Monday, August 20, 2012

`A Temple Without Altars'

The Houston Public Library, the big central library downtown, was closed for remodeling for the final two years of our first tenure in Houston. One could still order books from the stacks via the online catalog and have them delivered to a branch, but the serendipity of discovery was gone. Some of my earliest library recollections involve wandering the 800s and the fiction shelves, and stumbling on books with an aura of interest. That’s how I first read Kafka and John Updike. I didn’t know anyone who read worthwhile books, and this was long before blogs and other digital sources of information, so I relied on books to beget more books. 

The refurbished library has reopened and it holds fewer volumes and more computers than before. One vast, light-filled room, once occupied by shelves, is filled with dozens of computers, and is as crowded and noisy as a newspaper city room at deadline. I walked the aisles, peering inconspicuously, I trust, over shoulders, and saw mostly games, from solitaire to rather violent-looking cartoons. One woman was tuned to a recognizable news site, and another seemed to be buying something with a credit card. I saw no one writing. All this furious activity, probably representative of the nation’s online behavior (save for pornography, assuming the library’s filters are working), is paid for with tax dollars. The principle function of the central library in the nation’s fourth-largest city is mindless, citizen-subsidized recreation. 

When Henry James returned to the United States in 1904 for the first time in twenty years, among his stops was Boston. Three years later, in The American Scene, his account of the journey, he describes a visit to the city’s new public library, “the Florentine palace by Copley Square,” built in 1895: 

“The Boston institution then is a great and complete institution, with this reserve of its striking the restored absentee as practically without penetralia. A library without penetralia may affect him but as a temple without altars; it will at any rate exemplify the distinction between a benefit given and a benefit taken, a borrowed, a lent, and an owned, an appropriated convenience.” 

Penetralia refers to the innermost, secret or hidden parts of a building, in particular a shrine or sanctuary within a temple. The library has no altar, at least not one for believers.

1 comment:

jwthomas said...

My small local library was closed for three months recently, partly to install added disability accommodations and partly for remodeling. The original layout had two rows of computers and there were usually a few waiting for vacancies. When it reopened space had been made for three rows of computers and there were still patrons waiting to use them. Most of the bookshelves have been moved to the rearmost section of the central room.