When I and my younger sisters were kids growing up in a small town in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s, our big adventure every week was walking to our town’s sweet little public library over a mile from our home, taking the back way, through the woods and down a dirt road, avoiding the busy main streets, on our own. There weren’t many books at our house to speak of, so we stocked up at that library. Our walk home clutching our treasures was always slower.
I remember being recognized and welcomed by the librarian. I remember her warm smile and the fact that she remembered my taste in books as I went through various reading phases. One long phase was biographies of famous women: Dolly Madison, Marie Curie, and Pearl S. Buck come to mind. I felt at the time that these women, who I knew had no idea who I was, were having a hand in shaping my life. I still feel that way today.
Books mean different things to different people, of course. To some, sadly, they’re little more than door stoppers. To 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson they were “frigates” that “take us lands away.” A dear friend who is a retired librarian told me recently that she thinks of books as “tools.” (I immediately envisioned something cold, hard, metallic, and highly useful, like a wrench.) To me, books have always been more like living, breathing, human beings – friends, guides, teachers, preachers, lovers.
For me, the saddest part about giving away most of my belongings before retiring to Mexico was parting with my books — my own personal, beloved library of books that were carefully curated over decades and remained ever close at hand, ready to reach out to, and to return to for advice, comfort, wisdom, inspiration, or whatever.
I tried to give my books to friends, but they declined my offer, citing too many books on their own shelves already. Refuse my books? I was stunned. That was like refusing bars of gold.
It was at about this point that it dawned on me that books, especially books of literary merit, were declining in value in American culture. As an author of four books now, I find this fact more than a little disheartening. And it is a fact, as much as some will argue otherwise.
Christopher Ingraham, in the Washington Post last June (“Leisure Reading in the U.S. is at an All-Time Low”), wrote:
“Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015.
“Survey data from the Pew Research Center and Gallup have shown, meanwhile, that the share of adults not reading any book in a given year nearly tripled between 1978 and 2014.”
In an earlier report on the same topic (“The Long, Steady Decline of Literary Reading,” Washington Post, September 7, 2016), Ingraham wrote:
“A number of recent studies have demonstrated that fiction — particularly literary fiction — seems to boost the quality of empathy in the people who read it, their ability to see the world from another person’s eyes. And good works of literature, particularly novels, can grant you direct access to another person’s mind — whether it be the mind of the author, or of one of their imagined characters — in a way that few other works of art can.”
I won’t go into the reasons for this steady decline. But I’m sure you can guess.
Instead, I’ll take you inside the library I visit now, at this stage of my life, here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I’ve come to live happily ever after, like a character in a book of children’s literature.
It’s La Biblioteca, a massive building that was once a combination orphanage and convent, later a slaughterhouse, and now a public library, home to more than 60,000 volumes in both Spanish and English. In fact, it is the most extensive bilingual library in Mexico outside of Mexico City – a true treasure in, and a cultural hub of, this community. (See my WOW post, “The Hub,” of May 6, 2017, for more about the Biblioteca.)
Now that my eyes are older than ever and fairly burnt out (my mother would blame this on too much book-reading, alas), I rely on the Biblioteca’s large print books in English, of which there are many, by award-winning authors:
But there are rooms upon rooms of other books there, too, all waiting to be chosen, pulled from the shelves, read and appreciated. Here are just two:
Every Monday afternoon I meet in the lovely courtyard of the Biblioteca (shown below) with my Spanish tutor, Edith, a Mexican woman in her late forties who grew up in San Miguel.
Edith tells me that when she was young, young people filled the tables and chairs inside the Biblioteca’s interior rooms, all with their faces in books. Today, she said sadly, that’s not the case. Those tables and chairs sit empty. The library’s book-filled rooms are silent because they’re seldom entered. The books, no doubt, feel abandoned.
Edith pointed to her smart phone. “Esta es la razón” (this is the reason), she said. We shook our heads. No words.
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[For further information about the Biblioteca in San Miguel de Allende, visit their website: www.bibliotecasma.com.]