On a `lovely' day at a library, a 3-year-old asks, `Why?'

January 02, 2004|By Michael Olesker

AT THE Baltimore County Public Library on York Road in the heart of Towson, Jenny DeMuth has her hands full. Also, her intellect. Her hands are full trying to feed her baby Lauren, age 1, and her intellect is filled with the profound philosophical inquiry of her daughter Sophie, 3 1/2 , who is reading letters aloud from a small sign.

"B-A-L-T-I-M ... ," Sophie declares methodically, reading each letter individually until it spells out "Baltimore County Public Library."

"Do you know what that spells?" her mother asks.

Sophie shrugs her shoulders.

"It spells `Baltimore County Public Library,'" her mother says.

"Why?" Sophie asks.

"Why?"

"Why?" Sophie asks again.

Why, indeed?

"She asks it all the time," her mother says, laughing now and feeding another spoonful of something soft to the baby Lauren. "Why?"

Beautiful.

In fact, I am here to ask that very question. I have come here, the way everyone does, to ask of the great books, and the great computers, that eternal question: Why? It is what human beings do. (Also, I have come here to make myself annoying. It is what reporters do.)

At the tail end of a two-week vacation from reality, I want to ask any wayward students here: Why have you waited until the last minute to finish those damnable research papers assigned at the beginning of the holiday break? (Or, if there were no research papers, why are you inside a library when you could be home sleeping, since it is only 11:30 in the morning?)

But I am shocked at what I find.

The library is filled - with adolescents, with children, with adults - all of 'em on a curiosity romp. It's as if the library has declared a red-dot sale on literary insight, a shopper's special on historical perspective, a New Year's bargain on philosophical nuance. The place is jumping. Books have been pulled down from shelves, and are pored over. Every computer in the place - more than two dozen of them - is in use.

Who says the written word is dead? Watching over this lovely scene are branch manager Jennifer Haire, circulation manager Carol Morawski-Reif and assistant librarian Barbara Salit-Mischel. They look as if they're presiding over the dawning of a literary renaissance.

"It's lovely, isn't it?" says Haire.

"Eighty percent of the time all our computers are in use," says Morawski-Reif, "And the books! The county started its Summer Book Club. So many people signed up, and it's carried over."

Salit-Mischel rushes off to find the exact sign-up figures and comes back a moment later. "We had 26,749 people join the reading club," she says.

"And I think 23,000 of them show up here," says Morawski-Reif, laughing merrily. "And it carries over through the year."

But there's more to it than that. As you move through the busy room, you notice a mezzanine level, and five adolescent girls huddled at a table. The girls attend the Forbush School. They are reading books. They are copying down vagrant lines of poetry. They are dropping names: like Madonna, yes, but also names such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Plato and Nietzsche, too.

"Why?" I ask the young ladies, echoing the great philosophical question first posed by the 3 1/2 -year old philosopher Sophie DeMuth. "Why are you here?"

"We're tired of vacation," says Barbara Phillips, 15.

"We'd rather be reading," says Beth Snyder, 12. She is reading a novel called Secret Love Diaries, which is not exactly Plato, but never mind.

"Does your mother know you're reading that?" someone asks.

"No," says Corey Bryant, 15. "Her mother would hurt her if she knew."

No, she wouldn't. Mothers know the truth about reading: It opens the doors of the mind. It's a holiday for the brain. It might start with teeny love diaries, but it can go anywhere at all.

"Like, I call Barbara on the phone," says Beth Snyder. "And she says, `Hold on.' She's reading. She's reading Lord of the Rings, and she doesn't want me to hang up, but she doesn't want to put the book down, either."

"All your troubles go away when you're in a book," says Barbara Phillips.

"Yeah," agrees Nickole Hepple, 16. "You read, and find out other people are going through the same things you're going through. It eases your pain."

"Right, your pain," says Jamie Coco, 18.

"Like, I'm the weird one," says Corey Bryant. "I dress in black and write poetry. People look down on me."

Looks of astonishment break out around the table.

"I don't look down at you," says Beth Snyder. "I look up to you."

"Yeah," says Jamie Coco.

"You're my best friend," Barbara Phillips tells Bryant.

This is what can happen at a library. The poets learn that nobody's looking down at them, even when they figured otherwise. Those in pain open a book and find they're not alone. The world slows down, and the minds open up. And even a 3-year-old learns to ask that eternal human question: Why?

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