TW Column by Emily Toth
To a Writer, Firsts Matter
I never walked uphill in the snow to get to a bookstore.
I might’ve wanted to, since I came of age at a time when there was a notorious dirty book we all yearned to read. Peyton Place by Grace Metalious exposed the slimy secrets in a New England town. No preteen bookworm could resist that.
So, I don’t have stories of rapturous childhood encounters with bookstores, although the Scribner’s store in Manhattan was truly beautiful. I remember it resplendent with wrought iron and gold, a shrine to books. But I was an adult before I got to worship there.
For youngsters of my time and social class, there was a different beloved bookstore, one we trekked to on foot, through rain or sleet or snow.
It was the public library.
In the life of any writer, firsts do matter. Chef Anthony Bourdain, in Kitchen Confidential, rapturously describes his first encounter with an oyster: “I remember it like I remember losing my virginity—and, in many ways, more fondly.”
And I remember my first public library. It was in downtown Manhattan, and my mother and I would walk there to get her weekly fix of books. I was very young and very short. I had to stand on tiptoe to get my little nose on the checkout desk and breathe in the smell of books—an aroma that still excites me.
By the time we left New York, when I was eight, I was tall enough to see the librarians scoot around silently and whisper to each other at the card catalogues. I thought of them as mysterious guardians, keepers of the world’s greatest treasures.
They were not-very-subtle cultural critics, too.
My mother, whose Jewish parents had come from Poland, was part of the “first generation born here.” When she was a child, the librarians, mostly white Anglo-Saxons, were suspicious of these eager, dark-haired, dark-eyed little kids who had slightly German accents and raised their voices at the end of a sentence. It was believed that these “foreign” children were unwashed, so they had to present their fingernails for inspection before they were allowed to touch the books. They were also allowed to take out only one book a day, lest the books all be gone from the library.
Eager readers like my mom and her sister went every day.
Especially for Jews, New York City was the great educator. Immigrants and their children could read for free at the New York Public Library, go to the free public schools, and then move on to the City College of New York, also free.
Countless Nobel Prize winners, award-winning writers, and world-changing activists started their lifelong learning at the New York Public Library. Writer Alfred Kazin mentions it in his 1951 memoir A Walker in the City. And Susan Kress relates in her 2006 biography Carolyn G. Heilbrun: Feminist in a Tenured Position that Heilbrun first began studying issues of identity when she resolved as a young girl to read all the biographies in the St. Agnes branch of the New York Public Library. In alphabetical order.
My mother’s sister Sara Ruffner, who started writing in the library, finally published her first short story collection when she was 81 and her first novel when she was 87. My mom, Dorothy Ginsberg Fitzgibbons, had a long-term job reading books and magazines in order to cite word usages for the dictionary. She was renowned for her vocabulary, knowledge, and smarts.
It was years before she told anyone—to collective shock and amazement—that she was a high school dropout. Her college had been the New York Public Library. Only occasionally would she surreptitiously ask me how to pronounce words she’d read but never heard, such as “behemoth” and “scion.”
I didn’t know how to pronounce them, either. But give us a written text, and we were champs.
My mom and the library conspired to make me into a writer. I loved reading historical novels about feisty women, and by the time I was nine, my mother was taking out books by Anya Seton and Margaret Campbell Barnes from the Lakewood, Ohio, public library for me to read. I was too young to get an adult library card.
At ten, I wrote my first historical novel, starring lovers named Charles and Diana. (It was long before the real ones met—reading makes you prophetic, too.) At home, after supper, we’d all read our library books at the dining table. My father, who grew up in Ireland, used to read about crooked Irish politicians in Boston and laugh till he cried.
It was not impossible, in those pre-superstore days, to buy a book. Teens could get paperbacks at the drugstore, and Peyton Place was the favorite—especially because some public libraries weren’t allowed to stock it. Max, my best friend in high school, had a dog-eared paperback copy of James Michener’s Hawaii that we passed around in study hall, giggling lewdly at “friggin’ in the riggin.”
My friends have always been readers. Susan had to be pried away from the Cleveland Public Library; Sally and her sisters nagged their mother to drive them to the Shreveport Library. Ruth and Mary Lou, in Alexandria and Metairie, couldn’t wait for the bookmobile to arrive with their weekly treats. Mary Jane, in rural Pennsylvania, called herself a “teenaged library junkie.”
But I don’t remember actually being in a real bookstore until my freshman year at Swarthmore, when we had to buy textbooks at the campus store. We still did our assigned reading in the library, and no one kvetched about sharing the expensive books that were on reserve. We took notes carefully, by hand, and never, ever wrote in the library books. That was a sin.
I do remember a dainty little bookstore or two in the Philadelphia area, but they didn’t seem welcoming. I’m sure my fingernails weren’t clean enough.
All that changed when Barnes & Noble rolled out their mega-bookstores in the 1980s. While these bookstores welcomed everyone, they also elicited cries of horror: They’re dumbing down the reading public! They’re pimping bestsellers and romances! Their trashy tastes will destroy civilization!
But now brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying. The most avid readers are middle-aged and hunched over their Nooks and Kindles. My local mega-bookstore is full of videos and other nonbooks, in a mostly unsuccessful effort to lure teens. Often, the biggest action is in the coffee shop.
I live in Louisiana, a poor state where money for education is always being cut. A quarter of the children in my town, Baton Rouge, live below the poverty line. Our poorer teens don’t have cars, and there’s not much public transportation to take them out to a mall to buy books, if they even had the money. Some barely have money for food.
But they can walk to the one place that offers free learning and that’s always supported by taxpayers.
The closest one is a few blocks from me, and sometimes I can’t get a seat because it’s so crowded. There’s a buzz of conversation and a communal eagerness. People elbow each other and sign up on long waiting lists to get the books.
It’s the people’s bookstore. It’s the public library.
- Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury USA, 2000).
- A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951).
- Carolyn G. Heilbrun: Feminist in a Tenured Position by Susan Kress (University of Virginia Press, 2006).
- Hawaii by James Michener (Random House, 1959).
- A Liberal Education by Sara Ruffner (Fithian Press, 1991).
- That Beautiful Future by Sara Ruffner (Creative Arts Book Company, 1998).
- "Forget the Cooking!" © Phil Bradley; Creative Commons license.
- "WPA Book Week Poster" © Marxchivist; Creative Commons license.
- "Library Card" © Isabel Nuñez; Creative Commons license.
Emily Toth is a contributing writer at Talking Writing, where her column “Nothing but the Toth” appears regularly.
"When my mother hated Nature, she was saying she preferred stories about things—and people—that mattered. She never met a cow she liked." — "The Outdoors is Not in My Nature"