Guest Reader: Rene Denfeld on how libraries saved her life

Rene Denfeld is an internationally bestselling author, journalist, and death penalty investigator. 

Local libraries were my sanctuaries growing up, and in each one I left a child version of myself, roaming the aisles, pulling out titles or checking out the books where librarians had left little tags that said read this. The best ones were those little-known gems, the books that may not have hit the bestseller list but still ended up lodged in my heart.

When I was a young child, the North Portland library was my refuge. I will forever associate that beautifully carved wooden ceiling with my favorite books of childhood: Trask by Don Berry, which I must have read a hundred times, or Crazy Weather by Charles McNichols. It was from the wide selection of African-American folktales. I discovered my own joy of fable in books like The Cow-Tail Switch by Harold Courlander, with its jubilant stories and unforgettable phrasing: “A man is not truly dead until he is forgotten.”

When I was in middle school my family moved to Sellwood, then a blue-collar neighborhood where fishermen still hung the catch outside the local tavern. I spent endless drowsy afternoons in the local library, and remember the books that tore the sides of the paper grocery bags I carried home: from the astonishing Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter to the gentle yet wise memoir, West With The Night by Beryl Markham.

By fifteen, I was on my own, and like a lot of hardscrabble kids, the downtown library was my safe place. I celebrated my birthday on the second floor of that library while rain howled outside. Just the sight of that brick and stone façade brings back memories of all the books I discovered there, including Yellowfish by John Keeble and The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet—I’m the one who dog-eared all those pages—and who could forget the warmly humorous science fiction by our late and lamented local author Robert Sheckley?

Libraries saved my life. They gave me comfort, solace, and a vision of life as limitless as the shelves. They made me the writer I am today. So when I recommend my secret treasures, what I am really recommending is my own memories, and want to caution: the best way to find your own is to wander the stacks. Feel your hand on the books—reach for them the way we reach for each other, with longing and an open heart. Then you will never be dissatisfied.


This reminds me so much of my childhood spent wandering in libraries. Librarians were there for me -with books! so many great books! - at a time when I really needed some kind adults to take an interest. I needed stories of magic (e. Nesbit, Edward Eager, M. L'Engle, Lloyd Alexander) and animals (Jane Goodall, etc.) And they gave me plenty of those, and more. Thanks for bringing back great memories!
I love that Rene mentioned Crazy Weather a book we reissued in May, 2014 with an introduction by Portland author Ursula K. LeGuin, but I was disappointed that there was no hot link for the title as I imagine that means you do not carry it. The book is available from Ingram, Baker & Taylor or direct from our distributor, Publishers Group West. I think patrons would like to have access to it. Sincerely, Harry Kirhcner