On Doorways and the Love of Libraries

At the start of the sixth annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature author V.E. Schwab described how a co-panelist stated that J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels were required reading for anyone venturing into the world of fantasy – both as a writer and a reader. In response Schwab,

…told the man on the panel I had never read Tolkien, and he looked at me not with derision exactly, but with such open astonishment, as if wondering how I found my way into that chair, onto that panel, into the building, onto the pages of books, without him. And I simply said, “I found another door.”

My librarian mom, retired! | Credit: Priya Chhaya

That simple statement has been tumbling about my head for a number of days as I tried to remember what served as my entree into the world of books and reading. I knew what pushed me towards the fantasy genre, but there was no singular book that made me realize that I valued and loved the written word.

However, even though the actual door was a long-faded memory, I will never forget the architect: my mother. 


While there is much to say about the things my parents gave me together, my mother is the one who built the frame and provided the freedom to access and love the many, many, worlds that books provide.

I know this because she is a librarian who, at the end of this month, will be retiring from a twenty-eight-year career of building doorways for others to walk through.  I know she won’t leave her love of libraries and books behind, but I wanted to take a moment and talk about what she created for me.

I was about eight years old when my mom started working at the library. It was the early 1990s and for whatever reason (likely a lack of babysitters) we often found ourselves sitting quietly in the library with a bounty of books around us. For hours after school, before my father came back from his work in the city, my sisters and I would immerse ourselves with Anne of Avonlea, The Boxcar Children, Kristy’s great idea, and those crazy Sweet Valley twins. I would investigate mysteries with Nancy, George, and Bess – and of course Frank and Joe. Summers were spent vying to win Book It! and score free pizza while enjoying the blissful air-condition as we hid in the study cubbies in the sweltering August air.

View from the PBS Booth at the 2018 National Book Fest | Credit: Priya Chhaya

Before I was eleven I understood the Dewey Decimal System – not because I saw that crazy fantasy series about a traveling library at the edge of an alien invasion – but because I spent my days wandering among the stacks of my regional library.  My parents, with immense patience, would feed me dinner as I gripped the edge of whatever book I was reading, often falling asleep with a spoon in one hand and a page in the other.

I also was one of those kids that read well past her bed time by smuggling in a small flashlight under the covers. Every word, every page filled me with pure, unadulterated, joy.

As an adult I am surrounded by books, having cultivated my own collection at home. However, make no mistake, one of the first things I looked up when I moved was the location of the nearest library.  As is evident from one of my images below, having found my local branch, I am incapable of going to a library and just walking away with 1 book. A minimum of 4 is always required (not including the multitudes of e-books that I reserve as often as I can.)

But it was more than that. This weekend at her retirement party my mom joked that she became a librarian because she wasn’t busy enough with three girls at home (seriously, not true – we were a handful).

It made everyone smile, but she followed that crack with a speech that involved her thanking those who had come to honor her. As she described the many ways in which they had supported, and taken care of us throughout the years we realized that these people were more than just work colleagues. They were family.

In that room were individuals who worked with her when she was a substitute teacher – before becoming librarians. There were individuals whose kids I knew from high school – and even attended college together (though we have lost touch). Not to mention colleagues who I remember from those early days sitting in the children’s section collecting piles of Bernstein Bears and Tintin to read at home. I know that my mom’s impact on these people was profound (and often centered around spreading the word of Indian folk dancing and food), but I can attest that I would not be who I am without them. After twenty-eight years working with incredible people, you cannot help but see ripples beyond a single individual.

It is because of this family at Fairfax County Public Library that I love to write and that I love to read. My mother may have been the architect, but that library system provided the tools for her to build the frame. And collectively this family provided me with the keys to a world of wonder.

I suppose, you can say that I realized what my door was after all.



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