One of my fondest childhood memories is the smell of the River Park Library. I was too young at the time to know that the distinctive aroma—described as a sweet smell with notes of vanilla flowers and almonds, and now so nostalgic to me—was caused by the breakdown of chemical compounds in the paper of the books in the library’s collection. It was, in other words, the smell of destruction, but I didn’t realize that at the time. My mother used to take us there every week to get a stack of children’s books, and I loved it. Those books were one of my major windows on the world, but I’m sure few of them, if any, still exist. The River Park Library has long since closed down.
My grandfather was one of the major booksellers of my hometown, and today his books are among the most prized relics of my childhood. His unabridged dictionary, always a feature of his den, commands a prominent presence in my home today. For every “A” I got on my report card, I could pick out a book from my grandfather’s bookshop to keep. Today I still associate books with reward.
I also associate books with redemption from life’s great travails. For fifteen years before she contracted cancer, Holly dealt with Multiple Sclerosis. At one point she was wheelchair-bound, a blind quadriplegic. She would not let the condition defeat her, though, and I still remember being shaken awake at 3:00 in the morning: “Dan, Dan… I’ve got a great idea for a magazine about children’s books.” And then she went on to describe what eventually became The Five Owls, one of the leading journals about children’s literature for librarians and teachers. For seven years (until she died), Holly directed its publication from the sofa in our living room or from her home office in the next room—whatever she was up for on any particular day. As the publisher of The Five Owls, Holly received a tremendous amount of professional acclaim and personal satisfaction.
By the time she died, her collection of children’s books numbered over 6,000 volumes, and the last months of her life were devoted to the creation of a well-appointed reading room to house them at a local university that specialized in teacher education. But alas, nothing is permanent. Within a couple years of her death that library, too, was disbursed to several schools in the area. I was glad that Holly wasn’t able to witness her library’s ignominious end.
In the end, my only intact libraries were those which existed in our home. It was in that environment that I discovered one of the most useful metaphors for arriving at creative solutions to life’s problems: that I am an author writing a story in which anything is possible, that any book may hold the key to an intractable issue. Unfortunately, my books are still boxed up and in storage, and I feel as though I’m functioning without part of my brain. Since the stroke, what was begun with limited access to books has been intensified by my inability to read books anymore. Usually the type is too small or I can no longer hold them for extended periods of time.
Yet, I still want my books. I want my brain back. Even if I am only able to direct others to key sources and passages, I want to be able to do that.
77° Cloudy and Rain