Lori Wiser’s Library Memories
I’ve been having an affair with the library since I was about six years old. I say “about” because it’s hard to pinpoint when it started. I’d been reading since I was three, devouring books, magazines, TV Guides, Reader’s Digest, cereal boxes – basically any printed matter my grandparents had lying around the house. My entire worldview changed when I learned there were buildings full of books that anyone could read for free.
I was an easily bored and athletically challenged child, so books became a way to keep me occupied and stimulated. One day, I was sitting on the floor reading the dictionary. I loved this particular dictionary – the feel of the hardcover in my hands, the texture of the spine where DICTIONARY was embossed in fancy gold letters and the half-moon cutouts for each letter of the alphabet. It had a middle section with full-color, glossy pages full of birds, flowers, insects, and plants. I memorized them all. My grandfather saw me and asked why I was reading the dictionary. I said, “Because I read all my other books already.” Papa said,” Come on,” and he took me to a library.
I remember standing in the doorway, paralyzed by the posters, flyers, newspapers, shelves, books, desks, tables, and chairs. It was like an explosion of information under low watt institutional lighting. Papa took me to the desk where I could get a library card – the very first card of my own with my name on it. I revered the librarian, believing she must be some sort of wizard with the power to control all knowledge, which in a way is true. This person’s job was to watch over the books and help people find them. Whatever I knew about the world before going to the library, I knew I could now know everything else. There was nothing I treasured more than my library card and I got six books that day. Every three weeks I could get six new books. This was absolute sorcery.
My affair with the library was going fine until one visit about a year later. My cousin, Angela, drove me because everyone I lived with was tired of taking me. Angela lived just a few miles away and was 10 years older. I loved going places with Angela because she was always laughing. We would sing in the car as loud as we could and wouldn’t stop even when we were at a traffic light with the windows down. On this fateful day, we were listening to Cheap Trick live in Tokyo, which Angela told me had just been released in the U.S. a few months earlier. In retrospect, I should have anticipated that this day would be problematic since here I was, a nine-year-old, learning the words to “I want you to want me.”
So, we got to the library and for some reason, I couldn’t decide on books. I’d been distracted earlier in the week when Chris Monckton took the encyclopedia, I needed to do my project because he was mad at me for telling Mrs. Flynn that Kelly Donahue kissed him at the pencil sharpener. I wouldn’t have cared except for the fact that Chris was my boyfriend and regardless, I didn’t think people should go around kissing other people at pencil sharpeners. Mrs. Flynn, who was rather scary with her spiky hair and harsh, raspy voice, taught me two very important things that day: a.) Boys are annoying (which has held true long into my adult life) and, b.) Don ‘t give them the satisfaction of reacting to their bad behavior (which also still rings true.). She told me to pick another topic that didn’t require that particular volume of Encyclopedia Britannica. I now know way more about James Knox Polk than anyone should.
Anyway, I entered the library already distracted by Cheap Trick and my relationship woes, when I saw a cover of Time Magazine that showed American hostages in Iran. I froze. People were blindfolded and their hands were tied together, I remember hearing my grandparents talking about the “Hostage crisis” because one of the hostages was from Batavia, NY, a town very close to Buffalo where I grew up. Aside from wondering if I would ever be a hostage and, if so, would I be a good one, I wondered what the hostage-takers wanted. I could understand stealing food if you’re hungry and taking money if you’re poor, but I couldn’t understand what kind of situation you had to be in to steal people. I still don’t. But whenever I asked anyone what the Iranians wanted; they couldn’t tell me any more than they could explain why they wore turbans. Fortuitously, I was in a place where I could find out.
After grabbing “The Hoboken Chicken Emergency,” “Are you There God, It’s Me, Margaret, and “The Never Ending Story,” I asked the librarian how I could learn about Iranians. She took me to a shelf and handed me a Quran. Since the “_______________ for Dummies” series hadn’t yet been invented, I took the Quran and another book called,” Muhammad” and went to find Ang. I found her looking at magazines. She asked if I was all done and ready to go and, despite only having five books instead of six, I said yes. To round out my day of what I would soon learn was “inappropriate content” for a nine-year-old, we listened to “surrender” on the way home, the second to last song on the Cheap Trick album.
