Monday, July 18, 2011

A word or two about libraries

Yesterday was the birthday of Earle Stanley Gardner. Today is the birthday of William Makepeace Thackeray, Yvgeny Yevtushenko and Elizabeth Gilbert. And we're lucky that public libraries still carry the works of all these writers available for no charge -- right there on the shelf, waiting to be picked up and discovered.

Public libraries, once considered such an important community asset that Andrew Carneigie financed their building in towns both large and small, continue their struggle to survive. Many are now in danger of becoming print's obsolete repository as more offer online services to stay open.

Computer access is becoming more important to library services to such an extent that one Georgia library is considering removing the books all together and becoming, in essence, a Starbucks without the coffee.

The internet, in all its wonders, may not replace the thrill of discovery quite like finding the unexpected on library shelves. Of course the electronic wizard can always point the way for the curious reader. But most of us use the internet like a dowsing rod. Looking for something specific in the vast sea of knowledge and finding the gold coin glittering there is unlike browsing shelves in a library; the gold can sometimes be found in the search itself.

The student seeking "three facts about Rome" who helpfully adds the clarifier in a question, "It's a city in Italy?" may only need the internet for a 500-word paper. The student who discovers a book with reproductions of the art in the Sistine Chapel will make his own life-changing discovery in the stacks.

Even that old sage Keith Richards in his 2010 memoir confessed to a lifelong interest in libraries: "The Church belongs to God, but the library belongs to you," he writes about his own self-discovery reading in 1950s English libraries. In a system so tradition-bound, the young guitar-player with a passion for the blues found the library "a great equalizer" about ideas of class and station in everyday life.

A recent post by a writer on The Dabbler blog illuminates how this stumbling about in a public library can have unexpected results, and create an interest that continues to expand forty years on -- not just the in the search for information, but in the pleasure of reading itself.
... It was through public libraries that I found my way into reading -- real reading -- and as often as not it was a book picked off the shelf on little more than a whim that changed everything, opening up a new path that would enlarge my mind and soul and become part of my life. When I was still at school, I was mooching around in my small local public library, idly scanning the shelves, when I spotted a title I thought might be worth a look. I knew the author only as a playwright who had caused a bit of a stir in the Fifties, but this appeared to be a novel.

It might be interesting, I thought, picking it up. It was bound, I remember, in a muddy blue 'library binding', unpleasing to the eye and the hand alike, and on its spine was stamped in ugly black letters '
Molloy. S. Beckett'. I opened it and read: 'I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there...' I was hooked. I read Molloy with amazed delight and moved on to devour every Beckett I could get my hands on. And now, more than 40 years on, when most of my youthful literary enthusiasms have long since died the death, I am still reading (or rather rereading) Beckett.
I have just finished rereading Malone Dies, and it seems to me every bit as wonderful - no doubt in different ways - as it was to me then, more than 40 years ago. And this lifelong, ever-deepening love affair I owe to a chance find on the Fiction shelves of a suburban branch library. Could such things happen in the librariless or library-lite future that seems to be on its way?

(The four-volume complete Grove Press edition of Samuel Beckett's work was published in 2006, with series notes by Paul Auster. From his introduction: "Open anywhere and begin reading. It is an experience unequaled anywhere in the universe of words." Photo of Beckett from the website A Piece of Monologue.)

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