by Rachel Wagner
I remember the last time I was in a library. It was about a week before the world shut down foreal for corona. I was picking up a stack of books at the desk feeling like, okay let me hurry up and grab these while I can. Things were going bad. I think I was wearing a mask. I know the student worker at register was wearing gloves.
For years, I’d been requesting books to be held at the desk and suggesting that they buy books and popping in just to see what else they had that was new on those two shelves on the side. I’d grab anything that caught my eye. And I didn’t feel bad if I didn’t like something to actually read it all the way through. I’d return the stack eventually and order more and call it a day. I was going through a few books a week, back to back. (You find a lot of randomly good books that way.)
But then the day came last year when I finished my last library book from that last pile. Confronted with the fact that the library really was closed, I was at a dead stop like: Okay, now what? Read my own books??
But if I hadn’t been forced to look around my shelves and take multiple books out as potential options, I’m not sure I ever would have ever read Black Boy by Richard Wright. Now it’s one of my favorite books ever. I had it for a long time too. I think I got it at a library book sale or something. I grabbed that copy because I remembered the title from a banner at my elementary school—one of those paper strips that go around the chalkboard or door or whatever. Many-a-days were spent staring at that title wondering what it was about. So I grabbed a cheap copy right when I had the chance.
And there it sat on my shelf, until corona. Then I finally read it and was pulled into the lull of pressing, urgent fear. A style of writing that made you feel like you were standing right next to him. Such a rich interior experience. That is real life. A person really finding ways for himself in a wildly violent world. His hunger for food and for life and for family. It was great. Reading Black Boy made me order a copy of his other book, a novel, Native Son. Then buying Native Son made me want to grab James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, assuming he would mention Wright in it and he does.
And from there, I finally read other books off my shelf that I may not have otherwise touched again probably, like Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism or Dave Cullen’s Columbine. One was from grad school, the other was from a Craigslist free books ad back in undergrad. Looking back, those two still stand out to me. They both were in conversation with each other too–something about the ways people document their perceived differences. Lessons on individualism and isolation. Anyway, like I said, I also caved pretty early on with buying new books lol. I had to. What was I going to do? Just not read The Feminist and the Sex Offender??
Only now I realize I have had to become way more selective. You don’t want to buy just any old book. I mostly expect everything I read to be great and worth it or at least good and cheap, which ends up working out. I guess I’m still breezing through books, mixing old stuff and new stuff, and I guess I also do feel more lucky to have them. I pay them more attention. I reach up and open it if I was thinking of something from it, which is nice. Like I know they’re mine.
But I still miss the library.
My bookstore: Ten Dollar Books