Harlan: Discovering the joy of books

On Tuesday afternoon, after an underwhelming and predictable Costa Mesa City Council study session about the proposed charter, I left the Council Chambers and decided to take a quick stroll to the greenbelt across the street from the Police Station.

The 2.5-acre property, envisioned since 2005 as the potential home of the city's central library, hosts mature trees and an aging, unremarkable billboard. The architectural rendering is faded, and the sign is peeling away from its frame.

Standing there, I thought about a recent Saturday morning trip my daughters and I took to Newport Beach's Central Library. It is, undeniably, an outstanding facility that is well-used, well-loved and well-funded.

I've been there countless times, but this was the first since the opening of the new Civic Center. The library has always been busy, and with the addition of other civic spaces and amenities — City Hall, parks, public art and parking — it will be an even more valuable community gathering space. Planned adjacent to commercial uses, the center will likely live up to its expectation as a dynamic and vibrant focal point for the city.

Back inside the library, with my kids begging me to stop educating them about the architecture and design of the new buildings, I learned another benefit of spending time in this community living room.

I promised my daughters that after I grabbed a book on the second floor we would head downstairs to the children's reading room. As I looked for my item, they squatted down amid the stacks and just started thumbing through all sorts of books: cooking, gardening, art, fashion, whatever caught their attention. Empty-handed, I was ready to move on but was met with fierce resistance.

They refused to leave, stacking up more books by their sides to show me that their discoveries had just begun. Grab a book, Dad, this is going to take a while. Taking their cue, I mindlessly grabbed a tome on gardening and sat down with them.

For the next half hour or so I witnessed something I had taken for granted — the joy of old-school browsing. I've casually watched my kids navigate computers and iPads with ease, but I was intent on observing how their eyes, hands and minds would wander through the shelves. I imagined the thought processes that went into selecting books by a 5- and 9-year-old. Was it the cover artwork that piqued their curiosity? Or a specific word? Or maybe a familiar author?

An avid reader, I want my children to share a passion and respect for books and writing. This is even more challenging now when their first instinct is to go to the computer for information and entertainment.

Although it's part of my daily routine, I find web-based browsing to be a perfunctory, reactive and habitual process. It fails to activate the senses the way searching a library can, and rarely leads to in depth exploration. There is something innately exhilarating and comforting about discovering information and ideas in a library.

To be sure, libraries are not relics of the past. Even in this age of digital information, people still flock to our public repositories. We need physical places to gather, explore, study and engage. I, for one, am thankful and fortunate that Newport Beach has made such a significant investment to educate and enrich the larger community.

Before leaving the library, we ended up, as promised, in the children's reading room. After reading a few books aloud together, I grabbed a magazine and they migrated to the computers.

On our way out, though, both of them pleaded to check out a book of their own. That was music to my ears.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.

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