Sunday, September 14, 2014

`Part of This Camaraderie'

“At the library I felt free—free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.” 

Almost daily during the work week I visit the university library. The walk under the live oaks is bracing but I never confuse the hike with anything so mundane as cardiovascular health. Walking is its own reward – an allegory in miniature of life -- and I feel no need to justify it philosophically. Besides, the payoff, guaranteed, is books, almost anything I might want to read. When weighed alongside online access and such gifts as interlibrary loan, we inhabit a reader’s (and writer’s) paradise. We have no excuse for boredom. 

“It was in the Bodleian that I stumbled upon the now-obscure and forgotten works of Theodore Hook, a man greatly admired in the early nineteenth century for his wit and his genius for theatrical and musical improvisation (he was said to have composed more than five hundred operas on the spot). I became so fascinated by Hook that I decided to write a sort of biography or `case-history’ of him.” 

Reading has always meant writing, as eating means cooking. The first book I wrote, with volumes from the public library and my own, was a collection of presidential biographies, from Washington to Kennedy, one page each in a spiral-bound notebook. Next came the biography of a fellow Ohioan, started the day (Feb. 20, 1962) John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. I was nine, and used the newspapers and television news reports for reference. I still love biography. 

“It was there, too, that I saw all of Darwin’s works in their original editions, and it was in the stacks that I found and fell in love with all the works of Sir Thomas Browne—his Religio Medici, his Hydrotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (The Quincunciall Lozenge). How absurd some of these were, but how magnificent the language! And if Browne’s classical magniloquence became too much at times, one could switch to the lapidary cut-and-thrust of Swift—all of whose works, of course, were there in their original editions.” 

My editions were humbler, usually paperbacks, though I share his seemingly incompatible tastes for Browne’s sumptuous prose and the lethal K-Bar economy of Swift’s. How do people learn to write without reading widely, culling the weak and diseased from the strong and healthy? There’s no sustenance in lousy writing. 

“All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books—along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves—was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them between us, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.” 

With dedicated readers I sense true solidarity, stronger than mere politics or demographics. Reading old books from the library is like digging the first stratum of an archeological site, unearthing traces of bookish forebears and, at the deepest levels, the writer. Some books are best read that way. 

[The quoted passages are drawn from "On Libraries by Dr. Oliver Sacks in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review.]

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