June 12, 2007

Personal essay: "Oh, if we could all grow up with the kind of library I did."

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this new series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

Now that this website is kicking into its normal regular schedule, where I am going to try to post anywhere from three to six lengthy reviews of books every week, I find myself frequenting the Chicago public library system more and more; it's a gem I've been overlooking now for too many years, and now that I'm trying to get through an insane amount of very contemporary books that I can't afford buying, it's high time that I started taking advantage of it. Much like the park system here, the library system is profoundly supported from the ground-up in this working-class liberal city, where crime is low and employment high, and things like a pervasive, well-funded library system can be contemplated in the first place. There is a website, for example, containing a home portal to their card catalog and branch database, as well as where you can get real-time updates on what books you have out and when they're due. There are the dozens and dozens and dozens of branches all the way throughout the city; five different branches just within a ten-minute bike/bus ride of my apartment, in fact. Then there is the Super Branch in the Loop, which for you tourists is that crazy red and green monstrosity you saw on the south edge of downtown while visiting, with the oversized gargoyles on each corner, the 1990s postmodern semi-ironic take on the Arts & Crafts late-1800s stone skyscrapers found all around that area of downtown -- oh, here, I'll just post a photo...

Harold Washington Library, Chicago, photo by Alan Cordova
Photo: Alan Cordova.

Which despite its Planet Hollywoodesque feeling on the exterior (a sad aftertaste of a lot of so-called "postmodern" and "deconstructionist" architecture from the '90s) is in fact an amazing library on the inside, ten stories tall and an eighth of a mile square footage for each story, with a breathtaking sky garden for a roof that can be rented out for wedding receptions and the like (can you even imagine the cost...seriously, post the cost in the comments if you know). And of course the excellent reserve system, by which you can request that any book at any branch be shipped to whatever branch happens to be nearest yours -- like the Uptown branch in my neighborhood, for example, literally half a block from my apartment, designed specifically to invoke the Prairie-style architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright...

Uptown Library, Chicago, photo by Jason Pettus
Photo by the author.

See, there's a way to 'game' the system if you're smart and patient, in order to get all the hipster indie small-press books you want for free (not technically everything you want, of course, but realistically enough to keep you very busy); it's a term I learned last year in Second Life, "gaming the system," which means that you're technically not breaking any rules but still being a little weasel to get what you want, usually at the expense of others who don't know how to game the system themselves. You see, Chicago's citywide library budget is just so huge that it actually contains a whole lot more independent and small-press titles than the average American city's library system; why, almost any book you can name, when all the dozens and dozens and dozens of branches are added together, can be found somewhere for free checkout by any citizen of the city. Want proof? Check out what I have checked out right this second: HP Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq; The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya; The Plan of Chicago by Carl Smith; All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane; Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; and Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

The trick to gaming it all involves a number of steps taken in a specific order, but nothing more complicated than when you were trying to become a better indie-rock DJ back in college: First, go to the website and look up the book you've just heard of. If it's underground and/or small-press literature, the chances are most likely that it'll be stocked on one of the northside branches, in that's where most of the readers of edgy indie small-press literature are. I happen to live in the middle of the northside, for example, which is why I can get to five different branches within a ten-minute bike ride, which happen to be the exact five that shelve the most of this kind of literature. If you're like me, then, either bike or walk or take the bus over to the branch in question; or if on another side of city, simply reserve them and have your tax dollars pay to have the book shipped to you. And don't forget, of course, that you can request that books be purchased by the library system as well, or otherwise acquired (with many presses donating the books if a specific library specifically asks for them); and with so many lit lovers in Chicago, and such a well-used system, I'm told that requests are taken seriously here if they get enough of them for a specific title or press.

It's a little nerdy, sure, but look at the results: I'm currently reading US$180 worth of mostly hardback books (90 pounds, 120 euros), most of which have been published within just the past few months, perfect for keeping up at the book club or snotty blog of choice or intellectual cocktail party, or for just considering yourself well-read on contemporary fiction and non. All that for free, just from a little online research, and some bicycle rides I was going to be making anyway. I'd be a fool not to take advantage of it, considering how many CCLaP readers there are who would probably die to have access to a public library system like that.

And this of course has had me thinking recently as well about the first library experiences in my life: for yes, as you might imagine, I was one of those dear precocious children who started reading at age three, and who was tearing through just an enormous amount of surprisingly sophisticated books even by five or six. So nerd-in-training that I was, of course the absolute highlight of the week for me was Tuesday evenings, when sometimes the entire family would head off to the local library in St. Charles, Missouri, but always my father (fellow book nerd that he is) and me. And see, here's the thing: that back then, St. Charles' public library system was still so small, its main city library was still completely housed in an ancient and crumbling Victorian mansion, found just on a random streetcorner and looking from the outside like just another upper-class residence, until you started giving it a good inspection and realizing what was in the windows.

