Some revelations are dateable. One occurred on a Sunday afternoon in September 1970, when my parents drove me to Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and left me there, a frightened, backward, book-crazy 17-year-old. I retain the bewildering memory of wearing a yellow sweater. My dormitory roommate was my best friend from high school. My parents and his had never gone to college. None of this was revelatory. That came later in the day when I entered the university library for the first time and set up house for the next three years.
It hadn’t occurred to me that its differences from the public libraries of my youth would be more than quantitative. Like the ocean, its collection had unsuspected depths. Here was everything a beloved poet or novelist had written and seemingly everything ever written about him. In that first semester I discovered Samuel Beckett, Hermann Broch, Flann O’Brien, B.S. Johnson and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. I even read some of the stuff assigned by my professors.
Dave Lull passed along an essay by William Gass, “Shelf Life,” that conjured these happy memories. Gass recounts his lifelong devotion to libraries, in particular the one at Cornell where he attended graduate school:
“I had a carrel—a small nick in the wall of the stacks that held a mean metal chair and a bulb, a sheet of steel to write or rest a book on, a rack in front of my face for volumes taken from the shelves (but on one’s honor not to be removed from the building) and a jar of hard candy whose contents were dangerous when wet. To take notes, `pencils only’ was a rule I was willing to observe, since, unlike those of the Navy, it made sense. The building resembled a ship in some ways and bore me off smoothly… sitting there, day after day in dusky light; my conception of Eden began to change. It had no location on a map, but was a destination determined by the Dewey Decimal System.”
Part of Gass’ definition of a “great library” is one that “will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like.” I’ve often indulged the Borgesian fancy that all libraries are one, separated only by trivial matters of space and time, and that I’ve never left the sixth floor of BGSU’s library, nor the Cleveland Public Library, nor the one here in Bellevue, Wa., nor any in the five states where I’ve lived. Great libraries are home to scholars and their laser-guided research, but the ablest citizens of the stacks are those guided only by waywardness and intuition; in a word, by blessed serendipity. Lest you think I’m endorsing dilettantism, consider Paul West’s entry for “serendipity” in The Secret Life of Words:
“Coined in 1754 by English writer Horace Walpole (1717-1797), who had read a popular romance entitled The Three Princes of Serendip, whose leading characters, as Walpole put it, `were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’ Serendip, by the way, is an old name for Ceylon, now called Sri Lanka. Even science needed this word, for its faculty of making happy inadvertent finds, such as penicillin.”
That’s my digressive way of saying a life spent adrift in libraries is, like penicillin, good for you. As Gass puts it:
“…book dipping is great fun, and not a day passes that I don’t blindly pick a prize and then read a page of it to be mystified, informed, surprised, delighted and affronted.”