One of my more menial duties in the library is the shelving of the Life Skills collection of books. The Life Skills collection is actually two separate collections-- the Health and Well-Being collection, and the Study Skills collection. The Study Skills collection is a collection of books about essay-writing, study techniques, CV-writing, and so forth. The Health and Well-Being collection is a collection of books about physical and mental health, travel, cooking, and stuff like that.
Even though it's a menial and routine duty, I've found that this is one of my favourite jobs. Every time I shelve the Life Skills books, I fall into a strange, contemplative mood, one which I feel an urge to describe, but which is difficult to describe.
It's the nature of the books themselves that provoke this reaction. It's something I've tried to describe before on this blog; I wonder if it's of any interest or relevance to anyone besides me. But the itch of a scribbler is precisely to put into words these elusive but powerful impressions.
The Life Skills collection contains both books about depression and bereavement on the one hand, and books about desserts and foreign travel on the other. Somehow the combination of the two creates this contemplative, pleasant atmosphere.
Everything in human life, as I see it, is set against the ever-present shadow of mortality, failure, inadequacy, conflict, disease, and all the other things that afflict mankind. This might sound depressing. I guess it is, in a way. But in another way, it throws a brilliant light of contrast on everything pleasant, trivial, or even humdrum in life. The fact that anyone has time, money or inclination to bake a cake seems like a wonder-- a tiny planet gleaming in the void and darkness of space.
Even the dark stuff sometimes seems strangely affirmative to me. I tried to explain this in a recent post. Shelving books about bereavement, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and so forth, makes me think: "Well, these things exist, these things happen, but they're not the end of the world. There are books about them, with reassuring covers." And the fact that there are books about bereavement comforts me on another level, because nothing seems more brutal to me than the fact that, on a certain day, someone stops breathing and we simply put him or her in the ground, after a few hours of various rituals. It's good that we grieve. It's even good that we have to "work through" various things in life, because it shows we care, and that things matter, and that life is a big deal. The idea of a world of robots where everybody went about their business, or their pleasures, without nary a stumble, confusion, or backward look is my biggest nightmare.
There's a scene in the U.S. Office where Ryan, the selfish and narcissistic character played by B.J. Novak, is trying to blame past misdeeds on his former self-- "Ryan 1.0", as he says. "I think I never processed 9/11", he claims. I found this utterly hilarious, when I first saw it. I have a theory that part of the reason we find something very funny is because we find it pleasing-- usually in some way that is not immediately apparent to us. The idea that such a self-serving character might still be processing 9/11 so many years later was indeed strangely comforting to me. Even the fact that he thought of saying it is pleasing.
So I enjoy shelving the Life Skill books for this reason. But there's more to it than that. Somehow, it always puts me in the mood I describe in this post, which I wrote years ago-- a love, not only of the ordinary, but even of the banal.
I feel this atmosphere in very specific situations. Hotel and airport bathrooms, especially when they are filled with soft music. Discount home supplies stores. While watching (or thinking about) advertisements for music compilations, such as those that Telstar Records used to advertise on TV in the eighties. While reading about TV shows of previous decades, and thinking of all the living rooms they were beamed into, and all the families that occupied those living rooms. The sight of a city street as evening descends. The sit-com show Cheers
Often, because I'm a social and cultural conservative, I feel contemporary society is excessively banal and trivial, and doesn't do justice to the depths and grandeur of the human condition. But at other times-- or not even at other times, but often at the same time-- the human condition seems all too deep, all too grand, and there is something blessedly comforting about all that is banal, trivial and ephemeral. (As long as it is not crass-- but then again, crassness is in the eye of the beholder.)