It is evidence of exactly how fatiguing the last year and a half has been that my most fervent desire for many months long and dreary was to return to the air-conditioned luxury of a still, silent reading carrel at the East Hampton Library. And here I am, right now, seated in my glory in the fiction wing, in a carrel with Dewey decimal “F Caldwell” (Erskine Caldwell, “God’s Little Acre”) at my right elbow and “F Buck” (Pearl Buck, “The Time Is Noon”) at my left. Given my druthers, I actually prefer to sit one row back, among the Mary Higgins Clarks — because that carrel is one step farther removed from a specific fluorescent light that buzzes in the zone of Fiction Bal-Bel — but another patron is installed there today, typing away even more furiously than me in her face mask and baseball cap.
Nothing is cozier and more hygge to me than the East Hampton Library. The library and I go way back.
Our house is just the other side of the property line — behind the largest tulip tree in New York State — and I spent many childhood afternoons dawdling there, not just inside among the stacks but out in the back, where there used to be a garden with a fountain, and, before this wing was constructed and the parking lot went in, a tree we called the Pouting Tree. We called it the Pouting Tree because it had a heavy, low branch of handy height for climbing, perching, and swinging your legs in consternation when the world had treated you badly. I stamped away from my own front yard and retreated to the Pouting Tree, for example, on my ninth birthday, when one of my elder brothers (you know who you are) claimed first licks at the candy-filled party piñata and destroyed it with a series of brutal swings of the baseball bat as I and my smaller guests looked on in horror.
The library, as an institution, fostered my sense of responsibility to the common good in more ways than one. (I don’t mean in regard to he prompt return of borrowed books. I’m still a bad citizen when it comes to tardy returns. I’m a criminal!) I’ve always felt an ever-so-slight sense of ownership of the library — as we all should.
The centerpiece of the library garden in the late 1970s was the aforementioned fountain. Circular, not more than eight feet across, and no more than a foot deep, it became clogged with fallen leaves each autumn, and, one year, a friend and I with nothing better to do at about the age of 10 or 11 decided to muck out the decaying leaves in a spontaneous act of library beautification. We fetched a pail from my kitchen and a rake from my barn and set to work. If you can believe it, a mean librarian — there were mean librarians in those days — came stamping out back and crossly warned us off. “You can’t do that!” she boomed, sending us home.
Another time, a friend and I (was it you, Daisy Dohanos? Or perhaps you, Kate Paxton?) sold lemonade from a stand on Main Street with the angelic intention of using our profits for the purchase of an ornamental plant or bush for the library garden. We were only maybe 11 or 12 years old. It’s funny to me that neither my imagination nor my memory can supply faces of figures for those formidable librarians of yore: All I see in my mind’s eye are black silhouettes, matronly dark clouds who scold in incomprehensible voices like those of the adults in “Charlie Brown.” When we approached the main desk to broach the subject of buying a plant for donation we were again told off, sourly: “No.” The library had no place for any donated plants or plantings.
Can you imagine?
The East Hampton Library today is a wonderfully operated place. It ticks along with the efficiency of a movie-projector machine. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. It spins like a well-balanced top. (Clearly I didn’t learn about mixed metaphors at the East Hampton Library in my youth.) The librarians are models of cheerful friendliness; I’m sure they wouldn’t beat cherubic children with sticks if the children attempted to donate something. The library is a beacon of democracy, frankly, and our strongest sign of a healthy community. And I’m not being facetious when I say it’s a beacon of democracy! We take totally for granted all the lectures and talks and seminars the library offers for free, the crafternoons and the meeting places for civic organizations; all the voters who have taken up voter-registration materials there; the computers made available for those who don’t have computers but need to fill out important forms or applications. They don’t even fine you for late books, these days, either. What riches!
In my 20s, when I lived in Budapest, I was confused and disoriented to discover that there was — at least then — no true public library in the Hungarian nation’s capital. If you wanted to visit the library, you had to show credentials proving you were a student or faculty of a university or research institution. In my naïveté, until then I had had no idea that a free lending library was not a universal pillar of societies around the globe.
But to return to my snug carrel surrounded by hardcover books in their clear plastic covers, such comfortable companions . . . this is, indeed, the lap of American luxury. It is among the greatest privileges of living in America: being able to take such a public resource for granted.
And now I’m going to sidle over to the East Hampton Library’s children’s room, where as a wee tot I played with the wooden Noah’s Ark playset that was its crowning glory in humbler days, and where I discovered the giant mechanical dogs, hot-air balloons, and koala-bear costume parties of William Pene du Bois and the cherry-blossom romance of “Anne of Green Gables” (before graduating in eighth grade to the grown-up fiction section, Erich Maria Remarque, Ford Maddox Ford, and an unwholesome fascination with the First World War). May I just say: Public schools provide free Chromebooks to all students in 2021. The modern children’s room is magnificent — with its boat-shape checkout desk and windmill-shape seating circle — but I’m not so sure that the double banks of computers should remain there, providing, as they do, primarily a station for kids to ignore the books and play computer games. Children can ignore the books and play video games at home.
Did you read the news about how the authorities in China have put the clampdown on video gaming, strictly restricting gamers under the age of 18 to only three hours a week, and only on the weekends? Oddly, that is exactly the parameter of the detested restrictions I’d placed on my son and daughter — before Covid, that is — but I’m not taking the side of Xi Jinping. Please don’t write in to the paper complaining that it’s not the government’s place to ban video games; I know. But I do see good reason why an ideally American civic organization might want to put the kibosh on unlimited free access to video games. We aren’t Communist China, but maybe we don’t need video-game access in the reading room. . . ?
I’ll pose that as a question, with a question mark, to soften the harshness of the unsolicited criticism from the peanut gallery.
Don’t be mad, library. I’m your biggest fan.
Note: Please excuse the failure of this column to appear last week. I was knocked down and sideways by vertigo so heinous I couldn’t even look at my computer screen for nearly a week. Now that I’m back in my library carrel, I’m going to bank a few columns so it doesn’t happen again.