Inventing Niagara

“Did you know they drained Niagara once?”

The question popped up during one of my earliest trips to the famous falls — a bit of history, some trivia, as I walked the winding paths near its edge with my future husband. Spencer grew up 85 miles south of the cataract. There aren’t too many folks in Western New York who can’t tell you something about Niagara.

It wasn’t my very first visit. That came in 2004, when I was traveling around the Buffalo area with my parents and sister before the start of another school year. I’ve always been a waterfall fan — a waterfall nut, you might say. And my first glimpse of the Horseshoe Falls, from the landscaped paths on the Canadian side, certainly inspired awe. Taking the ubiquitous Maid of the Mist voyage to the base of Horseshoe Falls, I remember looking up and seeing nothing but violently falling water. We were close to disaster … but safe from it, too. Exhilarating.

I thought of this early trip so often while reading Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Shaped — for good or for ill — by the land and people around it … creating myths, perpetuating others. A site of commerce, conflict and connection for centuries.

Americans call Niagara Falls a natural wonder, but the Falls aren’t very natural anymore. In fact, they are a study in artifice. Water diverted, riverbed reshaped, brink stabilized and landscape redesigned, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength.

Held up as an example of something real, they are hemmed in with fakery — waxworks, haunted houses, IMAX films and ersatz Indian tales. A symbol of American manifest destiny, they are shared politely with Canada. Emblem of nature’s power, they are completely human-controlled. Archetype of natural beauty, they belie an ugly environmental legacy still bubbling up from below. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to how America falsifies nature, reshaping its contours and redirecting its force while claiming to submit to its will.

Publisher description

The first time I saw Niagara, I felt overwhelmed by the urge to photograph it. Today I would pull out my iPhone, experimenting with panoramas, positioning my kids by a rainbow … but 17 years ago, my blocky cell phone and its tiny camera was OK for 10-cent text messages and not much else. I had to remember that first falls experience the old-fashioned way: living in the moment. (Thankfully, my mom had her own ever-present lens to document our adventures.)

The falls are a memorable experience. As Strand beautifully illustrates throughout Inventing Niagara, being there is a physical thing. It’s loud. It’s wet. It’s windy. Things I despise in any other scenario … but, you know, I’m willing to overlook all kinds of discomforts for the sake of waterfalls. Hence that sticky poncho above! And bobbing around on the Maid of the Mist’s open deck feels treacherous … but it’s a sanitized fear. The illusion of danger is part of the fun.

Inventing Niagara examines many aspects of the falls’ history, both real and mythical — everything from Seneca history as keepers of the Western Door to the region’s role in the Underground Railroad. These were all new stories to me, and inspired lots of on-the-side googling to explore more. French tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who understood “the appeal of the morbid to the masses,” using his famed aerial walks as a metaphor for slavery before emancipation? This is some pretty fascinating stuff.

The romance and Hollywood-inspired section was great fun, too. Honestly, I had no idea Niagara featured in so many aspects of pop culture. Marilyn Monroe’s longest walk in cinema offered a different “view” at Niagara in the 1950s, and of course there’s the long history of the falls as a honeymoon capital of yesteryear. (Also, ever wondered how Viagra got its name?)

Of course, it’s not all misty fun. Strand gives equal attention to the environmental impacts on the region in the name of progress: the sad and criminal history of Love Canal, the genesis of the EPA’s Superfund program; power plants and the harnessing of the falls’ power; construction of a soulless parkway straight through town. Dead malls and vacant storefronts in the shadow of landfills. The juxtaposition of the American and Canadian towns, sharing a name … staring each other down from opposite the gorge. If you’ve ever wondered why there is such a stark difference between nations, you’ll definitely learn that and then some here.

What I loved most about Ginger Strand’s accounting of Niagara is her obvious love for the place. I thought the author’s voice featured perfectly within the narrative. It was like going on a road trip with an entertaining but slightly-obsessive friend, who uses the drive to tell you every fun fact about her latest obsession. (Privately … you’re just glad it isn’t drugs.)

