We were poor when I was a kid. My father changed jobs frequently, and we moved around a lot. Early on, my younger brother and I were far down the wrong road. By the time I was in second grade, I was experimenting with cigarettes and acting the thug.
In the summer before third grade, a life-changing event occurred. We moved into a ramshackle and dilapidated rental in a small town far from Dayton. By pure chance, the house was across the street from the public library. With its pink-marble columns, the library seemed to exist in another world. I began spending all of my free time there. It was a treasure chamber of discovery! Its books opened the entire world and transported me out of my woebegone day-to-day existence.
I am sure that library saved my life. Without it, who knows? That summer I learned the lesson that has been the guiding star of my life: the world of ideas and imagination is real.
Unfortunately, the head librarian considered me a pest and nuisance. I was stubborn and pigheaded, and soon many of the library’s staff made it clear that I was an unwelcome guest in their house. I did have bad habits. I would leave stacks of books scattered on tables, chairs, the floor, or anywhere else I happened to be. Even though I was only allowed to check out two books at a time, I was always plagued by fines for overdue books. And because I typically didn’t have the money to pay the modest fines, I spent even more time in the library.
I read through the children’s collection and then the young adult’s section. In the back of the library stood the fascinating and mysterious stacks of books for grownups. I was irresistibly drawn to the siren song of those books. I had to have the secret information they contained!
In those days, children under the age of 12 were forbidden from borrowing books from the adult stacks. Yes, there were such rules. The staff decreed that I wasn’t even allowed to browse those books. This decree meant that most of the library was forbidden to me. Of course, that only made me more determined to read those books.
Despite the rules, I was able to slip in and out of the adult stacks and peruse some of those precious books. History and art were my particular passions. Sometimes I managed to sneak one of the forbidden books and read it in peace at one of the library’s tables, being careful to hide it if one of the librarians approached.
I spent more and more time sneaking into the adult stacks until one black day. I was studying a slender volume of Renoir reproductions when I was nabbed! I had rabbit ears and would disappear whenever an adult approached, but this time, I was so engrossed in Renoir that the head librarian was able to sneak up on me and catch me red-handed.
The punishment was swift: banished from the library for several weeks! The head librarian made clear what I had suspected: I was an unwelcome rule breaker who abused and ruined the books for the deserving children. She added that she didn’t believe for a moment that I could read so many books. This last accusation surprised me. It had never occurred to me that the librarian might think that I didn’t read the books. As for the other accusation, I had gotten stains on the books–it was true–and once I dropped a book in the street and broke its spine. “I didn’t mean to,” was all I managed.
“If I had my way, the likes of you would be banned forever,” she hissed down at me.
I was heartbroken at this grievous wound. To the head librarian, I was a hooligan who plagued the library out of a delinquent desire to destroy books in order to deprive the ‘deserving children.’
The poor at all times and in all places meet this same thoughtless prejudice. To this narrow adult, I was a defiler. Her job was to save the books from the defilers and preserve them for the deserving, those who can make use of them. From the perspective of years, the librarian’s cruelty still shocks me.
The librarian’s thoughtless act confirmed for all time my view: books are powerful and dangerous.
Several times during my banishment I took a bus on my own to Lorain to visit their library. Lorain’s library dwarfed ours. Not only that, the Lorain library didn’t have any silly rules about books forbidden to children. Even so, during my first visit, I fled at the approach of any librarian. I couldn’t believe it when the librarians offered to help me find books. They showed me where the adult books were located and smiled at my piles of books. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money for frequent trips, and because we didn’t live in Lorain, I couldn’t get a library card there. I remember spending a day there reading books about WWI. My grandfather, whom I never met, was gassed in the Meuse-Argonne in 1918.
After my banishment, armed with my new knowledge of real librarians, I immediately resumed my former habit of slipping into the grownup stacks. Indeed, I was more brazen than before. That library was mine, and no one was going to keep its treasures from me. And for some reason, the librarians loosened their vigilance and left me more or less unmolested while I explored the world’s treasures. I never learned why the librarians relaxed their vigilance. Although left alone, I was still not allowed to borrow the forbidden books. That slender, white-bound volume of Renoir reproductions became a talisman for me.
I HAD TO HAVE IT.
One afternoon, I slipped the book into my trousers and moved slowly toward the door. With a great effort of will, I paused near the front desk–as was my normal behavior–to study a magazine cover. My face was sweating when I stepped outside. I expected to feel the librarian’s hand on my shoulder and her voice hissing in my ear:
“Banned forever, Book Thief!”
She didn’t stop me. I raced across the street to my bedroom where I greedily studied the book without fear of interference. I can remember the feel of the book in my hands and see its reproductions in my mind’s eye, including this one, which I had been studying when nabbed.
I loved Renoir. Later I studied his life and career and then the careers of the other Impressionists.
My joy at possessing the talisman was short-lived. The burden of owning a forbidden and stolen book became unbearable. Didn’t my act confirm what the librarian maintained about me? When I returned to the library the next day, I was shamefaced and, for the first and only time felt I didn’t belong.
So I returned the book. On the day I appointed for myself, I made my way into the forbidden stacks. The spot from where I had taken the book was still empty and undisturbed. I removed the book from my trousers and put it back in its rightful place.