Table for one in Literature, please

If it’s human nature to appreciate what is free only after they stick a price tag on it, then mark me down as a verified member of our species. For fifteen years as a Chicago resident my library card cost me bupkiss and came out of my wallet, oh, once a year. Now as a non-resident that same card costs me a hundred bucks a year and comes out, oh, once a week. I work in the Loop. When lunch time rolls around, when others flock to the tables at Wendys or Berghoff or Trattoria No.10, I can often be found at a nice airy table at the Harold Washington Library. The service is top notch and the menu so vast they keep it on the computers. Best of all, it’s all you can eat.

As you can see, I rather like my library card and I don’t leave home without it.

Not every suburbanite has to pay for a Chicago library card. Present your free hometown card and they give you one on the house. I happen to live in a flyspeck of a burb without a library of its own. As none of my property taxes go toward any library I am no more entitled to a free library card than I am to a free steak dinner. I have to buy a non-resident card, the going rate for which, I have found, varies considerably from place to place. Nearby Glenview will happily sell me a library card for something like five hundred dollars per year. Excuse me? Chicago, ever loathe to lose business to some hoity North Shore suburb, will part with one for a mere five Jacksons.

And don’t let its Maxwell Street price tag make you think any less of its quality. We’re not talking bathroom fixtures or tube socks here. No, the Harold Washington Library is I think about as good as a library gets. I can’t imagine there are too many on the whole blue planet in its league. Whence derives such a modest accolade? It does its job exceedingly well and is a pleasure of a place to be.

When it comes to the basic function of a library—to wit, the providing of the books one wants to read—no wanting reader could ask for anything more than the Harold Washington Library. You may, in fact, ask for less. In addition to the altospheric array of volumes within its own four walls, its staff will gladly reach behind the walls of other libraries for those it doesn’t have. I was disappointed one day to find the second installment of Blanche Wiesen Cooke’s Eleanor Roosevelt checked out. No problem, I was assured, they would find a copy and give me a call. Two days later my answering machine played back their keeping of that promise, and one day hence I was carting homeward the hefty tome.

I always get what I am looking for at the Harold Washington Library. Race Riot! 1917 by Elliott Rudwick. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Currently I am reading my way through the collected essays of Joseph Epstein. My fingers dance in the air when I contemplate what might next sate my palate. Melville’s Moby Dick? A good biography, perhaps? I’ve often thought of sinking my teeth into The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, and All The King’s Men is something too I’ve always wanted to read. Oh, the delightful bewilderment when choosing one’s next book.

And what a delight it is to go to this library with no particular book in mind, nor even the intention to take anything home. This is, I recall reading when it opened, the world’s largest open stack library. Nearly every book sits on its sliver of seventy miles of shelves lining countless aisles down which you are free to stroll and browse and peruse as you wish. Call me bookish, but this is fun.

One day I happened upon a century old set of official Army records of the War of the Rebellion (as the Civil War was known in its day). These seventy or eighty volumes, each several inches thick, together appear to include every word written on the war by those who fought it. Letters among commanders, official rosters, casualty lists from every battle. You think Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy is long? You couldn’t fit the index to this thing on the scant few thousand pages Mr. Foote required. Another time I found myself in front of five full shelves of the works of Joseph Conrad—an author, this reminded me, I would like to read. Will it be Heart of Darkness? Lord Jim? Nothing today I’m afraid. My young son Marlow—the name, as it happens, and as the Conrad fans among you have already noted, of the narrator of several of Mr. C’s stories—is having great fun getting himself lost among these aisles and is now yelling out to be rescued.

Having to pay for a library card has indeed helped draw me ever deeply into the world of reading, but it’s not the only force at work. Indeed, were it the only reason an economist would promptly label me victim to the “sunk cost fallacy” where one bases consumption decisions on money gone for good (my hundred bucks) rather than on what you most desire from among available choices. I would be categorized alongside folks who drag themselves to a health club, when they really have no desire to go, simply because they spent so much on the membership fee and want to get their money’s worth.

