we are libraries

we are libraries

. 4 min read

I organized our family's library so we could share our books. It's hard to share if you don't know what you have. So I set out to know exactly what we had. Eight years into a homeschool life that believes in reading books to learn, the shelves had piled up.

I pulled everything down, all the books, all 932 of them. Motes of dust flew into the air, making my eyes itch.

For days, teetering stacks occupied every available surface. Floors, tables, chairs. I scanned the UPCs on the back of the books into a database. Sometimes the kids helped. More often, they'd greet books they hadn't seen in years the way they do the people they love best who live far away, like their grandparents or their Mexican cousins, arms open, eyes shining, "I remember this book," and scurry away to read.

As the weekend wore on, I began cataloguing the books by genre, topic, and author and the hours of alphabetizing commenced. The kids began avoiding me. They snaked through the piles with hastily scrawled labels "juvenile fiction" and "science" that swayed ominously when they passed. When I asked for help, they'd clarify, "Is it required?"

"Well, no, not strictly speaking."

"You're doing good work, Mom," they'd say and bound up the stairs shouting what became the sassy refrain of the weekend over their shoulder, "Best of luck on your present endeavor."

Alphabetizing is dreary, boring work. But it's good for remembering. I felt the memories with each book I held. Who I was when I read that book, who I became because of that book, who gave me the book in the first place, who were the characters that spoke to me at age 15 were different in each subsequent decade of my life, different at 25, and now 35. Which ones would speak to me at 45? 55? 85?

We become the stories we catalogue. The stories we remember. The stories we share.

I found myself ordering books to complete sets for people I hope will love these books as much as we do. Is there anything worse than plowing through a novel in a series and not having the next one near at hand? Who will fall in love with these books? Who needs these stories?

Finally, all the books were labeled, alphabetized, and put back on a shelf. Each book was in its proper place. And now, it was ready. I was ready, to share all these stories.

My friend, Miss Charlotte, was talking to me about grief once. Her 90 year old friend had just passed, the one who supported her through nursing school, the one who had a stroke and taught herself to read again, and had a pearl-inlaid pocket revolver, which she loved and left to Charlotte. I never met the woman, but I wish I had. Somewhere in that conversation, Miss Charlotte quoted an old Chinese proverb, "When someone dies, a library burns."

"She had so many stories I didn't even know," she said ruefully.

I wrote it down: When someone dies, a library burns.

Organizing and cataloguing our library, I realized that we are all libraries. We're all bundles of stories we tell ourselves, stories we share again and again. I decided that I want to own and know my stories so well--the very best, truest, most beautiful version of my stories--that I can lend them out when someone needs them.

If people are libraries, the most meaningful libraries I've borrowed from sat across the political aisle from me, came from a different religion than me, had a different skin color than me, were older than me, younger than me, or were in the same age and stage and belief system and everything as me but were just tempered so divergently, it was like we were from different planets. I came away richer from those relationships, from borrowing from those libraries because they all shared the same core trait: their library was open. They had their stories catalogued and ready to share.

This is what I'm aiming for, personally, to do the dreary work of inventorying and revising my stories so that they're worth sharing and then opening the doors wide, as wide as I can. While I'm on this planet, I want my library to be constantly lending and borrowing.

When someone dies, a library burns.

One of the books on our library's shelves is a history of science book that tells about the burnings of the ancient Library in Alexandria, that mythic repository of all human knowledge. In 48 BCE, Caesar was pursuing his rival Pompey. He set fire to Pompey's fleet in the harbor of Alexandria. The fire got out of control and burned the Library, not all of it, but a significant portion. Caesar never mentioned this in his autobiography, he tended to leave out unflattering stories. Other ancient sources note it. That was the first time the Library of Alexandria burned. The second time was 300 years later, a Christian priest named Theophilius turned a pagan temple in the Library campus into a church and burned approximately 10% of the books and tortured the last pagan librarian. The third and final time was 200 years later, when the Muslim Calphiate took over and it's leader, Caliph Omar, burned all the books. One source suggests that he used the papyrus scrolls to heat the waters for the city's bath houses and it took 6 months to burn them all.

This history lesson makes me realize: we can burn libraries without killing people. We do it all the time, incinerate someone's stories before we even read them. As a society, we're getting uncommonly good at it. Cancel culture is bad for democracy. What I'm suggesting: let's not burn libraries that house stories that are different from ours. Let's read them. And learn. And discuss. And honor their hard work, to curate their stories, and let them be shared.

We are all libraries. Don't burn libraries.

Also, if you are looking for any reads this summer, let me know. My library is quite literally open.