Padded Brown Paper Envelopes and a Bus Full of Books

When I was a kid, I lived in the sticks. Literally, I was surrounded by trees and lived miles from anything that resembled modern civilization.  The nearest shopping mall, for example, was 40 minutes away.  The nearest movie theater was 45 minutes away.  Remember: I grew up in the dark ages before the internet, cellphones and digital media, so there was no OnDemand, streaming video, e-book downloads or anything like that, and the sheer distance to any of these things meant that I didn’t go unless I could ride my bike there. And even if I were to put a double-length tape into my WalkMan, strap my headphones on (since helmets weren’t required) and pedal as fast as I could, these trips would take a couple hours each way on a bicycle.

I think the part of living so far from everything that caused the most anxiety for me was the fact that the nearest library was also 40 minutes away. The Big Box book stores didn’t really exist yet (and even if they did, they’d have been the aforementioned 45 minutes or more away at the nearest malls)… so my only hope for getting new books was from the school library.  As an avid science-fiction reader, the paltry selection in my school’s library was not enough to satisfy my hunger for reading. As I got older and the required summer reading lists became duller and hardly ever included a science-fiction selection other than Fahrenheit 451, my desire to read over the summer waned. But that is when I discovered two things that changed my life as a reader.

First was the books by mail program.  Books by mail allowed me to request books from the library and have them sent straight to my mailbox. Readers could select as many books as they wanted and mail in the form, then the library would mail two paperbacks from the list to your home. Upon returning them, you could add more books to the list or just wait for the next pair to come (in a way this was like a precursor to Netflix).  Every couple of weeks I would look in the mailbox for that padded brown, paper envelope containing my weekly dose of fiction. It was exciting to get new-to-me books each week or two. Since there was no risk, I could just choose any or every book in the science-fiction category (or whichever genre I wanted).  This gave me the ability to experience new authors or really dive into specific authors’ catalogues.  One of the paperbacks I got through this program was Sudanna, Sudanna by Brian Herbert. While this isn’t the best book I ever read, it was one of the books that really made me think about the worlds I create in my own writing. I haven’t read it since 1986 but the basic story is about the peanut shaped planet, Ut, which is ruled by Mamacita – a 150 million year old supercomputer. Her every whim is a rule that is applied with dictatorial force. The book has humans in it, but humans are not its focus. The Utpeople are the focus. Their struggles as a society, their struggles as a species, their interaction and interconnectedness with their physical environment… all of this is investigated in the book in often humorous ways. This book helped me learn how to define the entirety of new worlds as opposed to just the locality of specific characters within those worlds. The book is out of print now, I think, but I keep my eyes open for it to either be re-released for the kindle or for it to be at a yard sale some day.

The second, more impactful discovery was the Bookmobile.  The Bookmobile was, essentially, a bus which was outfitted with bookshelves and a checkout desk. It was sent out to our town and others as a service from the county library.  I rode my bike a little over 3 miles each way to get to the parking lot where the Bookmobile would arrive each Tuesday at 3pm. Obviously, during the school year I couldn’t get there because I was still in school, but during the summers, I was there every week!

I remember the first time I went into the Bookmobile. The “book smell” was there, just like in a library. Rows of books filled the majority of the vehicle, with a narrow passageway down the middle allowing one to peruse the books and get to the check out desk right behind the driver’s seat. Only one or two people could be inside at a time due to the narrowness, but I liked that – the focus was on the books.  The selections consisted of almost entirely hardcover books across all genres. I, of course, dove right to the science-fiction area and grabbed all I could.  Unfortunately, the two books at a time limit made me put most of them back. There weren’t really that many sci-fi books to select, but I wanted to read them all. Every week I checked out my two books and rode away on my bike. Over time, the driver – I unfortunately cannot remember her name now – came to recognize my tastes and tried to help me out by adding a few more science-fiction selections on the days she’d be coming to my town, or by allowing me to take three or even four books at a time. After a month or so, I’d climb into that mobile library and she’d call me straight to the desk, where she had set a few books aside just for me.

Thanks to the Bookmobile, but even more importantly thanks to the librarian within it, I read books and authors I would have overlooked.  I read the entire Dune series one summer because she set them aside for me (I still haven’t seen the movie). I read other books by Frank Herbert as well:  The Green Brain, The White Plague… books I’d never heard of, but which were fantastic.  With the help of the librarian, I learned that I really don’t like Heinlein for some reason.  I learned that I like almost everything Arthur C. Clarke writes except for the endings to any of his books.  I learned that I do like everything Asimov wrote, including the endings. And all of these things helped me to learn about my own writing as well because it made me think about endings more carefully (since I saw the pattern of my distaste for Clarke’s endings) and it made me see more clearly just what I liked in terms of storytelling.

Ultimately, despite the best efforts of the school district to limit my reading to moldy oldies, summertime allowed me to discover books I’d have never read during the rest of the year. Much of this exploration and discovery was thanks to that one librarian who got to know me a little bit over so many summers. As libraries cut hours, services and branches, I worry that we will lose the ability to find books or authors to try in a “risk free” way. It feels like a rite of summer is slipping away from our children and I don’t know how to save it.


7 thoughts on “Padded Brown Paper Envelopes and a Bus Full of Books

  1. Of course, Dale was able to find “Sudanna, Sudanna” for me. Took him all of about 3 seconds it seems. So… clearly, I haven’t quite made it out of the dark ages yet in terms of my ability to use internet searches effectively. Thanks Dale!

  2. I love our local library. It’s part of the county library system, so I can order as many books as I want and they’ll usually arrive pretty quick, unless someone else has them. I’ve been waiting on one book for months now because it was on hold for like, seven people, but I’ll get it eventually. Thanks to my library, I was able to find the wonderful sci-fi/fantasy writer, Catherine Fisher, and her Incarceron series.

    • I do like how county library systems can do that book sharing thing. The town I live in now has it’s own library which has opted out of the county system for some reason, so we cannot borrow books across the county’s system, but then again our library’s books are never loaned out and are therefore more readily available. I think I prefer the county-wide system. Either way, libraries are a fantastic way to try out different authors or styles with no risk.

  3. I have loved libraries since I was a small child. Now an adult, I still love the library. My writing partner and I often visit the library. Recently we heard a lecture by Alexander McCall Smith, and last weekend a popular local jazz band that was awesome. We wrote to several of the tunes and were amazed at what developed. I was once told by a college professor, “The library is your friend.” I loved the artical, thanks.

    • We have seen several things at the library. My kids were both in an art festival that was hosted there. My neighbor’s daughter has performed with her orchestra there. I keep thinking about trying to organize a NaNoWriMo event there, but time is truly my enemy. Your professor was right: the library *is* your friend!

  4. This article brought me way back in the Way Back machine. I grew up in Trenton and though it’s N.J.’s capital, the book mobile was a part of our monthly neighborhood experience. Smaller than most closets, it parked right outside our house. I loved sitting on the back bench with a new book, though they were mostly old and worn. Sweet memories of afternoons exploring the world and opening my eyes to lives richer and more dangerous and exotic than my own.

    • Well, I’m glad the bookmobile was not a feature only available to those of us in the deep southern parts of NJ. And yes, it was similar for me to await the arrival of the bookmobile (though I had to pedal my way to it). The anticipation of the new books was great and the worlds they opened up even greater.

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