The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


Taking books for a ride

I was born in Santa Clara, California, to hippies. Shortly thereafter, my little family boarded a Volkswagen Beetle and drove to a house my parents had somehow acquired in rural Wisconsin. We lived in this house for five or six years, then moved to a commune nearby called Karma Farm. I remember a lot of things about these places, but mostly I remember books. It started early. Little House on the Prairie was a theme drone to my childhood.

My parents had both done some acting, and the many books by the prolific Laura Ingalls Wilder were dramatically reenacted in sequence every evening over the course of three or four months, in a sort of narrative festival. As the eldest of seven children, I had heard every one of those books at least three times by the occasion of my seventh birthday. This sparked several responses. First, I began to crave books with fresh stories, and second, because I knew the books well, I began asking questions about them. "Laura's Pa seems like a loser, Mom. Why are they always moving?" Et cetera.

Lacking any serious competition, this tradition of reading aloud flourished in my house. Perhaps if we had owned a television, we would have clustered around that, instead of the wood stove, and stared at it instead of at my father. He ostensibly split the job with my mother, but on account of a stronger voice and more animated personality, he did most of the reading.

When I was 10, our family moved from this remote setting to Grand Rapids, Michigan, then a city of more than 250,000 people. My parents were teaching me and all of their other children at home rather than sending us to school. In a rural setting, this meant that you had your days free to roam the countryside and tumble in haymows. In Grand Rapids, this ended up meaning that I had my days free to explore the city's new five-story public library. It is no exaggeration to say that the first trip to this library changed the meaning of the world for me.

Small rural towns have small rural libraries. In Wisconsin, the town we lived near was not even big enough to be called small. It was, technically speaking, unincorporated. In towns as small as ours was, access to the public trust of books is via Bookmobile. This bus, or sometimes a converted mail truck, set up on the inside as a library, visits your town every two weeks, at such and such a time and place, and having planned in advance to do so, you go to the library before it drives off. While I eagerly anticipated its arrival, I always worried about the books. What if they got in an accident?

But with the move to Grand Rapids, the library went from being an intransigent visitor to a faithful friend. From a roving book dispensary to a place to spend one's days. Inspired by my first visit to this seemingly infinite store of books, I asked my parents if I could volunteer at the library. Although it was unusual for someone so young to do so, I was encouraged by the friendly and cheerful children's librarian, Mary Hamilton. She told me to report to the library three days a week at about 10 in the morning. I would be finished by about 3 in the afternoon. The library opened at 9 and closed at 6. This left a number of hours each week for exploring the rest of the library. I volunteered in the children's section, which was on the first floor, but spent my remaining time exploring the basement and the other five floors.

That a library should have so many books as to require a five-story building to house them was simply beyond me. But I learned the joys of every floor. Because I worked there, I could go almost anywhere in the building. I was particularly pleased to discover--with the help of Dan, a childlike adult who actually had a paying job at the library--that the small cargo elevator (more like a dumbwaiter, really) was just large enough for me to ride up and down in it.

I would wait in the tiny space and ride up through the guts of the library, and would tumble out on whatever floor I had selected. Since the elevator shaft was much larger than the little book cars themselves, you could see a string of little cars cascading down towards you, and another little string of cars trailing below you as you went up. I felt strongly, from the first moment I discovered the elevator, that books were properly revered by this library. Why else would such a special and wonderful voyage await a returned book? It seemed obvious that this ride was the reward books got for being checked out. It was a wonderful trip that those books got to take, and I took it myself as often as I could....

It was here that I checked out and happily returned the stories of Roald Dahl, Robert Louis Stevenson, Susan Cooper, and so many more. As I read at night, I sometimes thought of my playground, and looked forward to returning the book to its just deserts.

After two years, we moved back to a small town of about 3,000 people. This town's library was within walking distance, and I went as often as I possibly could. It was a much smaller affair, with only one floor and two librarians, but I could not have cared less; I had discovered the collected works of J.R.R. Tolkien. There is nothing more satisfying than discovering a writer long after he or she became famous, prolific, and paperbacked.

I have a large collection of books today, and I love each and every one of them. As a child, the world of books was a constellation of paths, stretching from every corner of the real and imaginary world to converge on my bookshelves. It is this way still....I love books the way some people love opera. They all seem precious, because they all offer such a ride.

--Jake Spicer, '97, English major from Avoca, Wisconsin.

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