A spirited defense of one of America’s last great public institutions
The books we own tend to become too familiar. That prize-winning novel, bought so eagerly last month but set aside before we read as far as 40 pages; the fat biography foisted on us by a well-meaning friend; even the book of poems that we foist on friends ourselves—suddenly, not one of these seems to contain the secret something that we need for inspiration. We glance at their spines cynically. We grow impervious to their charms. But enter a library, and we lose our hard surfaces and become porous, like paper waiting for ink. We breathe in the smell, that sweet intermingling of must and glue, and our troubles melt away. Our despair at the desk when the words wouldn’t come; our irritation at an imagined slight or a telephone that rang and rang; our sore back—all forgotten. Here, in the hush of the stacks, we can forget the day’s indignities; here, we can recover our curiosity and hope.
A woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a pink coat hauls a wheelbarrow’s worth of books from the gardening section. A mustached man sets up in military history. Down in psychology, a young page parks her laden cart. In the hush of the literature stacks, though, you can be alone. Take your pile of books, their plastic casings shining with a hundred fingerprints, and find a chair—or if not a chair, then a carrel, one with a window that lets in the afternoon light, but not the grit or the clamor of the street. Open a book and feel its paper between your fingers. Worlds unroll as you read. “In a great library . . . a reader can slip into the time-stream which flows from past, to present, to future, and back again,” said 20th-century master librarian Lawrence Clark Powell. Lose yourself once in this continuum and how can you bear a life without books?
My parents bought their first and only house in part for its proximity to a small branch library. There, fiction and nonfiction were housed in different rooms, as were Greek and Latin literature in the libraries of antiquity. My mother and I could walk there on dull afternoons. The children’s section seemed enormous. Often, I was the only person in it. My mother would leave me to pick out books while she did the same for herself. I sat cross-legged on the cool tile floor, pulling books from the shelves and watching dust motes filter through the bright air.
I learned to read in that library. Without intention, without struggle. Simply by sitting with a book. One moment I was staring at pictures of ordinary garden vegetables with some letters beneath them; the next moment the letters became words. Carrot glowed with an intensity exactly suited to its vibrant orange. Peas slipped off the page as easily as off a plate. Years later, when I read Ferdinand de Saussure on the lack of any necessary or intrinsic relationship between signifier and signified, I couldn’t be fully persuaded. I knew that carrot was not carrot in Russian, in Chinese, or in many other languages; I knew it was possible to substitute another set of sounds to indicate the same sturdy root. But there was nothing arbitrary in that hard c like the click of a spade against stony soil; there was nothing arbitrary in that double r. You had to yank the word out of yourself.
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