My local library branch in Staten Island features lots of computers, books on CDs, and online books you can download to your MP-3 player, but has very few actual books on its shelves. Where are the card catalogs in the wooden drawers that held the keys to adventure, romance, literature, history and biographies? What happened to the quiet place I remember where people whispered out of respect to those who were reading or studying? My library has turned into a noise-filled place where people feel free to eat, drink, and converse in loud voices using the worst street language, while indifferent librarians go about their business as if it was none of their affair.
Honestly, as a kid, I could have gone either way. My Catholic school education pulled me toward the angels, but the influence of our rough and tumble neighborhood tried to nudge me in the other direction. I led a sort of double life, trying my best to excel in the classroom because I honestly loved learning, while at the same time maintaining my street creds by running with the guys and doing some stupid things I now regret. Among the most positive influences for good in my conflicted young life were my parents and teachers of course, but right after them I would rank the local library and the doors it opened for me.
I almost had to sneak down there for fear someone would find out and put out the word that I was a "bookworm", the worst thing one Brooklyn kid could call another. My parents were not readers so there were very few books in our house. I think the grade readers we read aloud in school were the first books to excite my curiosity. In the upper grades we were assigned book reports on classics like The Red Badge of Courage and Tom Sawyer. A lot of kids took the "Classic Comics" shortcut, but I pored over these books from cover to cover marveling at how the authors could spin such compelling tales. Soon I began to read for fun, a habit that stayed with me, and which inspired a love affair with words that continues to this day.
I'm a little sad that the library I knew as a boy is pretty much gone. Probably fifty years from now, today's kids will be moaning about how they miss their electronic books and laptop computers. By then publishers will be downloading books right to the chip imbedded in the brains of all newborns. You'll just have to think about what book you want to read, and presto, the software in your head will disgorge it. I understand that you can't stop progress, hell even I enjoy listening to books on CD in my car, but I think back to that building on Saratoga Avenue, and see myself sitting there in my black leather jacket and motorcycle boots engrossed in a book about a boy my age; I see the Civil War through his eyes and try to imagine what it must have been like. Maybe that magical sense of wonder only happens for the young.
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