06/02/2014 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

Checking Out the Meaning of Life From the Public Library

DEA / W. BUSS via Getty Images

I love libraries. Throughout my life I have supported my local public library with my tax dollars, with my contributions, and with payment of my frequent past due charges. Libraries are places of solitude and comfort and inspiration and magic. Our society needs its public libraries.

I could barely read when I got my first library card. I still have that card and imagine going back to that little Arizona public library and using it to check out a book. Chances are it expired decades ago. My first foray into that library was the small room for children. There couldn't have been more than two hundred books on those shelves. I studied medicine with Sue Barton. I solved mysteries with Nancy Drew. I experienced wonderful adventures with The Bobbsey Twins. That small room also introduced me to Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain. Then the day came when I couldn't find a book on those shelves that I hadn't already read. I despaired of ever reading again until I looked out the door of that little room and saw the rest of the library. I was stunned and gradually absorbed the realization that in my lifetime I could never read every book ever written.

That moment of insight became part of my life's narrative. I really won't read every book ever written and that's okay. Nor, I now realize, do I want to read every book ever written. Beyond that, though, I won't even get to read every book I want to read. That's okay, too. And yet this obvious limitation has never stopped me from reading. Thus the first library metaphor might be to never give up on our life goals just because indications are we won't achieve them.

There's another even more compelling metaphor I learned from the library. We have to return the books by a certain date. Sure, we can renew the books but ultimately we have to give them back.

There were no bookstores in the small town of my youth. The first book I saw for sale was inexplicably propped up in the window of the drug store. Curious, I asked about the book and when I found out I could buy it immediately began saving my weekly allowance. I visited the window regularly and on occasion was allowed to hold the book. I worried that someone would buy the book before I had saved enough. It was an anxious time especially since there did not appear to be any other books for sale in the entire town. It took months to manage the price of the book but at last I became the proud owner of Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers. Looking back on that purchase, I have no idea why the book appealed to me. Perhaps it was because I had never heard of a blue baby or maybe I just wanted it because it was there. I suspect it was in the window to begin with because the owner of the drug store read it and had no further use for it or received it as a gift and couldn't wait to get rid of it.

Since that original purchase the size of my library has ebbed and flowed depending on my income or the size of my home or on my willingness to stack, store, box, sell or donate. I have lost books and missed them desperately. I have loaned books never to get them back. I have borrowed books never to return them. I say I won't buy any more books and then, of course, I buy a few more books.

My library contains books trashed with my own notations and drawings and doodles, books treasured with the notations and drawings and doodles of people dear to me, books I inherited, books I bought, books considered classics, books read for fun, books read for study and many, many books not yet read.

With all of those books surrounding me and especially with all of those yet to be read books waiting on my shelves, I still frequently visit my local public library. Mind you, I don't just visit that library. I go there and I check out books which I bring home and read and really try to get them back to the library before their due date so I can check out more and repeat the cycle all the while aware of the unread books in my own library.

That moment back in the library of my youth when I realized I would never read all of the world's books also marked my beginning awareness of the limitations of mortality. I couldn't keep the library books forever. They had a due date. The yet to be read books patiently waiting on the shelves of my personal library don't appear to have a due date by which they must be read and returned. I'm a more efficient reader when I check books out of the library. I know I have to finish them by a certain date so I read with pleasurable intention.

Of course by embracing this logic I begin to see that while my own unread books have no due date, I do. I can only live my life until a certain date and as far as I know I won't be able to request a renewal. Unlike my library books, though, I don't know my due date. That complete lack of information makes it all to easy to pretend there is none.

Just as I read library books with greater focus because of the due date, I know that I do most other life chores most effectively and efficiently when they have a deadline. A dead line.

Using the public library as a metaphor for how I want to live my life, I'm going to try to be more aware of my own deadline even if the date remains unknown. Just as I read library books with more focus and intention because of their due date, I will try to live my life with similar focus and intention because I, too have a due date. Perhaps I'll start by reading some of the books in my own library.