteen minutes to figure out what a word spelled by breaking it apart, sounding out the parts and putting it all back together again. It didn’t matter that I was reading baby books.
When I was done dissecting a difficult word, I went back to the top of the paragraph and read the story, giving myself a great sense of victory. I was winning the war of words, and, to my joy and amazement, words weren’t my enemy. Words liked me and I liked them. They taught me things, and they were witnesses when I won those tiny victories.”
“The world was mine for the reading. I traveled with my books. I was there on a tramp steamer in the North Atlantic with the Hardy Boys, piecing together an unsolvable crime. I rode into the Valley of Death with the six hundred and I stood at the graves of Uncas and Cora and listened to the mournful song of the Lenni Linape. Although I braved a frozen death at Valley Forge and felt the spin of a hundred bullets at Shiloh, I was never afraid. I was there as much as you are where you are, right this second. I smelled the gunsmoke and tasted the frost. And it was good to be there. No one could harm me there. No one could punch me, slap me, call me stupid, or pretend I wasn’t in the room. The other kids raced through books so they could get the completion stamp on their library card. I didn’t care about that stupid completion stamp. I didn’t want to race through books. I wanted books to walk slowly through me, stop, and touch my brain and my memory. If a book couldn’t do that, it probably wasn’t a very good book. Besides, it isn’t how much you read, it’s what you read.
What I learned from books, from young Ben Franklin’s anger at his brother to Anne Frank’s longing for the way her life used to be, was that I wasn’t alone in my pain. All that caused me such anguish affected others, too, and that connected me to them and that connected me to my books. I loved everything about books. I loved that odd sensation of turning the final page, realizing the story had ended, and feeling that I was saying a last goodbye to a new friend.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird outside the house, because the story concerned race and took a generally sympathetic view toward blacks, and I knew it wouldn’t go over well. Walter was an avowed racist and Helen always followed his lead. Neither Helen nor Walter had lived much beyond their tiny universe, and they had no intention of broadening their learning. So when I wasn’t reading the book, I tucked it away in the inside pocket of my Sunday blazer, where, of course, Helen found it.
And now Helen was treading carelessly into my private world, and I thought that the bad guys in the world had it all wrong: You don’t have to burn books to kill off new ideas and growth. No, all you have to do is to make sure people stop reading books; it has the same effect.
She was waiting for me at the door, standing in the vestibule, when I got home from school, and when I walked in she knocked me a good one over the head with the book.
“You bring this crazy Hollywood nigger trash into this house?” she hissed, waving the book in my face, and then slapped me with it. It was a paperback, it didn’t hurt, but I blew a fuse anyway.”
“Books and authors dated eras in my life and threw life-altering concepts at me that shattered virtually everything I knew to be true, although, on reflection, I suppose I had only guessed them to be true. I roamed the stacks of the Deep River library, which didn’t allow St. John’s boys to take out a library card, so I read what I could between the dimly lit, narrow shelves, always feeling that I had wasted much of my time by not being there more often. I made great friends in those books that I found there. I could trust my friends Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the others who were, and who remain, my most constant friends. They are always there, offering good counsel and sage advice, patiently waiting to teach more with every drop of ink.
My purpose in reading was to learn, so my preference was nonfiction. Books were my educators, so I tried to read only what I could use later. It was a good theory, but I scanned everything that interested me, and it seemed that everything in that library interested me. Discipline and focus leaves me when I enter a library or a bookstore. It is one of my better bad habits.
Unlike most teens, I didn’t read to find something to believe in, or to invalidate a societal truth, or to contradict common knowledge. I read books so I could weigh and consider what the author was proposing. You learn more that way.”
“I wandered the streets that summer, looking for something to do when I found the city library, and that was where I escaped from hell into paradise.
The Silas Bronson Library was a sleek, modern glass building settled into an expansive park, a popular cruising area for homosexuals on the prowl and teenage hustlers willing to help them out for a fee. One afternoon I was sitting on a park bench, reading, oddly enough, Moby-Dick, when I was approached by a very respectable-looking man in his late sixties.
“I’m sixteen, under age,” I snapped. “Go away, or I will call the police.”
He was outraged, and snapped back, “Then why are you here?”
“To read,” I said, holding up my copy of Moby-Dick, although in retrospect that probably wasn’t a good idea.
The library had a respectable book collection and I spent most of my days haunting its aisles, scanning the shelves for titles by the great American novelists. I found most of them, and I usually devoured them in a day, lying on the bench in the park with my book and one of my mother’s massive brown-bag lunches.
I dissolved into the books I found at the library, which could take me places, answer my questions, and leave me with more questions. I learned the great truths and common principles from those works, mostly because I had no one else to teach me those things. Books are great teachers and they teach with ease for those hungry to learn. And I was learning. I was learning to live with poverty, the toughest teacher of all because it gives you the test first and the lesson later. The ancient Greeks called it pathemata mathemata—to learn, eventually, by suffering.”