Libraries, any library, have always been to me a species of paradise.
For example, my first visit to the Laurel branch of the Prince Georges County Memorial Library System. The slanted sidewalk up to the glass doors. The circulation desk to the left as you go in, with its mysterious hulking cameras and stacks of Hollerith cards. Children’s section to the right, adult to the far left, music straight ahead. Since this was the sixties, bomb shelter pictographs on a plaque by the door (and a bomb shelter in the basement, behind the bathrooms, the hallway painted that sea-sick dull green found only in public buildings of a certain vintage). And most of all, of course, my incredulity at being told—Mrs. Baxter had to repeat it to me—that I could read any of the books, I could take home as many books as I wanted. Well! Lives were changed, let me tell you.
School libraries, elementary and middle and high. Small enough that you can read all of the books in certain sections, large enough to provide constant novelty. Not to mention a refuge from my beloved fellow students, charming and delightful persons, all of them.
At college, I spent a lot of time at Clark Libe, when I needed a grind, conveniently just across the gorge from north campus if you knew the basement route through the chemistry building, and almost all of the books there of approximately zero interest and thus no distraction. But my favorite by far was the Andrew White Library. Sundays, I’d wait outside for the doors to open and make a beeline for my favorite carrel on the second level, near the main stacks. And fantasize about having a library like this all my very own. It still figures frequently in dreams, not unpleasant ones—running down an endless iron staircase six steps at a time. It also makes an appearance towards the end of Pale Fire:
Along the open gallery that ran above the hall, parallel to its short side, a tall bearded man was crossing over at a military quick march from east to west. He vanished behind a bookcase but not before Gradus has recognized the great rugged frame, the erect carriage, the high-bridged nose, and the energetic arm swing, of Charles Xavier the Beloved.
Our pursuer made for the nearest stairs—and soon found himself among the bewitched hush of Rare Books. The room was beautiful and had no doors; in fact, some moments passed before he could discover the draped entrance he himself had just used. The awful perplexities of his quest blending with the renewal of impossible pangs in his belly, he dashed back–ran three steps down and nine steps up, and burst into a circular room where a bald-headed suntanned professor in a Hawaiian shirt sat at a round tabled reading with an ironic expression on his face a Russian book. He paid no attention to Gradus who traversed the room, stepped over a fat little white dog without awakening it, clattered down a helical staircase and found himself in Vault P. Here, a well-lit, pipe-lined, white-washed passage led him to the sudden paradise of a water closet for plumbers or lost scholars[…].
Nowadays, I do have a library of my own, a small one of little more than 2000 volumes, but just a short train ride away is one of the greatest research libraries in the world. I mean the Library of Congress, of course. And unlike other libraries of its stature, this one is openly available to any citizen, with or without academic credentials, free of charge: surely a great testament to the idealistic strain of American democracy. My only complaint is that the bathrooms (whether for plumbers or lost scholars) are so far away from the reading room. But what a reading room!
It’s always a thrill just to walk in. And I can read any book I want!