When I’m wheeling my cart around, returning books one by one to their shelves, there are really only two places in the library where I’m liable to find my way blocked by someone sitting on the floor. The first of these, naturally enough, is the juvenile section, where day in and day out the children of Talbot County stretch out upon our industrial grade wall-to-wall as upon a magic carpet, their imaginations in thrall to C. S. Lewis or J. K. Rowling or Laura Ingalls Wilder. The other place where people sitting on the floor regularly block my way is adult fiction.
Which, when you think about it, is kind of interesting.
I mean here we are, a society of supposedly hard-headed entrepreneurs and wage-earners—all of us, according to Adam Smith, thinking of little beyond the next dollar—yet again and again when we visit the library, we lose ourselves not in the 330s (personal finance/retirement planning) nor even the 650s (salesmanship), but fiction, the part of the library where not facts but fancy rules.
And truth be told, I don’t think this is such a bad thing. Indeed, I think it probably says something good about us as a community that, for all our work-a-day pragmatism, we still like to dream, still like to settle onto the floor like children, lose ourselves (or, maybe, find ourselves) in the great stories of our time.
But it isn’t always easy to reach the place where one can sit unself-consciously on the floor, immerse one’s self in make-believe. For between the carefree innocence of childhood and the mature self-confidence of age comes the tension and uncertainty of adolescence. A wise woman once told me that adolescence is a condition that begins around eleven or twelve years of age and ends sometimes.
Yet hope springs eternal.
Even in August.
In August it is not at all uncommon to find a high school student wandering around the fiction section with a lost look on his face and a sheet of mimeographed paper in his hand. These are the saddest of kids, the ones who have just discovered that, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, their parents were actually right: summer will end, school will begin again (soon!), and they have yet to find, much less read, the books on their summer reading list.
In truth, these are some of my favorite patrons. When you ask one of these young people if they need help finding anything, they are almost always refreshingly honest. They will hand you the reading list their teacher gave them last spring as a foreign tourist seeking directions might hand you a map of Easton, hopeful, helpless, utterly dependent upon you to direct them to some strange, unheard-of place called The Snows of Kilimanjaro or A Room With A View.
This past summer I had the privilege of helping a young man look for his first copy of The Grapes of Wrath. When we discovered (as is often the case with these end-of-summer read-athons) that all our copies of Steinbeck’s classic had been checked out, the boy was unconcerned. Pointing at his sheet of paper as a husband might his wife’s grocery list, he said he’d been told he only needed one of the books printed on it as that was all his teacher said they had to read this summer.
So we found the next title on the list, the young man thanked me for my help, and then, doubtless already thinking about something else—his girl maybe, or maybe a trip to the Dairy Queen—he turned and began to walk away.
And my heart sank.
Catching up with him, I said, “Listen, The Grapes of Wrath, it’s a classic. It’s ... I don’t know, it’s what America’s all about. You’ve got to promise me you won’t go through life without reading it at least once.”
And to give him credit, the boy smiled politely and said he would. And who knows? Maybe he will. Maybe, someday, sitting on the floor in the Talbot County Free Library, that young man will join a family of Okies as they make their way across the Depression-era west, and like them, like Rose of Sharon, discover an abiding connection with all the people of this good earth.