Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fantasies of a Library Assistant

Libraries contain books. I mean real books, not e-books. The hottest minds in librarianship are working around the clock to bring this reactionary state of affairs to an end, but for the moment, if you enter any library, you are likely to find shelves full of tangible, three-dimensional, dusty, dog-eared, thumbprinted books.

This makes working in a library rather pleasant. Even as you walk from place to place, intriguing titles jump out at you, every one opening a window onto some scene of human life. It could be anything from Jewish folklore to the jurisprudence of Finland. It could be a massive, monumental volume about the idea of freedom through the European Middle Ages or it could be a slim memoir by a lighthouse keeper. I don't even have to read them. Even seeing them excites me, fills me with a relish of life's giddy diversity.

If you were stuck on a desert island with only one of the million and more volumes in my library-- how much you could get from it!

Of course, it's easy to become desensitised to the wonder all around you. It's easy to lug books around like bricks on a building site. I remember once, when we were shifting thousands of books in our store-room, one of the librarians passed one musty, battered old tome to me and said, "Somebody probably lit a cigar in celebration when he finished writing that."

But even if you do temporarily lose sight of the privilege of being surrounded by so many fascinating books, it hits you across the head in the moments when you least expect it.

Sometimes I like to play with the idea of having a magical stopwatch that would stop time, and let me read my way through all the books that I wanted to read in the library. How long would I keep the stopwatch stopped? Can you imagine letting years pass while you methodically made your way through the history shelves? Or maybe I would stop it for a week at a time, rather than whole years. I like the idea of beginning Wednesday without knowing anything about the poetry of Wallace Stevens, and finishing the day a positive expert. Of course the necessary condition is that I wouldn't grow any older. It would be a shock if one of my colleagues were to see me disappear into the philosophy section, a fairly youthful thirty-five, and come back with graying locks. Even Heidegger shouldn't do that to you.

I often imagine, too, how it would feel to simply absorb all the knowledge in the library in one blinding flash. How different would the world around me look? Would it seem more exciting, since I saw more deeply into it? Or would it seem intolerably wearisome and stagnant? Would the conversation of my fellows seem as dull and plodding as that of children? Or would my fathomless knowledge teach me not to overprize knowledge itself and give me more respect for the spontaneous, the untutored, and the ignorant?

Being a slow reader without a magic stopwatch, or the ability to absorb the knowledge in over a million books in a blinding flash, these are questions to which I will never know the answer. But I like to play with the idea.

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