Francie Nolan, the protagonist of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, spent her childhood reading through every book in the library in alphabetical order. She read a book every day, but she didn’t own any of them. She couldn’t afford to.
We aren’t all meant to tackle the library with such militance. Yet I tend to think that Francie knew something that people three times her age forget: The library is one of the best places on Earth. Trips to these literary castles aren’t just for kids or college students. They still hold the magic we knew as children, but they’re even better now. Libraries have adapted to modernity with poise. And if you’re aware of what a healthy book habit can cost, heading to the library can save you some serious cash as well.
Here’s why it’s easier than ever to meet our nostalgia for stacks filled with colorful spines.
01. Reading is good for you.
First things first: Why do we read? Our reasons may range from quirky to serious. We read magazines and blogs to stay in the loop. Some books teach us how to deal with challenges in life. Sometimes we read because it’s like watching TV (except better). But why is reading a worthy way to spend our time?
Science shows that reading eases stress and keeps us sharp. A study by the University of Sussex found that reading for only six minutes reduced stress levels up to 68 percent. In a short time, reading reduces heart rate and relaxes the muscles. As you read, you use the vision, language, and associative learning parts of the brain all at once. It’s a challenging task. In this way, reading allows us to escape our frustrating, unsatisfactory world. A report by the Journal of Education Psychology also shows a relationship between reading and improved memory and cognition.
Reading also develops empathy. Diving into memoirs, novels, or travel essays makes you more aware of people and places outside the scope of your experience. There’s purpose to your literary escape, author Neil Gaiman says: “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a ‘me,’ as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”
Such wisdom and health are available to anyone who possesses a library card and puts it to good use.
02. Libraries are the Spotify of the literary world.
Public lending libraries were the sharing economy before services such as Uber or Redbox ever became a thing. The sharing economy is growing because owning things has become less important to people. This could be a major improvement for a culture that often falls for the lie that buying more things equals happiness.
Books, both paper and digital, cost a lot of money. I rarely regret adding to my personal collection, but sometimes I buy books because other people say, “You just have to read it!” Yet I often find out later that I can’t even make it through the first fifty pages. Borrowing from the library gives you the freedom to put down a book you don’t like. Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, said that life is “too short for bad books.” And he’s right.
Recently, I checked out Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s a classic found on every must-read list ever. It finally made it onto my personal list after I finished Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi, a Western literature professor in Iran. I have no doubt that Lolita deserves the attention it gets, but I had a difficult time reading it.
Perhaps you like the tension of an unreliable narrator, in which case you might love Lolita. I, however, gave up. The book went back to the library, and I moved on to the next classic on my list. When it comes to the library, you’re allowed to do that. It’s like hitting the skip button on Pandora.
If you do it right, you can eliminate your book budget. Or at least reduce it by purchasing more selectively. In using your library card, you can live like a cultured millennial and exercise that much more control over your budget. Win-win.
03. You’ve already paid for your library membership—use it!
Maria Popova of Brain Pickings calls libraries “democratic cultural temples of wisdom where we come to commune with humanity’s most luminous minds; where the rewards are innumerable and destiny-changing, and the only price of admission is willingness.”
In reality, however, we all pay the price of admission—even the unwilling. Local, state, and federal taxes fund our libraries. The American Library Association estimated that Americans each pay $35.81 a year for the library. Don’t use your local library? Liken it to that time you used Amazon Prime’s thirty-day free trial and forgot to cancel it before they charged you for a full year. (No one else? Just me? Perfect.)
But if you look at it from a rewards perspective, you just landed in a media subscription program that costs about the same as two hardcovers from Barnes & Noble. That money you were never going to see buys you unlimited access to an endless buffet of titles and genres to suit your viewing and reading preferences.
04. Better technology means that your money isn’t wasted at the library.
Nothing is worse than knowing that your money goes toward propping up a service that’s outdated and ill-suited to your needs. This may be the picture you have of the library: the place where you’re forced to adhere to old-fashioned values by checking out heavy books that you’re afraid you’ll lose or ruin.
In reality, the growing popularity of tablets and e-readers isn’t lost on local librarians. Five years ago, public libraries held more than 18.5 million e-books, according to the ALA. That number has only gone up since then. You can access this resource through your local library’s website. It saves you trips to the brick-and-mortar location. Touch a button to borrow an e-book. Touch another button to send it back.
Admittedly, some libraries have better online collections than others. But it’s worth a gander wherever you are. The price of buying an e-book is outrageous. The Kindle edition of The Secret Life of Bees on Amazon is $12.99. But you can download it for free through the New York Public Library.
Audiobooks, too. Who doesn’t love to tune out other riders on the subway with a good story? Sites such as Audible charge you about $14 per book, and you have to submit to a membership plan, which charges you for a new book even if you’re not ready to claim it. Or you could download digital versions of audiobooks from the library. (Take it from me. If you haven’t heard Tina Fey read her book Bossypants, you’re missing out.)
05. At the library the Internet is free, and no one is counting how many drinks you buy.
Beyond saving you money, patronizing libraries is equal to eating local food and shopping at small businesses. It’s simply a good choice.
Libraries everywhere embrace their identity as cultural hubs. They provide free public space and services that roll with the times.
For you, this may look like a well-lit table with an outlet for your laptop and no one counting the minutes until you vacate. Whether you’re escaping home or taking advantage of free Wi-Fi, libraries offer an alternative to busy coffee shops. No librarian will ever expect you to pay for your seat in caffeinated drinks and scones.
Like coffee shops, libraries also overflow with opportunities to meet new people who share or expand your interests. They support book clubs, readings, and workshops, depending on the demand in your community. Some are organizing TEDx events, offering a space to “openly discuss, debate, and absorb challenging and complex issues in society.” TEDx events are TED talks given by local people at a local venue. And libraries continue to play a pivotal role as cultural hubs.
In an article for GOOD, Rosie Spinks argues that libraries want to stay open and relevant so that they can continue to serve the public, especially those residents who would otherwise be excluded by the cost of service. Libraries provide digital literacy courses and free computer use in an age when the Internet is a fundamental part of connecting to society. When you consider that classrooms across the country require students to complete computer-based projects to pass class, the importance of public access to the Internet becomes clear. It’s worth it to support your library for these reasons alone.
“Reimagining the library as a gathering of people, rather than a collection of books, bodes well for the institution’s future,” Spinks writes.
06. The library is your chance to rediscover your childlike curiosity.
The first time I saw a Harry Potter book, my friend had borrowed it from the library. I read it next. I relied on the library for the ten years it took for J. K. Rowling to write and publish all seven books.
When you were young, the library may have been a ritual that you couldn’t get enough of. If you’re a parent, it might be an adventure-filled escape from home on a blustery day. The library holds that same enchantment for the lost college graduate and the ambitious career woman.
A library is one of the safest places to enter with an open mind or a question. It’s staffed with people who have devoted their lives to categorizing texts not only with their hands but with their hearts and minds as well. The next time you’re able, explore among the stacks. Allow yourself to stumble upon unexpected authors whose worlds, whether real or imagined, can teach you about your own world. Here you can take global issues and see them through the eyes of someone who has been there, front and center.
A library’s low barrier of entry gives you freedom to peruse what you would not likely spend your time or money on. This aids Gaiman’s theory that reading develops empathy and combats self-obsession. Even if you live in a homogenous community, you can use a book—as Atticus tells Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird—“to climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.”
Perhaps as we read more, we can rediscover our curiosity not yet marred by the pressure to know and form immovable opinions on everything. Much more than plastic, a library card is your catalyst.