My earliest library memory is the bookmobile. I lived with my parents on a small North Carolina farm. We were more than two kilometers, much too far for a 6-year-old to walk, from our nearest neighbors.
On summer days, when I was not feeding the chickens or slopping the hogs or taking the unruly cow down to the pond for her twice daily watering or helping Mom hoe tenacious weeds from the roots of the cornstalks, I had much time for myself. I filled my free time meandering through the swamp that linked our farm to that of our nearest neighbors, the Kellys. I climbed the trees bunched at our fields' edges, or I hunted crawdads in the creek that fed our pond, or I tossed pebbles at noisy squirrels. There were limits, however, to my efforts to keep boredom at bay.
Every two or three weeks -- for a 6-year-old the interval seemed an eternity -- the bookmobile would lumber down the narrow country road that bisected our farm and pull up in our driveway and park under the towering long-needle pines that rose just in front of our porch. My Mom and I would hurry from our chores, and Mom would always spend a few minutes talking with the bookmobile librarian. Even then I could tell that both of them were book lovers. I, on the other hand, just wanted the librarian to open the rear door leading to the shelves of books: The book lovers could talk while I feasted. I would impatiently nudge Mom and the librarian would see my eagerness and finally open the door.
The back of a van does not hold much space for a library and now, looking back over more than half a century, I am amazed that the librarian was wise enough to stuff that small space with books that would appeal to the varied tastes and needs of her rural clientele. Mom was always able to find three or four books she wanted, but the children's section was my goal. Mom and I would carry our chosen books out of the back of the van and Mom would share a few more words with the librarian, but I would already be huddled on the porch lost in one of the books that was mine for the next two weeks.
Sometime over the next two years, the bookmobile service ended -- maybe a victim of budget cuts, maybe a casualty of the spread of TVs through the farmsteads, but, without explanation, the treasure van stopped its visits to our farmyard.
The school I attended was a wasteland. Web farm kids knew that we only had to endure a few years of enforced attendance, then we could leave school and join our families working on the farm. Books were a luxury and my school did not have a library or a librarian. Maybe the other kids did not notice the absence, but I felt that I was breathing thin air.
When I was 11, my family left the farm and moved to a small east Tennessee town where life's rhythm was set by the mill which was the single industry in town and by the daily commute of lucky workers to a large government weapons and research center located 20 kilometers away. I spent my first year missing the freedom that farm life afforded to a youngster. I found myself poorly equipped for town life dominated by Little League and pre-adolescent cliques. I was skilled at finding my way through swamps and pine forests, but I had no idea how to field a ball or how to choose the in-crowd shirts. The small town felt even more like a wasteland than did the rural area I had left.
Being the new boy
During my fourth and fifth grades, I moved four times so entered four new classrooms in two years. My lack of townie skills were further eroded by always being the new boy thrust into a classroom of 30 kids who all seemed to have been born on the same block.
I noticed the sign in front of a small brick building that sat off to one side of the school: “Public Library” it modestly announced. But I had never seen any school kids enter the double white doors so did not know if young people were allowed. The word “library,” however, evoked memories of delight from the bookmobile, and one day I shyly pushed open the heavy doors. I entered a dim quiet room. Long bookshelves stretched alongside an open area filled with sturdy oak tables and weighty armchairs. Across the open area, I could see a small woman sitting behind a desk, but in the dusky lighting she seemed quiet and unobtrusive. I was not sure she even noticed me and decided that if I moved quietly maybe she would ignore me.
I moved cautiously into the stack area and discovered more books than I had ever imagined existed. I was Ali Baba in his treasure cave. I moved up and down aisles until I encountered the children's section: more books for young people than there were trees in the pine forests I had explored on the farm. I spent nearly two hours looking at book after book. Somehow I knew that I was only allowed to check out two and I did not know how to choose only two. I remember that one book I chose was Robert A. Heinlein's “Red Planet,” a book that led me to a continuing fascination with science fiction. I carried the books to the desk where the small woman still sat behind a small sign that said, “Mrs. Peters.” It seemed that she had not moved in the two hours I had been in the library. She asked if I had a library card; crestfallen, I admitted that I did not, but I asked could I please borrow some books anyway? She smiled and said, “Of course. Let's get you a card now.” I knew, then, that I had found heaven.
As I walked up the hill from the library to my home, I began to read one of the books. By the time I had covered the kilometer to my house, I had completed half of the first book. I finished it that night and was well into the “Red Planet” before I fell asleep, and by the next evening I had finished that one as well. So two days after my first visit, I was back at the library and carrying more books to Mrs. Peters' desk.
After three weeks of repeated visits, Mrs., Peters said that I could check out more than two books at a time: it appeared that I was a book lover, too. She allowed me to take six or eight books each week. Within a year, I had read all the books in the children's section. What had appeared limitless had fallen prey to my hunger to read. I asked if I could check out adult books and Mrs. Peters said that the entire library was mine.
When I came to Turkey, finding ways to feed my reading habit posed some problems. At least three bookstores in Taksim carry sizeable English collections. Once a month or so I would trek into Taksim and load up with 20 or 25 books each trip and tote them home to Avcilar. My choices were shaped by whatever books were available. I would leave the books in the bags provided by the store and read my way through the stack, starting with whatever book was on top and reading my way to the bottom of the bag. Reading through the bag introduced me to some authors I would not have otherwise read. Some were pretty awful, but I also discovered Jason Goodwin, Beth Helms, Kazuo Ishiguro and many Turkish authors in English translation. The bookstore trips, however, consumed half a day each time I finished my bagful.
Each summer on my trip to visit family in the US, I would make stops at large bookstores and buy as many books as my debit card and the airline luggage weight limits would permit. My sons and siblings and friends would also save books for me, but books are heavy and fill up a suitcase quickly so I usually returned to Avcilar with only 50 or so books, enough to last me only three or four months. Last summer I bought a Kindle so I am now able to get books weightlessly and conveniently.
But when I open my Kindle, my memory opens as well to that country bookmobile with the librarian whose name I never knew. And my mind returns to the quiet Mrs. Peters, who made both the library and the world of books my home, and I whisper, “Thank you, Mrs. Peters.”
*Allen Scarboro is a sociologist living in İstanbul.