A long-time believer in the magic of libraries, I consider myself lucky to have spent quality time with handfuls of the literary wonderlands. From my maternal hometown’s main branch with the high ceilings to my current branch with the pink camellias out front, I find and frequent my local library in every city of mine. When I move, I remain on mailing lists and grin whenever I receive updates from ex-branches. Sentimental, I never trash those old library cards. Like old photos, I gaze at them, my life’s beloved flotsam.
Three Marches ago, my love and I arrived in Mississippi with a pickup truck full of necessities. Strides from the beach, we rented a tiny pastel cottage. Before we found our permanent-ish residence, I, with an ID card, mail delivered to my P.O. box, and a hopeful smile, opened a library account, anchoring me to this then unfamiliar southern place. Because I lugged a crate of books across the continental United States and temporarily slept within walking distance of my new branch, I borrowed one book, sometimes two, at a time. My first checkout was Tommy Orange’s must-read debut, There There.
According to my checkout history, I have borrowed and returned 130 books since relocating to the Magnolia State. Of those, I read 102. Better than I suspected. Although, if this were a pop quiz, a teacher would have scrawled 78% at the top, and the C grates on my perfectionist heart. When I was little and abandoned food on my dinner plate, I recall my parents saying my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Maybe that applies to reading, too. Whether I couldn’t fetch my holds or finish my borrowed books in time, those unread titles nudged me into getting realistic about how many books I can read on a deadline. What I carried home competed with, and complemented, my current reads and my TBR stacks’ imagined side-eye. So, the search for my ideal number of library books unfolded.
Usually, I commemorate my library borrows on social media. Looking back at those glossy stacks, I see my consistent eagerness and, in larger hauls, some unnecessary stress. Mostly, the library remains a joyful space for me. I think my only sad stories are the holds that got away: Figuring by Maria Popova; The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes; and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Months ago, I requested it again — wanting a quirky October read about astrology, murder, and poetry — and I’m beginning to think that the hold will continue pending forever. I imagine the Nobel Prize winner prominently displayed with a patron’s favorites, in their backpack’s or bed’s underworld, or living its new life as a bookmarked coaster for iced coffee, and I’m glad someone discovered a novel potentially worth ghosting their library for.
Which brings to mind the books that lived with me long enough to feel like mine. Books I renewed the maximum amount of times. Books I called the library to ask, If no one has it on hold, can I please keep it for another three weeks? Books stacked on my side table when the pandemic unfurled and the library’s doors closed for an uncertain length of time. From Cook Korean! by Robin Ha, I highly recommend the “Bean Sprout Salad” and “Pan-Fried Tofu.” Directed by Desire has my eyes wide open for June Jordan’s Haruko/Love Poems whenever I cross the threshold of a bookstore that stocks previously owned titles. While reading Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker, I copied down breathtaking sentences, like “If you don’t have a map, be a map.” An embarrassing, guilt-inducing thing: Of the 19 titles I hoarded for months, I didn’t crack seven. (None of the above included.)
To improve my reading record, I rage against my impulse to clutch every interesting book to my chest and change little things. While sliding the unread into the drop box, I notice doorstoppers in the mix: collected poems, heavy anthologies, sweeping family sagas. Now, if my checkouts include a book over 400 pages, I bring a smaller stack home. Every other new moon, I decide I want to know more about a certain genre or subject and place holds on eight titles. I know I’m more likely to finish them if I’m reading across genres, so I strive for variety in my hauls: comics and poetry and prose. Since picking up Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz in September, I’ve finished everything I checked out. A modest streak but I’ll take it.
Deep in my reader’s soul, an intuitive slice of me knew my ideal number of library books all along. In my extensive math-riddled research, it winks at me repeatedly. Minus one exception, the only times I finished all my borrows I left my branch with four books or less in my tote. When borrowing five books, an un-ignorable five out of six times I returned one title unread. Are you sensing my ideal number, too? It hovers around four.
In 2020, I read 165 books. This number includes 42 library books, which means that I obtained approximately 25% of my reading material through the public library. Thank you, blessed libraries, for existing. What would I do without your magic?