Thursday, January 8, 2009

How the Library is Saving Me During the Economic Crisis

I love books. Not just reading, but books. I know a lot of people say that. I overhear it at parties: “Oh, I just adore books.” But I really do, sometimes to the point of unhealthy obsession.

It’s not just that I lived with my nose in a book as a kid (Judy Blume and Nancy Drew, and Gone With the Wind, Jane Eyre, and Harlequin romances as a teen); or that I worked for six years at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle after college; or that I still read at least ten different book reviews a week. I’ll read a dozen reviews of the same book, even if it’s one I’m not interested in, just because I can’t stand not being in the loop. I don’t waste money on shoes or booze or gadgets, but I have been known to go out and buy a book, just to have it in my possession. And then, never read it.

That said, I do read a lot. So between buying books I read and buying books I don’t, books consume a serious chunk of my income. This is especially hard on my wallet when I’m on a binge; when I pick up an author and can’t stop until I’ve read everything by that person. Over the years, I’ve done this with Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Margaret Drabble, Mary Wesley, Honore de Balzac, Thomas Hardy, Nora Ephron, and so many others. Last year, though, when I suddenly got it into my head that I wanted to read Eve Babitz, I went to my local bookstores and couldn’t find anything in print. I mentioned this to my friend Janet, a fellow reading fiend, and she mentioned, to my surprise, the library.

I was forty-one, and it had been at least a decade since I’d checked a book out of the library. But the second she said that magic little word, “library,” a flood of happy images washed over me: all the libraries I had known in all the towns I had grown up in around Washington State, culminating with the library at Gaiser Junior High School in Vancouver, Washington. It was where I had volunteered to work during my free periods, and where I stole. Not books. I would never steal a book. But the pockets and cards put inside the front covers of library books. I took them home and glued them in the novels I had written, and made my sister check my masterpieces out from my library/bedroom.

The Gaiser Junior High library was unusual, a pit in the center of one of those 1970s experimental schools, where the classrooms circled the pit but had no walls, other than bookshelves for dividers. It was difficult to steal from there, but I did it, hands sweaty, heart pounding. Along with stealing, I spent hours scouring the shelves, reading every single one of those girls’ historical docu-novels with the reddish orange covers, and all of Betty Cavanagh, the first writer to ever respond to one of my letters.

With those fond memories in mind, I walked to the newly reopened Fairfax branch of the Los Angeles Public Library a few blocks away from my apartment. It is a gorgeous, Spanish mission-style building, with hardwood floors and plenty of wide desks for people to read or work on their computers. I got myself a library card and ordered Eve’s Hollywood; Slow Days, Fast Company; and Sex & Rage. Within a week, they arrived. I had them all read before the following week was out.

But my renewed love isn’t just about the library itself. It’s also about the physical books. When I buy a book at a bookstore, it is usually new. At the library, I always request the old first edition. The edition I would have read if I had bought the book right when it came out. The edition of Fear of Flying that I never could have bought because it was published in 1973, when I was eight. Even if I had been a precocious eight year old, which I was not, I think Isadora Wing’s views of life would have overwhelmed me. I take these books—smelling delicious as only old paper and ink can—back to my apartment, where I sit in the bright California sunlight. As I read the original edition, I try to put myself in the context of its era, imagining the shock, challenge, humor, sadness, outrage, or whatever other emotion the book evoked at the time of publication.

As this New Year came round, with all of America focused on the financial crisis, I decided that I should not purchase any books this year. The crisis hasn’t hit me hard. It’s more of a psychological challenge that has to do with the obsession this country has with acquisition. The second I made the decision to do this, I had a panic attack. So, I got onto my library’s website, and I ordered Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde and eight other books, some classic, some new.

I will bring them home. I will stack them up. I will look at them with satisfaction whenever I pass them by. I will read some. I will merely read the jackets of others. And I will be secure in knowing that although the world may shift this way and that, books are constant. Cutting back doesn’t have to mean giving up what I love best. Even if I don’t have a cent to my name, the library will always be there to keep my obsession fed.