It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.
They opened the door and stepped in.
The library deeps lay waiting for them.
Out in the world, not much happened. But here, in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever... This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes...
It is almost the end of October. Usually in October I have posted diaries about Ray Bradbury, whose "October country" is a very strange, very disturbing, and very attractive place. The above is from Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I think was his best book, and one of his relatively few sustained novels (rather than collections of short stories, sometimes very closely linked, such as The Martian Chronicles). It seems appropriate to start a diary with his writing, even if he is not the main topic of my essay tonight.
Over the last few days I have gotten into several discussions about libraries, and about books. About their smell and their physicality.
This last weekend I had the experience of watching a little girl who had hated to read because it was hard suddenly discover how magical it was when the books in front of her stopped becoming the enemy and became the wonderful thing her mother and I know they are. When she was haunting used book stores, and insisting that we stop every time she saw a new bookstore (there are a lot of them in London), we were discussing the joys of visiting libraries and walking out with stacks of books, and comparing the age we were when we read X and Y and Z. Although my parents had lots of books (and my Dracula and Jane Eyre and The Triffids were their copies), we didn't have too many contemporary children's books. We had the classics for adults, but children's books were from the library. The first Dr. Seuss book I got was when I was in high school, and the Little House on the Prairie and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and their sequels all came from the library.
And what a library. It was a gorgeous Carnegie library, still standing in Lawrence, Kansas. The children's librarian was Mrs. Paretsky (Sara Paretsky's mother), and she must have known each and every child who went through that library. She would tell us what books we would like to read, and point out things on the new shelves. And she was always right about what we would like (or at least I don't remember the bad stuff).
But the thing I remember about that library most is, funnily enough, the way it smelled. And Ray Bradbury captures that perfectly. I guess without his poetic abilities I would say it was dust and mustiness, but to me it has always been pages of magic, hidden secrets, and creaking leather (yes, that has a smell -- if you don't know that, I really can't help you). Even books that have the plastic-y outside smelled of leather (like the rather hideous flesh-coloured cover on the book about the six wives of Henry VIII that felt like the first adult book I ever read (it may have been, or might not, but that is how I remember it so that is the story I tell).
That smell haunted me. I never liked the brand new library at college. It was gorgeous and all. But I preferred the seminar rooms in the Archaeology department. They had that smell, that magic. The books were fragile and Mrs. Mellink, chair of the department, would come in periodically to check that you were handling them correctly and not breaking the binding -- she would "happily" show you how you were holding the book, or resting it on the table, was bad for it. There was no photocopying of the books allowed. And I learned to read them and take notes from them there, as they were non-circulating. That meant, of course, that everything was in pretty good condition, was on the shelf when you needed it, and you could follow a trail wherever it led. Even though this was non-fiction, these were the treasure hunts of the fairy books my dad had read to us. These were literally treasure hunts, actually, as I realized when I sat one Friday evening reading an account of the finding of gold at Troy by Heinrich Schliemann.
My home university's library is also new, or at least newly rebuilt, and very few of the books are old. There is not that scent of the past. And in fact the conversation I had at lunch was talking about how books are moving more and more to the electronic sphere. There is JSTOR rather than journals now, and I finally signed up for an online subscription bibliographic database in my field, which I had avoided for a while for a thousand reasons that don't make sense, but perhaps mostly because I remember that database when it was bound in beautiful blue volumes and you had to search through it year by year to find anything, and you always got sidetracked with something else. I don't need those volumes now (and I don't have access to them, anyway) because I have this database. Sigh.
The person I was talking to at lunch, who oversees a library as part of his job, said "In a few years, we'll just check out I-pads to library visitors." I know some people who think this is progress. And it is, I know.
But I miss the magic of discovery, of pulling books off a shelf to see which one has the most interesting article, or the most interesting story. I can do that to a certain extent at a bookstore, or a used bookstore, but there it is so hit-and-miss and anyway most of the big used book sellers seem to have gone on line. When I shop on line at a used bookstore I will only buy a book I need. But when I shop in a bookstore itself I will buy all sorts of strange things.
I suppose in a way I am trying to recapture the magic of the public library of my childhood, when everything on the shelves promised an adventure. My friend's daughter is at the beginning of what I hope will be a lifetime of adventure. I almost envy her. But I have a lot more of my own ahead. And that will do for me right now.