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Library Penance

Caution: serving a community sentence in a library for a minor crime may lead to a career as a mystery writer! It happened to Lance Hawvermale. He shares his experience below and explains how libraries continue to inspire him today:

I once served mandatory community service in a library.

As a crime writer, I need a good run-in with the law as part of my backstory, even if the crime in question was victimless and endangered no one but myself. The judge explained that the infraction would not appear on my permanent record if I agreed to perform 20 hours of service to my fellow Americans… in the local library.

Yes, Your Honor. I was born in that briar patch.

Flashback: A boy with neo-hippie hair is too slow for the track team and too easily bored for wood shop, and so he seeks refuge in the school library. Immediately to his left sits Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes), and on his right is William Goldman (Marathon Man). In between them, the boy feels safe. Safe from bullies. Safe from chemistry class. Safe from the possibility of having to say hello to a real live girl. As that very boy, I can tell you that courage can be shoveled from library shelves. I stormed the Bastille from that poorly padded chair; I followed Poe to a woman in a premature tomb; I stood on the docks beside Jay Gatsby and admired a light on a distant shore. But while I read one chapter after the next, Bradbury kept pushing my hand from the books toward my own pen and paper. He told me to strip-mine metaphors from these pages and then to write about the ore I discovered. The school librarian, at least, thought I was cool.

Flash-forward: This year my novel FACE BLIND is released by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. That book is the product of summers spent not at the swimming pool but in the poorly air-conditioned back corner of my hometown library, where Edgar Rice Burroughs taught me to swim. Today I am a novelist and an English professor, and I’m witnessing a travesty: my students use the search engine on their phones and believe this to be an acceptable alternative to a library card. Part of my job as their teacher, then, is to serve as their library spirit guide. Every semester I lead a pilgrimage to the campus library, and together we don our pith helmets and stalk the savannahs between the shelves, where I point out giants and golden-eyed leopards, lurking high in the stacks.

Now about that community service. The story is true: I re-shelved books at the downtown library as penance for my half-baked crime. Today, crime writing is my business. The libraries of my life have taught me how best to hide a body, how to dust for prints, and how to balance readers on the surface tension of a well-conceived plot. A search engine may be a handy time-saver, but there is no substitute for traipsing along book-laden aisles and touching the spines, pulling hand-worn editions at random and reading the first sentence of each. If you’re reading this, you probably know what I mean. Find me at a book signing one day and we can trade personal library tales like they were the origin stories of super-heroes. And maybe I’ll tell you what I did all those years ago to warrant serving hard time in between the shelves. In the meantime, perform your own community service: tell your friend about the library; take your kids there; volunteer to read books aloud on a Saturday afternoon. If nothing else, it will keep you out of trouble with the law.

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