Thursday, February 19, 2015

`It's More Like Bedlam'

“The existence of public libraries was kept from me as long as possible (the knowledge would, it was thought, interfere with my studies), but when the secret broke at last, I rapidly became what in those days was an especially irritating kind of borrower, who brought back in the evening the books he had borrowed in the morning and read in the afternoon.” 

This is Philip Larkin, for more than forty years a librarian, in both public and university institutions, writing in “Shelving the Issue,” first published in The New Statesman in 1977 and collected in Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements and Book Reviews, 1952-85 (2001). Born in 1922, he is describing the public library in his home town, Coventry, “nestling at the foot of the unbombed cathedral, filled with tall antiquated bookcases.” To this day I experience mild embarrassment when visiting the library for the second time in a day. One fears being catalogued among the derelicts sleeping in the periodicals room. Larkin adds: “Such was my first experience of the addictive excitement a large open-access public library generates: the sense of imminent discovery, the impulse to start on twenty books at once.” That excitement has never ceased despite the best efforts of librarians to subvert their collections and turn libraries into theme parks for the lumpenproletariat. Catharine Savage Brosman confirms my observations in “In the Public Library” (On the Old Plaza, 2014): 

“No quiet here!—no studious frowns; it’s more
like bedlam. Children dart among the stacks
and squeal; bored people lounge about, or pore
through tapes and DVDs on crowded racks, 

“or scan new fiction—Cromwell, Brown, and Clark
(a dozen copies each). What can they lose?
In short, it is an air-conditioned park,
a beach. Teens chatter, showing off tattoos; 

“a drifter, drunk or drugged, accosts a pair
of women, muttering a fishwife’s word;
he’s taken out by guards (by guards!). And where
in all this is the catalogue? Absurd 

“to ask: on-line, of course.—A harmless drudge
(as per Sam Johnson), I should like to find
four literary books. But this is sludge,
the dregs of culture. Scholars of my kind 

“will be extinct ere long, good books removed;
we’ll read on screens, or else won’t read at all.
As everyday experience has proved,
Eden’s long gone; this is the newest fall. 

“Avoiding drunks and dragons, I succeed—
knight-errant—in procuring an array
of unread tomes. The addicts have their need:
withdrawal is, I’m glad, still years away.” 

By “Cromwell” does Brosman mean Patricia Cornwell, the thriller writer? It hardly matters. She's referring to generic book-like commodities as expectation-fulfilling as Big Macs. Brosman lives in Houston and may be describing a library I know. She gets the details right for a cultural institution administered and patronized by vandals (sorry, Dave), and she nicely echoes Larkin’s "addictive" theme.


Subbuteo said...

"the impulse to start on twenty books at once". I realised the other day that I was reading six books at once and simply could not bring myself to channel all of my efforts and excitement into one at a time for fear that I wouldn't soon encounter something toothsome in one of the others. Utterly illogical but what if I was run over while in the midst of that one book?

George said...

n one of the essays collected in The Eye of the Story, Eudora Welty writes of being told that more than once that she might not return a book to the Jackson library on the day she had borrowed it. She might also be told to put on a slip, something Larkin was spared.