The other day I rode an escalator to the seventh floor, literature and fiction, at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago and felt bliss. It was the second time in as many weeks I’d visited there. This made me happier than I can say because that’s more visits to a public library in two weeks than I’ve made in the entire last decade.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved libraries. At five years old, I got my pinkish orange children’s card at the Brookfield Public Library. I was so excited at the idea of this giant (as it appeared to me then) room full of books. My mom set a limit of five at a time, probably the most she figured I could carry home or possibly keep track of. It was not cheap to pay for lost library books.
|The Winter Garden at the Harold Washington Public Library
Back then, the Brookfield library had two levels. You walked up concrete steps outside into the main library, then down carpeted stairs to the basement children’s library. I loved the children’s librarian and talked with her every time I went in. The first time I returned books I thought I should put them back where I’d found them, so I dutifully reshelved them. Mrs. Peters explained that they needed to be checked back in. (I like to think she was pleased that I had placed them on the correct shelves.) You got your white adult card when you turned twelve. Graduating to the main library floor was both exciting and sad. I’d visited the children’s library once or twice a week all throughout grade school. In sixth grade, I’d moved on to the young adult books shelves, which were still in the basement. I suspect many of those now would be considered middle grade books, because the subject matters were fairly tame. Much of what was truly young adult literature was classified as adult literature at the time, including Judy Bloom’s novel Forever. (It was controversial because it showed an eighteen-year-old woman having sex for the first time without suffering negative consequences. Books where teenagers got pregnant and had to go away somewhere and have the baby in secret were allowed on the young adult shelves.) In the main library, I discovered my first Mary Higgins Clark novel on the paperback racks. That in itself was new to me, because all the children’s books were in hard cover.
About six or seven years later, the library was torn down. A new one, all on one level and wheelchair accessible, was built. The projected cost of putting in the elevators and ramps had almost matched building anew, which is why the original library wasn’t preserved. The new one was clean and modern, but I missed the old worn carpets and the feeling of descending into an enchanted world when going down the narrow stairs to the basement. The new children’s section, where I occasionally checked out old favorites, was just another room, which was made even clearer when Mrs. Peters retired. Still, in my mid-twenties, one of the more difficult times in my life, I visited the library often. I had been working at temp and secretarial jobs, as I was a good typist, and writing fiction and playing guitar on the side. I developed a repetitive stress injury in my wrists and hands. The surgical options were not good. I stopped working and moved back in with my parents, feeling like a failure. Bouncing back to mom and dad was fairly unusual at that time, unlike now. In the evenings, I paged through career books in the library searching for something else I was qualified to do that didn’t require a lot of keyboarding and that called for a bachelors degree in Writing/English. (Eventually, I attended a graduate program to earn a paralegal certificate. That later led to my becoming a lawyer.)
During that same decade, I lived on and off in another near west suburb that had a beautiful old library overlooking the Des Plaines river. Its enclosed three-season porch became my favorite place to read in the summer and spring. In the winter and fall, I researched at library carrels in front of leaded glass windows overlooking the river. I discovered some new favorite authors as I wandered the stacks. Since most of the books were hardcover library editions, I pulled them based solely on title. It is there I found my first Sara Paretsky book about female private eye V.I. Warshawski. I’ve read every one since. (For why, see Why I Love VI.)
Right before I started law school, I moved to downtown Chicago. For four years, I worked full time while attending school at night. I had little chance to read fiction, but I visited the Harold Washington Public Library once or twice for research. I found it cavernous and without warmth. Built from 1988 through 1991 and designed by architect Thomas Beeby, the Harold Washington is the largest public library in the world. It houses over six million books plus historical collections of Chicago artifacts. Its top floor is the Winter Garden, with a skylight and lots of marble. For all that, I’ve never loved the library as a whole. Its double high ceilings and sprawling undivided floors make the number of books look skimpy, and I’ve yet to find a cozy place to read. On most floors, the lighting is harsh, and there are long library tables with wooden chairs, but no arm chairs or couches.
Partly because of that, even after finishing law school, I rarely went there. I worked so many hours that the few times I borrowed books, I returned them late because it was hard to find time to walk the eight blocks there and back. And I didn’t always finish the books. I actually read much faster than I had before law school, but in a good week I’d have 10-15 minutes to read at night before I went to sleep. At the same time, I suddenly could afford to buy the books I wanted. Some new lawyers at large firms drastically increase their spending on clothes or cars or buy larger homes. I bought books.
That trend mostly continued when I started my own law firm. Though I went on my own to have more time to write, I quickly became nearly as busy as I had been when I was employed at Sonneschein (now Dentons US LLP). I enjoyed my practice more, because I liked running my own business and having a wider variety of responsibilities. How busy I was had more ups and downs, though. Which meant that while I had a little more time to read, that time was less predictable. I might have one or two weeks when I would get home from the office by 6 p.m. each night, so I read for twenty minutes or or so after I finished my evening’s fiction writing. There were other months when I more or less lived at my office. The receptionist used to joke that she was sure I had a cot under my desk. So my visits to the public library were still few and far between.
Then, last spring, after spending about two years gradually slowing down my law practice, I flipped my work life so that I now focus about three-quarters of my work week on writing and one-quarter on law, with lots of what I’d call writing adjacent activities, such as reading, in my free time. (I also now actually cook and eat at home fairly often rather than eating out or at my office, which has felt very nice.) So recently it occurred to me that I had time to go to the library. I remembered the Harold Washington as rather cold, too big, and not inviting. No doubt, all those things are still true, as it has not been significantly remodeled. Yet, as I rode up the escalator for the second time in two weeks, the smell of paper and aging book covers made me feel like I had come home. The rows of stacks once again offered worlds of possibility. I’d forgotten how much I loved meandering shelves perusing different titles. Now I can try authors I’ve never read before, because my reading isn’t limited to fifteen minutes snatches in between other work. Instead, I can read uninterrupted for an hour or more sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea or a glass of Pinot Noir.
No doubt my next visit to the library and the next after that will seem less novel and amazing, and eventually it will be routine. And that in itself is wonderful. In this country more books than any one person could read in a lifetime are available for free. And while libraries have expanded to provide access to the Internet, ebooks, and numerous other services, those rows of books remain, for me, a huge part of what magic and joy are all about.