Today was another day without a call from the staffing agency. So, at around 4 pm I decided to force myself to change out of my pajamas and head over to the local library to return the near-due batch of books I had taken out. And go browsing for more. The library is one of the few places in which I feel truly comfortable and unthreatened. It is the only public establishment that I can think of where I’m off the hook as an agoraphobe. For me, it’s a temple to the soul. In a library, I am protected by compulsory peacefulness and privacy: You’re not allowed to talk to anyone. You get to conceal yourself within a silent forest of towering folios, rows upon vacant rows of comfortingly shadowy foliage. And, what’s more for my deprived soul, is that you are free to pluck voraciously from the shelves with impunity. Anything and everything marked with a call number is up for grabs, no fees, no calories, no obligations, no strings attached. And picking and sampling is both condoned and encouraged. Likewise, it is perfectly acceptable to loiter around aimlessly perusing for hours. The library is beyond the realm of the mythicized candy store: it’s the Garden of the Hesperides, on steroids.
I have always been partial to the medieval-style humanities libraries at universities. The ones that tower up and up and up with floors upon floors that only become quieter and mustier and murkier as you climb higher, and the stacks becoming taller and narrower and more enveloping; the ones with entire city blocks of space devoted to “cultural studies” and gender studies and media studies and all sorts of esoterica that only I find interesting. Additionally, university libraries frequently cater to the late night crowd of geeks and insomniacs, often staying open until midnight during the week, and until 2 am during the school’s finals week. I typically am unable to help myself and when I was in school I would walk the four or five flights down the library stair well lugging in my bag everything from Foucault to Judy Grahn, for no particular reason other than their titles interest me and are at my disposal.
“I got a little carried away,” I murmured apologetically as I piled about 20 heavy hardcover library-bound books onto the circulation desk, once early on during my tenure as a grad student. (And, mind you, this took place well into the digital age of electronic databases, when no one bothers to read edited monographs anymore, anyway.) I had gone in there to find resources for a term paper but ended up walking out with a bunch of other stuff only somewhat relevant to my paper topic.
“I can see that,” the student assistant behind the desk growled. In graduate school I developed an unglamorous reputation for this sort of thing—for greedily and selfishly swiping the shelves of the library to accommodate my own pleasure reading impulses when everyone else needed those books for supposedly “valid” reasons—for their papers and research proposals. Though, I would argue that my vivid reading life (which is my only life) outside of my classes was as worthy of library pillage as the genuinely academic purposes of any graduate student at the school whose professors actually wanted them to be there.
Unfortunately, I do not currently live near one of those luscious moldy university libraries. The nearest public library is three-and-a-half miles away, down the kind of whooshing, humming, carrion-strewn anti-pedestrian road that you only find in suburbia. And it is the most pathetic place you’ve ever seen. It’s a diminutive single-room building designed in a disgusting Bauhaus-esque style. Inside it’s even more diminutive, and most “public.” There’s no shelter in which to hide, as I am literally as tall as the shelves holding the books—and I’m only 4’11.” Categories of call numbers take up only half a shelf, and often the book I want isn’t even owned by the county, or even the state’s network of libraries. (Seriously? You mean to tell me, Statewide Library Network, that you have in your possession only ONE copy of ONE book of poetry by Bei Dao? Do you think that this is acceptable?)
Given that I live in one of the most “affluent” counties in the United States (according to authoritative Wikipedia, at least), such a pittance of a public library always makes me depressed and also discouraged when I visit it. I’ve wondered whether the county’s lackluster bibliophilia is just another feature of ongoing mass economic privation, of funds being slashed; or whether it means that everyone except me would apparently prefer to sit with a kindle inside the nearest, unforgivingly jammed Starbucks.