No library is just a library.
Like many poor families, mine spent a lot of time in the local neighborhood library. It was close enough for us to walk to and my parents would often drop me and my siblings off there to do homework, read, and to grant them some free time. Before we had a computer at home, we used the neighborhood library to type and print papers and generally explore the digital world. I also slept a lot there. Tiredness characterized so much of those days for me. Because there were six of us kids, we had to wake up very early in order to all shower, eat, and then get to school on time. To make matters worse, my parents, as teachers, had to get to school before their students, so they dropped us off much earlier than everyone else. There was never enough sleep. Whenever I had a bit of time to myself, in class, at home, or in the library, I would try to recover the sleep taken from me until either my siblings or parents woke me when it was time to go. But more than any one specific purpose, that library was a place to be. To spend time. To explore, to sleep, and of course to read – a gateway to adventure.
I spent a lot of time in the comic book section, where I first discovered Solar, Man of the Atom. As the story goes, Dr. Phillip Solar, in trying to prevent a nuclear meltdown, absorbs so much radiation that he becomes able to manipulate his body into nuclear energy. With these powers, he keeps his wife alive long past the point when she should have died a natural death. She tells him that as much as she loves him, being immortal has been incredibly lonely for her, as she has watched her friends and family die. He pushes back, but ultimately relents and lets her die. Left by himself in the world, the loneliness and grief tear him apart so much that he physically becomes two separate beings.
The physical representation of the rupture of grief, the depth of loneliness, and the particular usage of the power of immortality are still ideas that I constantly reflect on. A long time later, I encountered a similar idea in A Nest of Quiet, one of the notebooks of the Polish poet Anna Kamienska: “We don’t want immortality for ourselves: too scary. We just need it for our family, our loved ones.” If death, which in another way is to say time, couldn’t take Solar because of his powers, it would take everyone else from him.
The encounter with this idea marks the time when I began to think creatively or at least maturely. Not because anyone directed me to the “right” thing to read, but simply left me to my own devices in the portal to a million worlds.
It was important to my parents that we also have a library at home. After years of moving around, including across continents, when we finally settled in the house where my parents still live today, an entire room was set aside to be the library. It was tremendously impractical with our family of eight, with everyone doubling up to fit in the limited space. Arguments, fights, friendships, alliances, and temporary allegiances were all part of the pressure of that closeness and lack of privacy. The use of another bedroom would have alleviated this pressure, but my parents refused that possibility. The room was the library and that was that.
To fill the shelves, they would bring home discarded or donated books from the schools they taught at. Teaching didn’t pay much, and it still doesn’t, but it furnished our home library with everything from standard textbooks about math and physics to well-worn copies of the classics – literary, fantasy and sci-fi. Like the neighborhood library, the purpose of this communal space was not limited to reading. We also obtained a family computer, which changed shapes with the years, but the one I see in my memory is the Compaq Presario.
At that time I was taking computer classes at school, where our teacher allowed us to take the machines apart and rebuild them. He showed us how to take out the motherboard, video card, RAM, hard drive, and to improve or simply change what the computer was capable of by replacing those parts. He also showed us how to do a less severe version of that by changing the computer settings – for example, shifting how much memory it was using to run certain programs.
I was bold enough to ask our computer teacher for the spare parts from the school, and he was compassionate enough to oblige. When I went home, I would take our computer apart to make it faster. We couldn’t afford a better one, but there were more ways to arrive at that destination of having a “good” computer. Sometimes these experiments were disastrous and a video card or RAM would go up in smoke, but beyond the yelling and punishments that came with those mistakes were lessons about how the machine worked and what its limits were. Those experiments allowed me to see that things weren’t stuck in a permanent state, and machines, as well as the world in general, can always be reconfigured.
I also got hooked on massive multiplayer online role-playing games. The game that held me for the longest was called Mech Crusaders, where users became commanders of mechas that they could train and fight with a limited number of turns each day. That game grew from a few hundred when I first started to almost ten thousand at its peak. The game itself was fun, but the real community existed on the message board. Most of the topics were about the game, and there were private channels for members of certain “clans,” but the general areas were the most interesting because of the communication with so many different kinds of people. It was there where I learned the power of the internet in closing the physical distance between worlds, and why moderators are critical for any experiment that brings that many people together. But it was also where I experienced trolls and the type of extreme bigotry that is laundered through pseudo-philosophical inquiries and the practice of “just asking questions.” No one likes to pretend to be Kant or Darwin more than guys who play online turn-based games.
I can’t ever recall my parents demanding that we read. The library just had to exist and be available so that we could use it whenever we wanted.
