A tutor and his student sat at the next table in the kid’s section of the library. The boy was a 15- or 16-year-old Chinese American who looked baffled and bored. His teacher was tall, heavy, bald and Caucasian. I was happy to see yet another stereotype punctured but felt sorry for the kid. The tutor would not modulate his voice and seemed unaware that he had attracted the attention of everyone on the first floor of the library. He spoke loudly and earnestly and accompanied his harangue -- he actually said “the joys of math,” while negating its reality – with histrionic gestures. With the other indignities he was suffering, the boy was embarrassed. Librarians, quick to jump on illicit cell phone use and the antics of conspicuously drunk or crazy people, watched the guy and muttered among themselves but did nothing.
The volume rose as the youngest member of an Indian family – a girl of about four -- decided to throw a tantrum on the staircase. Even my kids, who are not notably hushed, stared and huffed at the din. Of course, the culprits were an adult and a girl, so my sons, five and eight, experienced the undeniable pleasures of moral superiority. We left.
What I’ve described are misdemeanors. I venerate libraries as the central American institution. More serious compromising of their sanctity comes from within – administrators and their chronic pandering to popular culture and casual illiteracy – DVDs of Chucky and Desperate Housewives, a display of “lesbian mysteries.” An anecdote: I had seen a first edition of Tom Disch’s best novel, Camp Concentration, on the fiction shelf. It was the edition I had read 40 years ago when it was first published, and though I’m not a science-fiction fan I’m a great admirer of Disch’s work, particularly his poetry. Disch committed suicide on July 4. A few days later I checked the shelf and the novel was gone. I checked the catalog to put a hold on it, and found an entry saying the book had been “weeded,” perhaps during the very week of Disch’s death. Libraries, like culture, decay from within.
In Another Beauty (2000), the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski describes a comparable experience with a library:
“Of all the libraries I know, the worst is probably the vast library of the Centre Pompidou at the Beaubourg in Paris. It actually has quite a good collection, and it subscribes to the wonderful American principle of ready access to the stacks, which means you can roam freely among the books yourself. On the other hand, though, it calls to mind the vast waiting room of a central railroad station. Besieged by hordes of students and vagrants, it doesn’t offer much by way of peace and quiet. In addition, as befits a railroad station, it’s been equipped with loudspeakers, which make announcements in a very civilized voice every fifteen minutes or so: `Please look out for pickpockets. Do not leave your personal belongings unattended.’”
Zagajewski’s praise for the “American principle” of library procedure makes one proud, though the poet goes on to pillory some of the same abuses I’ve described. A more celebrative assessment can be found in “A Defense of the Book,” one of William H. Gass’ finest later essays (collected in A Temple of Texts, 2006): “The aim of the library is a simple one: to unite writing with its reading.” Here is his final paragraph:
“The books in the library regularly leave it, leave it for fresh human attentions, and the work of the institution will often take place far from its doors: at a kitchen table maybe, in someone’s suddenly populated bed, amid the rattle of a commuter train, even in a sophomore’s distracted head. Every day, from the library, books are borrowed and taken away like tubs of chicken to be consumed, though many are also devoured on the premises, in the reading room, where traditionally the librarian, wearing her clichés, sushes an already silent multitude and glares at the offending air. Yet there, or in someone’s rented room, over seven by a sunny pool – who can predict the places where the encounter will occur? – the discovery will be made. And a finger will find the place and mark it before the book’s covers come closed; or its reader will rise and bear her prize out of the library into the kitchen, back to her dorm room, or, along with flowers and candy, to a bedside, in a tote bag onto the beach; or perhaps a homeless scruffy, who has been huddling near a radiator, will leave the volume behind him when he finally goes, as if what his book said had no hold on his heart, because he cannot afford a card; yet, like Columbus first espying land, each will have discovered what he cares about, will know at last what it is to love – a commonplace occurrence – for, in the library, such epiphanies, such enrichments of mind and changes of heart, are the stuff of everyday life.”