Like all the local restaurants, the library in Jerusalem is open for take-out only. You’re allowed to order books by e-mail and drop by to pick them up – the librarians will meet you in the parking lot when you call to say you’ve arrived. But to order books, you need to know what you want. Gone are the days of leisurely browsing and serendipitous finds – when you pick up your plastic-wrapped bag of books, it contains only what you ordered, without any surprises. I have spent many late-night hours searching the online catalogue, but the search engine is not very friendly and I don’t always know what I want. I miss the joy of discovering a book I didn’t even know to look for, just because it happened to be mis-shelved next to the book I thought I wanted but then realized I had already read. I miss the thrill of stumbling upon a book I had read as a child, and which my children are now ready to hear me read aloud. I miss the returns cart, where I like to speculate about who checked out what, and why. And so you can imagine my joy when I managed to sneak into the library this morning and raid the stacks at last.
A friend who volunteers in the library sent me a message last night: “I’m going to be in the library early, before the librarians arrive. Is there anything you want?” It wasn’t an invitation, but I took her up on it anyway. As soon as I dropped off my kids at school—I had thrown on a skirt but was still wearing the shirt I’d slept in—I headed straight for the library and texted my friend. “I happen to be outside. Is it a good time to pick up some books?” As it turned out, my friend had just arrived – she was still turning on the lights and powering the computer at the check-out desk when she opened the door a crack and motioned for me to come in. “You can browse,” she whispered, even though no one else was there. “You just have to leave before any of the librarians arrive in about a half hour.” About a half hour? How much time did I really have before I would risk getting caught?
Just last night I finished reading the kids Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, including the dramatic scene in which Mrs. Frisby sneaks into Farmer Fitzgibbon’s kitchen to poison Dragon the cat. I felt like was scurrying around like a rat, trying to avoid being seen by human eyes as I gathered a stack of new easy readers for my kids to read in shul. (They are already reading chapter books at night in bed. But in shul they like to page through books that they can finish in a single sitting, and easy readers are perfect for that.) As the long fluorescent lights flickered to their full brightness, I thought of Sam the library mouse who lives in a hole in the library wall and comes out at night to write stories. Sam would never be here at this hour, I told myself, and the rats of NIMH would have long ago made themselves scarce. I had forgotten to look at my watch. What time were the librarians due to arrive?
My son’s card, which we all shared, allowed me only eight books in English – I kept meaning to open new cards for my other kids, but then the pandemic began and it was too late. I started taking photos on my phone of all the books I would order next. My son had told me he wanted to read about Greek mythology, but when I entered that in Hebrew into the card catalogue, over fifty books came up, and I had no way of knowing which had colorful illustrations and vowels, and which were written in tiny type that would frustrate him from the moment he turned the first page. I took a photograph of the ten Hebrew books of Greek myths that seemed most appropriate, so that I could include them in my next orders. I was tempted to ask my friend if she’d let me go over quota, but I knew better than to steal fire from the library gods.
It was too bad my kids weren’t there with me – they would have known which books they wanted. The library is small, just two rooms, and I eyed the stacks hungrily. Like a pregnant mom eating for two, I was browsing for four. I tried to remember the list of books Liav had annotated for me, which I’d neglected to bring along. For months now she will read nothing but Gingi, a series of short novels about a redheaded boy living in Talpiot—the next neighborhood over from us—and the mysteries he solves along with the other kids who live in his building. There are over seventy books in the series, and Liav and I printed the full list off the author’s Wikipedia page so we could keep track of which she had already read. The author, Galila Ron-Feder is the doyenne of Israeli children’s literature. She has written over a dozen series for children – there are several rows of shelves in the library devoted exclusively to her books. Each of my kids has fallen in love with a different one of her series, though only LIav is stubbornly monogamous– she won’t pick up anything else until she has read every one. The number of each book in the series is written only on the spine, and not inside the book, and some absent-minded library clerk had covered that part of the spine with the red tape that denotes easy Hebrew chapter books – so it was impossible to glance at the shelves and know the order of the books in the series. I didn’t have time to pull out each book and check which covers looked familiar – the clock was ticking.
I wish my kids were there, too, because they’d have fun discovering new books to read. I’d like to say that my kids have fond memories from our pre-pandemic weekly library visits, but the truth is those visits were often rushed – we came after school, when they were already tired and the toddler was thirsty but we’d left her water bottle in the stroller downstairs; the baby was cranky and ready for dinner and we still had a long walk home. But even if their associations with library visits are not all that positive, their literary library associations certainly are. One of the first books I read to all my babies was Wild About Books, about the Springfield librarian Molly McGrew who by mistake drove her bookmobile into the zoo. Together we pored over the walking-while-reading cover of Sarah Stewart’s The Library, about Elizabeth Brown, “skinny, nearsighted, and shy,” who collected enough books to found her own town library. We had speculated about Lucy’s Book – which book did Lucy check out so many times that it wore out and had to be removed from circulation? None of these books is in our Jerusalem library, where the English picture book collection is all from the 1970s and 1980s – which means that I check out for my kids many of the same books that my parents checked out for me.
I realized I should ask my friend to check out my selections before the librarians arrived. I brought them over to the desk and she looked up my patron number. “You have seventeen books checked out,” she told me – I was well over the limit. “I know, but they’re all Gingi,” I told her, as if that made it somehow OK. “Well,” she paused, squinting at the screen. “Actually, it says here that you have an Amanda Pig book that was due… yesterday. And that’s including the long Corona extension.” Oh no. I could picture that book with the smiling pink curly-tailed pig, but had no idea where it was. I am vigilant about keeping library books separate from the rest of our collection – once we accidentally shelve a library book at home, it is like searching for a needle in a haystack. I didn’t want to be in trouble with the library. I thought of the very first chapter in the All-of-a-Kind-Family series, where Sarah—the third of the five sisters—dreads confessing to the library lady that her book is lost. Then I thought of the first chapter in the first Ramona book, where Ramona decides that she likes her library book so much that she wants to keep it – so she writes her name in it. Was it a coincidence that two of my favorite children’s book series began with library mishaps?
A librarian, like a judge, can rule strictly or kindly. While my friend was checking out my new books – her attribute of mercy, it seems, overrode her attribute of justice – I darted back to the stacks for one final look. Maybe I would ask for just one of the mythology books after all. “Could I take this one too,” I entreated, greedily pushing the limit. At that moment the door creaked open. The librarian—one of the stricter sort—looked at me with raised eyebrows. “Maybe I should just leave now,” I said nervously, and my friend nodded. Rats. I avoided making eyes with the librarian as I closed the door tightly behind me and scurried out, confident that I’d be back.