Up Front: October 2010

Words without walls

It seems like a cool gadget, this newest version of Amazon’s Kindle, and my wife, for whose birthday I bought it, seems to like it a lot. As the ads state, the wireless reader is smaller, lighter, faster than its predecessors. It can store up to 3,500 books and, the model I bought, comes with free 3G service, which lets her download whatever she wants whenever she wants it wherever that might be.

So why do I feel as if I’ve done something wrong, that I’m some sort of traitor? I suspect it’s my memories of May Memorial, the library in Burlington, where I grew up. I owe it, and places like it, a debt I can never repay.

It was named for the wife of a local mill lord who had died on a trip abroad in 1935. Three years later, he and his sons donated $15,000 to help buy the old post office and convert it into a municipal library. Built 20 years earlier, this was a grand structure and, to the naive eyes of a kid in the 1950s and ’60s, resembled nothing so much as a mini-Monticello, minus the dome. The interior was just as wonderful, with wainscoted walls and Oriental — or so I seem to recall — carpets. Under the gaze of Mrs. May, peering down from an oil portrait, one could daydream away a summer’s afternoon in air-conditioned bliss, sunk deep into a leather armchair, shrouded in shush-enforced silence shattered only by the grandfather clock’s hourly chime.

Comfy as these confines were, especially for a boy who shared a bedroom with two brothers in a crowded four-room house, they were not what led me to trek nearly two miles sometimes three times a week. It was the world that lay within those walls, the realm between the covers of all those books lining the shelves. Through the doors of that library, I could escape, losing myself and, in doing so, begin to find who I was and what I wanted to be. And this odyssey was open to everyone. This same place during this same time, I would later learn, shaped a girl growing up on the other side of town who would one day be my wife. And to think that the device she holds in her hand can contain as many volumes as fill a small library’s shelves.

And it’s foolish, I know, to feel guilty about buying it, to fear that this thing, this gizmo, might somehow threaten the library, though endanger it does, and one day will crumble, the bricks and mortar of bookstores. But a library is more than a place, and tech- nology long ago set free the words within the walls. Someday soon, something like the Kindle, now confined to commerce, merely the means to deliver that which is sold, will be available at little or no cost to everyone, letting even more minds wander — and wonder. It will be a good thing.