I used to be a picky reader. Not in terms of genre—I’ve always read widely, counting everything from The Great Gatsby to Sharp Objects as all-time favorites. But I used to spend a lot of time deliberating about what to read next. That changed when I got my first library card this past summer, at the age of 27.
Being anxious by nature, I planned vigorously, researching the perks of New York Public Library membership—not that the endless access to up to 50 free books at a time wasn’t enough for me—and filling out an online form. When I finally made my way to my local branch to finish applying in person, I brought two pieces of mail as proof of address. Once there, the process took less than five minutes.
I’d always felt a little weird about my lack of library experience, given my lifelong book obsession. Growing up, I couldn’t check books out of the library near my house because it technically belonged to a different neighborhood. Residents of my town could read books inside the library, but not take them home. Instead, I utilized the school library or borrowed from friends once I exhausted my personal collection. But I didn’t regularly use the public library system. Though I believed in them on principle, libraries never quite fit into my life.
A few shifts in my lifestyle led me to start seriously considering joining the NYPL. I started freelance writing, which meant a tighter budget and more time for reading without a commute. I also began to discover new authors from a variety of genres through the BookTube, Bookstagram, and Goodreads communities. Suddenly my TBR was ten miles long with no sign of slowing down.
Choosing what to read used to be A Process. I would hem, haw, and deliberate. Books needed to be worth the permanent shelf space, because I was likely purchasing them, so I tried to assess their reread value…before I’d even read them for the first time. I’ve always been pretty careful with spending, even on books, but neither my wallet nor my Manhattan apartment could stand up to the amount of books I wanted to be finishing.
Joining the library saved me money and space, yes. It also permanently changed the way I read. Where I used to heavily research books before committing to them, I now borrow indiscriminately. There’s no fear! If I hate the book, it doesn’t matter; it’s going back into circulation when I’m done.
This means I can pick up volumes that previously intimidated me. I tear through books I may have overlooked in the past for lack of desire to spend money on them. Not every book I take out of the library becomes a new favorite, but the experience of reading them is enriching nonetheless.
My book buying habits have shifted as well. I’m even pickier about purchases now. I gravitate toward titles I’ve already read and not only really enjoyed, but can’t stop thinking about. Before handing over my credit card I still tend to think, do I really need to own this? The answer is often yes, but not always.
Libraries are great for many reasons. They offer tons of free services to the public, not to mention access to hundreds of thousands of books, ebooks, audiobooks, movies. The chief benefit the library serves in my own life is to make me a more adventurous reader. Of course, I don’t borrow books I’m not curious about. But, for me, reading has always been about learning, about expanding my mind. Being too choosey about the books I’m willing to pick up defeats the purpose.
I still derive value from buying my favorite books, books I know I’ll revisit time and again. I’m a writer myself, and I often turn to literature for inspiration or research. Looking up at the book-lined walls of my apartment makes me feel like the life I’ve always dreamed of, the literary life, is not only possible but already happening to me.
But when I borrow a book from the library, I can feel the weight of all the other readers who came before me. They’re present in the yellowed pages, the occasional coffee stain. They help me realize that a literary life is not about owning or about attachment; it’s about the passing on of books we loved, liked, or maybe even hated to others who will respond differently.