Where would I have been without libraries? Scarcely literate. I never had a lot of money as a kid. My parents lived through the Great Depression and were tight. I learned early not to be a spendthrift (or miser). To this day I know a twinge in my gut when I shell out cash for a book. Online purchases make the pain abstract, so I remind myself to be strong. The other day, after much internal debate, I ordered the fat (624 pages) critical edition of Basil Bunting’s Poems recently published by Faber & Faber. While I was on the web site, mouse in hand, I almost ordered C.H. Sisson’s translation of the Divine Comedy, which I read last year – thanks to the library – and Dana Gioia’s 99 Poems, another library loan, but I was strong, at least until book-hunger strikes again.
Later this month we’ll observe the centenary of Anthony Burgess, a writer who stirs in me mixed reactions. I met him once, in April 1971, at Bowling Green State University. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman and Burgess, at fifty-five, was approaching the zenith of his fame. Less than a year later Stanley Kubrick would release A Clockwork Orange, his botched adaptation of Burgess’ 1962 novel. He read from his upcoming novel, M/F, and I was star-struck. I still admire Burgess’ industriousness, his learning and linguistic verve. I read Earthly Powers (1980) several years ago and enjoyed it. I’ve read little that he published after that, but he was an old-fashioned bookman, a solid nut-and-bolts professional. In person he was charming in an Irish sort of way, a gifted talker and literary raconteur. In Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (1968), Burgess collects the essay “What’s All This Fuss about Libraries?” He doesn’t like them. They are “monstrously unnecessary.” He writes:
“I’ve never been able to think of a library as a thing to be used, nibbled or eaten piecemeal. A library encloses, and any one of its items seeks to possess the brain that approaches it: the things are alive and malevolent.”
I have never felt this way. There’s nowhere I’m happier or more at home than in a library; more, even, than in a bookstore. I still feel that little-boy tingle of greed and incipient satiation as I walk through the front door. Libraries suggest Borgesian universality. Thanks to Dewey or the Library of Congress, I can act on any bookish whim, find any volume I want, even if it means filling out an interlibrary loan request. The internet, invented by Borges, makes book location and acquisition even more effortless. But Burgess partially redeems himself:
“I prefer my library at home—and I mean a library, not just bookshelves in the sitting-room. I've bought these books, or, if they’re review copies, neglected to sell them: they can be ravished, defaced, spent pagemeal in the privy, arranged in disorder, lost and found again, used. But there ought not to be too many of them: that way, the shelves mount to the ceiling, library steps have to be imported, a simple classification system begs to be given a trial. Soon you start filling gaps, hungering after completeness, throwing out tattered paperbacks, judging things you once loved unworthy. That way madness lies, or rather the horrible sanity of the institution.”