It was 1932 or 1933, and I was either six or seven years old. My sister Dorothy brought me to the Billings Square Branch of the Worcester Public Library. It was a small structure of red brickone roomwith a modest meeting room in the basement.
There was a circulation desk facing the doorway. One half of the room was a children's library and the other half housed the adult collection. I had never seen so many books in my young life, and from that first moment they called out to me.
I took several books home with me, read them, and quickly returned.
We lived on Grafton Hill, a neighborhood of working-class families, on the third floor of a "triple-decker." The three-family house shuddered whenever there was a stiff wind. The world was several years into the most bitter economic depression in American history. We were poor and didn't think about that because everyone we knew was poor. We didn't go on vacations and I never attended a summer camp or took music lessons. I was a kid trapped in the gray, dispirited world of the depression until I discovered that the way out was through the open pages of books.
That first summer and during most of the other summers of my childhood, the library held a reading contest for children. On a bulletin board was a large map of the world. Pinned to it were small airplane-shaped cutouts, each bearing the name of a child who was a reader. The rules said you had to read a book about a foreign country, return it to the library and deliver an oral book report to a librarian. From the beginning my paper plane flitted across that map from nation to nation like an exhilarated moth.
Sometimes I made two trips a day to get new books, and the librarians soon grew tired of listening to my oral reports. "Go swimming up at the lake, or play baseball," one of them told me wearily. I did those things, of course, but I never stopped reading hungrily and with tremendous pleasure.
I don't know how old I was when I began to wander into the adult section, perhaps ten or eleven. That was against the rules and sometimes I was reprimanded, but by then the library staff members knew me. At a young age I was able to read adult authors I would cherish all my lifeKenneth Roberts, Pearl Buck, Edna Ferber, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad. So many others, so many books.
I loved libraries from my early childhood because I have always loved books. I like the thought of monks in the Middle Ages, painstakingly copying scrolls onto animal skins to perpetuate them, while the rabbis in the School for Translators in Gerona, Spain, were doing the same thing. Whether copied by hand or run off as part of a large print order, books speak to me. The voices of long-gone writers fill our libraries with their literary voices, like choirs in cathedrals where the human mind is God. I enjoy sitting in a library, sensing all the voices. I'm most content in a library while doing research for a book in progress, especially on a rainy or snowy day. I know that my computer can spit out facts and figures in my own home, but there is no substitute for the ambience of a library. I particularly love old books. Heavy volumes or thin ones, the books that smell of mildew and crumbling leather, whose brittle pages must be turned with respect and care, often are troves containing treasure impossible to find on the web.
If a space ship from another planet landed next to a good library, within the building the aliens could learn all about the Earth and its peopleour histories, geography, commerce, folkways, physiology, sexuality, religions, and fantasies. Indeed, I have consumed books as though my spaceship is parked around the corner.
I have never lost the reading habit because I clutch it like an heirloom from my father, who was also my kind of reader. My advice to my children in times of sickness or moodiness ("Try to read a book.") is something of a family joke. Yet it's advice I have followed myself, countless times. Library books have been better than opiates to dull pain and sorrow, and often they turn galling delays into episodes of pleasure.
Despite the fact that my wife and I buy many books, we make regular visits to our local library. I have appreciated libraries large and small. Upon moving to the small hilltown of Ashfield, Massachusetts (pop. 1,700) I hastened to the tiny Belding Memorial Library and informed the town librarian that I would like to apply for a library card. "Oh, we don't have cards. I know who you are," she said.
Ashfield was one of two communities where I have served as a trustee of public libraries out of gratitude for what libraries have given me all my life.
As an author doing book tours in foreign places I have always sought to visit libraries, and I have been shocked to see that in many countries public libraries are nonexistent or painfully meager. My heart goes out to the children of those places who are being denied one of the most important and satisfying experiences of living. I'm happy that I live in a town where the library has an important and evolving place in the community.
Recently I went back to the neighborhood in Worcester where I spent my childhood. The house where we had lived at 80 Houghton Street was torn down years ago and replaced with low apartment buildings, housing for the elderly. The large field behind the house, the Great Plains of my childhood and youth, is gone; in its place are several streets lined with more housing. The tiny corner store where my uncle, Ike Gordon, had sung operatic arias while selling his groceries is still in operation as a "convenience store." On the next block, Grafton Street Junior High School, from which I was graduated almost 60 years ago, is shabbier but otherwise unchanged save for its name. Now it is the East Worcester Middle School.
And a short walk away, there is still the little red brick building that was the Billings Square Branch Librarythe fruitful branch that made me a writer. Alas, it is a library no longer.
Worcester recently added a magnificent addition to its main library, but now the former branch library I loved is a real estate office with red,white, and blue bunting over the door. The realty office was closed when I visited. I stood before it for a while and stared at the building that meant so much to my life and others.
Although inside the building all the physical volumes are gone, so many of its books always will be part of my mind and my soul. That's the magical gift made by every good library.