WHEN I ask my students to reflect on the person who influenced them most to write, many credit parents who read them to sleep or filled their hours and homes with books.
Teachers come close. Decades separate my generation from those of my students. Yet, almost as if we came to a tacit agreement, the popular choice of writing mentors was not among the brilliant, distinguished writers who cast their spell in college or writing workshops.
They were the ones who, in elementary and high school, made us look forward to making book reports and filled our hearts to bursting when they chose a poem or essay for publication in the school paper.
These early mentors had incomparable patience and wisdom because they saw past our misspelling, clichés and platitudes. “Juvenile” wasn’t a genre or a bad word to them.
After she received her first draft back from me, a student of mine became too disconsolate to come up with another draft.
Then she passed an essay about her high school mentor. After reading it, I realized that while Journalism emphasizes the rule of getting the story right the first time, mentoring is more about encouraging a person to want to get the story right.
This September, which is Literacy Month, I pay tribute not only to parents and mentors in Language and Reading. Librarians share the stake in keeping open for every child the portals for discovery and escape.
A library card was to my generation what a smart phone is to this generation. Perhaps, the digital generation may not even know where to find a brick-and-mortar library in the campus.
In my time, the library towered over the life of the mind. Vladimir Nabokov, D. H. Lawrence and J. R. R. Tolkien were not required in high school. But I knew where their books were shelved.
More importantly, no librarian in our all girls’ school considered a book too dangerous for a young girl to take home. A librarian ferries readers to the heart of a library, as I rediscovered in Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Night Bookmobile.”
A young woman comes upon a library on wheels while aimlessly walking the streets at night. She accepts the invitation from an old gentleman, who is the librarian of the Night Bookmobile, to check out the collection.
Inside the library—which “smelled of old, dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog”—she discovers that the entire collection contains everything she has read, “from Jane Austen to Paul Auster,” including the “ephemera—cereal boxes and such”.
The reader requests to borrow the diary she kept as a child. The librarian sticks to the rules: no borrowing, closing at dawn.
She returns the following night, expecting to be reunited with “the perfect lover”: “a portrait of myself as a reader”. But the library and its librarian never materialize.
Over the years, when she looks for it, the Night Bookmobile never shows up. When she least expects, it does.
Why do we pine for the past? Where will our desires take us?
When I came upon the first drawn panel of the bookshelves, I automatically craned my neck to read the book spines: which ones did the Reader and I read? Which ones to hunt for?
Returning again and again to the unforgettable last panels, I imagine how the smell of “old, dry paper” conjures many forms of escape. Only some lead to freedom.
(For Janicah and Danielle)
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 18, 2016 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”