I admit it. I’m a library geek. If I wasn’t a priest, I’d probably be a librarian. My family has to put up with my visits to libraries when we travel: The Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library (my I.Q. goes up 20 points by just walking up those marble steps, past the twin lions, Patience and Fortitude, at the entrance), Bates Hall at the Boston Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Bodleian at Oxford University are among my favorites.

The New York Public Library

Given the fractious and noisome (two words I would have learned at libraries!) times in which we live, it’s good for us to pause and reflect together on the unifying and serene libraries that enrich our communities. As you approach the Boston Public Library, the first in our country, you’ll read this monumental inscription carved into the façade:

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I know this sounds patrician (and, in fact, women were denied entry in the library’s early years), but the sentiment is sound: a democratic republic requires an educated, informed and wise citizenry in order to flourish. Libraries are our palaces of the people, free and open to all.

And while I love the grand libraries mentioned above, most of us dwell in far more humble palaces. I grew up in Ramsey, New Jersey, where the library wasn’t much to look at. However, every time I opened that front door and entered, I felt a sense of freedom.

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Ramsey Free Public Library–my childhood palace.

This was the 1980s, pre-Internet, and a trip to the library, roaming from stack to stack, was our version of a Google search. During the summer, my mother brought my siblings and I to the library at least a couple of times a week. We’d go after spending most of the day at our town’s pool. Sun-kissed, smelling of chlorine, we wandered from stack to stack. I loved that feeling of adventure and possibility as I brought up a new pile of books to the check-out counter.

If you were to go to your local public library today, chances are you would see the wealthy and the homeless, an eighth-generation American and an immigrant, young and old, black and white . . . you get the picture. Our libraries truly are palaces of the people, gathering places where we jump on a wifi network or computer, take a quilting class, study for a Calculus exam, or vote. In our spare time, we can actually read a book or download one on a tablet. And it’s all free and open to all.

If it’s been a while, go and visit your public library this summer. Roam the stacks. Surprise yourself and take out a book that you never envisioned yourself reading. To get you started, here are seven books that I’ve enjoyed lately.

1. The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean at the Los Angeles Public Library. Photo credit: Mel Melcon, LA Times.

A fascinating reflection on the place of libraries in a democratic society told through the story of the fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, set by an arsonist in 1986.


2. The Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick

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121 authors, scientists, artists, businesspeople and other luminaries write letters to children about the joys and importance of reading. Each letter is accompanied by vibrant and inspiring illustrations.


3. The Overstory by Richard Powers

Richard Powers author photo and book cover for The Overstory

A novel in which the lives of nine strangers come together like the root system of trees in a forest. You will look at the natural world differently after reading this profound book, which won a National Book Award.


4. On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor

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An environmental journalist thru-hikes the Appalachian Trail and explores how and why human beings and creatures create trails. I read this before hiking with my family in Vermont and looked at the trails with new eyes.


5. Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

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Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group (owner of the Shake Shack, which makes the best burger and shake I’ve ever had), shares how hospitality can transform any business or enterprise (including the church!). The best business book I’ve read in years, as Meyer has learned much about making people feel at home.


6. The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr

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Franciscan monk, Fr. Richard Rohr, really hits his stride with this new book, which boldly explores the theological meaning of Jesus’ incarnation for all of humanity and creation.


7. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love by Ilia Delio

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Delio explores the connections between faith and science and calls for a paradigm shift in Christian thinking: “Shall we continue our medieval religious practices in a medieval paradigm and mechanistic culture and undergo extinction? Or shall we wake up to this dynamic, evolutionary universe and the rise of consciousness toward integral wholeness?”

So, go find a hammock, beach chair or nook in your palace of the people. Happy reading, and may you have a restful summer!

9 thoughts on “Palaces of the People

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful reminder about the importance of libraries (and wisdom) in our society and for the wonderful collection of book suggestions. Summer time, and the reading is easy….


  2. Thanks for the suggestions of your selection of books. I am a user of the library. As we moved around with Charles in his career, the library was one of the first places our that the children and I found. What a world of ideas. Richard Rohr appears to me every morning by his blog. Thanks for being with us.


  3. Enjoyed your blog about libraries. It’s the place where the old and young, the rich and poor and the in-between come together to enjoy a common love of reading. There’s nothing like the smell of the books or the discovery of a new author. And just by chance, The Overstory is the next book in my stack.


    1. I’m also a big fan of libraries, and am now getting to enjoy the excitement of exploring the aisles of books with a six year old! Looking forward to reading On Trails, as, interestingly, I just finished reading Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis, which is the true story of a woman who hiked the Appalachian trail by herself. I randomly chose that book at the library! You may enjoy that one, too.


  4. I love libraries too! They have always felt like sacred spaces to me. There’s nothing like a great book read by the ocean or on a screened porch in the summertime.


  5. Fractious and noisome…great words, both! Looks like I might have to add a couple of titles to my Goodreads list. The library in my hometown looked a lot like yours. Magical places often have deceptively plain appearances.


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