“But though a hydrogen-bomb, by reducing to carbon the whole literature of the past, might stimulate to fresh youth and originality the literature of the future, at that price most of us would sooner make do with the literature of the past. And though Johnson saw libraries as sad embodiments of the vanity of human wishes, and Chateaubriand abominated them, even in private homes, as ‘nids à rats’ [rats’ nests], none the less I have long counted myself more fortunate than millionaires, in having a million and a half books a hundred yards from my door.”
Two reactions to these sentences from “Of Books” (The Greatest Problem and Other Essays, 1960) by F.L. Lucas:
(I) A mythology of fear has flourished around the 1950s, the Cold War and nuclear proliferation. The young seem to believe everyone had a fallout shelter in the backyard, duck-and-cover drills were daily events and fear of annihilation was rampant. That’s not how I remember it. In 1960, the year Lucas’ book was published, I entered third grade. The warning siren for drills was on the roof of my grade school, directly above my classroom. When it went off without warning, it was annoying and painful to the ears but never sparked panic or dread. The drills were a sanctioned respite from long division and yet another opportunity to goof off. No one, including Miss Shaker, our teacher, took them seriously. The most memorable events of third grade are associated with television: Spanish classes with Señor Benito Lueres and watching JFK’s inauguration.
(II) Lucas was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and University Reader in English. The collection of the Cambridge Library includes, among other things, a Gutenberg Bible and the papers of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Lucas was a formidably well-read man, a true man of letters in the broad, old-fashioned sense. He knew his Greek, Latin and French. Living a hundred yards from a first-rate library must have felt like living in a suburb of Paradise, and it’s nice to know he didn’t take it for granted. The Fondren Library is a modest affair compared to Cambridge but I judge it my little slice of Earthly Heaven. I went there on Friday to do some work in the archives and to pick up some books I had on hold. Librarians had shelved for me Lucas, George Santayana, James Merrill and Józef Mackiewicz, among others.
Lucas’s reference to Dr. Johnson above refers to a passage in The Rambler #106:
“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue.”