Too Good to be True

It’s too good to be true. I can’t believe I can walk three blocks down and one block over and be at my favorite building in town. And all because of Andrew Carnegie, who was once the richest person in America.

But also because of James Anderson.

Before Anderson stepped into his life, the young Carnegie could only dream of reading books. He was then a thirteen-year-old bobbin boy working in a cotton mill from dawn until dark, earning $1.20 a week. He couldn’t buy books. And he couldn’t pay the $2 subscription to the local library, where working folk like him weren’t welcome, anyway.

But when Anderson opened his personal library to working boys, Carnegie showed up. Each Saturday afternoon, he returned a book he had borrowed from Anderson’s 400-book collection. And after he and Anderson discussed the book, Carnegie chose his new book for the week. Anderson’s books—volumes like Lamb’s essays, Bancroft’s History of the United States, and Shakespeare—provided most of Carnegie’s education.

After Carnegie made his fortunes, he remembered the wonder of those Saturday afternoons with Anderson and his books. And between 1886 and 1919, he donated more than $40 million to build 1,679 new libraries in communities large and small across America. Each library was built on two conceptual pillars. They were public, and they were free.

One of these Carnegie libraries is four blocks from my house. My son worked there through high school, shelving returns and helping patrons find books. I served on the library board for seven years, during the time computers were coming in and whispering was going out.

But though I sat though nearly a hundred board meetings, I’ve never lost the wonder of walking through the library door. I like the muffled rustle of turning pages and the rows of shelves holding hundreds of books—old leathers with flaking gold lettering; new with glossy dust jackets, paperbacks holding each other up, tall books and skinny and short and squat. I like breathing in the scents of paper and dust and ink.

In these books I find friends and advise and information. I can run may fingers over their spines and pull out this one and that. I can pick up any one of these books and take it home.

It’s too good to be true.

And I thank James Anderson and Andrew Carnegie.

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