The Bookmobile

The first public library I ever walked into was on wheels. 

There was an elementary school, more than one synagogue and church, but no nearby library in the Brooklyn neighborhood of my early childhood years.

Pre-library days, when the love of reading began.

Situated on the edge of East Flatbush and Canarsie, that maze of 20 six-story buildings known as the Glenwood Houses would be something of an anchor for a neighborhood on the cusp of change. It was the 1950s and affordable, income-based public housing would be a big draw for middle-class families like mine. I was not yet seven, about to enter second grade, when we moved there. By the time I was in third grade, that thing we think of as independent reading began to kick in. By fourth grade it was something of a hunger. 

My idea of manna was the Bookmobile making its weekly visit, etched in my memory as Wednesday.

The back door of the blue and white vehicle emblazoned with a Library on Wheels logo was for returning books. I walked up the steps, deposited the books I’d read. There was no lingering in this 20-by-8-foot dimly lit space, but ten minutes—just enough time to find something recommended or see what jumped out at me—could seem like a blissful eternity before exiting via the front end, filled with the anticipation of where the books I’d chosen would take me. 

Every time felt like the first time—the wonder that so many books could exist about so many things, the growing awareness that stories could take me far beyond my circumscribed world. From a cultural standpoint, music and TV played a big part in my family life, books not so much. Newspapers—the Daily NewsNew York PostNational Enquirer—kept my parents engaged, though my father did read an occasional book, even bought me one, a collection of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales that got me through my bout with measles.

Time has a way of shaping memories. On the day the Bookmobile came around (maybe Wednesday, maybe not), I see myself walking alone from the street on which I lived to the other end of the housing project, where it would be parked. Maybe I was alone, more likely not. But that sense of aloneness strikes at the chord of a young girl’s secret pleasure and the way her life is turned around by a library on wheels that first brought her Ramona and Pippi Longstocking, fictional girls who spoke their minds, did brave, sometimes nonsensical, things. 

It doesn’t take much to imagine my thrill when construction began on a permanent library. More books. More choices. I could take out ten at a time for summer reading, sit on my favorite bench, in the shade of a tree overlooking a patch of grass. If books are the embodiment of shared stories, libraries elevate them to a collective consciousness.  Someone else has held the book I’m now reading. I relished the slight crackle of the translucent, protective covers. The smell—not so much musty as reminiscent of aged wood—was an invitation: come inside, see what I have for you.

My first job would be at the new library.  I was about to turn 16, my last year in high school. I would shelve books, check them in and out, do managerial tasks in the back office.  The library manager would give me a lifelong lesson in learning to type, a skill not necessarily in the course listing for students on track for an academic diploma.

There’s a national day for everything. As it happens, this is National Library Week and Wednesday is National Bookmobile Day. Google found me a 1950s photo of my very own Glenwood Houses Library on Wheels, hashtag-ready for its Instagram/Facebook/Twitter closeup celebrating those oversize vehicles that make books available in hard-to-reach places of our country, not to mention the world. 

Wednesday, April 10, also happens to be the date my novel, Just Like February, was published last year. An anniversary is a good time for a giveaway. Leave a comment with your thoughts re: the special place libraries have had in your life and you’ll be eligible to receive a signed copy.

What did you read this summer?

Summer reading is a world unto itself. It’s not as if the love of books doesn’t have us immersed in reading all year long. But summer brings with it memories of freedom from school, with all that’s attached to assigned reading, textbook or otherwise.

Some things, like the smell of library books, the feel of their plastic protective covers, are imprinted in memory. Before the neighborhood I lived in as a young girl had a library of its own there was the Bookmobile arriving once a week. Apparently they still exist in rural areas.  It’s a given—if you love books, you love libraries and summertime always brings my younger self into fresh view: walking home from the library with a stack of books in my arms. Sitting on a wooden bench outside the building in which I lived. Reading.  Hard to say when the need to possess overtook the need to borrow, but here I sit, in a home office with books surrounding me, most of them read, enough still in that TBR realm.

No surprise that my very first paid job would be in the newly built local library. I would shelve books, do clerical work in the office, graduate to checking books in and out at the front desk.