She’s a strong, detailed, lyrical writer with a talent for drawing you immediately into a scene and making you feel at home. Strand isn’t analyzing Niagara with a calculated, dispassionate eye; she’s generating the full picture, accounting for its warts and sparkle in equal measure.

While Niagara’s “natural wonder” is now under human control, there remains an otherworldliness to it. It’s still beautiful.

As humans, we just have to decide the degree to which we’re willing to make believe.

I learned so much in Inventing Niagara — and paying attention to the man behind the curtain does nothing to diminish its power. If anything, my interest is stronger now, knowing just how many people have converged in their attempts to admire, own, tame, promote, or protect this thundering strip of land.

I think it ultimately comes back to that very human desire to utter three words — words echoed in the carvings often found on wooden park handrails, encased in lovers’ hearts on redwoods, scribbled into theme-park ride waiting areas … from sea to shining sea.

I was here.

Escaping with ‘Running Away to Home’

Running Away to HomeWhen it became apparent that we were all going to be settling in for the long haul during COVID-19, I immediately looked for an escape.

Not a literal escape because, you know: quarantine. But definitely a bookish one.

With my kids increasingly tolerant of Mom’s reading time, I’ve been able to devour quite a few stories recently. Jennifer Wilson’s Running Away to Home: My Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters is easily my favorite of the lot — the most engaging and delightful book I’ve read in ages.

It certainly helps that I relate deeply to Jennifer: writer, wife, and mom to two young kids — a son and daughter — who, along with her husband Jim, realized that the rat-race life in suburbia was leading to stuff, but little satisfaction. Or happiness.

Armed with the limited knowledge Jennifer has of her great-grandparents, who immigrated from a small village called Mrkopalj, the Wilson-Hoff family leaves Iowa to spend four months in a town of 800 people — where everyone knows everyone, the homemade alcohol is freely flowing, and lessons about abundance, scarcity, and friendship are abundant.

I knew I was in for a treat as soon as I cracked the cover … even if it took me eight years to get to this point. After finishing Running Away to Home yesterday, I immediately clicked over to send a quarantine copy to my mom, who identifies strongly with our Polish roots. Poland isn’t Croatia, but there were so many similarities in the stories (and recipes!) shared by Jennifer, I knew Mom would love this tale of roots and wings.

That’s when I saw the helpful “You’ve purchased this before!”-style note on Amazon. When I ordered it? Dec. 16, 2012, the day Spencer proposed. I purchased Wilson’s memoir along with a copy of The Wedding Book! (In a world before Amazon Prime, gotta get that $25 free ship.) Seven-plus years later, it finally called loudly enough to me from my bookshelf. If it’s any indication of how the past few years have gone, this memoir was perched next to Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction (helpful book, by the way).

So. Right. Running Away to Home found me at a good time.

A4B61D47-ACEC-4E9D-9D58-5E612AAA2AEDIt’s hard to put into words just why I loved it so much. Certainly tons of credit goes to Wilson’s funny, warm, astute and tight writing, which drew me in immediately and never let go. Beyond Jennifer, Jim, and young Sam and Zadie, the cast of characters in Mrkopalj — particularly Robert, their landlord/bartender/friend — were endearing and unforgettable. Everyone had so much personality … because, well, I’m sure, they do have so much personality.

When Jennifer is able to connect with lost relatives who still live nearby, I was taken back to my own long afternoons in the sitting rooms of elderly relatives in Pennsylvania, where my own grandparents grew up. We made these pilgrimages every summer, around the time of my great-grandmother’s birthday, playing nearby as the adults reminisced over meals in family-favorite restaurants.

The world Jennifer draws is at once familiar and foreign. It was impossible not to imagine my own great-great-grandparents making the decisions that led to their voyage to America (from Podkarpackie Voivodeship, Poland, sayeth 23andMe).

