Posts Tagged: libraries

A Life in the Library


I come into memory in Claremont, a South Dakota town of perhaps fifty people with no library. We were visited by the bookmobile. I was probably too young to check out books but remember going in and looking at its shelves in wonder. I thought that maybe a person (me) could live in a vehicle like this, surrounded by books and only books.

A bus with a view, 1967 / via Bibliobussen

Here is a wonderful pictorial essay on bookmobiles. Bookmobiles on Messy Nessy

In first grade, we had a classroom library, a shelf of Little Golden Books we divided by desirability. A book’s desirability was completely defined by the presence of flocking. I coveted the flocked bunny, but would settle for the cowboy with the fuzzy chaps just to have one of the better options.


I finally went to a real library in Aberdeen, walking there of my own accord in second and third grades. L. Frank Baum lived in the Dakota territories at some point, so Aberdeen had a small theme park in his honor and the library had the full array of the Oz books. I worked my way through the shelf, then asked the librarian for something else. Something like the Oz books. She led me into the adult section and found The Wind in the Willows.

I found it challenging at age seven. The words were long and the phrasing was British and the story was actually written for adults. Mr. Toad’s lack of self-control deeply disturbed me, but I was still glad when the washerwoman smuggled him out. I think my fear of unjust confinement started with this book because I can’t stand any narrative where someone is in a prison for a crime they didn’t commit or in a mental hospital when they are not ill. Or maybe the book didn’t create these fears so much as activate them. Who knows.

Rapid City

We lived in Rapid City for one school year. We went to the public library fairly often as a family–a new family, as we acquired a stepdad who would soon adopt us. Our last trip there was specifically to return whatever books we needed to return before we moved to Minnesota. While I waited for everyone in the family to be ready to leave, I picked up a book and read a chunk of it (I read quickly). The main character was an orphan named Muffler, so named because he was found wrapped in a muffler. He had the ability to enter some kind of alternate reality where things were as they should be. In this place, cats were huge and dogs were small. I believe the gigantic cats could also talk. Also, there was a unicorn.

Well, this seemed like a wonderful reality to me. I was riveted. But we were moving, it was time to leave, and I couldn’t check out this book. I remembered putting it back on the shelf, my pangs of disappointment, all tied up with the fact that we were moving again.


Edina was rough on me. Sensitive, goofy, South Dakotan me didn’t stand a chance against those Edina girls. But the school librarian understood me. She was a tidy, quiet woman with curled silver hair and glasses. A librarian archetype. She steered me to the Narnia books, which transported me and broke my heart, and the Black Cauldron books, which (to my ten year-old mind) were mythic. But she didn’t know what that Muffler book might be, to my great disappointment.


But back to libraries. I used our local library all the time when the kids were younger. We combined a trip to the library with a visit to the creek, where the girls fed stale bread to the orange-toothed nutria. My home library was mostly books I’d hauled around since I was a child, adding paperbacks as I could, rereading my favorites.

The public library saved me, because my then-husband complained if I bought so much as a magazine, so buying books was out of the question. I thought it was because he was cheap—and he was—but in retrospect, I believe he resented how disengaged I was when I read, how completely absorbed I was by books. “You’re not even here when you read,” he’d complain. That was, of course, the point.

I started buying books secondhand when he left.

The lost book is found!

Remember the book about Muffler? I thought about this book for close to thirty years. Does it surprise you that I would be haunted by a book about giant cats? If it does, you don’t know me very well.

The trouble was, I’d forgotten the title. Over the years, I asked friends who read fantasy books, but no one remembered anything like this. I looked in card catalogs at my local library and turned up nothing. Eventually, I got on the Internet and tried search engines.

I dutifully typed what I could remember about the book into Netscape Navigator and then Google. An orphaned boy named Muffler, giant cats. Nothing ever came up.

Finally, someone steered me to a community on Livejournal (I loved Livejournal) that hunted down book titles based on your descriptions. I tried three times before someone replied. The book is Grimbold’s Other World, by Nicholas Stewart Gray.

See? A Unicorn and everything.

I found a copy online, ordered it, and waited. I have had a few disappointing rereads in my life but this book was not one of them. It’s nicely written and utterly charming in a young reader way. Lots of dialog. Dragons. Unicorns. Grimbold is the cat who leads Muffler into a night world that holds both danger and beauty.


I buy books secondhand all the time, even when I swear I won’t. But I’m at the thrift store, and there they are, and then they’re mine. And of course I am completely addicted to the ease of buying books online. I use Amazon and the rest of the internet to track down any arcane title, including my used copy of Grimbold’s Other World, or the complete works of Betty Macdonald, or whatever strange little rabbit hole I wish to dive into. I have so many books to read here at the house that I stopped going to the library. This is ridiculous. I love libraries and I still wish I could live in a bookmobile.

But come over to my house and take a tour of my bookshelves. I actually do live in a library. It just doesn’t have any wheels.