I Love Libraries and Books
Because I love books, it is simply natural that I love libraries. It is easy to take them for granted, yet they are amazing and wonderful institutions. In facts, books themselves are wonderful inventions. Libraries gather together not only books, but other media (magazines, newspapers, reference works, and more recently music and videos). They represent a vast collection of knowledge, information, and entertainment. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a truly wonderful book that completely changed my thinking about and appreciation of libraries! It is set in the middle ages, when “books” were hand-copied manuscripts, and were not only rare, but valued and treasured. The book is a murder mystery detective story set in an old monastery. One of the greatest tragedies was for a library to burn (with incalculable loss of irreplaceable recorded thinking and knowledge!). I wonder what wisdom and knowledge was lost when the great Library of Alexandria burned? Fortunately today, with modern printing, not to mention electronic recording and distribution, collected knowledge is not so vulnerable.
The very first “library” I remember is the collection of children’s books available in our home. My parents purchased the Childcraft Collection, which was a marvelous series of volumes including many fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, poems, and short stories. I loved having this literature read to me, and later reading it for myself! My favorite poem was “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. I loved both the tragic story and the incredible rhythm of the words. One of my favorite stories was the “parable” of “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, which I understood much later to convey a deep truth about perception and knowledge, and the relativity of understanding. If you are not familiar with it, essentially there are several blind men engaged in heated dispute about the nature of “the elephant” – each argues that he is the only one who truly appreciates and understands the nature of the elephant (one likens it to a wall since he felt the elephant’s side, another to a rope after touching the tail, still another to a snake because he felt the trunk, a tree trunk from feeling the leg, and so on…). Much later, I came to view this as a parable about various religions, and the silly, pointless arguments about which is the “one true religion” and who “really” understands the nature of God.
Our “home library” also included many Dr. Seuss books. These were read to me often enough that I soon had them virtually memorized, especially my favorite The Cat in the Hat. This was perhaps the first book I “read to myself” as I was learning to read. I loved the rhythm and rhyme, as well as the incredible playfulness of all the Seuss books. In third grade, we students had on opportunity to order and purchase books through Scholastic Book Club, and I remember acquiring and reading some wonderful books like: Snow Treasure, Stranger than Fiction, and many, many more!
Fifth Grade Classroom “Library”
My fifth grade teacher had an informal library of books and puzzles. I remember reading a few Tom Swift books she had, and then starting to buy them for myself (my first personal book collection). Tom Swift stories combined science fiction with Tom’s wonderful inventions and exciting adventures. Her puzzle collection included Kohner Brothers’ “Hi-Q” peg jump solitaire puzzle. I loved playing with that, and remember how difficult it was. Later, in college, when I discovered “macro-operators”, it became easy to solve puzzles like this by thinking about them in higher-level chunks.
Hershey Public Library
I have frequented many public and school libraries over my lifetime. The first I remember is the Hershey Public Library, which was located in the center of town in the Community Center. It was not a large library, but I found lots of fascinating material to read both for enjoyment and learning. My most vivid memory is discovering the “mathematics” shelves, there. In the Summer after 7th grade, I spent a lot of time reading as many of the math books as I could. I particularly loved the MAA series, which seemed reasonably accessible, if still challenging. Here is where I first learned about the various classes of numbers (integers, rationals, reals, and imaginaries). I remember struggling to accept imaginary numbers because the conventional names suggested “they weren’t real“. Great food for my growing mathematical appetite! I also continued to explore science fiction – I remember reading a lot of Heinlein in those days, and I think this is where I discovered Isaac Asimov’s I Robot (and other robot stories).
Hershey Junior High School Library
I continued to explore SciFi, reading more Asimov (especially loved Foundation Trilogy), Andre Norton, and more Heinlein. SciFi reinforced my interest and passion for technology and science, and stretched the boundaries of my imagination. I also developed an interest in biography, reading about many famous people. I was especially interested in inventors, and the most memorable biography was about Nicola Tesla, the inventor of generators, motors, and alternating current. Thomas Edison tried to suppress his ideas about A.C. but they have won out in the end. Alternating current is what supplies power to our homes and appliances, though it now needs to be converted back to DC to power computers and charge phones and other devices.
Hershey High School Library
Here I continued to learn all I could from books on math and science. My favorite magazine was Scientific American, and of course my favorite feature was Martin Gardner’s monthly Mathematical Games column. There were also a number of collections of Martin Gardner’s essays (Mathematical Diversions), which I also enjoyed tremendously. Martin Gardner, as I’ve noted in previous posts, had an immeasurable impact on the growth of my passions for math and puzzles. I also recall reading the various chess books in the H.S. collection – I not only loved puzzles, but board games as well, and developed a strong interest in chess.
MIT has a large and distributed library system, spread over many different campus buildings. The “main library” is the Hayden Humanities and Sciences library. I spent a lot of time here, since this is where the math books were! I could also be found at the Barker Engineering library, where more technical books, journals, and proceedings in computer science and artificial intelligence were available. I also enjoyed the Music library, which has a great collection of classical sheet music which I took advantage of to feed my music (piano and keyboards) passion. I was proud when my first technical publication appeared in the MIT math journal collection: Greene,C., and Iba,G., “Cayley’s Formula for Multidimensional Trees,” Discrete Mathematics, vol. 13, no. 1 (1975), pp. 1-11. A tiny drop added to the “sea of knowledge”.
Lexington’s Cary Memorial Public Library
We residents of Lexington, MA, are fortunate indeed to have a truly wonderful Public Library. I am particularly fortunate in that I live (since the divorce and move in 2002) just 1 block away from the library, so I can walk there very easily. Cary Library has an incredible collection of resources: books, magazines, newspapers, electronic data bases, eBooks, videos, and CD’s. Even better is the fact that Cary Library belongs to the Minuteman Regional Library Network, and offers the ability to do a single on-line search of all the libraries in the system, and then request materials, which get delivered to the local library! A tremendous resource and service! I found that there are numerous advantages to borrowing books instead of buying them. Buying books has the advantage of (sometimes) getting them more quickly, and providing as much time as you care to take to read them (but this is also a disadvantage, as I will describe). The downside is that purchased books accumulate and take up space (I’m a pack rat, and have difficulty casting off possessions, especially books). It also turns out that many of my purchased books sit around unread for the longest time (I estimate that I’ve only read perhaps half of the books I’ve collected over the years). Borrowing from the library has a built in “deadline” for reading it — the “final” due date (when there are no more renewals possible). Sometimes I don’t finish a book before I have to return it, but I then simply request it again. For popular books (especially new releases) there are no renewals because there is a waiting list, and I often have to wait weeks or months before a request finally arrives – but there are always other things to read (and lots of other things to do!) in the meantime.
Being a music lover (especially of the blues), I have purchased a rather extensive CD collection, but I simply cannot afford to buy all the music I’d like to. The library, especially through the Minuteman Network of libraries, gives me access to a broad and rich variety of music on CD. It lets me explore new music (new groups, new albums and songs) to see what I like and then only purchase that which I truly love. This all gives an entirely alternate and new meaning to the title of this post: “Notes from the Library”.
The staff of Cary Library are dedicated, professional, and friendly. I am profoundly grateful to have Cary Library as a convenient resource, and personally wish to thank all the staff for their hard work and service!
[… hey, looks like I finished this week’s post a little earlier for a change, and managed to keep it a little shorter! Stay tuned for next week…]