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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Libraries in my life: Millburn Public

I still dream, sometimes, about the library in the town where I grew up.

In the dream, I find an upstairs room I never knew was there. The room is big and open. It’s full of books and places to read, like cushions and comfortable chairs — and it’s full of people reading. A warm quiet liveliness fills this room; I come up into it and, in the dream, I have found where I want to be.

Libraries have always been places where I’ve wanted to be — but for an awkward, often solitary kid in suburban Millburn, New Jersey, living about five blocks’ walk or bike ride from the township library, this was my refuge and more. The library wasn't where I hung out with people; it was a place where I was safe from people. I went there and in the stacks, it didn’t matter so much what anyone else thought or said. It mattered what I wanted to find.

What I wanted to find, of course, changed. I distinctly remember the line of learning-about books in the kids’ section when I was younger — were they Colby books? I’ve just googled it ... yes, they were illustrated nonfiction books by C.B. Colby, from The Weirdest People in the World to Our Space Age Navy. As I went through my dinosaur phase, my warplanes phase, my Civil War phase, I could find Colby books to satisfy my current fixation. Those and the wonderful Landmark series, of chapter books on U.S. and world history written by fine writers of the day — I vacuumed them up. Why are there no Landmark books any more?

As I grew I learned to use that search engine of back-in-the-day, the unwieldy, multi-volumed, green-covered Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, when I needed to find out more and still more about a movie actress I was convinced I was maturely in love with. In junior high I escaped the cauldron of awkwardness-persecution to climb up to the young-adult loft at the library, where I sat alone on Saturday mornings and read YA novels about martial artists and Formula One racers. In tenth grade I became focused on the partial shelf, within the gray-metal adult stacks — I can still see the spot — that held everything the Millburn Public Library had about Vermont, which I had decided (because of a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book I had read) was a paradise where I had to live and become a dairy farmer. That summer I did live in Vermont, and did work on a dairy farm; and though I never once entertained the notion of farming again, today I live about 20 miles from where that farm was.

The library didn’t change my life — at times it felt like it was my life. I could find things there. I learn things there, I could explore the world in there. I never did find that dream room full of like-minded readers; actually I can’t remember talking to anyone in the library. For me it was a personal, private place for delving deeper than I could anywhere else. It was a place for searching, for discovering, for imagining what a life outside its safe-enclosing walls might someday mean.    

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