Running Away to Home is full of revelations about family — the ones who made us, and the one we create ourselves — without ever becoming preachy, condescending, or eyeroll-inducing. Jennifer and Jim wanted to connect with their children, with the land, with others, with each other … and they did, often in ways they did not expect.

Finishing Wilson’s book definitely had me eager to:

a) Learn to officially make my grandmother’s cabbage rolls,
b) Start a garden and grow my own herbs, and
c) Plan a post-COVID vacation to explore my roots abroad.

Recommend highly to readers who are…

  • Fans of memoirs and family sagas
  • Interested in ancestry/genealogy
  • Looking to travel without leaving the couch
  • Like entertaining stories with heart, and no tragedy

In short, what I mean to say is … I loved itAnd eight years after its initial publication, it totally holds up.

Get it for your Kindle. Grab it on audio. Borrow it from your library. I don’t care how you get here, just … get here if you can.


Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.


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Enduring Potter magic


Guys. Did you know that this July marks seven years since the final installment in the Harry Potter series was published?

Seven. years.

I was a freshly-minted college graduate working at Borders when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, leading our store’s midnight party with trivia, activities and more. All with the grace and aplomb you’ve come to expect from me, of course.

Kidding. I was acting like a total lunatic, dressed in a black gown I’d originally purchased to wear as the wedding date of a man who would ask me to be his girlfriend in one of the most public, cringe-inducing moments in Megan History.

But that’s another story . . . and one I am totally not putting on the Internet.

(Don’t worry: that man is happily married now — to someone else. No permanent damage done.)

But back to HP. Given I still run an Etsy shop stocked exclusively with Hogwarts fashions (and still sell ’em!), I remain enmeshed in the Potter world. But for the average person? Well, I guess the magic has worn thin.

Or has it?

When Amber recently wrote she was finishing up the first book in the series (for the first time!), I was reminded of all the excitement that came with experiencing the stories myself in 2007. I’d resisted the allure of Potter as my dad and sister, both huge fans, eagerly devoured each new tome in the series.

Dad and Katie were such huge fans, in fact, that I kind of figured that was their thing — and just stayed out of it. As an English student, I guess part of me also thought I was above a “children’s” fantasy series.

I didn’t get it.

Until I did.

Pressed into leading the Deathly Hallows activities that July night, I wanted to have a darn clue who these characters were so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. Given we had almost 1,000 people show up that night, I wasn’t too keen on looking dumb on a microphone — and knew I needed some background knowledge.

I’d seen the films released to date, of course — so it’s not like I couldn’t pronounce “Hermione” or something. But the details? The bigger picture? I didn’t have that. And I wanted to be as excited as everyone else.

I’ve written about this night several times, which is sort of funny. It was a blip in the grander scheme, I guess — the night of this book’s release. But I had just started as an assistant editor at the newspaper, keeping Borders as a part-time job because I loved the atmosphere and adored my coworkers. I started working evening shifts and weekends, dividing my time between the office and the bookshelves.

Fresh from college with my bachelor’s, I was savoring the freedom of reading whatever I wanted whenever I wanted — of no term papers, no homework, no long commutes to school. My family had just returned from Europe, my graduation gift, and I’d fallen in love with London so swiftly that it startled me.

I’d just turned 22 — just two days before.

They were happy times. Pretty carefree times. We all have our problems, sure, but I felt young and free in a way I never had before. And when my manager asked me to be our store’s “mistress of ceremonies,” I was flattered — and took my job super seriously.

Hence my reading of the series.

Flash-forward seven years . . . and I’m still at the newspaper, albeit in different roles. Borders has shuttered and re-opened as a Books-a-Million, which has the bones of the former place but not the soul. My relationship with a coworker there has long since ended, and I met and married a wonderful man in that time.

