Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Universe, Otherwise Known as the Library

This is a continuation of my previous post.

The library in the town where I grew up was a tiny, one-room affair, so whenever I had to do research for school, my father drove me to the university library in the city. The first time was when I was about eleven, I think; I was writing a paper on Greek archaeology. The books I needed were far back in the stacks, which were below ground or at least had a subterranean feel, and close to where machinery hummed loudly behind vents. It was at night, and no one else was there.

University libraries are assuredly the most fearful.

My first weeks of college were frightening and intensely lonely, as they are for many aspies, but the libraries were a dream come true. I spent much of the week before classes started exploring the main one. (I recall reading The Bell Jar then, and reflecting that I would most likely make the same exit as the author, which, I'm glad to say, hasn't been the case.) I eventually got a job as a shelver, ultimately holding it for two years. My future wife worked the circulation desk at the other campus library, where they always thought I was a little shady; it was like the Capulets and the Montagues. The job itself proved invaluable, as I came across a great many books I would never have read otherwise (e.g., The Worm Ouroboros), and handled editions sometimes as much as two centuries old. There was a little reading room with fine chairs and tables and stained-glass windows and books behind glass that I always wanted to get into, much as Alice wanted to get into the garden, but the door was always closed and locked, and the lights off, and the drink-me bottles only made my neck lengthen.

On the square in that town is what may very well be the best used bookstore in the universe; I'm certain I spent more time there than wandering through the library. It's such a good business, I feel I must break with my practice here and divulge a proper noun associated with my history: the name of the store is Recycled Books, Records, and CDs. The books are never anything but reasonably priced, and among them I've found out-of-print works like Bury's History of Greece in its Modern Library edition, Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns, and innumerable Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks, books I could have looked for in vain at the execrable Half Priced Books years without finding; I once even bought a nineteenth-century copy of Chapman's Homer for one dollar. Its layout is something like the library described by Mr. Vane, and a pleasure to lose oneself in.

A number of years ago I went on a walking tour of southern England and Wales. Hay-on-Wye, the used-book mecca of Britain, was my last stop. It was, for me, a rather disappointing experience, but one thing deserves mention: whenever the clerks found out I was from Texas, they were quick to ask if I'd ever been to Larry McMurtry's used bookstore in Archer City. Now this I have done quite a number of times, as it's close to my mother-in-law's house. The store (Booked Up) fills five buildings on the town square, and you have to get a map in Building 1 to find your way around. The editions there, while excellent, are somewhat overpriced, and the selection shows a certain bias and ignorance of some subjects and branches of literature, something I've often found to be the case in stores run by only one or two people. The town itself is somewhat moribund; its population is about 1800, and there's nothing but similar small towns for miles around. But the store is well worth traveling to see, especially if you have an interest in antiquarian books.

It may seem that I'm rambling without purpose here—and perhaps I am, Internet ink being cheap—but these recollections do link back to my previous post. I began by discussing the strange, almost numinous fear and dread that seems to lurk in the deserted back corners of libraries. I dream quite vividly, and, given the long obsession I've had with libraries and used bookstores, perhaps it isn't surprising that I dream of books every week or so. Sometimes these dreams are bizarre and nightmarish, as when I discovered a mirror image of the university library beneath its basement, lit by subterranean fires and inhabited by glowing, electric blue demons, or when I lost myself in dim, infinite stacks full of identical gray metal bookcases, and took an old oversized edition down from the top shelf, and opened it on the floor to read of the ancient kingdoms of the elves. Sometimes also I dream of rambling, chaotic used bookstores with secret passages and hidden rooms; generally I'm looking for some specific book that I can't quite call to mind, only to find ten copies of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in plastic slipcovers.

People go to libraries less and less often these days. It isn't uncommon to encounter a college student who doesn't even know how to do a catalog search or check out a book. Electronic media is to blame, I suppose. Now, I have no ideological problem with e-books and the like; I think it's great for popular fiction, which is what I write. But reliance on e-media for everything is (I think) an ominous development for any democracy, given its ephemerality and ease of manipulation. It's in de Tocqueville, people!*

I'm starting to acquire hard-copy books like foil-hat people stuff cash in their mattresses. I may be crazy, but then, I've always suspected that that was the case. Perhaps Bradbury's to blame. Or perhaps it's just an excuse to visit more used bookstores.

* Not actually in de Tocqueville.

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