Thursday, May 18, 2023

'Long Shelves Brim With Books'

A fat anthology of writers celebrating libraries (with a companion volume devoted to bookstores) could be assembled almost without effort, including discrete chapters devoted to Borges and Larkin (Larkin: “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?”), both librarians. And let’s reserve a page for Dr. Johnson’s realism: “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.” 

The late Adam Zagajewski taught at the University of Houston for one semester per year for five years, beginning in 1988. In his 2017 essay collection Slight Exaggeration (trans. Clare Cavanagh) he describes a library I know well:


“I also discovered the Rice University campus, located near my apartment, and above all its wonderful [Fondren] library, in which I spent blissful hours, hours borrowed from life when I forgot about Texas; only after leaving did I rediscover the old oaks’ arabesques and remember where I was.”


I have visited the Fondren, sometimes daily, since I was first hired by Rice in 2006. Now I carry a map of its shelves in my head. I have always felt most at home in the company of books, and the library feels like an annex of home. Zagajewski adds:


“Rice University is better known for engineering [the school at Rice in which I work] than the humanities, it’s true, but its library has splendid holdings in the European literatures. Long shelves brim with books of largely forgotten authors [see Johnson above], who labored their whole lives. In vain, since the dusty tomes of their poetry and prose now shivered hopelessly in the library’s air-conditioned halls? But occasionally someone still got read, still lived.”


Zagajewski says he read mostly in French and German, as the Polish collection was small. That has changed, largely thanks to Ewa M. Thompson, professor emerita of Slavic studies. “Still,” Zagajewski writes, “I found many books I hadn’t been able to get in Parisian libraries.”


Thomas Parker said...

In 1970, when I was ten years old, my city (Bell Gardens, California) built a brand new, state of the art library - right across the street from my house, all thanks to the munificence of Richard M. Nixon (or at least that's what the plaque by the front door said - and still does, for that matter). It was then that I knew that I was the favorite of the gods, a notion that time has since disabused me of, but then I no longer live across the street from a library.

Richard Zuelch said...

Reminded by Thomas Parker's comment: in my city (Long Beach, California), we had one of the original Carnegie public libraries. It opened in 1909 and was demolished in the early 1970s, only to be replaced (opening in 1976) by a new public library built in the Brutalist style of architecture. For many years, it was, without a doubt, the ugliest building in Long Beach. Brutalist architecture just looks like the construction contractor got a good deal on concrete. After uglifying the landscape for around 40 years, it was finally replaced by yet another library that is, architecturally, quite nice.

I have many fond memories of that old Carnegie library - the mezzanine, the mosaics on the ceiling, etc. I'm glad it had a good nearly-70-year run.

IronMike said...

Ah Rice U. I went to University of St. Thomas, right next door. Those were the days, early-to-mid 1980s. Houston and humidity. That's all I remember.