On how I discovered the public library (and abandoned my e-Reader)

I know that I am not alone when I describe a childhood filled with books that were carefully catalogued and curated, and who has subsequently had to rethink her relationship to words and reading upon entering a digital age. As writers and publishers have grappled with the transition from print, we readers have had our own journeys and hurdles of how to keep our love for the written word quenched and thriving in our increasingly transient, budget-conscious, and digital-driven lives.

My first move from print to digital occurred when I no longer had a place to keep my books. I was based in South America where I traveled to countries in Africa and Asia each month for development work, and I realized that carrying only “the necessities” couldn’t include the at least half-a-dozen books I had on the go – no matter how “necessary” I thought they were, they just wouldn’t all fit in the one backpack that I had to strap to the front of the motorcycle that would take us to the villages we were headed for the next few weeks.

I bemoaned the sensory experience of the page, but during two years spent living out of a single suitcase travelling over 5 continents, practicality won out. I purchased my paper-light, portable e-reader with my birthday money my parents wired me and it was love at first sight. The charge lasted for weeks – long enough for a couple of airplane trips and the little bit of light evening reading I had time for while travelling. It had the capacity to hold dozens – nay, thousands – of books that I couldn’t dream of carrying before. It told me what percentage of a book I had read. And it even gave me little “awards” for finishing books and reading a certain number of pages in a row – gimmicks that I scoffed at in the beginning but which secretly fueled my appetite for validation.

A few months later disaster struck – I came home, hooked up the e-reader to my computer and something didn’t synch properly, corrupting all of my files. I had just spent the last four weeks getting 53% through Anna Karenina, what was I going to do now? Reformat the thing and flip through four hundred pages? Aint nobody got time for that. I was livid, and about ready to fling the eReader like a Frisbee off the balcony of my 11th-storey apartment (I didn’t, I just stuck it on the back of my bookshelf where I didn’t have to see it sitting there mocking me anymore).

Regrettably, for a while I just stopped reading books – unproductively taking my anger at my eReader out on the entirety of books. That was also around the time when I got a smart phone and discovered mobile versions of 80s computer games I used to play as a kid, still able to waste my time as much now as they could then. I look back at my post e-reader period as a bit of a Dark Ages in my reading history.

The reading renaissance began when I moved back to Canada and got a tablet computer, by which point my hunger for the written word had reasserted itself and demanded satisfaction. What I loved about the bookstore on my tablet was the ability to preview books before buying them, the attractive screen layout options and page-flipping animation that hearkened back to my cozy memories spent with paper books. I  finished the remaining 47% of Anna Karenina, read a couple of other classics and some best sellers along the way, ruining my eyes with the backlit screen in the process, and running my bookstore bills.

Enter the public library.

I have a confession to make: I don’t think I every really understood how a real public library works until last year. This is unexpected when you think that I spent years of my childhood tramping back and forth the two miles between library and home with plastic shopping bags full of fiction and non, to get my first job in the children’s section when I turned thirteen. But in the village library, your options are pretty limited to whatever the clientele of farmers, commuters, and stay-at-home moms will be interested in. The best books had waiting lists sometimes 6 to 8 months long, which is how I ended up reading the first two Harry Potter books while they sat on the “on hold” shelf waiting for the borrower next on the list.

So by the time I outgrew the limited children’s/YA fare, I surveyed the options of local historical fiction, mystery and romance novels available to me in the adult section, and my visits all but ceased unless I had to use the computer to check my circa 1999 new Hotmail account. My next encounter with libraries was academic in nature, used mainly to bolster the bibliographies of my research papers for those professors who insisted that online journal articles weren’t sufficient in proper academic papers.

Fast forward to now — I’ve been living in Toronto for a few years before finally, on a whim, I get my first library card. Converging with the aforementioned love/hate relationship with my eReader, it suddenly occurs to me that the novel or business book or biography that I’ve been trying to decide between over the last few weeks are all available in the inter-library loan system. And in multiple copies. I hop on to the Toronto library website – and yes! There are in fact 23 copies, and one of them could be at my local branch – literally just next door to my apartment building – in a few days.

The first time I picked up my requested books from my branch, I was suddenly thirteen years old again – back at my local library with the same excitement of visiting an old friend. I scanned them through the checkout counter, thumbing though their pages – some yellowed and rippled with time and multiple readers, others new and glossy, giving me the privilege of being one of the first to crack them open. At each visit I receive a gift of books that I actually picked out awaiting me, free of charge, only asking that I bring them back once I am done with them, so that others can have their turn and I can move on to the next title on my ever-expanding reading list. But until then, for this week at least the words, the pages, and titles are all mine in a way that they never managed to become on a screen. That’s not to say I won’t pick up my tablet or eReader again to engage with the written word, but that my life can — and should — still have room for both.