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I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Bodies of Books

The public library building in the city where I grew up stood on a street thickly shaded by old chestnut trees. In the summer the white feathery chestnut flowers with tinges of red at the center covered the sidewalk. I crushed them under my feet as I entered the gate that led to the library's inner courtyard. The children's section was all the way in the back of the building. A flight of stairs led to a cramped lobby full of backpacks, and, in cold weather, of piles of winter coats. You weren't allowed to enter the children's section wearing your coat or hat or schoolbag.

It was always warm in the children's section; in winter I sweated as I walked up and down the rows, squatting to read the titles on the bottom shelves. The bookcases made a little fortress around you wherever you stood. You could hear the murmur of librarians' voices, the scrape of a chair's legs on the hardwood floor, the reckless shriek of a young child who'd found a picture book he liked. But these sounds seemed to come from a great distance, from another world. Sometimes I closed my eyes and just smelled the odor of hundreds of books piled together, that dusty, spicy smell of yellowing paper. Then I slid a volume out from the shelf, opened it at random the way people open the Bible to look for an answer to a difficulty in their lives, and started to read. This is how I discovered Romanian literature -- the good stuff and the not so good stuff written in praise of the Communist regime -- and Jack London and Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas.

After I painfully chose only three books, the maximum number I was allowed to check out, I walked up to the librarian sitting at an enormous desk covered with large mugs of pens and pencils and wooden boxes stuffed with frayed index cards. She stared at me over her glasses for half a minute before she stamped my library card. She didn't trust me to take good care of the books. She enumerated the fines for various offenses -- torn or stained pages, defaced front cover, losing the book altogether. She asked me if I understood all the rules. I said I did and hurried out with the books clasped against my chest.

For most of my childhood books filled me with both excitement for the strange miracle of words inside, and fear of the fragility of paper bound together with sweet-smelling, crumbling glue. It seemed reckless to choose such frail materials as ink and wood fiber to preserve the written word. Ancient civilizations knew better; they chiseled words into stone. But you cannot hold tablets of stones in your hands or on your lap; you cannot carry them with you to read while you're waiting for a bus or a train or a plane; you cannot own them just for yourself, for your own pleasure. They're enduring but inaccessible, like gods. Books are like human bodies, mortal, flawed but within your reach, and able to be loved as only flawed, mortal things can.

8 Comments:

Blogger Melinda said...

Love your post -- makes me remember why I fell in love with libraries to begin with. But this librarian assures you: we're much more nice and trusting these days. :)

January 16, 2006  
Blogger Bella Sultane said...

Thanks. This is beautiful.

January 17, 2006  
Blogger Maven said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 17, 2006  
Blogger Maven said...

This brought back lots of memories. Fortunately I had no such limit on the number of books I could take out, so I would check out entire series at a time, read them in three days, and scurry back to the library for more. Less and less of my pleasure-reading comes from the library these days, but occasionally on some academic mission I will be arrested by the profusion of fascinating books all around that one book I actually *need* to check out, and I will plop down on the floor in the middle of the stacks and browse and browse and browse. (PS: I should always preview, THEN post. Sigh.)

January 17, 2006  
Blogger Marigoldie said...

...And it's hard to hold a stone tablet in the bathtub.

January 17, 2006  
Blogger madness rivera said...

Surprisingly or embarrassingly, I was not a Library Child. I assumed early and wrongly that those that studied and hung out at the library were so much smarter than I that I avoided it. I was a bookstore girl. I loved the bookstore because there were plenty of people in there wishing they could buy lots of books, and couldn't. I fit right in. Which makes my avoidance of the library ironic. I needed guidance!

Thank god I've gotten over my odd intimidation of the library, and I take the girls every Tuesday. They feel at home there even if I still long to buy many, many brand new books.

January 18, 2006  
Blogger Marigoldie said...

I found this poem in my inbox today, and it seemed appropriate to share with you. (The line breaks probably won't fit right in the comment box, but the sentiment will.)


The Trouble with Reading
William Stafford

When a goat likes a book, the whole book is gone,
and the meaning has to find an author again.
But when we read, it's just print--deciphering,
like frost on a window: we learn the meaning
but lose what the frost is, and all that world
pressed so desperately behind.

So some time let's discover how the ink
feels, to be clutching all that eternity onto
page after page. But maybe it is better not
to know; ignorance, that wide country
rewards you just to accept it. You plunge;
it holds you. And you have become a rich darkness.

January 18, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

Thank you very much for all your comments.

I love the Stafford poem. And the stone tablet in the bathtub -- good point!

I am slightly obsessed with the physicality of books. I smell them and run my hands on the pages and won't buy a book if it's printed on that terrible grey-brown pulpy paper or if I don't like the font. (Superficial,I know.)

I also prefer new books to library books now; it's one weakness that I don't berate myself for (although I'm embarrassed to confess it). Standing in the bookstore wishing I could buy the whole place and set up camp in the middle of it for the rest of my life is an experience I have all too often.

January 18, 2006  

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