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I was one of those kids who visited his neighborhood library in Brooklyn several times a week and always came away with an armload of books. It was a profound rite of passage when I graduated from a children’s card to an adult card and was allowed into the sanctum which contained Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other such mysterious things; until then, however, there was more than enough to beguile me in the children’s room. Since there was always plenty of time for everything back then, any book I really liked I borrowed and read repeatedly.
One book in particular which seized me and set up subterranean forces in my personality that I haven’t shaken to this day was a young adult science-fiction novel called Danger: Dinosaurs! by Richard Marsten, about a group of time travelers stranded in the Jurassic era. Some children might have been traumatized by Bambi’s mother in the forest fire, but I had my first adult lesson in the fragility of life when one of the main characters of Danger: Dinosaurs! was trampled to death by a stampeding herd of brontosaurs. Interestingly enough, for someone who has trouble remembering what movie he saw last weekend, I can still visualize the exact corner of the children’s reading room and even the middle shelf where this book could be located.
Do you have similar books which helped (for better or worse) to define you?
Flash ahead many years to my appointment as the fiction selector for the New York Public Library. One day, with a little free time and the Internet at my disposal, I started investigating some of the dusty corners of my past and learned that “Richard Marsten,” the author of Danger: Dinosaurs! was actually a pen name for Evan Hunter, the novelist probably best known for The Blackboard Jungle. (Writing as “Ed McBain,” he also produced a noted police procedural series about the 87th precinct.) To my astonishment, Alibris had an old copy of Danger: Dinosurs! for sale. Wasting no time, and motivated as much by curiosity as wanting to enhance the library’s collection, I put in an order through our acquisitions department. When I finally got to touch that book again, it was like my very own version of a time machine. Just the sight of the end pages, reproduced above, was enough to turn me into a happy twelve-year old. Of course, when I tried to read the book I couldn’t sustain interest beyond about page 5, but that was okay: I’d had my Danger: Dinosaurs! moment in that neighborhood library children’s room and never forgot it.
Since things usually come full circle, I’m now pretty much back where I started, borrowing books from the circulating collection of the Mid-Manhattan Library. True, for a while browsing in bookstores was my passion, buying books my vice; but when you live in a tiny Manhattan apartment, cram as you will, there is only a finite amount of space. You don’t want to end up one of those people with piles of floor-to-ceiling books: jostle them the wrong way, the books come tumbling down, and it’s days before they unearth your rotting corpse. Nowadays the lending library gives me the same sense of limitless possibility, of discoveries waiting to be made. So many books are still crying out to be read. While I can pretend I’m selecting them I know, in a sense, they’re selecting me. I’m sure some of my colleagues have spotted me, wild-eyed, wandering the aisles at Mid-Manhattan, and discreetly turned away so as not to embarrass me. Just the sight of all those books excites my overheated imagination.
For years now, people have been trying to sell me on the idea of e-books. How efficient to download a dozen books at a time into some little gizmo and actually turn the pages just by pressing buttons. As if the world weren’t full enough of little gizmos. I don’t believe these people remember the tactile relationship that develops over time with the book you’re holding in your hands--even if it’s only a book on loan from the library.