Tuesday, February 01, 2011

`I Seem to Inhale Learning'

With pleasing regularity, Nige distils thought and feeling into anecdotes reminding us of what it must have been like to share a world with gentlemen, at least as that world is glossed by Shirley Robin Letwin (The Gentleman in Trollope, 1982):

“The gentleman’s world does not require a choice between rebellion and submission, violence and reason, alienation and unity, struggle and apathy, certainty and nihilism. It is a world full of nuances. Everything depends on fine distinctions – between wilfulness and originality, rigidity and discipline, distortion and disagreement. Nothing stands still but there is no sign of chaos. Order rests on proportion, harmony and continuity, not uniformity or changelessness.”

Nige’s most recent defense of “proportion, harmony and continuity” is a love song, or swan song, to libraries, one of my favorite endangered habitats. Like Nige, I worked in a library, though for only two years. My sons and I visit one at least twice a week. Public libraries are the essential greenhouse of democracy, and they’re probably the only reason I’ve never filed for bankruptcy. Nige, again like me, trusts and defends library serendipity:

“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.”

Nige is describing some of my earliest, most influential library experiences, as well as more recent encounters. I discovered Kafka that way – a book (The Castle, in the Muir translation) that looked interesting on a library shelf (Parma Heights, Ohio, circa 1966). That’s the sort of opportunity a library offers daily, free of cost, and the sort of opportunity pared away by budget cuts and institutional illiteracy. I first encountered James Joyce in the same unregulated manner, and Updike, Tolstoy, Svevo, Chesterton, Borges and Babel – as an unknown title on a shelf.

Nige describes his fateful, unplanned meeting with Molloy. Mine also happened in high school but in a bookstore (James Books, on Ridge Road in Parma, Ohio, circa 1966), with the old Grove Press edition of Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable). What attracted me was the look of the book, the starkness of its white cover, the paucity of paragraphs. Library or bookstore, the principle is the same: the ineffable attraction of serious reader to book, an elective affinity untouched by marketing or psychology. A reader and his book is a sovereign country, open to treaties but jealously autonomous. Only such autonomy permits the paradisiacal pleasure one knows in libraries, as rendered by Charles Lamb in “Oxford in the Vacation”:

“I seem to inhale learning, walking amid their foliage; and the odour of their old moth-scented coverings is fragrant as the first bloom of those sciential apples which grew amid the happy orchard.”

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