But I carry those memories with me. Even if I’ve lost touch with the people and customers who filled my days with so much fun and joy, I’ll always look back on my years there — years painted brightly, too, with Harry Potter — with happiness.

On a recent dash into the post office, I learned about a limited-edition book of stamps featuring The Boy Who Lived, along with his friends and enemies. Now — in 2014.

I bought it. I’m using them.

The magic does live on with us. Every day.

Book talk: ‘S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim’ by Cynthia Sass

Many of us struggle with our weight.

I don’t know when being “chunky” first entered my realm of consciousness. Though I was a little heavy as a kid, I never worried about it; my family certainly didn’t comment on it, and whatever self-esteem issues I had as a teen didn’t stem from my appearance. In college, my brisk walks across the University of Maryland’s sprawling (and I do mean sprawling) campus kept me lean and mean . . . even as I downed my daily meal of Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets between classes.

Of course, like so many, those carefree days of cupcakes and soda couldn’t last forever. Taking my first desk job in 2007, I’ve worked in an office — on my rear end for more than eight hours a day — for half a decade. Though the numbers on the scale didn’t immediately jump up, my weight has steadily increased. To date, I’m about 30 pounds heavier now than I was in college. And on my 5’3″ frame, that’s definitely obvious. To me and others.

Still, I don’t lose sleep about my weight; I mean, I’m way more than my dress size. I hadn’t really given my weight a major thought until I started noticing clothes I wore just a year ago were getting snug, and I started hating the way I appeared in photos. In an unguarded moment, my jaw actually dropped when — yes — I saw a recently tagged photo of myself on Facebook. So many chins.

This isn’t one of those “AND THEN I GOT MY ACT TOGETHER!” tales of success, friends; I wish I could spout off my recent accomplishments and how I fell in love with exercise and stopped drinking Diet Coke and dropped four sizes and now feel amazing. I hope that, someday, I’ll come back here to share some of those successes (minus giving up the whole diet soda thing — I can tell you now, that ain’t happening). But I’m not there yet. I’m not even close to there yet.

This whole thing? Getting healthy, getting in shape? As for all of us, it’s an ongoing process. I’ve written about discovering Zumba and the wake-up call that was a visit to my family doctor a month ago. I know that, at 26, I’m no longer young enough to discard health warnings or think, “Oh, those problems won’t happen to me.” I know that if I don’t get myself together now, it’ll be really hard — maybe too hard — to get myself together later. And I don’t want that.

Enter my research phase. Short of developing a way to physically push myself up off the sofa after work to walk or go to class or anything, I’m searching for a way to get myself into a healthier rhythm — through exercise and diet changes — and have turned to my favorite way to learn stuff: books. They’re great, right?

Opening Cynthia Sass’ S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches, I felt a little nervous; for so many, myself included, “d-i-e-t” is a four-letter word. I’ve never been on a diet. Everyone I know on a diet seems to be, well . . . sour-faced. And liable to mouth off at you for daring to eat a piece of cake in front of them. (Jen Lancaster mentioned that in Such a Pretty Fat, and by golly — it’s so true.)

To be honest with you, I don’t want to diet. I really like food. I don’t use food (or lack thereof) to punish myself, and I certainly don’t sit around in a steaming pile of guilt for eating a cookie. Fashion bloggers’ svelte figures don’t send me into a self-hating rage, though I do tend to avoid others’ exercise-obsessed boards on Pinterest. Yeah, I know I’m not exercising; I don’t need perfect abs in my face to remind me I will never, ever look like that.

But that’s all right. I’m all about healthy — and so is Cynthia Sass. An acclaimed weight loss expert, Sass is part of the brains behind the Flat Belly Diet! — a New York Times bestseller from a few years back. She’s the real deal: a registered dietitian board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics, and the sports nutritionist for several major sports teams. Her credentials definitely stack up.

