Friday, May 23, 2008

`It Extends the Self'

“My high school had no library worthy of the name `book,’ so I would walk about a mile downtown to the public one to borrow, in almost every case, a new world. That’s what a library does for its patrons. It extends the self. It is pure empowerment. I would gather my three or four choices, after deliberations governed by ignorant conjecture, and then before leaving, I would sit at one of the long, wide tables we associate with the institution now, and read a page or two further than I had while standing in the stacks. I scorned the books deemed appropriate for my age, and selected only those I wouldn’t understand. Reading what I didn’t understand was, for one blissful period of my life, the source of a profound, if perverse, pleasure.”

I could sign my name to this passage from William H. Gass’ “A Defense of the Book,” collected in A Temple of Texts. My grade school had a better library than my high school, stocked with antiquated science texts and “classics” abridged for children – Gulliver’s Travels with Swift’s scatology excised. In that library I met Max Ellison, the first self-identified poet I met and later the poet laureate of Michigan. I was a Roethke enthusiast and had read Allan Seagar’s The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. Ellison, folksy and bearded like Whitman, assured me Roethke was overrated. I asked him about Buber and Tillich, writers important to Roethke late in his life, but Ellison knew nothing of them.

Gass’ essay mingles memoir and reverie. A good book, especially when we’re young, is always “a new world,” a reaching beyond the self. Just as Columbus followed the Vikings, so a “new world” can be rediscovered, which describes much of my reading today. A library, Gass says, ought to “extend the self.” I thought of this phrase on Thursday when I took my younger sons to the central library in Bellevue. One man was watching an ABBA video on a library computer and another, a clip from a Bruce Lee movie. No selves were being extended. Still, in the stacks I found Alexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons, Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years and, through interlibrary loan, Daniel Fuchs’ Three Novels. My sons, between them, checked out 23 books, from Calvin and Hobbes to a kid’s history of the Trojan War. Gass continues:

“I also liked to look at the card pasted in the back of the book to record previous borrowings – a card that is, like so much other information, there no longer or discreetly incomplete. It gave me a good deal of satisfaction to be taking home some rarely read, symbolically dusty, arcane tome. I checked out both my book and my pride at the same desk. See O world what I am reading and be amazed: Joyce, Wells, Carlyle. Well, Wells I could understand. That, I would realize later, was what was the matter with him.”

“My book and my pride,” indeed. How often I paraded my elevated tastes (including my taste for early Gass). They were usually genuine but made insufferable by my exhibitionism. Youth and arrogance are a potent cocktail. More Gass:

“Libraries have succumbed to the same pressures that have overwhelmed the basic cultural functions of museums and universities, aims which should remain what they were, not because the old ways are always better, but because in this case they were the right ones: the sustaining of standards, the preservation of quality, the conservation of literacy’s history, the education of the heart, eye, and mind – so that now they devote far too much of their restricted space, and their limited budget, to public amusement, and to futile competition with the Internet. It is a fact of philistine life that amusement is where the money is: Finally, you are doing something for the community, spokesmen for the community say, saluting the librarian with a gesture suitable to a noble Roman without, however, rising from their bed of banality.”

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