Rooms Full Of Books: Soulful Abodes

In Books: A Memoir Larry McMurtry writes:

[I]t puzzles me how bookless our ranch house was. There must have been a Bible, but I don’t remember ever seeing it. My father did read the range cattle books of J. Frank Dobie, but the only one I remember seeing in our house, which, by this time, was a small house in the village of Archer City was The Longhorns, which I borrowed for my father Mr. Will Taylor, a wealthy and elderly oilman who lived in a great mansion just south of our hay field.

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

That’s quite a mic drop right there. (The jacket inscription notes that McMurtry “lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books.” It also makes note of the fact that McMurtry “is the author of twenty-eight books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.”) I remember being awed by the size of Susan Sontag‘s personal library–which ran to some fifteen thousand books; McMurtry’s library runs to almost twice that. This wonderful video shows Umberto Eco walking around his personal library; it is mind boggling. Of course, the number of books means little in terms of erudition if a significant percentage of them remains unread, but these worthies clearly seem to have read a great many of the books they collected. Their collections generate envy and respect in those of us who love books and like having a lot of them around.

My living room and my office are where my books live; they’ve traveled with me to Australia and back; I will take them with me wherever I go, to wherever we next decide to set up home. I did not bring any books with me when I moved to the US some thirty years ago, and I couldn’t have; my collection then, thanks to my budget, was very small, and I relied largely on libraries to keep my reading habit going. At home, they take up eight shelves; in my office, another three. Over the years, many have fallen apart, been lost, or been borrowed never to be returned. (I loathe loaning my books out and hope to never have anyone again ask me to borrow one.) But those that have survived contribute, in no insignificant measure, to making our living-room the ‘soul’ of the house. (As one recent visitor to our humble abode described it–and he was right.) When I sit at my work-desk in one corner, to write, to read, to browse and waste time, and look around on occasion on the books that surround me, at their dimly visible titles which speak to diverse intellectual domains and inclinations and interests, their colorful jackets, their histories of procurement jostling for attention in my memories, I feel a curious, calming, pleasure; I am reminded of the fact that as a child I had often told my mother that I “dream of living in a room full of books”–and that that dream has been realized.

Serendipity In The Library Stacks

I like libraries. Always have. My most favored writing space these days is a library, that of the CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. I arrive by subway at the 34th Street station, exit at 35th Street, enter the B. Altman Building through the lobby, buy myself a coffee, and then head upstairs to the second floor. If my favored by-the-window spot is not available I seek out others and get to work. The ceilings are high; the light is good; and scholars around me remind me I should not spend too much time dilly-dallying on social media.

But the real reason to like working in a library is that I’m surrounded by books. CUNY folks are used to griping, endlessly, about the relatively small size of our collections, but be that as it may, there are still many, many stacks of tomes here. And it’s not just the books that are immediately relevant to my writing projects that make a library a favored zone of work; it’s all of them, arranged according to a scheme whose workings I do not fully understand (and don’t want to.)

For between these stacks are passageways that must be traversed to move around within the library–those much-needed short walks to pick up a printout, a sharpened pencil for underlining and note-making, a trip to the restroom or water fountain for relief and refreshment, a short nap in the big armchairs by the windows. And as I walk among these stacks, among rows and columns of books, I encounter the serendipity of the stacks.

Here may be found entire domains of scholarship and literary and cultural accomplishment that I have not encountered and would never have had I not ventured into Stackland (and sometimes also into Returned For Reshelving Island.) Nineteenth century woman poets; obscure, marginalized ‘moments’ in art history; avant-garde novelists; dazzlingly incomprehensible mathematical monographs; presidential speeches; philosophers who never make it to graduate reading lists; Brazilian musicology; the list goes on. And on. (This exceedingly short list does no justice whatsoever to the richness of the offerings on display.)

I move quickly and briskly between the stacks, purposefully striding on toward my eventual destination. But the corners of my eyes are drawn towards the titles whizzing by. They pull me back toward them; they slow my steps. They bid me pick them up and inspect the spine, the cover, the table of contents. I am intrigued; I am awed by the labor of love so clearly visible. I am humbled; I am overwhelmed. I will never be able to produce scholarship this acute, this sustained. I am reminded, relentlessly, of how little I know. And how the vast edifice of human knowledge is built up by these constituents, arrayed here in their marvelous variety.

These walks are little expeditions of a kind; sorties and forays into uncharted territory. Who knows what I may find on the next one? I will never read all the books I glimpse here, but they do serve as reminders to keep reading. And writing.

On Virtuous Acts: Paying Library Late Fees

A week or so ago, an old friend of my wife’s said to me, in the midst of a conversation about how much she enjoyed using her public library’s resources, that her busy schedule–work and taking care of two sub-five-year old toddlers–sometimes made her return her borrowings late, bringing a host of late fees in its wake. But, she went on, she didn’t mind: paying those monies to the public library almost felt virtuous. I nodded, and chimed in, “Yeah, I never mind paying late fees to a public library either.”

Talk about making a necessity into a virtue. I’m forgetful and disorganized and distracted (and perhaps absent-minded too.) I often return books late–to the libraries at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. (And before that, to the libraries at every academic institution I have attended.) Till recently, Brooklyn College would not levy late fees on faculty members so I got away scot-free there. Not so much at the CUNY Graduate Center, which shows no mercy to its professorial staff and has cleaned up a pretty packet from me over the years. (We’ve been ‘together’ some twenty years now; the smallest fine I’ve paid was no more than a quarter; the biggest, about five dollars.)

