Patti Smith on Libraries and the Transformative Love of Books
On books, bronchitis, and a mother’s “sympathetic exasperation.”
By Maria Popova
“Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in reflecting on how she saved herself by reading. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou harmonized in recollecting how a library saved her own life. Her contemporary and titanic peer Ursula K. Le Guin located the source of that salvation in the portal to personal and intellectual liberty that opens up between the shelves of the public library, between the covers of a book: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”
A generation after a little boy named James Baldwin reached for that liberty and read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon at the local library, a little girl named Patricia Lee Smith read her way from a poor rural community in southern New Jersey to the world’s stage and the world’s heart, soon to become the voice of generations and one of the most original, revolutionary, and generous artists of her time, of our time, and of all time.
In Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable, symphonic exploration of dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of life — Patti Smith recounts how her local childhood library nurtured her inner life, tilling the soil of her becoming.
In consonance with that lovely parenthetical line from one of Nikki Giovanni’s poems celebrating libraries and librarians — “(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book.)” — Smith writes of the endearing, almost unreasonable devotion with which she sought solace for her nine-year-old troubles amid the stacks:
Every Saturday I would go to the library and choose my books for the week. One late-autumn morning, despite menacing clouds, I bundled up and walked as always, past the peach orchards, the pig farm and the skating rink to the fork in the road that led to our sole library. The sight of so many books never failed to excite me, rows and rows of books with multicolored spines. I’d spent an inordinate amount of time choosing my stack of books that day, with the sky growing more ominous. At first, I wasn’t worried as I had long legs and was a pretty fast walker, but then it became apparent that there was no way I was going to beat the impending storm. It grew colder, the winds picked up, followed by heavy rains, then pelting hail. I slid the books under my coat to protect them, I had a long way to go; I stepped in puddles and could feel the icy water permeate my ankle socks. When I finally reached home my mother shook her head with sympathetic exasperation, prepared a hot bath and made me go to bed. I came down with bronchitis and missed several days of school. But it had been worth it, for I had my books, among them The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, Half Magic and The Dog of Flanders. Wonderful books that I read over and over, only accessible to me through our library.
Complement this tiny fragment of the wholly enchanting Year of the Monkey — which crowned my favorite books of 2019 — with Oliver Sacks, reflecting on the early character-sculpting role the local library played in his own life, on the library as a locus of intellectual freedom and community-building, then revisit Patti Smith on the two kinds of literary masterpieces and her fifty favorite books. (One might hope that letting her spinach get cold is now among her qualifying criteria for a favorite book.)
Published February 2, 2020