When very young I asked my mother what sort of job would permit me to read books all day, and her reaction was to laugh loudly and for what seemed like a very long time. She laughed not at my naïveté but at the very idea of wanting to read in a spirit that coupled earnestness and languorous pleasure. Ours was an almost bookless house. Books were objects of suspicion and grudging admiration. They were not deemed a reliable source of escapism, as in mysteries or romances. Movies served that need. No, for a book to be acceptable it had to be useful – an almanac, or an encyclopedia purchased in weekly installments from the grocery. That I can read at all, let alone blissfully and out of need, seems miraculous.
I still carry in my head a vision of the ideally bookish life. The setting is an English country house. The ceilings are tall, light ample, colors muted, walls solidly ranked with books. The vision includes no catalog but every title I might feel an abrupt need to read at, say, 2:30 a.m., can be readily found. Multi-volume hard-cover sets predominate – all of Johnson, Hazlitt, Ruskin, Emerson and Kipling are here, organized according to my understanding of subject and author, not Dewey or the Library of Congress (Montaigne, Lamb and Thoreau are neighbors on the shelf). A fastidious fondness for cleanliness and order, coupled with an intuitive sense of kinship among writers, are the chief organizing principles.
Borges was an ideally bookish man, and he would have understood my fancy. From the age of 38 he worked as a librarian in his native Argentina, eventually becoming director of the National Library in Buenos Aires (around the same time his blindness became almost absolute). His well-stocked mind was a library. In 1962, in his prologue to “Catalog of the Exhibition Books from Spain,” Borges writes:
“Each in his own way imagines Paradise; since childhood I have envisioned it as a library. Not as an infinite library, because anything infinite is somewhat uncomfortable and puzzling, but as a library fit for a man. A library in which there will always be books (and perhaps shelves) to discover, but not too many. In brief, a library that would allow for the pleasure of rereading, the serene and faithful pleasure of the classics, or the gratifying shock of revelation and of the foreseen.”
Borges reminds me of an essential library ingredient I omitted from my vision – “there will always be books (and perhaps shelves) to discover.” In other words, the perfect library includes books whose existence you don’t even suspect. A perfect library leaves room for the joy only serendipity can supply.