When I was in high school my parents splurged and bought us a brand new set of encyclopedias. In a way, it cemented my family’s move from the lower middle class into the middle middle class. Along with the central heat and air and the washer and dryer we didn’t have to put coins in to operate, the encyclopedias were part of the physical distance my parents were actively trying to put between their children and the financially precarious childhoods they had lived through.
Knowledge will keep you out of poverty.
It was possibly the single most important idea my parents passed on to me. One did not need to be born smart, one needed only to be willing to learn. Part of that lesson involved my mom taking my sister and me to the library on a regular basis. When it became obvious that I would be a reader on par with my mother, my mom taught me the joys of the suburban strip mall used book store. Oh how I can smell it now. Weird old carpeting, rickety slap-dash book shelves that soared to the acoustic tile (often water stained) ceiling, a wall of windows at the front somewhat obscured by boxes full of unprocessed books people simply dumped inside the front door with a relieved smile and fond pat goodbye, as if to say, “Don’t worry, you’re safe now.”
It’s so weird. People tend to feel fine throwing all sorts of things either in the trash or by the side of the road but there seems to be something wired in to us to try and find homes for unwanted books. I knew a kid whose parents took their sick old dog on a midnight ride into the countryside and left him there to die but agonized over what to do with the hundreds of Harlequin romances their grandma left behind when she moved into a care home.
Uh, for those of you out there wondering, the dog was a bigger deal. I like books way better than dogs but even I know that.
One time when I lived in Santa Monica, my car was broken into (totally my fault, what was I thinking parking on a public street in the middle of the day in 1992) and everything in it stolen, including a bag full of library books. I was panicked because I knew I didn’t come close to having enough money to pay for the lost books. Would the poker-faced, long suffering Santa Monica librarians believe me when I said they were stolen? If they took my library card away, I was shit out of luck because I didn’t even have enough money to buy used books.
I went to the library before I went to get my shattered car window fixed. I tried to be calm but some of my panic must have showed. At the time I was 19 and appeared 15. I was also in tears by the time I finished telling the librarian what had happened. She was very kind and assured me that she would report them stolen.
Here’s where it got weird.
My books had been checked in that morning.
To this day, I have no idea who returned them. The thieves? The thieves’ dad? The thieves’ dad’s boyfriend?
I will never know. I never again saw any of the crap the thieves stole and in fact they did me a favor by getting rid of the lousy cassette tape collection I had been driving around with for the past few years.
The exact identity of my savior aside, that stolen and returned library book incident underlies a crazy idea I have harbored for the past 25 years. Human beings might possibly be worth all the trouble we cause, if only because someone somewhere took time out of their busy thieving schedule to make sure a bunch of library books made it back into circulation.
They weren’t concerned that I would have to foot the bill for a bunch of lost books, they stuck me with the bill for a broken car window I could barely afford. I had to eat oatmeal for two weeks because of those asshats. No, somewhere in someone’s possibly drug addled brain was the idea that books shouldn’t just be chucked in the gutter.
Knowledge will keep you out of poverty. Whether that is true or not is an excellent topic for debate, but one thing I know for sure, someone somewhere decided that knowledge belonged in a library and not the gutter.
And for that I will always be deeply grateful.