Summer days still have me reading outside.  Some summers are for tackling the big books, Anna Karenina one year. Others are for breezy beach reading or a mix of the light and profound. Not every book is to be analyzed in a way that teaches a writer something about craft. But I do learn something from every book I read: I learn what I like and what I don’t like.  Years ago, reading Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight, I was hit with how he ended chapters in a way that made you want to read on. It’s called pacing.  My current read, Despair, has me savoring the way Nabokov begins and ends chapters. The title, with its echoes of how the current state of the world has me feeling, had me hankering to read the book. As it happens, Nabokov’s use of the word is tinged with irony. The book is brilliant. Its wickedly dark narrative is as much a commentary on the nature of writing itself.

Just prior to this I read Sing, Unburied, Sing, which joins Jesmyn Ward’s earlier novel, Salvage the Bones, as a National Book Award winner. It takes a certain kind of writer to tell disturbing stories with lush, beautiful prose.  The book had me thinking of another novel, Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. The novels are as different stylistically as they are in the stories they tell. And yet both resonate with a cultural undercurrent that speaks to the times in which we live. Both have a lingering impact.

Madeline Miller is another writer who makes her mark with a distinctive voice. First came The Song of Achilles and more recently Circe, both of which bring a very human dimension to the gods and heroes of mythology.

Years of summer breaks and end-of-August back-to-school mode are ingrained. With the approaching transition to autumn I get energized, ready to move full swing into a project. As a writer with a new book, my work for now is mostly getting out the word.  Speaking of which, if you follow me on social media, you know my novel has now been named a finalist in two contests.

If it made your summer reading list, I’d love to know what you thought. I’d also love to know what else you read this summer. If you haven’t yet read Just Like February, I hope you will.  And if you like(d) it, ratings and reviews on Amazon and/or GoodReads really have a way of making a writer’s day.

 

A bench, a book, a patch of grass . . .

.  .  . Fireworks.

Say what you will about the calendar (with its celestial reminder that there is an order to our days), something more spirited is at play when one season slips into the next.  By the time the summer solstice arrives, Memorial Day has already jumpstarted the season.  Then comes  the build-up to July 4th, the hot dogs and hamburgers, Roman candles and firecrackers, the expectation that the day before and the day after are a given part of the celebration equation.  Only once in a blue moon (at least that’s how it feels), expectation gives way to exception: a midweek fizzle of a 4th.

July 5th, a day neither here nor there (an afterthought in years when the calendar does not bow to our demands), yet evocative enough for someone to use as the title of a play.  So often it’s the grace note that gives us pause. Space to reflect.  I spent yesterday with friends (and friends of theirs, now mine) at their house overlooking a lake. This is the way I’ve celebrated the 4th of July for years now. Early on, our (young) children were part of the picture. Grown and mostly dispersed now, they leave us to our own grown-up devices. Which are not all that grown-up at all.

And why should they be?  Summertime bears the imprint of free time.  School’s out, playtime’s in, whatever that means to any one of us.  No sooner does summer arrive and I picture myself walking home from the library, a pile of books in my arms. Summer reading meant you could borrow more books, for a longer time. When my family first moved to the middle-income housing project that defined a neighborhood on the cusp of change,  there was no library. But there was the Bookmobile, arriving on schedule once a week. The back entrance was for returning books. I walked up the steps, deposited the books I’d read, spent some time perusing the shelves.  Walked out the front of the library on wheels, filled with the anticipation of where the books I’d chosen would take me.

It doesn’t take much to imagine my thrill when a ‘real,’ permanent library was built. More books. More choices. Any one of them in my lap as I sat on my favorite bench, in the shade of a tree overlooking a patch of grass. Reading.  In the height of summer.

Recent celestial events had me hankering to reread Shirley Hazzard’s novel, The Transit of Venus. I went scurrying to my shelves, the book cover as clear in my mind as if I’d read it yesterday. Except that it wasn’t yesterday, it was years ago, nowhere to be found now, clearly gone the way of paperbacks that can survive being boxed in an attic only for so long. Not a problem. It’s summertime. What better joy to give myself than heading over to my local library, picking up a copy bound in a way meant to last. Meant to be shared.  Meant to remind me of days sitting on a bench in the shade of  a tree overlooking a patch of grass.