It’s amazing what you can learn about people from what books they read.

Working at a library is like getting paid to people watch. And not just watch—you get to study them. People-watching in a mall or another public place limits your view of a person to externals: what they’re wearing, who they’re with, what they’re doing, possibly what their voice sounds like. But in a library, you get to see what books they check out, and, by extension, what’s going on inside their heads.

A man with white hair, wearing a suit, checks out a stack of commentaries on Isaiah. He has a wedding ring. It’s probably fair to guess that this is a local pastor prepping for Sunday’s sermon or Sunday school lesson.

A shorter, young-looking woman with glasses checks out a stack of Ted Dekker books. She’s probably a high school student, since she still has the time to read fiction.

A jolly, well-built man checks out a huge stack of cookbooks. This one is no mystery; he compliments us on our selection of cookbooks and books about food and tells me he can’t wait to get cooking and only wishes his pantry were more well-stocked.

A harried-looking woman with crinkles forming around her eyes, pushing a baby stroller, checks out a copy of Making Peace with Your Mom and Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves: Healing Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families.

A young man, sharply dressed, sans wedding ring, takes out The Exemplary Husband, What He Must Be if He Wants to Marry My Daughter, and The 7 habits of Highly Effective Families.

It’s not my job to ask questions, other than “Did you find everything that you needed?” But this one question can lead me down one of two roads. One road end abruptly when the patron says “Yup” and leaves it at that. The other road can wind on indefinitely if the person chooses to tell me that she didn’t find everything she wanted, or why he chose those books, or why she came to the library today, or how much the place has changed since he was a student, or how her mother is critically ill, or how he can’t decide if he wants to be a lawyer or a pilot.

I am astounded at how often people decide that the most understanding and helpful person they can talk to about their problems is the person at the library counter. I’ve heard countless life stories since I started working at the UU library. And what stories I haven’t heard, I’ve seen unfold in front of me: the boy asking the girl to dinner for the first time; the unwitting deletion of ten chapters of a dissertation; the passing or failing of an exam; the reunion of best friends.

This, my friends, is why all writers should work in a library at least once in their lives. 


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