During summers of my childhood, a highlight was the twice-monthly visit by the bookmobile. Our small village had no formal public library at the time — we weren’t blessed with one of the 1,600-plus Carnegie Libraries that were planted around the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century. There was a library in the high school, with a librarian who shushed us a lot.

When the school year ended, all we had was what seemed a long drive to Green Bay or, better, the bookmobile. It rumbled into the lot of the massive Catholic church that anchored our village. It was little more than an extended RV; if there was air conditioning, it was no match for brutal Wisconsin summers. Jostle with other hard-working bodies inside the narrow shell and … let’s just say it could get close.

But all of that — the cramped space, the heat, the smell of diesel and farmers’ sweat — faded in face of the magic it held: books.

On those Saturday mornings, I would mobilize my two older brothers — not an easy task. Off we’d march the four blocks to the church parking lot and climb into the dim light of the bookmobile. We had to abide by my mother’s practical rule: Don’t bring home any more books than you can carry. I took full advantage, loading first myself and then my brothers until our arms sagged. They were readers in their own way, but me? I was hungry.

The politics of starvation

I thought of that gift in my life when I read about a county library board in Oklahoma that voted to ban displays of books that feature sex, sexuality and sexual assault. Spicy romance novels, aka “bodice rippers,” are no exception. The same piece led me to a Washington Post story about a growing movement to move some books to the “adult” section — in theory to protect them from censorship — or remove them altogether. No surprise that the subject of the targeted books is often about gender and sexuality (porn!), race or particularly ugly aspects of American history (race again). But it doesn’t stop there. In one Texas community, Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” was pulled off a shelf(They will never get my copy of “Where the Wild Things Are.”) In a county in Florida, “Everywhere Babies,” which has been beloved for 25 years for its celebration of infants, has been deemed inappropriate for school libraries, apparently because the doting adults are of not all the same.

Nor does this stop at individual books. There is now, according to the Post story, a push to eliminate independent public library boards and fire librarians who have the audacity to equate reading with intellectual growth and freedom, not to mention that thing we call democracy. In other words, to do what public librarians do, which is to open doors to the world for free and introduce us to the magic that can be found there.

The minute I had a discretionary dime, I started buying my own books. But through most of that time, I still carried a library card. Whenever I moved to a new town for a new job, I got a library card before I even got a new driver’s license; a car may have been required, but books were essential. When I traveled around the world, I always sought out bookstores and often the signature libraries: Check out those in Amsterdam and Helsinki next time you’re there. My idea of Mecca? The third floor of the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, where you can see the original Book of Kells. Imagine! And did I mention that the bookmobile in my childhood village would park in the lot of a Catholic church?

Last week, I called the little library that serves the tiny town where Mountain Editor has a newspaper and I have a small cabin. In this remote place, the nearest full-service hospital is more than two hours away. I can’t buy out-of-season produce or get GrubHub to deliver Thai food. But Sean answered the phone at the library, answered my questions, apologized for not having access to LexisNexis, said the Sunday New York Times was in good shape if I wanted to pop in and set aside a book I wanted to read but not buy. All for free.

Feeding curiosity and opening minds

I found my way to journalism through many doors. But a primary one, no doubt, was that shushing librarian (who slipped me books when she knew I had finished my homework), a practical mother who let me read her “adult” books and the Saturday morning bookmobile. As worlds were opened to me, I wanted to explore them, and then open them to others.

That’s unlikely to convince those who want to lock the doors to those worlds; many probably think people like me are exactly what make books dangerous. But they are the ones who are missing the magic, and starving.

Further Reading