Notes From a Suburban Library

The fiction section at my local library is a labyrinth that I maneuver with the frazzled efficiency of a book addict whose younger brothers have never been patient. I come in caffeinated and optimistic, ducking past the bespectacled, melanin-deprived woman shelving books (probably my future) and the slow-moving casual reader (definitely not my future, sad to say) who eyes my armful of tote bags with what might be concern. My goal is eight books, but sometimes I find more. I tend towards heavy, hardcover novels and have little in the way of muscle mass. Tucking my finds under my elbow hasn’t done it in years.

The shelves are populated mostly by two categories that I have learned to thoughtlessly avoid: the harlequins and the mysteries. The former are small, thick paperback volumes with glistening spines and gaudy fonts. Every once in a while, they forget to be obvious with the titles and I pull one back to discover a sheet-clad woman hyperventilating in the middle of the Scottish highlands.

The latter category is worse, because it’s not so clearly labelled. Mysteries can take on any form; they’re veritable chameleons. They have cryptic titles that could describe anything and spines designed by artists who are good at what they do. When I pull one out, I search for the subtitle invariably emblazoned on the cover — “a Mr. Detective mystery” — and, once I find it, contemplate making mysteries my new thing until I remember that I don’t care for pulpiness or franchises. Momentarily, I engage in an existential crisis: am I a book snob? Yes, most likely, but the casual reader has wandered over with two novels under her arm and she’s giving me a look that says I’ve lingered too long, so I put it back and browse on.

My first find usually comes fast. Something literary, in most cases. Something with a pretty spine that I notice right away. I never come to the library with specific books in mind. I don’t do holds. I like to go in blind, and my first find usually rewards me for that by being a good one. I haven’t gotten desperate yet. Energy renewed, I breeze past the casual reader and the weary-eyed housewife who has joined her in the ranks of those who do not treat library-browsing like an extreme sport. Staring down the endless column of the next aisle, I momentarily envy them. I find lots of hard sci-fi, most of which uses the same tired premise of robot takeover plague massacre space drama, and a few historical dramas. The Tudors are very popular. So is World War II. While both events are interesting, there are only so many times Henry VIII’s marital troubles can be dramatized.

At this point, I begin to look for favorites, literary lifeboats in a vast sea of breathless highlanders. Palahnuik, de Lint, Gibson, someone whose name I can never remember when I am faced with the sensory wonderland of the fiction section’s middle aisle. I win another find or two. I don’t read the synopses; I barely glance at the titles. I trust these authors to an extent that might be unhealthy.

It becomes harder from here. I begin to settle. The premise isn’t interesting, but the cover is appealing and the publisher is reputable. It goes in the bag. It has coming-of-age emblazoned across its summary; I have the residual angst of a seventeen year old and the patience of a lit major who reviews books she hates for fun. So we’re a match made in library heaven, or maybe purgatory. But that’s good enough for now. It also goes in the bag.

Even though it’s far from time efficient, I always consider using a computer to make my last find of the day. But inevitably, they are occupied by familiar archetypes: a sleep-deprived graduate student dressed too warm for the weather, an elderly woman staring down an error page, a high-schooler avoiding their homework. An impatient sibling, arms loaded with children’s lit that will become my breakfast table reading when it is left lying around, asks me when I’ll be done. In a seizure of panic, I grab my last find of the day. Always something I’d never otherwise read. Often something I end up liking more than almost everything else I’ve chosen.

Self checkout is designed for people like me; I do not have to face the fine-related nags that consistently come when I don’t have any cash with me or the clumsy social interactions that compulsive readers are reputed (correctly, in my case) to hate. The computer screen does not judge me, though it does make me question my ability to scan a bar code and, multiple times, has reminded me exactly how many books are allowed on one account at a time – in my county, it’s fifty. Finds successfully loaded back into the totes, I make my way out the door. On the way, I catch a glimpse of casual reader, whose three romance novels are as reasonable a load as anyone could ask for. We exchange a look of lopsided commiseration and go our separate ways.



  1. Charlotte B.
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink | Reply

    From another book addict: I loved your post! 🙂

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