Wednesday, May 26, 2021

'Cranks, Hacks, Poverty-stricken Scholars'

Starting at age eleven I was permitted to ride the bus to downtown Cleveland, a half-hour trip along West 25th Street. To this day, the smell of diesel exhaust brings it all back. The license of it was exhilarating: on my own in the city with a few bucks in my pocket and not a parent in sight. I went to book and record stores, a magic shop high up in an office building, and to the main Cleveland Public Library on Superior Avenue. At that age I was a chess obsessive, a phase that passed with the arrival of puberty, and the library housed what remains the largest collection of chess books (some 32,000 today) in the world. There, and in the ill-lit main collection, I spent hours.

That is probably where I learned to feel at home in a library. I would already have made a list of the books I wanted, and in those pre-internet days I relied on the massive card catalogues and trusted in serendipity. Some of my fellow library-goers at first seemed scary to this suburban kid. Old men, perhaps younger than I am today, wearing too many items of clothing, murmuring and reading close to the page with magnifying glasses. I wished to become one of them. They seemed free to ignore what others thought of them, intent on the words they held to their noses. I read Louis MacNeice’s “The British Museum Reading Room” (1939) and thought again of those contented old men:


“Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,

In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards

And cherishing their hobby or their doom . . .”


Richard Zuelch said...

Speaking of libraries, check out the photos of the old Cincinatti public library - built in 1874, demolished in 1955, aged 81. Some of those photos are quite spectacular. Google Images.

rgfrim said...

Your experience as an 11-year old worshipper of the Cleveland library eerily parallels my Philadelphia pre and even post/pubescent weekend self, haunting first the main Free Library edifice and then Chestnut street bookstores in our quest for science fiction. A bus/subway token cost 20 cents; the subway seats were longitudinal and rattan. In the high-ceilinged library we flocked to the literature room ,where a tweedy character with coke-bottle eyeglasses and hair like an untamed hedgerow kept us in order. His unforgettable name was Hobart F. Berolsheimer, may he Rest In Peace and in the quiet he vainly sought.

Thomas Parker said...

In 1970, when I was ten, my city (Bell Gardens, California) built a new state-of-the-art library - right across the street from my house. (It was then that I knew that I was the favorite of the gods. The vicissitudes of life have since led me to revise that reckless assumption, but then I no longer live across the street from a library.) Every time I walked through the building's doors (five or six times a day, probably), I sent up a silent thanks to Richard M. Nixon, whose name was prominently displayed on the dedication plaque by the entrance, even though he really had nothing to do with the project. (He had other things on his mind in those days - boy, did he ever.)

I practically lived in that library, and I knew every shelf of the large children's section intimately; I could have drawn a quite accurate map of the layout from memory, with large arrows pointing to the location of my favorite books, many of which I checked out repeatedly and read over and over again.

Life has never again been so perfect.

huisache said...

when I was seven we moved to another small south Texas town and in 1955 air conditioning was a rare thing. That summer my mother told me of a place nearby that had air conditioning and we could stay there as long as we pleased so long as we acted like we were reading books. I acted like I read every book in that library. I was 30 before a girlfriend pointed out that my mother had tricked me. Thanks, mom.