Sunday, April 19, 2009

`A Library Fit for a Man'

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.


Rosin said...

"Library of Babel" continues to hold an esteemed position in my own pantheon of fiction, as much for its epistemological profundity (which you alluded to in your previous posting) as its imaginative richness. That and "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" are built upon a sublime appreciation for the magic of books. I wonder when the great Kindle-inspired short stories will start coming out. Maybe around the same time they start awarding Pulitzers for textbook writing....

Seriously, though, your post reminded me of the enjoyable (if not astonishingly literary) Zafon novel Shadow of the Wind, in which a beloved rare book is hidden in a bookseller's stacks. I wonder if Zafon is one of the millions Borges is responsible for inspiring.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I think that job title is independently wealthy unemployment. There are simply not enough hours in the day to read as many of the kinds of books I like to read - in the way I like to read them - and still be able to eat.

But I'm working on it.

Ms Baroque said...

Borges is right... it's amazing how many people seem to think there's something WRONG with having books on your shelves that you haven';t even read (yet)! I may not even have read half of them. They represent undiscovered worlds.

R. T. said...

Borges zeroes in on a poignant reality: There are too many books (which is a good thing) but there is too little time (which is a sad thing). Life gets shorter, the bookshelves are fuller, and . . . Well, at least we get to live part of the fantasy (e.g., your childhood dream) of having plenty to read. I wonder who we speak to about getting more time?