As time passed, I went through a radical change. I lost interest in playing games, on the computer and otherwise. It was a shift that happened for no apparent reason. I just stopped. The usage of the library also changed for me. Where I didn’t pay too much attention to the books before, they then became my primary concern – along with using the room as a space to draw. When I needed a place to escape to, I went to the library, reading everything from National Geographic articles on herons to Fred Saberhagen books. My older brother loved the Harry Potter series, but they were too badly written and too juvenile for me. I remain smug about diagnosing this early on. He also loved Stephen King books, almost all of which we had. I refused to engage with them until he convinced me to read The Eyes of the Dragon, and then he enticed me into the Dark Tower series through the first line of the first book: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
I read many things in that new fever; the ones that are still very clear now were the Shakespeare plays, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Things Fall Apart, which seems to be required for Nigerian children as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is for Americans. I also read that and Huckleberry Finn. Their Eyes Were Watching God still pains me to this day; so does The Bluest Eye and the collected essays of James Baldwin. I read so many other things as well – the Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian myths, which then led to an interest in the myths of other regions and civilizations. Haitian mythology and folktales were a quick path towards understanding the world, imperial violence, and race in a radical way. There was also the Redwall series alongside Tender Is the Night. I could go on forever about the books in that library.
I never defined myself by reading – to be honest, I still spent most of my time playing soccer or causing trouble – nor did I need it to be a way for me to see myself and my experiences reflected. That was fine when it did so, but more important to me is the way it expanded my world. My real world and its ideas, and then the imagined worlds and their ideas as well.
I can’t ever recall my parents demanding that we read, or spend any amount of time in the library to compete with other kids or to better ourselves. The library just had to exist and be available so that we could use it whenever we wanted. The rest was up to our imaginations and personal desires. The library door was always open – we only had to walk in.
When my grandmother moved in with us, the library was dismantled to give the room to her. The shelves were taken down, the books stuffed in the backroom of the house, the computer moved into a corner of the dining room. The end of the library to me signaled the end of childhood. But it was also the start of something new. I slowly began reconstructing it in my room, reinstalling the shelves and filling them with books again. Before long, I had hundreds of books that spilled over onto the floors. Stacks and stacks of books, so much so that my father joked that my room was a library with a bed in it.
I was now the librarian to my parents and siblings. One day my youngest brother, who didn’t read much, said to me that he wanted to read more, but he wanted to read serious books like I did. To ease him in, because I knew that he loved speculative and science fiction, I gave him a copy of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. After he enjoyed that, I gave him the Annihilation series by Jeff VanderMeer. When he liked those, I gave him the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and then finally, as I always intended, I introduced him to Frankenstein.
I’ve sent my older brother countless books. My sisters used to sneak into my room and take the ones that they wanted when I wasn’t around. I’m still missing my copy of The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. My mother also took my books – she was heartbroken at the end of the Hunger Games trilogy and Coriolanus. My other younger brother was more drawn to the comic books, like I was when I was young.
When I was moving to New York City, the main question was what to do with all the books. My parents didn’t want me to take them. They liked still having a room in the house to stand as a library, and of course if the books remained, that meant that I was only leaving temporarily. I would come back for the books. But I needed to take a substantial amount of them as well. I needed to be surrounded, everywhere that I stayed, with these books that were doors to endless worlds. I needed the ones that I hadn’t read, and the ones that I might not ever get to read, much more than I did the ones that I had. Those books were the unknown, the unexplored dark forests – they both comfort and thrill me with the possibility that one day I might open them up and find myself among new monsters, friends, adventures, and tragedies. Even if that opening never happens, that it might happen is enough.
My parents and I compromised on eight boxes. Eight boxes of books shipped to Brooklyn, which filled three shelves and spilled onto the floor as they should. I believe that a library, personal or otherwise, should be a little messy. In the year and change that I’ve been in Brooklyn, the books have accumulated so much that I’m starting to shift furniture to accommodate them. It won’t be long until this place also becomes a library with a bed. When I think of where I want to live in the future and the requirements of the house, the first thing that comes to mind is that I must be able to have an expansive library. Not only for myself, but for my friends and family to walk through. It doesn’t need to be the same as Umberto Eco’s, but it needs to be substantial.
Sometimes when I’m going through a phase of exhaustion or alienation, I imagine an escape the same way that some people imagine running away to a farm or to a small town where they can live modestly with their friends or family. This is my runaway fantasy: not to move towards the margins of the world, but to build a great library. A great library in the village that I’m from, in a small town by the water, in Marseille, in New York, anywhere. A library that doesn’t demand anything, as the best libraries usually don’t. One that is simply present as part of life, where I and anyone else can go sleep, play, read, or do nothing but let the hours pass. A library like the one that nurtured me at home.