Booked on a Feeling

an ode to local libraries and the people who love them

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

It smelled weird, I can tell you that. Today the Internet has labeled this particular odor “old book smell,” and book lovers love it. But when I was young, it was just weird.

Did I enjoy that Agatha Christie novel? Oh, heavens no. I could barely read it. English whodunit crime novels written 60 years before He-Man cartoons appeared on television were not what most 11-year-old boys considered a fun time back in 1987.

For about nine months in 1987 my family moved to Hammond, Wisconsin. In Hammond, their big, pale blue water tower is right in the middle of town, and right by said water tower is the town’s smelly little library. Or at least, that’s where it was in 1987. Do they just up and move water towers all that often? Probably not. Right? But maybe it’s easier than we think. The library may have moved, but the water tower?

I shall Google it upon the morrow.

I was in the fifth grade that year, and most of my library-going was done at school, as it was built into the curriculum. Honestly, I didn’t read a whole lot back then, unless you count the backs of Lucky Charms cereal boxes (I do), of which I was a rabid connoisseur. It would be years before the reading bug bit me and laid eggs in my ear. And even more years would pass before I’d feel it was a great idea to use the phrase “rabid connoisseur” in my writing.

However, back in Hammond, I do remember visiting the town’s public library once or twice. Housing developments had yet to creep across the town’s surrounding cornfields, so I assume there wasn’t a whole lot of tax base available for things like libraries. As a result, the place was tiny and most of the books were ragged and old. But that just made the place seem kind of mysterious, like a dusty, old private library in a dusty, old mansion. This is probably why I checked out an Agatha Christie mystery novel.

Let me pause for a moment to point out the obvious: I didn’t get along too well with the other fifth-grade boys at this rural grade school. While they all seemed to be watching sports and playing sports and thinking about sports and snowmobiling down Main Street, I was ... well, checking out Agatha Christie novels from our crappy, under-funded public library.

Did I enjoy that Agatha Christie novel? Oh, heavens no. I could barely read it. English whodunit crime novels written 60 years before He-Man cartoons appeared on television were not what most 11-year-old boys considered a fun time back in 1987. Or any year. I just liked the idea of checking out an old, dusty, linen-bound mystery book from a sleepy, little two-room library. In the movies, stuff like that always leads to mysteries and adventures and ramshackle romps through underground tunnels to a hidden pirate ship full of skeletons and gold.

I didn’t like Hammond all that much (no offense, Hammonders) and little things like checking out that library book helped me escape for just a little while. Now, I know libraries aren’t there just to help us “escape,” but they provide a number of services extending well beyond checking out the latest post-apocalyptic YA thriller or  researching term papers.

Libraries can do so much, and the Chippewa Valley is lucky to have a number of fantastic ones staffed by fantastic people. I won’t get into the amazing and unexpected things they do for the community (hell, at least one of our libraries lets you check out ukuleles), but it’s important to appreciate the psycho-benefits a good library offers you.

No matter your age, libraries are places you can learn and grow. They’re a safe place to do that, free of rules dictating what you get to learn or how you should be growing. You not only get to be yourself, you get to become yourself.

I never read more than a few pages of that Agatha Christie novel. But the look, and yes, the smell of it sparked my imagination. It took me someplace new at a time I felt stuck. And to this day, libraries can do the same for you.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.