So what else explains, then, my resurgent appreciation of the sheer joy of reading for pleasure? I’ve been known to proffer the excuse that I spent seven-plus years of evenings and weekends earning two graduate degrees, and my steady diet of required texts left no room for the consumption of books for pleasure. But the convenience of this excuse exceeds its revelation of the uninteresting truth, which is simply this: Other things caught my fancy. I must reluctantly admit, in fact, there was a time I would privately lash back upon hearing an espousal of the importance of reading.

I have an uncle who has done rather well for himself in the field of U.S. politics, having risen to nearly the tippy top of that tall ladder. As his nephew I am disqualified from rendering anything but the most biased appraisal of his job performance. But for his lifelong advocation of his favorite avocation—reading—anyone must give the fella high marks. Here’s a man who seriously enjoys the frequent confinement to a plane on his commutes between Washington and his home state, simply for the time it gives him to read. Some years ago he told me his favorite question of job applicants was “What’s the last book you read?” I’m sure I gave my face a quick twist of feigned ponder and told him it was indeed an excellent question, but inside I thought otherwise. In a trek for money and lots of it—which for me at the time was a quite serviceable definition for the meaning of life—what matter could books make?

None, I suppose, if you can sustain contentment with such a skimpy helping of what life has to dish up. But what if you want to know things unknowable through your own direct experience and observation? What if you want to know the life experiences, the ideas, or the opinions of others? What if you want simply to enjoy a good story? You read, mon ami. You read. For me, reading satisfies each of these wants and something more. If life is but a journey through ever new places, an often bumpy journey at that, then reading provides me with some much-needed navigation. Reading tells me what I’m looking at through the glass. It tells me when to turn the wheel, when to step on the gas, and when to use my brake. And when I feel hopelessly lost, reading shows me where I am and how to work my way back to the interstate. Enough of this metaphor? I agree. It’s given my point plenty of mileage. (Sorry.) Let’s do shift gears. (Smack me.)

Reading is a uniquely human practice yet no human being can fully comprehend it. You cannot know how it works—what a silly thing to even contemplate. Reading is indeed the quintessence of sublimity. And how can something so dang high-fallutin’ be justifiably represented in mere bricks and mortar and glass and steel? I don’t know how, but I do believe architect Thomas Beeby has done just that in the Harold Washington Library. Here I tread onto the matter of taste, those grounds on which there can be no dispute, but I mostly admire the building that is the Harold Washington Library for its features large and small. The top floor, with its massive owls perched outside and the stunning special collections room within, is surely my favorite building top in the city. I find the main floors easy to navigate with airspace and tablespace aplenty. Outside, at the level of a passing el car, are small replications of the Chicago motto urbs in horto or “city in a garden.” (Which someone suggested changing, I grin in recollection, during the Great Chicago Flood of 1992, to urbs in aqua.)

And why do I only mostly admire the building? Because there is one thing about the place I curse beneath my breath exactly twice on every visit. It’s those front doors. They are too big, too heavy, too hard to open—and this coming from one still south of his middle ages and in relatively good shape. What must the elderly think as they tug on the massive brass and glass doors only to have them respond with the eagerness of an exhausted mule on a full belly of hay? They would be excused for thinking the place closed. Fortunately the doors open automatically if one knows to press the large wheelchair-embossed round button nearby. It’s a button, wouldn’t you know, I accidentally bump into myself from time to time.

Even with those uninviting doors I am quite fond of the Harold Washington Library and will continue to hoof it over there every chance I get. I know I will always find something from among its vast offerings to make my trek worth while. And please don’t consider my ravings here as anything close to an adequate description of the variety of pleasures to be found here—they indeed are not. No single person will ever in a lifetime experience all to be had at the Harold Washington Library. And the magic corollary, I think, is that no one person need ever come away disappointed. There is something here for everyone. Something to stretch or satisfy or simply soothe your mind. Something certainly worth more than my hundred measly bucks a year.

An excellent library is one of those things that qualifies a city for the adjective great. And for me, you can take away everything else that makes Chicago a great city and still have one great city indeed. But don’t take my word for it; check it out for yourself. And don’t let those doors scare you away.