Because yes, as you can imagine, a winding Victorian-Age mansion that's been recreated as a giant top-to-bottom library is a wondrous and magical sight to behold as a child, like something out of a dusty British children's tale, where every corner of the building is open for inspection and another secret hides behind every next one. And damn if I haven't spent the last two days searching and searching and searching for some kind of photo online of the old hulking place, and simply can't find one to save my life, because there's a part of me that thinks that I just might not be able to adequately describe the absurdist beauty of place for anyone who loves books: the dining room covered floor to ceiling in adult nonfiction, the servants' quarters turned into the back stacks, the check-out counter tucked into the curve space of the gigantic three-story-tall ornate wooden staircase railing. I took it for granted the entire time I was growing up, but now as a middle-aged adult it seems almost too whimsical and amazing to be true, like an EL Konisburg novel come to life. Can it really be like I remember it, I think? Man, I wish I had found some photos online. Isn't everything about everything supposed to be available online now? C'mon, Google, isn't that what the Writers Guild is all pissed at you for in the first place?

The best part, though, of course, since this was the 1970s after all, was that the entire attic had been turned into the children's section, a big open-air loft, whimsically decorated like a bastard child of Sesame Street and Rhoda's apartment from Mary Tyler Moore. It's something I'll probably remember until the day I die; the pure joy of once again visiting those rooms every Tuesday and a lot of Saturdays as well (one side for kindergarden through sixth grade, the other for junior high and high schoolers, the stairway and a hallway in the middle), having an exact mental image of the stacks in my head at all times, and knowing that you point there for all the magic books, point there for all the Hardy Boys books, point there for all the Dr. Seuss, point there for all the Judy Blume, point there for the beat-up cardboard box full of beat-up cardboard Dynamite magazines.

I remember the winters I would hang out at that library on Tuesday nights, it always being freezing on the first floor and sweltering in the attic; I remember the summers I would hang out at that library on Tuesday nights, poring through my reading list and seeing what was available, my world slowly expanding as the sections of the stacks I perused slowly expanded as well. In these contemporary times, when all the family talk is about "constructive time" and "quality time" and "proactive activities" and the like, this is a very conscious memory I will always have that fits them all; of expanding both my intellectual and social skills every Tuesday for years on end, while bonding with my family, within the confines of this magically ludicrous Victorian jumble of a space.

Kathryn Linneman Library, St. Charles MO, photo by Jay Dugger
Photo: Jay Dugger.

Of course, that space didn't always last, and in fact wasn't really the right space for a burgeoning area like St. Charles to begin with; by the time I was in high school*, the main city library had moved into a sleek '80s concrete and glass dream that had 500 percent more floor space, its own dedicated microfiche and periodicals room (the only place where rowdy teens were absolutely denied access, hence the place you always found the grumpy middle-agers like I now am), even its own 75-seat auditorium that patrons could check out in advance with their library card, just like any book or video or record. Pretty cool, although of course there's something that was forever lost as well when getting rid of the crumbling mansion; let's put it like this, that I'm glad it's a part of my childhood, it's an important part of my childhood, and the way I wish most people could be introduced to what can be the magic of public libraries, but for many people turns out not to be a magical experience at all.

My own Tuesday nights when growing up were more exciting than any television show I was looking forward to, any movie that was coming out, not only for the excitement of going somewhere cool that's full of friends and picking up a bunch of new books (seven a week; I was allowed to check out one for each day), but also specifically going with my family, and showing off our picks to each other, and reading little excerpts throughout the week of each other's choices, and comparing books in the library itself and getting advice on which to get (because I always found more than seven books I wanted, I always, always did). I know there are a lot of parents right now who want to have those kinds of strong family experiences with their kids these days, and who also hope to instill a love for reading in their kids at an age when it'll hopefully stick; I'm not sure how the struggle goes in this age of the internet, videogames, satellite television and the like, yet one more subject I invite people to espouse on in the comments if they want.

*This was in fact the same library I worked at all through high-school. Nerd! NEEERRRRD! Hey, man, it was an ideal job for a high-schooler; unlike my poor friends who were all forced into fast-food jobs, I never worked past 9pm on a given night, never worked on Sundays, and never did anything grosser than clean up a men's bathroom in an emergency situation after an occasional elderly customer. Believe me, ask anyone from back then, my friends were envious of my position, no matter how nerdy it sounds; nerdy is much better than Jack In The Box when you're a teenage suburban minimum-wage earner.

UPDATE, June 25th: Ah, internet, is there anything you can't do? Below, shots of the library I've been talking about, courtesy reader Jay Dugger, who specifically dug them out of his old archives for me after coming across this entry. Thanks very much, Jay!

Old St. Charles Missouri public library

Old St. Charles Missouri public library

Old St. Charles Missouri public library

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:52 AM, June 12, 2007. Filed under: CCLaP news |