If there really were lots of books at the library, as Mom had told me, and if I could borrow them to read, then I could carry more of them home if I put them in my wagon. That was why I left my battered Radio Flyer, with its peeling red paint and rusted axles, next to the door. It was July, but inside it was cool, like the movie theater where my sister Freyda sometimes took me on Saturday afternoons, and as Mom had promised, there were books everywhere.
Behind a huge desk sat an old woman in a long, flowery skirt. "Is it true that I can borrow books?" I said, when she looked down at me.
"Do you have a library card?" she asked, in a tone of voice that made me feel as though I had violated some terrible taboo.
"No," I said, turning to go, fighting back tears over my long walk down the scalding sidewalks of unfamiliar streets.
"Just a minute," she said, a little less frostily. "Would you care to apply for a card?" She watched carefully as I printed my name and address. "You must sign the application," she said, pushing it back across the desk. "Don't print your name, write it out. Do you know how to do that?"
"Yes," I said, and applied the fourth-grade penmanship that Freyda had taught me the year before, when I was in first grade. My teacher had told me not to write in class -- everyone else was still learning to print -- but I practiced at home.
"You can pick up your card when you are ready to check out your books," said the woman, waving a bony arm toward the shelves.
I had first encountered books in a junkyard. My father was in the cluttered office with Mr. Rushicoff, who had few hairs on his head but many growing on his big, red-veined nose, and while they haggled over Dad's load of newspaper, rags and iron, I wandered around until I found a huge wooden bin. I pulled myself up and clambered atop a pile of old books. Some were filled with pictures, and some were written in strange alphabets with tiny, odd-looking symbols over the letters, but even these called to me. Fascinated, I lugged several volumes to the office. "Just one," said Dad, and after weighing it, Mr. Rushicoff asked for a nickel.
After that I made straight for the book bins as soon as we had unloaded the truck. Each week I took home a book or two, and through them I escaped into long-vanished worlds, into make-believe universes, into adventure and romance and intrigue. I wrote down unfamiliar words, and sometimes Mom told me what they meant, but only after I had failed to find them in her old dictionary, or to guess their meanings by the context of their use.
Most days, after Freyda and I had finished our homework, Mom started supper. Ted and Ila, barely out of diapers, played or tussled on the living room floor. My mother had begun her long descent into madness; inevitably she screamed at Freyda for setting out the wrong plates, for failing to clean a skillet properly, for something said or not said, for her deportment. Denouncements soon morphed into bizarre, paranoid accusations, and as Freyda yelled denials, Mom upped the volume. Neighbors pounded walls or ceilings; the babies wailed in terror. I crept away, found a book.
Soon I was over the Channel, hurtling down from 10,000 feet with a Messerschmitt hot on my tail, shells from the Jerry's cannon arcing past my Spitfire's windscreen until I pulled up into a tight Immelman, squeezed off a burst and sent him tumbling in flames. I was with Richard Halliburton, urging our reluctant pachyderm up a narrow trail beneath the towering Matterhorn. I tamed the fierce black stallion until he licked sugar from my palm. I resisted Big Brother until he forced me to obey, and padded silently through the forest with Hawkeye and Chingachgook. I built the lamp for Tom Swift's electric searchlight, took note of a London watchdog that did not bark, joined the posse to track down a bandit gang. I did not return to the daily screaming matches on Chicago's South Side until my father had shouted my name repeatedly, and shook my shoulder, and then I reentered the frightening, disorderly world resentfully and reluctantly, as though awakening from deepest sleep.
There came a day when Dad switched his allegiance to a junkyard that dealt only in metals, and my access to cheap books ended. That was when Mom suggested the library, and sketched a map to help me find it. But no one had mentioned that there was a system in place, that each book resided on a certain shelf, that the numbers inked on their spines were mirrored on paper cards in long wooden drawers, that with author's name or book's subject one could quickly find the proper volume.
Instead I approached the library on that first day like a neat and spacious junkyard, choosing books at random and reading enough of each to decide whether it seemed interesting or not. I wandered the vast room, stopping here and there, selecting volumes from lower shelves that I could reach easily. When my arms were full, I took them to the desk where the lady in the flowered skirt waited. "Those are not for you," she said. "The children's section is over there," she added, pointing.
"But I want to read these," I replied, and she shook her head and got up and came around in front of the desk. She opened a book and held it in front of my face.
"Read this for me," she said, and I did, stumbling over multi-syllable words, mispronouncing unfamiliar names. The old woman stared at me. "What does this word mean," she asked, indicating one that I had pronounced "mono-tone-nuss."
"It means boring, like doing the same thing over and over," I said, and her jaw dropped. She opened another book and asked me to read, and then another and another. When I looked up, I was surrounded by librarians. I returned the next week to hand in the books that I had finished, and they all stared at me.
Not until tenth grade did I ask about the strange wooden cabinet with its myriad brass-handled drawers, and thus discovered card catalogs. But by then I had formed the habit of roaming the library at random, and I had read many books that I am certain no librarian or teacher would have suggested.
Each week, as I returned with new books to read, I grew more excited with every step. I could hardly wait to find a well-lit corner, to open a book, to leap headlong into a world beyond my own, a universe of vicarious experiences. Reading was not only exciting, it was safer and more ordered than the world around me.
I wanted to share what I discovered in books with people whom I loved. But my father, with six children to support, had no time for reading books, much less for talking about them. Intelligent and curious, until illness overtook my mother she was keenly interested in her children's education -- but never had the luxury of reading for pleasure.
So what began as escape from family chaos grew into a private passion. I met few children who cared about reading in the way I did, and the few times that I attempted to share the excitement of a particular book, or to talk about something that I had read, my words were taken for bragging, and I was ridiculed. I learned to keep my literary discoveries to myself.
Yet, looking back, I know that books saved me from succumbing to the madness and rage that permeated our household. What would I have missed if that first librarian, or those who gaped at my pilgrimages, had guided me to a section appropriate to my years, had explained how a library was organized, had high-mindedly denied me the freedom to explore, to choose what pleased or provoked me, to venture past artificial literary frontiers? What would have happened if my mother had escorted her seven-year-old on his first visit to a library? How then would I have escaped, even temporarily, the shame and lunacy that permeated our household, the shadow that haunted Dad even when Mom, fresh from yet another psychiatric ward, seemed ready to live in the world that in the end, the unbalanced chemistry of her brain could never abide?
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.