Michelle Martin

Summer reading

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

One of my favorite coming-out-of-COVID moments so far was my first trip to a public library at the beginning of the summer.

It was warm and sunny outside, a weekend day full of people cheering on their kids playing baseball in the park and foot, bicycle and car traffic on the streets.

Inside, though, it was quiet and cool, with the smell of air conditioning and books that never fails to take me back to my childhood, when many of my most pleasant hours were spent inside a library.

People were wearing masks, of course, and about half the chairs were stacked against a wall to keep people from sitting too close to one another, and checking books out was more or less self-service (putting all I learned working at the university library in college to good use), but it was still the same: the stillness; the hush broken by quiet voices, rustle of pages, tapping on keyboards; the air infused with the atmosphere of all those books.

I like e-books as much as the next person — I can easily carry a dozen books with me my on tablet — but browsing and downloading from my couch isn’t the same as seeing the books lined up on the shelves, one after another, new next to old, romance and mystery and historical novels all together.

Later in the summer, on a jaunt to the suburbs mostly for the fun of riding the Metra, Teresa and I stopped into the library in the town where I grew up. It’s not the same one; the new library is much bigger and more modern and probably doesn’t come with the same ghost stories the old one had. But it offered us a place to take a cool break on a hot day, with favorite books for us to dip into and pass a pleasant half-hour.

My librarian friends would tell me I’m remiss in not reminding everyone that libraries offer more than books, from the mainstays of children’s story times, summer reading programs and craft classes to maker labs and circulating collections of everything from tools to paintings, not to mention computer access, database access and tax forms.

But as I told Teresa as we walked back out into the heat to catch our train home, libraries are a common good, offering their services — and offering many, many windows to the world around us — to everyone. Sometimes they simply offer a place to get cool or get warm. Sometimes it’s a place to plug in a phone charger, or connect to Wi-Fi, without the need to buy anything.

For me, the library is where I met Babar and Ramona Quimby, Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey, read Toni Morrison and Sandra Cisneros.

I wonder, given the state of our civic and political divide and our commodified world, if we did not already have public libraries, would we create them? Probably, not. And that would be a shame.

As Catholics, we are called to work for the common good, and to see all children of God as brothers and sisters. Doing that means getting to know them. That’s one more way libraries can help.


  • family life