When we were young, my brother and I were mortal enemies. Our antagonism wasn’t the vague, namby-pamby, “my brother is such a dork” variety, but a screaming hurricane of verbal and physical attack, red in tooth and claw. One particularly memorable exchange started with me throwing a stick at Chris. He raised the stakes by hitting me with a padlock. I upped the ante and went after him with a telephone — not a current era-phone, but a hefty pre-deregulation one that we’d rented from the phone company and which was made to last. The battle culminated in him picking up a big spring-loaded, 15 pound pogo stick and taking swings at me with it. High comedy, if you happen not to be on the receiving end of our attacks.
We lived through this time largely by deciding to be interested in very different things. Chris spent a lot of his time in athletics, while I lost myself in books and computers. Because by this point our parents were divorced, and I was still too young to be left at home by myself (which Kathy might assert still hasn’t changed), we’d all end up spending many a fine Saturday morning at the football field while Chris did gridiron battle with some other elementary school kids from around San Antonio. I loathed these times. My fraternal antagonism, catalyzed by the fact that I had no interest in football whatsoever, made these three hours the longest of my entire week, and I resented them thoroughly.
During one of these games, as I was sulking around behind the bleachers, kicking dropped gum wrappers and lamenting missing cartoons again, I noticed that there was a public library adjacent to the playing fields. My mom, who was likely sick to death of my whining and complaining at this point, readily agreed that I could go over to the library and explore it. I strolled over, cracked the doors, felt the cool, conditioned air flow over me, and fell in love over the next two hours.
Initially, I scampered around looking for The Hardy Boys and Danny Dunn, the McDonalds of my literary diet at the time predictable, and easy to digest. Then I started indulging my curiosity: Wow, a book on volcanoes. Sweet, Star Trek books! Holy cow, they’ve got records you can borrow? A sex ed book are they allowed to have that in here? (Yeah, I looked for it. I was 11.) Here’s one about…sheesh, I can’t even read it. It sure looks interesting though. A book on Thomas Edison! Wow!
I finally settled down with a novel that featured time travel, altered history, and an era-spanning romance. Five pages into the book, the library had dropped away, and I’d been lost in an extraordinary tale, thoughts of football, resentment, and cartoons far away, until Mom’s hand on my shoulder recalled me to reality, fifty pages and an hour and a half later. It was time to go, so I put the book back, expecting to pick it up where I left off the next time we had a football game there.
When I returned to the library a few weeks later, I couldn’t remember the name of the book. I scoured the shelf where I remembered it being, searched the piles of books on nearby tables, and spent a long time casting about the library, trying to relocate it, to no avail. For the next several years, I would quixotically scan card catalogs as I visited various libraries, hoping to finish the story that had delivered me from football, but was never able to finish what I remembered as one of the best things I’d ever read.
Though my time with that particular book ended sadly, the experience engendered in me a love for libraries that has continued unabated since. The smell of old paper, the weight of knowledge embodied in the stacks, the church-like quiet, and the proliferation of stories combine to make them one of my favorite places: a catacomb of knowledge, rife with tunnels down which one can disappear for hours, discovering untold treasures along the way, never exhausting the beautiful, interesting, mysterious things to be seen. A library allowed me to escape from one of the most trying times of my young life, and has always seemed a wonderful place since.
Now I’m working in a 313,000 square foot library set on a hill, with giant views of the Texas Hill Country all around. There are millions of books, a photography gallery, periodicals, media, computer labs, an impressive children’s section with many of the oversize storybooks librarians use at storytime, books on tape, and great music. If you take a left out of my office, the first thing you see is the canvas-wrapped remains of Gus McRae, boots sticking out the bottom. (It’s a prop from the mini-series Lonesome Dove.) I’ve walked through each of the building’s seven floors, have spent hours exploring, and still have only the barest grasp of the treasures in this place.
So, if you find me upstairs during lunch with a book in my hand, a distant look on my face, and I don’t respond when you say Hello, don’t feel slighted I’m off treasure-hunting, traveling through time, visiting old friends, making new ones, or somewhere deep in the catacombs. I’ll be back soon, and if you wait for me, I’ll tell you the things I’ve seen along the way.