Friday, May 11, 2007

On libraries

From Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel" (1941)
The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft, bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below--one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon's six sides; the height of a normal librarian. One of the hexagon's free sides opens onto a narrow sort of vestibule, which in turn opens onto another gallery, identical to the first--identical in fact to all. To the left and right of the vestibule are two tiny compartments. One is for sleeping, upright; the other, for satisfying one's physical necessities. Through this space, too, there passes a spiral staircase, which winds upward and downward into the remotest distance. In the vestibule there is a mirror, which faithfully duplicates appearances. Men often infer form this mirror that the library is not infinite--if it were, what need would there be for that illusory replication. I prefer to dream that burnished surfaces are a figuration and promise of the infinite. . . . Like all the men of the Library, in my younger days I traveled; I have journeyed in quest of a book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs. now that my eyes can hardly make out what I myself have written, I am preparing to die, a few leagues from the hexagon where I was born. When I am dead, compasionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite. I declare that the Library is endless.

Busy today, so all I've got for you is a couple of bits I've come across lately about libraries. Borges's infinite library that is the universe seems a good lead into a bit from John Crowley's Aegypt (1987), on the role of distant libraries in forging in the main character, Pierce, a lifelong obsession with mythical, mystical, shadowy pasts:
Such was the family Pierce was to make his way in; in their isolation they were like some antique family of gentry, in the specialness of their circumstances like foreigners living within a pale. It was only the Oliphant children who were taught by the priest's sister; only the Oliphants (as far as Pierce knew) who every month received from the state library in far-off, blue grass-green Lexington, a box of books. . . . Every month the read books were packed up and shipped back, and on receipt another box would be sent, more or less filling the vague requests on the Oliphants' list (Mother West-wind, more horse stories, "something about masonry," anything of Trollope's) and picked up at the post office, and opened in excitement and disappointment mixed, Christmas every month. Pierce remembering his confusion and contempt before this bizarre system--bizarre to a child who had had the vast, the virtually illimitable reaches of the Brooklyn Public to wander in, his father went every two weeks and Pierce had always gone with him and could have any book he pointed at--Pierce remembering those battered library boxes wondered if it had been they, those librarians or whoever they were who had filled them, who by sending him some book full of antiquated notions and quaint orthography had first suggested to him the existence of that shadow country, that far old country that was sort of Egypt but not Egypt, no, not Egypt at all, a country with a different history, whose name was spelled too with a small but crucial difference: it was not Egypt but Aegypt.

The small town I grew up in had an old Carnegie library, but its offerings were necessarily limited, and we, too, relied on similarly vague requests sent off to larger libraries in other towns and cities. Now I'm spoiled, living half a block from a branch of the Chicago Public Library and also having access to a major research library. Almost anything I want is available--though sometimes just barely. When I decided earlier this week that I couldn't really approach Endless Things (2007), the final volume of John Crowley's Aegypt tetralogy, without revisiting the first three, which are out of print, I was surprised to find that the Chicago Public Library system only has three copies of each--and one was checked out, presumably in the hands of a Crowley fan who, having the same idea I had, was quicker on the draw. Maybe the uniform paperback editions that Overlook is bringing out in the autumn will inspire the library to increase its holdings.

As regular readers know, I'm at heart more of a book buyer than book borrower, but I still make fairly regular use of the local library. It's particularly good for a summer Saturday afternoon when nothing on my shelves seems right; I can head out to the library confident that within ten minutes I can be back in my chair with a good mystery novel or two. People have of course been using libraries in that way--to pick up a quick bit of pleasurable reading--since they were invented. John Brewer describes a couple of early libraries in The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997):
The largest circulating libraries were more than adjuncts to a bookselling business. In the capitals of the three kingdoms, in the large provincial towns and in resorts such as Bath and Margate, circulating libraries offered comfortable, spacious surroundings in which customers could gossip, flirt, browse, examine newspapers and reviews, and choose from a selection of every kind of book. The late eighteenth-century engraving of the library at Margate, sold jointly by its proprietor and engraver, conveys the ambience library proprietors wanted: one of leisure and display as well as learning.

The biggest libraries published catalogues: John Bell's famous London Library contained more than 8,000 volumes; Sibbald's in Edinburgh offered its patrons a choice of 6,000 titles in 1786; and Ann Ireland's Leicester Library, though not as large a Barber's in Newcastle, nevertheless housed 2,500 books. These libraries were not only repositories of fiction. The number of novels and romances was never as great as those of history, travel, and geography; indeed for every "frivolous" volume there were two of more serious reading matter. But these figures refer to books on the shelf: no records survive to reveal the pattern of borrowing in a major circulating library. It may well have been that the sober histories and detailed travellers' tales never received a second glance as readers hurried to the shelves of multi-volumed novels and well-thumbed romances. Isaac Cruikshank's The Circulating Library certainly takes this view.

The shelves for novels, tales and romances are empty--all the books are out--but the sections for history, sermons, voyages and travels are full, attesting to their unpopularity.
That was before libraries had learned to stock multiple copies of the most popular trashy books: the Chicago Public Library has, according to their online catalog, 26 copies of The Da Vinci Code (2004), about half of which are available right now for checkout.

It seems unlikely that any trashy books marred the shelves of the library John Stow describes here in his A Survey of London (1598):
Joceline of Furness writeth, that Thean, the first Archbishop of London, in the reign of Lucius, built the said church by the aid of Ciran, chief butler to King Lucius; and also that Eluanus, the second archbishop, built a library to the same adjoining, and converted many of the Druids, learned men in the pagan law.
Just think of the splendid confusion a time traveler could create by stealing on of Chicago Public's extra copies of The Da Vinci Code and slipping it into the stacks of Eluanus's library. By the time the historical ripples reached the present, Dan Brown's faux-scholarly mishmash might actually have created the sort of secret societies it purports to uncover--though I suppose even Druids might find his characters and sentences a bit wooden.

But people do enjoy fluff and trash, and I'm not one to deny anyone pleasure from books, of whatever kind. I think D. J. Enright, in Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1987), gets at least part of it right:
A love of literature, Virginia Woolf wrote, is often roused and initially nourished, not by good books but by bad ones. "It will be an ill day when all the reading is done in libraries and none of it in tubes." And vice versa, too.

Interplay, too, is out of print, and obscure enough as to be missing from most library collections. But a commonplace book, being a bedside and armchair companion, is best owned rather than borrowed anyway--and there an Enright fan is in luck: searchable used bookstore inventories have made it readily available to anyone anywhere.

And, as John Crowley clearly understands, there are few things more inherently exciting to a reader than getting a box of books in the mail.

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