Friday, December 24, 2010

`That Commodious Garden in Which Children Play'

The happiest human setting I know is a well-stocked library, one that is quiet and softly lit, staffed by discreetly intelligent, well-read librarians. Even a modest public library, overstocked with Dan Brown, DVDs and noisy patrons, and understocked with books, has its charms. I enter the smallest library with a sense of anticipation, trusting in the benign serendipity of books waiting to introduce themselves if only I’m sufficiently courteous to return their good manners. In “A Defense of the Book” (A Temple of Texts, 2006), William H. Gass pens a love song to the library:

“A few of us are fortunate enough to live in logotopia, to own our own library, but for many, this is not possible, and for them there is a free and open public institution with a balanced collection of books that it cares for and loans, with stacks where a visitor may wander, browse, and make discoveries; such an institution empowers its public as few do.”

My logotopia – lovely coinage – is portable and multiple. I have a substantial private library but regularly patronize its public cousins. On Thursday I discovered Martin Gardner’s annotated edition of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, Philip Larkin’s Selected Letters and C.V. Wedgewood’s The Thirty Years War, at a cost of driving eight miles round trip.

Thanks to Bill Vallicella at The Maverick Philosopher for linking to “Twelve Theses on Libraries and Librarians” by Benjamin Myers at his blog, Faith and Theology. Here’s Thesis 7:

“The library is also the safest and friendliest place on earth. More than that: the library is the institutionalisation of intellectual friendship. Which of us, admiring a shelf laden with the thoughts of dead authors, has never felt that these books love one another, even as they love to dispute and declaim? When I was a boy, I played hide-and-seek with my brothers among the stacks, while my mother slaved over her PhD. If history is a tangle of weeds and briers, the library is that commodious garden in which children play and every flower blooms.”

Think of another public institution you would miss so deeply as the library if it were suddenly to disappear. The Post Office? Congress? Please. The library is our intellectual agora. Myers writes in Thesis 5:

“The rule of silence – upheld in all libraries since time immemorial – is a ruse. It is the silence of a tiger crouching in the reeds.”

As a seasonal envoi, consider what the librarian Philip Larkin wrote in a letter to his friend Judy Egerton on Dec. 17, 1958:

“Have a happy Christmas. Drop laudanum on the children’s plum pudding, for a happy Xmas afternoon.”

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