I knew the rule: Don’t take too much of anything, or you won’t have enough later.
At age six, I knew exactly what a dollar could buy at the grocery store: a bag of rice or a packet of ramen noodles for each of us or a can and a half of soup — the creamy kind (tomato, mushroom, split pea), not the kind with chunks.
Because a dollar could buy a whole bag of rice, it mattered a lot if you spent it on something that couldn’t be a meal for all of us. It mattered the day my dad bought a candy bar for me and my brother when we were hungry. It mattered enough for my mom to yell in the parking lot, “You spent our last dollar on a candy bar? How could you! How are we going to buy gas to get home? What are we going to eat? That had to last us the rest of the week!”
So I couldn’t have understood the magic in store the first time my dad took me to the public library. I had no framework for it.
I checked out at least a dozen books that day. I kept watching the face of the librarian as she scanned them, waiting for her to point out my selfishness.
We walked up and down the aisles of shelves, and I took a long time deciding on a book. I was tentative, shy about taking something for myself, nervous about picking the right one. I finally held one in my hands and looked up at my dad.
Then my dad said, “You can have more.”
My eyes widened. “I can have more than one? Are you sure?”
I don’t remember the title of the book I was holding, but I’ll never forget the way my dad’s eyes shone when he said, “Katie, you can have as many as you want. No limits.”
“As many as I want? Are you sure?” I knew the rule. I needed my dad’s reassurance that I could break it.
I checked out at least a dozen books that day. I kept watching the face of the librarian as she scanned them, waiting for her to point out my selfishness, to tell me to put them back, to say, “How could you!” But she didn’t. She smiled. She congratulated me for loving to read.
I ran out with my bag of books before anyone could realize what I’d done and stop me. I read them all before the due date. I fell in love with stories. I came back for more.
The public library became a singular point of access to the world. A place of more. The books in my hands became both refuges and keys, and I used them to open the shut doors that lay ahead — college, career, and, to my recent astonishment, grad school.
Last night, I held a new book in my hands, a small paperback literary journal. I looked at my name in the table of contents. I didn’t look at it as my 27-year-old self, with qualifiers and negations, already anxiously looking to the next milestone. I looked at it as my six-year-old self looked at that first library book: with awe. I imagined what she would think if she knew her name would be on a shelf one day.