Don’t get between me and my library. You wouldn’t like it when things get between me and my library.
Recently, I noticed that a series of books I’d been curious about in the past was becoming easier to find at my local library: Wild Cards. Someone had told me about it years ago. I don’t remember what they said about the series, but apparently it piqued my interest, because I kept looking for them a long time. They’re unusual in a couple ways. For one, they combine superpowered fiction with alternate history, which isn’t a combination I’ve encountered much (or possibly at all) elsewhere. For another, they’re primarily anthologies, but these stories don’t simply share some common theme or element – they’re set in the same world, and the plot and characters of one impact the next. I’m curious as to the planning, coordination, and editing that made that happen.
Anyway, the early books were published in the eighties and had been out of print for some time. When I’d first gone looking, I think the library only had the first book, and only a single copy of that. It couldn’t be checked out, but only requested and read in-library at one of the research libraries. (That’s a pattern I’ve found fairly common with older series of books, alas.) The series never really stopped, exactly, but there were certainly more books published in certain time periods than others – thirteen in the decade from 1987, when the first was published, to 1996; only two in the next decade; and five from 2007 until now – so more of them were older, out of print and out of reach, than not. A couple years ago, I did discover one of the more recent ones at my local branch library.* I went ahead and read it, since I couldn’t get most of the rest of the series. Just a few days ago, however, I was browsing the shelves and found not one but two more Wild Cards books at my little local library, and not the recent ones. Books two and four, from 1987 and 1988, back in print with shiny new covers.
It surprised me, but it probably shouldn’t have. Not long ago, some friends were talking about what made a book good versus popular, and how books became accepted into the literary canon (which is, in a way, about being both good and popular at the same time). What makes a book good is obviously a discussion well beyond the scope of this blog post, but being popular seems fairly straightforward: it means that a large number of people enjoy a book. One could also have a lengthy conversation about just what it means to enjoy a book and what it is people enjoy in books, but at the moment I’m more interested in a particular point one of my friends brought up. She noted that factors besides the book itself often play into popularity. One of the most obvious is publicity. If no one knows a book exists, then no one can like it and it can’t be popular. Another is politics or cultural bias. For example, many people are disinclined to pick up books about minorities, particularly if they aren’t members of the minority group themselves. Therefore, such books are often less popular.
Back to Wild Cards. There’s a very simple explanation for the books’ reappearance: the editor of the series is George R. R. Martin, of recent Game of Thrones fame. Publicity. Because of the television show, far more people are now far more aware of George R. R. Martin as an author, and they’re seeking out not just the Game of Thrones books but his other works as well. I’m certainly not going to object, since the spike in demand means I can now read books I’d wanted to for years but couldn’t find. Still, it made me think about how much differing circumstances can affect the popularity and longevity of a book. Now I wonder what books I’ve missed out on because they simply never crossed my radar. Beyond that, what stories have been lost to history due to happenstance?
As an English major, I’ve had to get used to the notion that I will never be able to read all the books. There are just too many. And in all honesty, I don’t actually want to. There are whole swathes of books that I’m not really interested in reading. For example, I don’t like being frightened, so I have no reason to read most horror novels. That’s no insult to them – they’re just not my cup of tea. However, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being wistful that I can’t read all the books that I do want to read. Not only do I not have time, but I don’t even know the vast majority of them exist, or existed.
It’s funny. Some people worry over or regret experiences they believe they’ll never have; I feel sad about the books I might never read. I doubt anyone who reads this blog is surprised, though. Welcome to lectitare.
* Fort Freak. I enjoyed it with no need to read most of the series that came before it – I had read the first book, but I think I could’ve gotten along without that fine, too. I’m curious about the title, though. All the others in the series reference cards somehow, but Fort Freak seems to break that pattern. I wonder if it’s simply a reference to something I’m not familiar with. Does anyone know?
PS – I seriously considered naming this post “book-et list” or something similar. Be grateful I ultimately decided not to inflict such a terrible pun on you as a title.
