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Opinion

Cherished memories of libraries as repositories of knowledge

Author Harry Mark Petrakis, at his home in Indiana. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media

My wife and I must have made a rather somber sight as we entered the library in our town of Chesterton, Indiana; she on her walker and I hobbling along on my cane. But we had decided to break the monotony of our days by venturing into the library. Shops were useless since we no longer had reason to buy clothing or pick up items for our home. Diana spent hours a day reading and we decided as a change, she would read in the library as I made notes for a potential story.

OPINION

Libraries had been an integral part of my childhood and my teens. They were a haven when I played hooky (as I often did) from school. I’d find a chair in some remote corner and spend hours reading. In my late teens I used libraries as a waiting room after I’d placed my horse racing bets in a nearby handbook. Listening to the announcer over the loudspeaker recounting the races in the frenzied arena of the handbook was nerve-wracking. I began placing my bets early and then spending the afternoon hours reading in the library. In late afternoon I’d return to the handbook to check my losers (mostly) and my winners (rarely).

There was also a womb-like ambience to libraries, a certain sacrosanct silence befitting a repository of the world’s knowledge. Unlike groceries and department stores, there was little movement or sound. Accepting the silence as a courtesy to others, library patrons sat reading in chairs or at the tables, while others browsed the shelves

As my wife and I entered our small town’s Westchester Library, I inhaled that fragrance that came with books; the scents of ink, paper and bindings. That aroma I had cherished since childhood. Each time I entered that domain of books, I recall the awe and delight I’d felt the moment I held Lion At My Heart, my first published novel, in my hands. That matchless event came to my family in Pittsburgh where I held a job as a junior level speechwriter for U. S. Steel in their corporate headquarters.

After Lion was accepted, I began the process of preparing the manuscript for publication, correcting the pages and then proofreading the galleys. After several months, I waited impatiently for the finished book. One Saturday morning in the summer of 1959, a few months after our third son had been born in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, from a bedroom window on the second floor of our house, I saw the mail truck pull up to our rural mailbox. I glimpsed the small brown parcel the mailman slipped into the box.

I raced down the stairs shouting, “It’s here!”

When I returned from the mailbox to the house holding the parcel which came from my publisher, our 7- and 11-year-old sons waited beside my wife who was holding our newborn son. All of them watched in suspenseful silence as I tore open the envelope and tugged out the copy of my first book. Our sons, my wife holding the baby and I whooped in a tumultuous moment of celebration. Afterwards our family formed a small procession, led by our sons beating with spoons on the bottom of metal pots. Holding the baby, my wife walked behind them. I trailed the group, holding my book above my head, as a priest might hold aloft the chalice of communion.

If the joy and celebration became more restrained with later books they always included gratitude and a feeling of relief that the process that began with the first words written on the first page of a manuscript, had been carried to fruition.

That same lengthy, always arduous process of starting, and then pursuing months and years of writing until a book was completed, followed by the fulfillment of its publication was repeated with each book. In the years that followed, I continued writing stories and additional books.

Through those succeeding years, I began lecturing before clubs and colleges on writing and storytelling. In the mid-’70s I served two years as writer-in-residence for the Chicago Public Library, setting up week-long writing workshops at two-score city libraries.

My tenure for the library was followed by serving two more years as writer-in-residence as for the Chicago Board of Education. In those two years, I visited 53 Chicago schools speaking to elementary and high school students on the art and joy of stories and storytelling.

During these years I also began lecturing as well as and serving periods of teaching. I held yearlong teaching residencies at several universities and during the summers served as writing teacher at numerous writing conferences. Those conferences brought me into contact with numerous novelists and short story writers, a few becoming life-long friends

Traveling alone or with my wife, I researched my Greek War of Independence novels by traveling a number of times through Greece. After other travels, I wrote essays on spending Easter with relatives on my parent’s island of Crete. I also wrote magazine pieces on my visits to Cyprus, Rhodes, London and Israel.

In later years, writing a book on the electronics giant, Motorola, my wife and I traveled through the European countries of Norway, Denmark, France and Scotland. A year later we also traveled through Asia, visiting Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, absorbing the wonder and beauty of these ancient and diverse cultures.

Meanwhile during these years we enjoyed the comforting insular life of our family. Sharing the growth of our sons through childhood into adolescence, the celebration of their birthdays and their graduations, the milestones accompanying their journeys into manhood.

There was also the enjoyment of numerous dinners with friends who also savored the dinners my wife cooked for them. These gatherings held the extra bounty of imbibing numerous bottles of red and white wines as well as the stimulus of gratifying conversations.

A couple of hours later, as my wife and I made our way out of the library, a teen-aged youth at one of the tables raised his head from his book. He stared at the two of us limping along, as if he were witnessing the passage of a pair of aged, brittle ghosts. While I couldn’t be sure, I thought I also glimpsed an expression of pity for our obvious decrepitude.

I smiled at the youth, offering what reassurance I could, and responding to whatever pity he might have felt for us, wishing for him a fraction of the gratifying, fulfilling life we two old people had lived.

Find more information about novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.

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