Angela dropped me off and I waved goodbye, excited to start learning about Iran so I could help bring the hostages home like everyone wanted. No one was in the house, but I could hear Mama and Papa out back talking about what to have for dinner. I went to my room and laid my treasures out on my bed, like always, waiting for one of the books to call to me the loudest, otherwise how could I choose which to read first? I really liked the Arabic writing on the Quran, and I loved words that start with the letter “Q” because they’re worth more in Scrabble, so that’s where I started. Muhammed, Margaret, and the Hoboken Chicken would have to wait. I had hostages to save.
I was starting chapter two when I heard them come in. Mama was pulling pots and pans out of the cupboard to make dinner and Papa headed into the bathroom to wash up. As he was walking by, he saw me reading, head in my hands, feet in the air, open book on the bed.
“Hey Pasquale!” he said, always making up silly names to make me laugh. “Whatcha reading?”
“Hi Papa. I’m reading “The Quran.””
“The Quwhaaatt?” he asked in his silly way.
“The Quran. To help me learn about Iran so I can help the hostages.” Now, I’m not sure what prompted his response, but I suspect it had something to do with my pronunciation, sounding more like the people on TV and not like the people in the grocery store.
‘Marie!” he yelled over the clanging in the kitchen. “Can you come here for a minute?”
“What’s the matter?” She called as she walked toward the bedroom wiping her hands on a dish towel. I don’t know why she always assumed something was wrong, but she did.
“Nothing. Just come here for a minute.” he said.
“Hi Mama,” I said as she came to the doorway.
“Hi little girl” she said, a term of endearment that I found both pleasant and troubling because I suspected she may have forgotten my name on more than one occasion and by calling me,” little girl” she was able to both hide that fact and also let herself off the hook.
“Show Mama what you’re reading,” Papa said.
“Why? What is it? What is she reading?” Mama asked in an increasingly anxious tone. This was the first time I realized that someone could think reading ANYTHING could be bad, so I put on my most reassuring voice and explained, “It’s just the Quran so I can understand what the Iranians want and help get the hostages back.”
“What?!” she exclaimed. “Let me see it.”
Attempting to deescalate a situation I could feel was in danger of careening out of control (much like hostage crisis itself if we’re being honest), I tried to clarify, “It’s kinda boring actually. It’s like the Bible.”
Somehow that explanation made things worse.
I handed Mama the book. She turned it over in her hands and opened the front cover as if looking for reviews. “You got no business reading this,” she said. “Do you want to become one of them?” she asked, clearly rattled by my recent activities.
“One of who?” I asked, truly confused.
“I think it’s whom,” said Papa winking at me. “One of whom.” Papa was always making me laugh by getting a rise out of Mama.
“Never mind, Sal,” she said. Mama used “nevermind” as a catchall for instances in which she didn’t agree, didn’t want to hear your side of the story, or didn’t care to talk about the issue. Papa walked away as if his work here was done.
“Where did you get this?” she asked in an accusatory tone I heretofore thought reserved for finding drugs on someone in rehab.
“The library,” I said. “The librarian gave it to me.”
“Why would a librarian give you a Quran?” she asked, genuinely curious.
“Because I asked how I could learn about Iranians so I could help the hostages.” I was starting to whine, frustrated by having to continually articulate and defend my intensions. Wasn’t it obvious?
This gave her a true moment of pause.
I had never seen Mama shocked by anything, much less speechless before. Seeing her in the doorway looking at me like a wide mouth bass that had just been pulled out of the water was a little unnerving. After we hung in an awkward, tense, and confused silence for a minute, Mama recovered. Her eyes coming back online, she sprang to life as quickly as she had disappeared, as if she were a droid that was rebooted after a software update.
“This isn’t appropriate for a little girl,” she said in the calm, steady voice that had been absent for most of this conversation.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s none of your business.”
“But I’m just trying to learn about stuff I don’t know,” I pleaded.
“What you don’t know could fill a book,” she said for not the first time, which is ironic because the more I learn, the smaller the book of stuff I don’t know.
Mama looked at the other books on the bed and picked up “Muhammad.”
Without going into the details, that was the last time I went to the library without adult supervision. (Apparently, Angela didn’t count.) Despite the attempts to argue my First Amendment rights under the Constitution, I would now be censored until I moved out. My love affair with the library would be put on hold, but it would never die. It’s still a sanctuary of ideas for me, and every time I go, I have that same excited feeling I had the very first time. Except now, I have permission to read freely.