The Cerritos Library employs a small army of vigilant volunteers who patrols the stacks with straight backs and stern expressions that become sterner if its bearer spies a prohibited Starbucks cup or neon bag of Cheetos. They interrupt the quiet yet unfocused studies of various sleepy, glum-faced students and say, “Sir/Miss, you’re not allowed to have that. Please throw it away outside.” It is no wonder the Library, though having been renovated nearly a decade ago, is still pristine.Grandpa and I marvel at this quiet order – the sight and sound(lessness) of scholarship, both administered and self-inflicted – and I wonder for a moment if there is anything he wants to read or look at. The card is, after all, his.
“No no,” he says, but his eyes are busy scanning the hushed scene around him. The library, like the mall or a good boutique or a shadowy antiques hall, is a place where you can go to find exactly what you’re looking for or, as I prefer to do, browse to your heart’s content and discover things you didn’t know you needed.
“They ought to have Chinese books,” I say, and spying a rather idle looking volunteer (who looked like she could use a discreet cup of coffee) asked if the library had any Chinese books. Before she can answer, an imperious, heavy set woman from the Circulation desk who overhears my query comes up and says, “Yes we do, we do, they are up the stairs to the right.”
I turn to Grandpa and ask if he wants to look at Chinese books. He looks mildly surprised at first, wondering what an American library is doing stocking Chinese books, but then, considering the library’s size and the city’s burgeoning Chinese population, nods knowingly as though it must be so. Then he considers his reading material as of late. What is the last book he’s read? He cannot say. My uncle brings him the Chinese paper every morning, which he reads selectively until he decides, “That’s enough,” and folds the paper tidily and sets it next to the aquarium. I watched him do this once – a full thirty minutes of concentrated silence – and when the paper was folded I spoke:
“You’re done with the paper, Grandpa?”
“I can’t read the whole thing, you know. And besides much of it is repeated over and over again in the news.”
I wonder how long it’s been since he’s read a book. I don’t ask, not because I don’t want to know, but because I don’t want my question to be misconstrued: a man’s intellect can be a source of pride or shame, depending on how said intellect is nourished. I can’t blame him for not being well read if he doesn’t have the means or access to an ample supply of reading material. This afternoon in the library however, I’m being honest with myself. My grandfather is eighty-six years old and recently widowed, impossibly set in his ways. We’re looking for mere diversions.
“Let’s take a look at the Chinese books, shall we?”
He nods and I point towards the stairs. There aren’t many and I pretend not to notice the elevator.
Unbelievably, “Literature and Languages,” are grouped together – the Chinese books taking up four long, tall shelves along the right wall and English Literature from the left to the middle, where Japanese books began. Korean was sandwiched somewhere in between – linguistic ham.
Grandpa looks up and down the first shelf then turns to me, his eyes wider than I’ve seen them in a while. He says nothing and simply nods. This’ll do, his gesture seems to say. I motion towards the English stacks.
“I’ll be over there for a while and come back to find you. Don’t go anywhere.”
“I’ll stay right here,” he says, though his eyes have already wandered off.
Fifteen minutes later I return to get him, thinking that perhaps he’s done and ready to go, but he is still studying spines, head tilting slightly to and fro, and sometimes staring straight ahead. He holds a single book in his hand, a beige tome with “Taiwan” written on the cover.
Of all the books, he wants to read about Taiwan. He does not see me, nor does he seem to be in a rush to leave, so I tiptoe back to my English books. I am looking for Henry James, an early novel of his called The American as well as The Wings of the Dove, which he wrote later in life. Locating them both, I wonder what my grandpa would think of James. Frivolous, probably. Bored upper middle class Europeans with plenty to eat and too little to do. A few more minutes, my arms laden with literary ambition, I return again to see if my grandpa is waiting for me.
Still, he is silent, searching for what, I’m not sure. Perhaps just browsing. On several occasions he takes a book out, pages through it, then shakes his head slightly as though it was not what he thought after all (one ought never judge a book by its spine!) and returns it to its spot on the shelf. He stands on his tiptoes to reach for a book and bends down to get a better view at another. He moves slowly, from one end of the stacks to the other, until finally he holds two books in his hand. I want to clap, but instead smile loudly (it is possible).
“Let’s go,” he says when he sees me, then noticing the giant stack of books in my arms, “Oh. Would it be okay if I took out these two?”
I laughs. James’s books do not come thin, and I never leave a library with less books than I’m likely to read in an entire year. In addition, I have found two Blue Planet DVDs for grandpa to watch – he likes animals – and an audio book for the commute to and from his house. It is a small selection by any means (oddly, at large libraries the number of items allowed to be checked out is always smaller than the 40 items allowed at my local library), but then again, grandpa is new to all this.
“Of course, Grandpa,” I say, “They let us have fifteen items and your two books on top of mine only makes eight!”
I don’t bother asking if he’d like to look at more books because it’s not in his nature to bite off more than he can chew – not food, not books, and certainly not of life. The other book is a book of poems.
“I’ve read some of these,” he says later in the car of the poems, “but I would like to revisit some of them.”
“And the book on Taiwan?”
“Just want to see what the history is all about. I lived through it, after all.”
I think about my own selections – a novel on Hemingway’s first wife and their life in Paris, The American, the Wings of the Dove, and Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat on audiobook. Aside from the last book I haven’t lived through any of that but was lucky enough to live beyond them all and benefit from it. And now I find I often read backwards in time, to people with traditions, mindsets and cultural practices much different from my own. It’s more interesting that way, isn’t it? But more interesting is grandpa’s choices. We both visit the past today, though his is a revisit. What does he want from these pages? What does anyone want from what they read? Diversions. History. A mirror, perhaps. An idealized mirror, if we can tilt the glass just so.
It is starting to drizzle again as I pull slowly out of the parking lot which is now filling up with mini vans and noisy school children, just being let out. I sense the earlier quiet of the library draining away, given to this afternoon din until the kids go home for dinner. We beat the after school rush, apparently, and I make note to always come before this time.