I used to think I had something in common with the coffee-shop crowd, but now I’m coming to realize that my true place, if I have one, is at the public library. You know, that odd refuge from consumerism where you can’t buy things, only borrow them. Where people come to read or doze rather than to see and be seen and get wired on expensive, caffeinated beverages. I may not borrow many books — largely because public libraries aren’t very well stocked with the kind of obscure things I read — but I like knowing that the place is run by free-speech radicals who make an effort to welcome everybody, even those who cart their spare clothes around in shopping bags.
The library is full of my kind of weirdos: people who read books. You could say that about people at the local Barnes & Noble, too, but here in the library it’s quiet in a way few other public spaces can ever be, and I’m sure that freaks out people who require constant stimulation. Also, from what I’ve seen, the crowd at B&N and other bookstores skews toward the upwardly mobile. As for coffee shops, I’ve noticed they tend to cater to distinct segments of the population: businessmen in one, Christian conservatives in another, liberals and leftists in a third. In the public library, by contrast, you can meet almost anyone — but in an introvert-friendly atmosphere that discourages much beyond friendly nods and murmured greetings.
I suppose in part because of where I grew up and went to school, I’ve always been pretty comfortable among people with whom I have little in common, and I’ve been surprised by the extent to which Americans have retreated into tribal enclaves, afraid to rub shoulders with “Rethuglicans” or “Dumbocrats.” Me? I’m a little wary of going out in public at all, to be honest, knowing that 65 percent of Americans support drone warfare, 51.8 percent believe that shopping constitutes a form of therapy, and 74 percent believe a better place awaits them when they die.
But my sense of alienation retreats a bit when I read (at the library) that 57 percent of American adults also apparently still read books for pleasure, and about 50 percent visit a library or bookmobile at least once a year. Then again, if libraries weren’t popular, those who advocate their elimination probably wouldn’t work so hard to cut off their funding. Along with national parks and Social Security (also both threatened by privatization schemes), they are one of the last great bastions of democratic socialism in this country.
That said, my caffeine levels have dropped to a dangerous low. And the ragged looking man (worse even than me) on the other side of the Quiet Zone has really begun to snore.