Like many people, I've spent the past few weeks staring at the kitty-litter box that is 2016, wondering where hope is to be found. In the bottom of a martini glass, possibly, though you wake up with a gruesome hangover and it's still 2016.
Then, I read a remarkable story on the website of TVO, Ontario's public broadcaster. It was about a five-year-old boy, Jack Bennett, and his dad, Lanrick Bennett Jr., who had visited all of Toronto's 100 library branches in a six-month period, using public transit. They were inspired by Daniel Rotsztain's book of drawings called All the Libraries in Toronto.
Some weekends they visited seven branches. Sometimes, they trekked to the outer edges of the city, realizing how huge it was. At every stop, they got a librarian to stamp their copy of All the Libraries in Toronto. "It was a lot of connection with my son. I really got to spend some quality time," Mr. Lanrick told TVO's Nam Kiwanuka.
What a lucky kid, I thought. What a fine dad. And, because I'm becoming all sentimental in my dotage, it threw me back to my childhood when I spent most of my weekends at a Toronto library. Not with my parents, of course: It was the seventies and they neither knew nor cared where we were and were always mildly surprised when the right number of children showed up for dinner.
At seven or eight years old, I would walk or take the bus to the library, clutching my little yellow paper library card, and when the librarian saw me, she'd bring me to the horse books by Marguerite Henry or Walter Farley that she knew I loved, (I don't remember any male librarians then; they must not have realized this magical career was open to them.)
I spend a lot of time in libraries to this day. They are full of these things called books that contain a near-extinct species known as facts. The forgotten and arcane lie in their pages. You can use them to settle bets. I rewrote my first book in a library and I plan to rewrite my next one there as well. Libraries are much less annoying than coffee shops and they offer fewer distractions than home: the dust bunnies are someone else's concern; the screaming child making a break for the door is, for once, not your own.
Unfortunately, the secret is out. My local branches are packed all the time. One Sunday, I showed up a few minutes before the library opened to find 50 or 60 people milling about outside, and when the doors opened we raced for seats like a Black Friday horde intent on the last microwave.
So, it pains me when I hear that libraries are struggling with budget cuts across the country and the falling purchasing power of the loonie. In Ontario's Essex County, the librarians have been on strike for nearly six months. A glamorous, high-profile job it is not, but an essential one it is. Challenged with the question of how they shape their future – digital or analog – libraries have made themselves indispensable in the present, providing free movies and lectures, ESL lessons, open WiFi for bad teenagers, meeting places for refugees and exhausted new mothers alike.
In his wonderful 2012 book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard professor Michael Sandel talks about the disappearance of the public space, where all citizens can meet, in favour of the monetized or private space. Instead of many classes of people from different backgrounds gathering in one place with a common interest, we become stratified by what we can purchase – the fast-lane pass at the amusement park is a good example. When there are so few opportunities for everyone to gather, the sense of common interest and goals diminishes.
A library is one of the last places where this community still exists, where you can't tell, in the words of the old Yip Harburg song, "your banker from your but…ler." Everyone stands in the same lines and everyone receives the same treatment, except for the criminals with overdue books. (Okay, guilty. I had 11 e-mails warning me about overdue books in 2016 alone, but this tax on my laziness is probably keeping the Toronto Public Library system in the black.)
The world seemed to have gone off its spinner this year, making the library one of the few places you could retreat where the pace of life was slower and blessed silence reigned. It is also the place where serendipity thrives.
After I gave a talk about the late crime novelist P.D. James to an overflowing crowd at a library branch, I wandered among the shelves and discovered a book called Forensics and Fiction, in which a doctor answers mystery authors' grisly questions. (Sample: "Can my character hide inside a corpse?" I imagined Phyllis James looking down at me with a sly smile.)
"The library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you're not really any different from everyone else," the late Maya Angelou once told an interviewer from the New York Public Library. Those are wiser words than pretty much anything that was said in all of 2016. Let's try again next year, shall we?