S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim, previously published as Cinch!, is a quick, engaging read that never felt belittling. Sass’ approach isn’t of the “boot camp” variety, using scare tactics and harsh words to intimidate would-be dieters. Despite what I was expecting, this book isn’t just about dropping weight quickly; it’s about making notable, small and valuable changes to your diet to help increase weight loss, improve your well-being and change your quality of life. I dug it.

Sass’ approach is designed to establish order to your meal times and isn’t built off “starving, restricting or depriving yourself,” she states. Reading the book, the plan is actually anything but starving yourself: it’s eating healthy, balanced and specific meals on a schedule, and it emphasized good, clean eating above all else. The “S.A.S.S.” part of the diet has to do with the low-fat, healthy and specific seasonings Sass recommends to cut out fattier alternatives like condiments and salad dressings.

The plan is two-fold: either begin with five days of a calculated eating plan, which Sass sets out for you, or bypass that part and go straight for a 25-day stretch of enjoying specific foods. Here’s how that all goes down:

The optional 5-Day Fast Forward jump-starts your results — up to an eight pound loss in five days. The Fast Forward calls for four simple meals a day, made from clean, delicious, detoxifying, filling, nutrient-rich foods shown to support weight loss. [Sass] even include[s] a grocery list that specifies all the ingredients you’ll need (and recipes!), so preparing for the Fast Forward (which is vegan and vegetarian friendly) is a breeze.

The 25-day plan again calls for four meals a day, but draws from a much broader but specific array of food choices. A day’s worth of meals can potentially include: a Chocolate Pear Ginger Smoothie for breakfast, Fresh Mozzarella Basil ‘Pizzalad’ for lunch, Shrimp Creole for dinner, and a snack of Cranberry Parmesan Herbed Popcorn! With this core plan (also vegan and vegetarian friendly and adaptable for gluten free diets), you can easily drop a size in just one month.

Reading Sass’ plans and goals, I was nodding my head vigorously and imagining myself snacking on the five foods she emphasizes in the 5-Day Fast Forward: raspberries, non-fat plain organic yogurt, spinach, almonds and organic eggs. She states from the get-go that the Fast Forward is optional — so those who aren’t interested or don’t want something to structured can skip this completely and get right to the 25-day meal plan.

The book does a great job of including materials that can actually get you started — and, in my case, these cut down on my excuses to not give it a try. Grocery lists outline everything you’ll need to get going, and the foods listed? Well, I already like ’em. The book includes real-life recipes, personal stories from those who have found success with the plan and plenty of sidebars to break up the text. This isn’t a long, droning health book you must read cover-to-cover before beginning; you can breeze through the early chapters, get a feel for the routine and get crackin’. As I was reading, I just kept thinking, “This is doable.”

For me, the highlights of S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim are the success stories — with before-and-after photos (who doesn’t love those?). Women (and men!) describe how they made the plan fit into their busy lives, how it’s benefited them and how they manage to keep up with it long term. There’s the bride who had to return a size-12 wedding dress for a size 6, the couple who dropped weight together and those who shed pounds within the first week of going on the Fast Forward.

Of course, the careful individual in me views those “drop weight fast!” claims with a skeptical eye — not because I don’t believe it’s possible, but because I’m unsure whether it’s healthy. Still, Sass’ plan is certainly not based on starvation or traditional dieting, and the science behind the weight loss makes sense. Of course, there’s no substitute for good old fashioned exercise, too. Just check it all out to be sure it makes good sense to you.

So am I ready to S.A.S.S. myself slim? I’m getting there. Since starting the book a week ago, I’ve found myself picking it up often before bed and grabbed many of Sass’ recommended foods on my last grocery store run. Though I’m not ready to do the Fast Forward or commit whole-hog to the 25-day plan, I’ve learned quite a bit about the importance of good fats and how to snack healthier. I’ve already developed a raw, unsalted almond habit (so crunchy!) and am thinking more about the times at which I eat — and how big my portions are. I’ve begun drinking even more water than usual and am trying to limit myself to one Diet Coke a day.

