One of the major Sliding Doors events of my life—the one that changed my personality and my destiny—happened during the summer between my 7th and 8th grades. That summer, my family moved to a new town, about a 25-minute drive from our old one. Like 15 minutes, if you really floor it at 3 am.
Twenty-five minutes might not sound like an impressive distance, but the cultural change was massive—we went from a place of relative privilege (Cape Cod houses, Corningware plates with chicken nuggets, classmates with Champion sweatshirts) to a place of outrageous entitlement (names with generational suffixes, dads getting DUI’s in their BMW’s, toddlers who ate scallops, families with “wealth management advisors”).
In my old school, I’d been a Gretchen Wieners: the sharp-tongued confidante of the most popular girl, a presence at every party. At my new school, I was Wiener-Dog, the butt of jokes, with sandals that just felt “off” somehow. Since nobody would sit with me at lunch, I stopped eating lunch, and then I had to see the school psychologist. It was a whole thing. But there was somewhere I could always go for solace.
The library in my new town was quiet and clean, but still democratic and a little dowdy, like any good library should be. Tall windows, greige wall-to-wall carpeting, soft mildew and bleach smells. The children’s section was packed with wiped-out nannies and the microfiche machines were in a room so frostily air-conditioned, you could have stored steaks in it. I spent so many Saturday (and Wednesday, and Friday) afternoons curled in a chair in the second-floor reading alcove with a pile of books in front of me. It’s where I discovered Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and checked out huge stacks of CD’s, because maybe I’d really like this Nina Simone lady. I was already a curious, sassy person before I was baptized in our library, but the mixture of my time there and the 8th-grade ostracism made for a thick vat of metaphorical green goo that turned me into the know-it-all weirdo you see in front of you.
While it’s nowhere near as comforting (or as air-conditioned) as libraries have been to me, I *aggressively* recommend the Libby app. It’s an ebook reader that syncs up with your local branch—just enter in your library-card info and you’ll have access to anything that’s digitized in either readable or audio form, which means so much more content than you might think. I’ve taken out books on witchcraft, mycology, race, and digital marketing, not to mention plenty of the “hot” fiction books of the last couple of years. (Thumbs-up for My Year of Rest and Relaxation, The New Me, and My Dark Vanessa.) Yes, I’d rather be in a fugue state browsing the shelves in a physical library, but since the end is nigh I’ll take what I can get.
I always feel like I’m one book away from learning something that changes my life entirely. That potential is what keeps me browsing Libby for hours, looking for the title that’ll unlock some higher consciousness. And when I can’t focus on flipping pages, it’s a source of constant audiobooks: For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to the deeply freaky classic Women Who Run With the Wolves, having theories about “wetness” and Baba Yaga murmured into my ears. There are 230,000 Brooklyn Library books available on Libby right now—which is the one that’s gonna blow my brain’s doors off next?
I’m not mad at the kids from 8th grade—it’s their loss that they didn’t get to bask in the glow of my cleverness and extensive knowledge of rap lyrics. Mostly I’m grateful that they accidentally drove me into the place that’d be the water that turned me from mean-girl mogwai into a gremlin. Who knows where I would’ve ended up otherwise? I don’t think I can find the answer in a library, but I probably won’t stop trying.