Saturday, October 08, 2011

`Trembling in Front of the Shelves'

Elberry passes along a remembrance of libraries by the English playwright and novelist Alan Bennett, who is grateful for them and recalls them in detail, though his early experiences were unlike my own:

“This resentment, which was, I suppose, somewhere mine, had to do with feeling shut out. A library, I used to feel, was like a cocktail party with everybody standing with their back to me; I could not find a way in.”

I don’t remember ever feeling baffled, intimidated or excluded by a library. Mine was not a bookish family and I had no models of assiduous reading. Fortunately, my bent was always oppositional: My parents smoked, I never did. They didn’t read, I never stopped. Libraries were the ideal home – quiet and filled with books. We had two within walking distance, and later added the main library downtown, reachable in thirty minutes by bus. Bennett writes:

“For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer. Of the libraries I have mentioned the most important for me was that first one, the dark and unprepossessing Armley Junior Library. I had just learned to read. I needed books.”

It’s a hunger that never abates, one that Alfred Kazin shared. In A Walker in the City (1951) he writes of growing up in Brooklyn:

“On those early summer evenings, the library was usually empty, and there was such ease at the long tables under the plants lining the windowsills, the same books of American history lay so undisturbed on the shelves, the wizened, faintly smiling old lady who accepted my presence without questions or suggestions or reproach was so delightful as she quietly, smilingly stamped my card and took back a batch of new books every evening, that whenever I entered the library I would walk up and down trembling in front of the shelves. For each new book I took away, there seemed to be ten more of which I was depriving myself.”

It’s a reassuring hunger because I’ve always understood it would never go away but there was always another book to read. On Friday I was in the basement of the university library, trolling in one of its backwaters near the end of the Library of Congress alphabet, the T’s, U’s and Z’s, books about cooking, bibliographies and military science. This is largely terra incognita, ripe for exploration and deployment of the library’s most reliable reference guide – serendipity. I returned with treasures:

Vietnam Zippos by Sherry Buchanan (Thames & Hudson, 2007), an amply illustrated history of the cigarette lighters carried by American troops in Southeast Asia.

Animal to Edible by Noƫlie Vialles (Cambridge University Press, 1994), an anthropological study of abattoirs in the Adour region of southwest France.

A Civil War Cook Book: Typical of the Times But Timely for Today by Myrtle Ellison Smith (Lincoln Memorial University, Harrogate, Tenn., 1961). Here is Ms. Smith’s recipe for lard:

“Cut the pork fat up in pieces about 2 inches square; fill a vessel holding about 3 gallons with the piece; put in 1 pint of boiled lye make from oak and hickory ashes, and strained before using; boil gently over a slow fire until the cracklings have turned brown; strain and set aside to cool. This will give more, whiter and better lard than any other process.”

No comments: