This essay is part of the Montclair Public Library Foundation’s 4th annual “My First Chapter” series. These essays are in support of the Montclair Public Library. This essay by Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, is the second in a six-part series which first appeared in the Montclair Times and is reprinted here with permission.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that libraries are the root cause of everything good in my life, starting with my marriage. In 2000, when I met my wife, Mary, she was 30 and I was 25. At that age, a five-year gap is not insignificant, and she was, it is safe to say, skeptical that her date with the young writer at the Matador bar in New Orleans was going to go anywhere. Until, that is, I showed her my library cards. I was in the habit back then of carrying around in my wallet all the library cards I’d ever had. It was a good deck – Berkeley, Oakland, Chicago, Middletown, Marfa, New York, New Orleans.
The sight of this colorful array, along with the stories I had to tell about each collection (what I’d read there, a favorite part of the building), salvaged my chances with Mary, who had spent a year in library school before going to work as a magazine editor. At our wedding, four years later, her father presented me with a new library card from his own town.
I had been keeping those cards (I still have all of them, and a few others as well) not in the hopes that some day I would use them to woo a librarian-in-training, but because most of what I considered to be the “important” work of my twenties, such as it was, had taken place in libraries. I was trying to become a writer, a process that, in my case, involved a lot of moving from place to place, a lot of odd jobs in the construction and food service industries, a little writing, and a lot of reading, much of which took place in the local library.
Every time I moved to a new town, I would head straight for the library, get a card, and browse the stacks. Nothing could make me feel more at home in an unfamiliar place than to join the local library and begin spending afternoons there. Leaving one local library and then joining the next one, you feel as if you’re simply hopping from pond to pond. Several times I started a book in one library system, put it aside, and ended up finishing it in another.
In the local public library, you have access to two spheres of knowledge-that familiar catalogue of books that constitute our common language and are standard in most collections; and the regional flavors, the folk histories, cookbooks, and weather guides. I have found this mixture to be an extremely sustaining one, in part because I have a powerful taste for idiosyncratic books that only ever get read by a few thousand people. Whenever I enter a new library I have a palpable sense that there are thousands of untold stories, facts, maps, and more hidden in the stacks, if only I had the time.
Now it is years later. I still like to write in libraries, and explore in libraries, and get lost in contemplation of some bizarre history I might never have otherwise known. My children use the Montclair Public Library constantly, and Mary, after a detour in editing, is back in library school. So we are, in every sense, a library family.
And I still have all my cards.