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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

The dust jacket paradox or: How I learned to keep worrying and love the library

I still never know what to do with a hardcover book that comes into my possession. Do I throw off the flimsy dust jacket that gives the book its character, or do I keep it on as it writhes and wrinkles at the edges? Every time I prowl the less-than-pristine shelves of a used bookstore, my eyes narrow in pursuit of paperbacks for fear of this quandary.

The reason I’m so unsettled by untethered detachable outer paper covers is that I was raised by the public library. In the library, most books are treated by some cellophane wizardry that binds the dust jackets in another transparent jacket, one that won’t come off or fray. There’s a certain permanence in that synthetic shine.

And yet, library books are the antithesis of permanence — once you’ve read the book, you’re free to bid it adieu and not forced to have it weigh down your shelves. 

I was raised in a house where we didn’t dwell on such things or engage in self-pity, but the truth of the matter is that buying books as we read them was a luxury we couldn’t afford. Besides, it made no sense! You read a book once, and then you forget it. And so while we had a bookshelf stacked high with a good number of books that had accumulated — heavy religious texts and picture books that had more than a few bite marks — it was the library where I was taught to love reading. 

Even today, during my far too frequent study breaks, I search up a book in the library catalog to find its reference number and go up the elevators, sauntering through the aisles to find it. Whether or not I ultimately read it, that ritual has gained its own significance.

I still remember what was probably my first time at the library, going downtown to the central branch of the San Francisco Public Library, at the age of something like 5-years-old. I was enchanted and terrified by the size of this labyrinthine building — all the books I’d never be able to read in my lifetime. Stepping through the broad hallways lined with homeless men and women taking intoxicated naps along the walls and automated conveyor belts that took your returns, we made our way to the children’s section on the second floor. I was just starting to read, and the books I saw as I perused were too many words on far too many pages for. It was not yet time for me to read Dickens, or even Magic Tree House.

“Where can I find picture books?” I asked a librarian and she directed me on a journey seemingly halfway across the world to a room where the storybooks lined the walls. I remember opening one with magnificent illustrations of a horse and finding no words whatsoever. What was the point? 

But ultimately, I found the words. Taking them home, I sprawled across the mattress in Marconi Hotel, Room #6, our equivalent of a living room. Some drug addicts recall not enjoying their first high. That wasn’t the case with me; I was hooked from the very beginning. My addiction to the library consumed me, requiring weekly trips that filled one tote bag after the next. 

For years to come, as my family sat together to watch movies, I would burrow into the pillowy comforter in my parents’ bed and ravenously turn page after page. I still remember the wide-eyed grins of satisfaction, guilty giggles and the uncontrolled sobs. I can’t count the number of times I was caught for reading when I should be asleep, or covertly looking down under my desk at the book I thought I had done a good job of hiding.

At my school library, I began volunteering in fourth grade so I could borrow more than one book at once. It was glorious; pulling entire series from the shelves and devouring them rapidly. I would stand at the side of the yard during recess, showing little interest in Pokemon or kickball. 

This short period of ecstasy was cut short dramatically when I left a bag of books in a hallway no one frequented. For days, I wondered what had happened but said nothing. They were found by a particularly involved parent that volunteered at the school, and she informed me that the limit on my book borrowing would be re-established. My first firing. 

I probably got the last laugh, seeing as I’m writing this from behind the circulation desk of a library right now. I’ve volunteered in libraries intermittently for years after the traumatic episode in elementary. The library made me who I am, keeping up with my interests as I grew. In middle school, I woke early each Saturday morning to bike over to the library and sit with the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal and the shelves of poorly ghostwritten political memoirs and works of reporting that showed me new worlds. In middle and high school, I didn’t read much fiction, perhaps thinking it too unimportant. In fact, it wasn’t really until college that I did, returning over and over to the ninth floor of Hesburgh to reacquaint myself. 

It was thanks to a library copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection “Interpreter of Maladies” that I realized the errors of my way, dipping back into fiction. I read it on a fall break flight, and by the next day, I had bought two more of the author’s paperbacks. In between my tears, a character in Lahiri’s novel “The Namesake” explained to me so much of what I had felt in the library books I had absorbed at recess, in my parents’ bed and everywhere else imaginable. “That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet,” a character recalls. It sounds cliche, except to those that have experienced the supernatural experience of reading a book that transports you.

So I don’t know why it is that I buy books now, or why it is that I bought a copy of “Interpreter of Maladies” after I got back. It strikes me as wrong every time I do so, whether it is because of the accumulation of clutter or the betrayal of the value of thrift. Or perhaps it’s because it is a betrayal of the libraries that raised me. Well, as long as there’s no dust jacket, I won’t have to think about it that much.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.