But I don’t mind paying late fees, that is true: every time a librarian looks up at from her terminal and announces the latest monetary sanction, I fork out the lucre without protest. And it is true too, that I feel oddly virtuous after this act; I suspect I regard these payments as a donation of sorts, a charitable contribution to a perennially cash-strapped institution. As my friend said, “the public library can use all the money it gets.”

Late fees, of course, are not supposed to be regarded so. They are penalties for the inconvenience we have subjected other patrons of the library to; we have made unavailable the books and materials they need and perhaps forced recall notices to be sent (which might consume precious temporal and financial resources). They might, indeed, as they probably are by librarians, be viewed as sanctions for the selfish. The most appropriate response to the levying of a late fee would appear to be one of suitable penitence: perhaps a muttered, shame-faced apology, perhaps a grim resolve never to bother librarians and fellow patrons again, perhaps a head-bowed incognito slinking away from the circulation desk.

Yet, still: I like paying late fees to libraries/I cannot lie/you other patrons cannot deny. The libraries I use always appear cash and resource hungry: the stacks could always use more titles, the journal stores could do with more subscriptions. I doubt the tiny amounts I pay enable any satisfaction of these needs but perhaps the grand cumulative total paid by all of us delinquents will. Perhaps it could just help pay for a slightly swankier holiday party–some classy wine, food not ordered from the lowest bidder, a taxi fund for those who wish to get really, really sloshed?–for the librarians (especially the ones at the reference desk, who keep answering my amateurish questions.)

I assure you: I aspire to return books on time. But the late fee isn’t an adequate deterrent for bad behavior in this dimension.


On School Libraries – I

The first school library I can remember using was during my sixth grade. I had transferred schools after the fifth grade, and perhaps because of the trauma of losing my favorite school teacher, some memories of those first five school years seem to have been obliterated. Including the ones about libraries.

My new school’s library had the standard furnishings: some open shelves, some books in shelves with glass doors (its collections were all hardcover), long reading tables, vertical stands for reading newspapers, and most prominently, the librarian, a stern-faced older gentleman who sat at a centrally located desk and peered out suspiciously from behind a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles at the grimy schoolboys and schoolgirls that filed in for their library class period. (He was the first to remind me that ‘my reputation’ preceded me; my brother studied in the same school and was well-known to him; thus did my determination to find an alternate locale to flourish in receive its first impetus.)

The library’s holdings were modest, obviously, compared to the other two libraries my parents were members of, and to which I, as a consequence, also enjoyed access: the British Council Library and the US Information Service Library. Still, it had its charms: I had my own library card, not a dependent’s; its collections of Indian magazines were unique; and of course, the library period, once a week, came as blessed relief from the onerous demands of the remaining seven class periods of the day. When it was over, and the bell rang, signalling our return back to our classrooms, I would reluctantly drag myself away from whichever reference book I had taken down from the shelves to peruse.

The library code of hushed silence was rather rigorously enforced, and more importantly, observed in those days; my abiding memory of the library period are the sounds of rustling pages, creaking fans and the occasional scrape of the chair pushed back by a reader going for seconds.

Among my various borrowings in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades–the three years that I spent in that school–I can only remember one: a compendium of photographs selected from one of India’s leading news magazines of the time: The Illustrated Weekly. I do not why this title was not in the reference section but I wasn’t about to turn down this particular gift horse. I took the tome home and spent hours poring over its black and white photographs. Among them, two shocking images from the 1971 war with Pakistan still persist in my mind’s eye: a young boy with his guts torn out by shrapnel and the reprisal bayoneting of razakars in a Dacca public square by Bengali militia (after the Pakistani Army surrender). 

I was a conscientious library patron; I never returned books late. (That nasty habit only reared its head once I began graduate school.) There was little chance I would, of course; I was a reasonably fast reader and I was eager to get on with the next borrowing, which would only be possible once I had returned the previous one.

I was a day student, and not a boarder, so my contact with the library was limited to that single period during the week. My relationship with libraries would change dramatically when I transferred in the ninth grade to a boarding school, a very different one in many respects.

On that experience, more anon.

The Library Noise Zone

The Internet’s latest viral video seems to be that of a young female student at Cal State-Northridge, loudly, angrily, berating her fellow students for “breathing too loudly” in the library. The video is apparently evoking much hilarity; I have not seen it myself and don’t intend to link to it. More evidence of excessively high-strung, grade-conscious, parent-oppressed, desperate-for-upward-mobility Asians, run rampant in the nation’s universities. Encoded somewhere in the hilarity that has ensued, of course, is the archetype of the “hysterical” woman, unable to “man up” and deal with what? A little heavy breathing?

I sympathize with the young woman; I suspect the “breathing too loudly” complaint was merely the tip of the iceberg. Before that, the endless chattering, the noisy headphones, the eating and drinking, and attendant slurping from coffee and smoothie cups, or the crinkly sound of bags of chips being opened, the use of library quiet corners for watching YouTube videos or updating Facebook pages, or snuggling up with one’s latest squeeze, must have driven her over the proverbial mental cliff.

I wonder if in the past, she had looked up from her textbooks, and sent an irate look or two some offenders’ way, hoping against hope they’d get the hint, and lower the volume of whichever urgent discussion they happened to be engaged in, only to be confronted with either a quizzical look or the blank look of the oblivious, or perhaps even a look that said “What? You got a problem with that?”

How peculiar, she must have wondered, that a shrine to literacy becomes the grand exhibit for a dazzling demonstration of the lack of ability to read the sign that says “Please help us in keeping our library a quiet place for study and reflection.”