Participants were invited to add their gift

Last week, I actually checked out a book about public libraries from our public library.

The book is called, unsurprisingly, "The Public Library". It is a photographic essay by Robert Dawson about libraries throughout the United States. The range of photos is striking—from mobile libraries started in Hurricane Katrina's wake to stately buildings from the 1800s.

To my surprise, I've become what can only be called a library tourist. On more than one occasion, the first stop on a family trip has been the city library. Seattle's architectural marvel was so amazing I spent the rest of the trip dreaming of living within walking distance. Boston's library, with history at every turn, was incredible in a completely different way. In Portland, we proved to our son that card catalogs once existed, then lost ourselves in stacks of vintage magazines.

I do like books, obviously, but my love of libraries is rooted in something else. Libraries have long been a place to explore a new narrative for my life.

Maybe I'm the sort of person who loves science fiction or westerns. Perhaps inside of me is a jazz, poetry, architecture, or wine connoisseur. Maybe I'll be a financial planner, writer, developer, or therapist. Alternatively, the future might be traveling the world, writing novels in cafes.

Walking into a library and leaving hours later with a stack of books on previously unknown topics opens the door to infinite possibilities. Not only is everything free, but you have to return all of it. Whereas a purchase is a commitment, borrowing books is temporary. You are free from the obligation to figure things out first.

Best of all, there are no repercussions from failed experiments, other than odd looks from a librarian with a keen eye, appreciating your wayward pursuits. You don't wake up to surprising credit card bills or shelves of embarrassing tangents.

The Internet fills this need in some ways, and libraries continue to evolve in response. But when I look at the job fairs and computer classes, story times and manga meet-ups, writing circles and game nights taking place between the stacks, I realize that they are still doing what only a library can do—provide a place where people of any age and means can walk in and try on a new version of themselves.

Prompted

Last week's dispatch asked, When was the last time you were surprised?

Erin wrote:

The last time I was truly surprised was this last December when I was fired for the first time. It was a shock, but it turned out to be exactly what I wanted, since it was the only thing preventing me from moving. Now, I'm living somewhere else and am really excited, for the first time in a while, with the direction things are going.

Drew wrote:

I would say when I turned 40. I knew my wife had cooked up something for me. She told me to pack two bags (one for a weekend and one for a week) and then she took me into Manhattan. We checked into a hotel and then she said she wanted to take me to the Top of the Rock (the viewing levels at the top of Rockefeller Plaza). I knew something was up but didn’t know what.

We get to the top, I wanted to stop and capture the moment by taking a photo with Central Park in the background. Jo was gracious enough to pause and then as we rounded the corner to one of the main indoor gallery spaces before heading outside, I saw sitting in the middle of the gallery my Mum and Dad who had flown in from Australia. I was a little surprised, but not greatly as I had suspected something. I was hugging my Mum (Australian for Mom) when she started shuffling in a clockwise direction. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and lifted my head to see the rest of my immediate family (my brothers, my sister and their spouses and kids) plus a gang of childhood friends from Australia, too. All singing “Happy Birthday” and joined by most of the public also in the gallery. Surprised doesn’t even begin to cover it! I’m one very, very lucky and forever grateful man.

The dispatch included a story about the card game Hanabi. Jack added this brilliant perspective on games:

Have you ever played Fluxx? Almost every card played in that game changes the rules in some way. It's maddening—as soon as you develop a strategy, a rule change obliterates it. You have to start forming meta-strategies like playing to establish some kind of order or to throw the game into chaos, and even those meta-strategies fail to hold up over time.

What this also makes me think is that on some level games always reflect an aspect of what it means to be human and alive. Fluxx is like the world of business and technology, orders of magnitude faster. Hanabi alludes to how we are blind to qualities in ourselves that others perceive, that we can only know when they point and tell us, "You have a 5."

Uncommon reads

A Time Machine by Jennifer Brook:

To this end, I installed a time machine at Lyrath Estate in Kilkenny, Ireland this past week where attendees had the opportunity to take off their shoes, relinquish their gadgets, and travel into the future. This version of the time machine was built with seven wingback chairs and seven pairs of headphones. At the end of their journey, participants were invited to exit through and add their gift to the gift shop.

Annie Clark on the song Digital Witness:

"People, myself included, are so used to documenting everything that they are experiencing," Clark explains, "and it's almost like the cart has been put before the horse and now it's not about experiencing, it's about documenting and showing your friends and proving to the world that you're a special person and you have value. And you have value because you exist on the Internet. I wrote a will not too long ago, and in it I wrote 'When I die, I want you to scatter my ashes in the Internet,'" she laughs.

Your turn

Do you have a favorite library memory?