As instructed, I slid my returns into the bin and waited for the metallic crash. It’s a sound I hate – books dropped on sheet metal. But public health demands volumes be sanitized before they can be reshelved. My hands can’t be trusted.
It was my first time inside the Fondren Library in five months. Since May I’ve been able to place books on hold, but they would be delivered to me at the main entrance. This week the first floor opened. The reception desk, just inside the entrance, is now shielded with sheets of transparent Plexiglas, with a small hole at the bottom where two people wearing surgical masks can conduct a conversation. The arrangement reminded me of the window where you place bets at the track. The attendant, a stranger to me, had purple hair. At the dozens of computer stations I saw one student at work. The muted silence was redolent of a funeral home.
The circulation desk was also shielded. There I could talk with old friends, Heidi and Mauricio. Heidi’s mother is in hospice. She’s in her nineties and can’t have visitors because of fear of contagion. My books were stacked and bound with rubber bands on a shelf beside the desk. Among them was Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1,018-page Collected Poems (1929), a copy I love and have written about before. I thought of that line from his sonnet “George Crabbe”: “Give him the darkest inch your shelf allows.” I also picked up three Joseph Roth titles, some Yiddish poetry and, out of curiosity, Memories of Two Generations: A Yiddish Life in Russia and Texas by Alexander Z. Gurwitz (trans. Rabbi Amram Prero, University of Alabama Press, 2016).
The best part of any library visit is serendipity -- browsing the stacks and discovering unexpected gifts. The second (English, American, Italian, Spanish literature), third (Greek, Roman, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish literature) and fourth (history, philosophy) floors remain closed, so that wasn’t an option. I know these stacks by heart, as I recall the layouts of a dozen other libraries and bookstores from the past. They sometimes show up in my dreams and they are never closed, I never get lost and I almost always find something good.
Borges’ final project, published in 1985, the year before his death, was A Personal Library, a catalogue of seventy-five favorite books, with brief entries on each. In his prologue (trans. Eliot Weinberger, Selected Nonfictions, 1999), the former director of the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires writes: “Over time, one’s memory forms a disparate library, made of books or pages whose reading was a pleasure and which one would like to share.”
And this: “A book is a thing among things, a volume lost among the volumes that populate the indifferent universe, until it meets its reader, the person destined for its symbols. What then occurs is that singular emotion called beauty, that lovely mystery which neither psychology nor criticism can describe.”