The other evening I was browsing through books at the library. In my robe and slippers.
No, I haven’t grown so sloppy in my work-at-home environment that I go trotting off to the public library in my jammies. I do realize that in some circles pajama pants are the latest in casual wear. Still, even college kids who think nothing of heading to class in flannel pants with little green aliens on them might raise their eyebrows at my cozy fleece bathrobe and ugly knitted slipper boots.
The library I was meandering through, of course, was online. I was sitting at my own computer in the privacy of my own home, looking for books to download to my e-reader.
Things have changed just a bit from the first library I remember browsing through. It wasn’t really a “library” at all, just a single bookshelf in a one-room school house. The school was the same one my mother and my aunts and uncles had attended, and most of the books had been there since before their time. Our teacher regularly got books from the “real” library, but in the dry spells when I had read all of those and was waiting for the next batch, I read and re-read the ones from the school bookshelf.
Some of the books had probably been castoffs donated to the school years earlier, and they had been wasting shelf space in well-deserved obscurity ever since. I remember wading through an Elsie Dinsmore book, one of a preachy Christian series from the late 1800s featuring a heroine so perfect that just reading about her made you want to go do something really naughty. It was so bad I only managed to read it a couple of times in eight years.
Fortunately, there were some classics, as well. I discovered Black Beauty there, reading it in first grade for the first time and at least once every year after that till I finished eighth grade. I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men long before I knew she had written an earlier book about those same characters, called Little Women. Books by naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton taught me about migrating bats, the terrible power of the wolverine, and the story of Lobo, the famous New Mexico wolf who outsmarted so many human trappers before he was finally captured.
I also remember a book full of true stories about the circus. One of them described an elephant, the well-behaved and intelligent star of a German circus, who had a terrible time after she was sold to an American circus. It took much too long, in my opinion, for the new owners to figure out that the elephant didn’t understand English. Once she learned it, she became a star in her new home. And, despite the belief that elephants never forget, she eventually lost all her German.
Years later, when I read another circus book called Water For Elephants, I knew why the Polish-speaking elephant was refusing to obey orders well before any of the books’ characters caught on.
Remembering odd stuff that you read years ago is part of the magic of a library. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one bookshelf at an old country school or the latest in electronic browsing. I still love browsing through actual library shelves. I also love the fact that now, if I want to look up Black Beauty or Ernest Thompson Seton, I can easily find them online. Elsie Dinsmore is probably there, too, but I don’t want to know. Not even the latest technology could make her anything but awful.