On Saturday, I took my kids to the library.
It's a supremely ordinary weekend thing to do. Millions upon millions of parents and kids do it every Saturday. Yet it thrills me every time because of what libraries mean to me, and what they mean, period.
I spent countless Saturdays in Chattanooga's downtown library. To this day, when I think of libraries, it is that modern-looking concrete edifice with its steel waterfall sculpture out front that I picture. I came home from those trips with towering stacks of books, as many as I could carry, as thick as I could find. I was blessed with parents who didn't obsess over what I might be reading, but facilitated my habit and left me alone to get on with it.
Sometimes I take my kids to the library just to return the piles of books we've managed to hoard and temporarily lose in various corners of our house. But without exception, we leave with more. Who can resist the treasures therein? Don't we always want to leave with all of them -- or some subset so much larger than our ability to consume, it might as well be all of them?
As we were entering the library yesterday, I commented to the kids how glad I was that we had a library. Imagine if the only people who could read books were people with money, I said. And I ask you to imagine it. Imagine if we had to buy each individual book we wanted our kids to read, or that they wanted to read. How could we feed their minds as full as we need to fill their stomachs? I buy stacks of books for our kids; they come home on Scholastic delivery day with their backpacks bulging. But it's not nearly enough for a hungry mind, for an expansive imagination, for a life stretching decades into the future with so much to learn and do.
Walter Dean Myers, the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, has taken as his theme "Reading is not optional." I heard him in a radio interview explaining that we tend to promote reading as a wonderful escape, something that can take you around the world and into the past and future. But what so many young people need to escape is not boredom, and what they seek is not entertainment. If the children in our communities are not to be limited by their circumstances, they need the flexible skills to do more than their parents or neighbors, to imagine more than what is in their immediate environment.
If reading is not optional, then libraries are not optional. I'm grateful that I live in the age of libraries, and I hope to high heaven that I don't live to see their end.