Due to the juxtaposition of my previous post with the tagline of my blog, it has come to my attention that I did not include libraries in my diet in the event that I become a godzilla-monster. This oversight is a terrible disservice to a noble institution. On my own behalf, I must offer heartfelt apologies to libraries everywhere. Unfortunately, I will not be able to change the tagline, because “If I were a godzilla-monster, I would only eat bookstores and libraries” just doesn’t sound as good. It is possible that a compromise, such as alternating between “bookstores” and “libraries” in the tagline, might to some degree ameliorate the consequences of the lapse, and I would be open to such a compromise. Regardless, I deeply regret the error and will strive to avoid replicating it in the future.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I’m a big fan of public libraries. I must have started going (or more accurately, my mother must have started taking me) fairly early in my life. I don’t even remember the first time I went to one. I do, however, remember my first “home” library. It was a large, white (ish) building probably built sometime in the 80s based on the architecture. The few windows were heavily tinted, so it was always dim inside, and it smelled fusty. I remember the children’s room being brighter, though whether it was better lit or simply more brightly decorated I couldn’t tell you now. I went every week when I was young. I remember exiting from semi-gloom into brilliant afternoon sunshine, delighted with a fresh haul and eager to dive into it. We would go with sturdy canvas bags to carry the books, and mine was always absolutely crammed. I could fit perhaps six to ten books in one bag, depending on whether they were paperbacks or hardcovers.
Choosing the books was the hard part, however. This was a relatively large public library – larger than most individual branches I’ve encountered since, anyway. It had a correspondingly large selection. I remember, once, sitting down in one of the back aisles of the children’s section in front of a whole series of books about different animals. There must have been at least a couple dozen of them. And there were so many I wanted to read! My mother typically let me browse as I wished while she did the same, only coming to look for me if I hadn’t shown up at the circulation desk to check out in the usual amount of time. So by the time she found me, I had pulled what seems like twenty of them in memory but might have been half that off the shelves. Dismayed, she had to explain to me that I could not check all of those out, and I would have to put most of them back. This was an exacting and laborious task for a seven-year-old, but my mother stood by patiently while I did it.
Some years later, a new branch of the county library opened up not five minutes from our home. The building was brand-new, bright, airy, spacious, and clearly intended for growth, since half the shelves were still empty. It was beautiful, but I never quite grew attached to it in the same way I did the old, dark, musty library I grew up with. It wasn’t my library. Still, I went there occasionally in my late teens, mostly during summer breaks when I was bored or stressed and didn’t know what to do with myself. The librarians were always pleased to see me. I gathered that most of their other teen volunteers were as much hindrance as help, and I was a shelving wonder – despite sometimes getting distracted by interesting-looking books. I even managed to help patrons find books on occasion, like the man looking for a nonfiction children’s book about space. I had just shelved a book there, so I was able to find the general section for him quickly, and felt quite pleased with myself.
Now, I’m fortunate to live in a large city with an extensive public library system. New York actually has three: one for Queens, one for Brooklyn, and one that covers the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. At this point, I’ve visited more branches than I can readily count. The most memorable, unsurprisingly, is the iconic central branch of the New York Public Library, on 42nd Street. It’s huge and beautiful, so old and so well-traveled (well-loved) that many of the steps have been worn hollow with the passage of feet. Most of the public parts of it feel like that – vast, lovely, venerable. I went to the enormous reading room, filled out a slip to request a book decades old, and watched it whisked away by pneumatic tube. When my book arrived, I sat down at a table in a hard wooden chair and read it cover to cover in one sitting, since the collection there can’t be checked out.
I’ve even seen parts of it most don’t get to, thanks to a friend who worked there a few years ago. At a donor event to which employees could bring a guest, I had the opportunity for a short behind-the-scenes tour that included the stacks. Unsurprisingly, the less-public parts are more workaday – less nice, even, than the stacks at other libraries, since the public isn’t admitted to them. More surprisingly, they were incredibly hot, even in December. I suppose such a large, old building has heating and cooling challenges, but it did make me worry for the books, especially because the collection there is generally older and rarer. Still, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see the stacks. Now, I donate regularly to the New York Public Library myself – not a large amount, but every little bit counts, as they say.
I still check out plenty of books, though not quite so many as in my childhood, and libraries are still my preferred place to kill time if I need to. I was about to say that I appreciate them more now, but I think it would be more accurate to say that I appreciate them differently now. As a child I loved libraries for the treasure trove of delights they offered me; as a teen I loved them for the refuge they offered me. As an adult, I’m more aware of what they offer others. Obviously, they still offer everything they did me: a tremendous variety of enjoyable media to consume, a safe and pleasant place to spend time for people of all ages. But they also offer a great many other services that rarely if ever impinged on my awareness when I was young: classes and assistance on every topic from computers to job hunting to language learning to knitting; art, history, and culture exhibits; events with public figures, thinkers, and artists of various kinds; and probably far more that I still don’t know about.
All of which is to say that I am really, truly, deeply grateful for the existence of public libraries, and I hope they thrive far into the future.