Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven



Patience and Fortitude
From The Readerville Journal
July/August 2003 Volume 6 

Marion Sherman Howard

In the summer after my tenth birthday I met a librarian through the bookmobile programme in my town, though it was several weeks before I took much notice of her. Every Wednesday afternoon the bookmobile came to a park near my house. Impatient for it to appear, I usually got there before it did, so I’d climb a tree to better watch for its arrival. When it finally pulled into the park, its heavy tyres kicked up a wispy haze of summer dust that drifted over to the empty softball fields before dispersing. That was my cue to jump down from the tree and head over. I was usually the first patron, though I often wondered why there weren’t more people waiting as I was.

By early June, it was already much too hot in the middle of the day for the neighbourhood children to be out playing ball, offering me just cause to retreat without apology to the cool damp of our basement to read and read until the heat began to abate in early evening. I came up to eat dinner with my family, then headed out to the porch to read again until the fireflies came out and it grew too dark to make out the words on the page. In other words, it was the perfect summer.

Oh, I lived for Wednesday afternoon! By Tuesday I’d have already finished the books I checked out the previous week, and I couldn’t wait to try my luck browsing the shelves again. Every time I entered that book-filled van I felt the same small prickling fear. What if I don’t find anything good to read this week? On the outside, the bookmobile looked disappointingly small, but appearances were deceiving. Inside were shelves and shelves of books—far more than I could ever read, it seemed—and I would end up calculating the weight of each chosen book to figure out the optimal load I could safely carry in one arm on my trip back home on my bike.

A few weeks into the summer I checked out Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and the spent the week day-dreaming about living along the Atlantic coast, which seemed a long way from suburban Chicago. When I returned the book I found Stormy, Misty’s Foal on the shelves in the same section, though I was pretty sure I hadn’t spotted it the previous week (or I would have checked it out, too). I took Stormy to the little check out counter up front, and the smiling librarian asked me how I liked the previous book. I was too bashful to properly answer her question, but somehow she guessed that I had enjoyed it. From that week on, my librarian friend would arrange for a special book or two to be waiting for me every Wednesday, even on the days she wasn’t there herself. She always knew just the sorts of books I most enjoyed: anything about animals or the natural world would do, but my special interests ran parallel to other girls my age, and books about horses were my first choice. I didn’t make much conversation with her, but every week I read the books she left for me and chose a few more from the tight stacks inside the van.

The only thing she chose for me that summer that I didn’t finish within a single week was an encyclopaedic book about Man O’War, over a thousand pages long. It felt like admitting defeat when, the following Wednesday, I told her I hadn’t finished it yet, but her wide grin conveyed that she was pleased to hear I was reading every word. She gave me another week, and I left feeling like I’d won something. Looking back, I realise that was a turning point for us; after that, she began to choose books she knew would challenge me.

A few months later our town put together a plan to open its own library in a space rented from a local school, and I was asked if I’d like to help. I spent as much time as I could at what was to be the new library. In the first week we put up the shelves, in the next we typed up Dewey Decimal codes for the books’ spines, then lovingly affixed the labels before sliding the books into their proper spots on the shelves. It was heaven for a young bibliophile. My librarian friend and I spent most of our time together working in silence. I think we respected each other’s desire to be lost in our quiet thoughts, surrounded by piles (piles!) of wonderful books.

Not long after the library opened, I was searching for a topic for my science fair project and remembered one of the books I’d read that past summer, The Secret Life of Plants, I decided to replicate Clive Baxter’s experiments at home and had grand plans to disprove his strange theories. My father gave me a monograph—a simple gauge for measuring electrical resistance—to use for my experiments, but the rest was up to me. I told my librarian friend what I was up to and for the next month she directed me to books and articles that might help me with my research. Thanks to her, I was reading Scientific American and Aristotelian philosophy. (Do you know that Aristotle’s opinion was that plants have souls but experience no physical sensations? I learned that in seventh grade.)

Whenever I feared I was in over my head, I thought of my librarian friend’s steady confidence that I was capable of this sort of work. That project took me from the school fair to the Chicago Regional Science Fair and then on to the Illinois State Fair and the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. I was just twelve years old and by far the youngest participant in the paper session, generally the province of high school juniors and seniors. I remember late nights sitting at the kitchen table, struggling to understand the books and articles I had spread out before me. If it weren’t that she seemed so sure I could do it, I never would have attempted something so ambitious.

In all the time I know her, we never chatted much about ourselves. She seemed to understand me as a kindred spirit, both of us in the thrall of books. If we did talk together it was usually in connection to what we were reading. I told her about what I’d learned for my project and about ideas I had for future experiments and other lines of inquiry. Sometimes, when we were done with our library chores, we passed time reading together, each of us engrossed in our own books, each turning the pages carefully so as not to disturb the other.

The next year I joined the softball team and didn’t seem to have as much time to spend at the library; the following year I moved on to high school. After splitting my time between debate club and studying there didn’t seem much opportunity for recreational reading, and I lost touch with my librarian friend.

But I have never forgotten her. She taught me to reach beyond where I assumed my own boundaries were drawn. She taught me how to care for books, how to shelve them, how to decipher the arcane language of Dewey Decimal codes. She showed me that reading—alone or in company—was not less important than social chatter, and that a relationship can be built on companionably reading together. Which is why I’m embarrassed to admit that I cannot remember her name. It’s exactly like having read a really good book so long ago that you can only recall the key elements of the plot, while the book’s author and title escapes you. Try as I may I cannot remember, but I do remember the books she left for me and the ideas they contained. Somehow I think she wouldn’t mind.

[Images from Sarah Stewart’s wonderful The Library]

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