Over the next few weeks, my plan is to incorporate one of her low-calorie recipes as a lunch or dinner substitute every day and go from there. As S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim helped drive home, a healthy lifestyle is a process . . . and a daily, conscious choice. I hope with time it can become second nature. And you know I’ll report back with my progress.

ISBN: 006197465X • AmazonGoodreadsLibraryThingAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest opinion

Waiting on Wednesday: The Sky Always Hears Me

sky_always_hears_me Kay at The Infinite Shelf featured a novel last week that I’ve been thinking about since seeing it — Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ forthcoming The Sky Always Hears Me: And The Hills Don’t Mind, due out Sept. 1. Check out that gorgeous cover, and then read the description from Amazon:

Sixteen-year-old Morgan lives in a hick town in the middle of Nebraska. College is two years away. Her mom was killed in a car accident when she was three, her dad drinks, and her stepmom is a non-entity. Her boyfriend Derek is boring and her coworker Rob has a very cute butt that she can’t stop staring at. Then there’s the kiss she shared with her classmate Tessa…

But when Morgan discovers that the one person in the world she trusted most has kept a devastating secret from her, Morgan must redefine her life and herself.

Sounds like your typical coming-of-age tale, right? Probably not exactly. Kay cites a review by Amanda at The Zen Leaf as the inspiration for wanting to read this one, and after checking out Amanda’s thoughts, I’d have to agree! Plus, I’ve really been enjoying Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ blog — she’s a Harry Potter fan, and actually teaches a college class on J.K. Rowling’s work! How much would I love to go back to school for that?

What’s everyone else waiting on? Check out more responses at Breaking The Spine!

Booking Through Thursday: Library memories

booking_through_thursLet’s go Booking Through Thursday!

“I saw that National Library week is coming up in April, and that led to some questions. How often do you use your public library and how do you use it? Has the coffeehouse/bookstore replaced the library? Did you go to the library as a child? Do you have any particular memories of the library? Do you like sleek, modern, active libraries or the older, darker, quiet, cozy libraries?”

Well! National Library Week is indeed happening soon — April 12-18. I can’t say that I frequent our local libraries for anything other than the Saturday book sale — which is amazing — but I do love the general atmosphere of being surrounded by books and book-minded people! I guess that’s why I loved working at the bookstore so much.

I think that in many ways, the bookstore/coffeehouse has replaced the library as a center of knowledge and community. Of course, I say this as someone who does not go to the library! Those that do will, I’m sure, have a totally different opinion. But in my experience, people came to our Borders to talk to one another, get a cup of coffee, browse through all the latest releases and hang out in the cafe. Our local library system doesn’t have the same ambiance that the bookstore does. It’s older, definitely darker and more out-of-the-way from the center of town. By contrast, our town’s only bookstore lies basically at the heart of the city, is easily accessible and always has new stuff. I prefer the modern feel of the bookstore, but that’s generally true of me.

giant_jam_sandwichBut that’s not to say that it was always that way. As a kid, I was a staple in our elementary school’s library — always picking up the same few books and, occasionally, branching out to grab some new ones. Up until around fifth grade, my favorite was always The Giant Jam Sandwich! I don’t think I’ve thought about that book in years. I loved it! Many of us would gather around one of the bookshelves, pulling the pages apart eagerly. In that same library, we actually had a huge replica of a Native American hut — yes, we were awesome — and all the kids loved to have storytime in there. I remember racing off to the library so I could be the first to select a picture book, then scampering into the darkness of the hut to read in peace. I’ve always been solitary!

My dad would take my sister and me to the county library, too. Like all dutiful girls of the ’90s, I loved the Babysitter’s Club books — and worked my way through the entire series on no time. We’re all very bookish, so constant trips to the library, the Super Crown bookstore (now a Panera!) and the WaldenBooks (now a Borders Express) were always in order.