The library reopened gradually. First, the lime green tape that had blocked the mouth of the book drop was removed. A few weeks later, an email announced that library books requested online would be available for pickup. Patrons were required to make a reservation, then show up, masked, at a table outside the library, where a masked librarian would hand over the goods in a brown paper bag. Getting a book had never felt so dangerous.
The book in my bag was Essayism, by Brian Dillon. I’d happened upon the author on a podcast one sleepless night. My tired brain found his thoughts compelling, so I emailed myself a note to remember his name in the morning. That had been weeks before, in the early days of the lockdown, when going to the grocery store felt like walking through a mine field—the mines being, of course, other people.
I took Essayism out of the bag and washed my hands. By now it was mid-July and I was less fearful of catching COVID, at least from inanimate objects. The book, requested in March, had taken months to get to me via inter-library loan.
The pandemic has brought back that not-unpleasant feeling of what it’s like to wait for things. The local bookstores closed their doors when the libraries did. Even orders from Amazon took weeks to arrive. The months-long delay made the book in my sanitized hands seem more valuable than it had when I’d requested it.
I went through my OCD ritual of reading the front cover, the back cover, the title page, the dedication, the epigraph, and, before turning to the first page, I took out the white library receipt printed on the plasticky paper, the kind used for grocery receipts. I looked for the book’s due date. Underneath the date was a surprising sentence: You just saved $16.00 by using your local library!
I wasn’t sure whether to be smile or snort.
Perhaps I should applaud the library for making patrons aware of the value of books loaned free of charge—calling attention to the cost of commodities, rather than the immeasurable value of literature. That same week, the liquor store receipt from a bottle of bourbon I’d bought announced, “You Saved a total of $6.00!”
I was dismayed, perhaps unfairly, that the Cambridge Public Library, my library, free to the public since 1874, found it necessary to monetize the value of their services in such a blatant fashion. Wasn’t free access to books the library’s purpose?
The world’s first free public library, supported by taxpayer dollars, was the Peterborough, New Hampshire library, founded at the town meeting in 1833.
In 1850, the United Kingdom’s Public Libraries Act gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries so the lower classes would have access to books, not just citizens wealthy enough to afford their own collections. While some believed access to books would result in higher levels of education and lower crime rates, others feared books and the ideas inside them would incite revolt.
Truth be told, the library had saved me nothing. I’d never heard of Brian Dillon,Essayism’s author, never read a word he’d written. Perhaps the book was a bore of academic blather. Buying Essayism wasn’t a risk I, without steady income, could afford. If the library hadn’t had a copy, I wouldn’t have bought one. As every capitalist knows, it’s best to gamble with somebody else’s money.
Though there was a booger smeared on the bottom of page twelve, Essayism, it turned out, was excellent. I wouldn’t have read it without the benefit of my beloved public library. After reading Essayism, I ordered Dillon’s forthcoming work, Suppose a Sentence, due out next month.
The library cost me $17.95.