By “great library” I mean . . .

January 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

It would be a decade before I would encounter my first great library. By “great library” I mean a library whose holdings are so huge that no one quite knows what is in its basements; a library in which Vivaldi scores may lie hidden for a hundred years; a library of density as well as scope; a library that will turn no book away—trash or treasure—for a good library is miserly, proud of its relics as a church, permitting even a cheap novel to be useful to the study of the culture it came from; an institution, consequently, that won’t allow ephemera to ephemerate and is not ashamed of having the finest collection of bodice rippers in existence; a library that has sat safely in the same place and watched like a sage its contents age, consequently a library whose dust is the rust of time; a library that never closes on cold days and will allow the homeless to rest in its reading room; a library that will permit me to poke about in its innards as long and as often as I like; and finally a library that makes generous awards, and then lets me win one.

[. . .]

My books are there to comfort me about the world, for only the wicked can be pleased by our present state of things, while the virtuous disagree about the reasons for our plight and threaten to fall to fighting over which of us is responsible for the misery of so many millions, and in that way steadily increasing the number of hypocrites, jackals, and rogues.Among them, writers of books.

No occupation can guarantee virtue the way hard labor makes muscle, and only sainthood requires it as a part of its practice. So the writers write, perhaps improving their texts from time to time, but only rarely themselves.

But the books . . . the books disagree quietly, as the minds of the many readers in the library may, without the least disturbance; and in that peace we can observe how beautiful, how clever, how characteristic, how significant, how comically absurd the ideas are, for here in the colorful rows that make bookcases seem to dance, the world exists as the human mind has received and conceived it, but transformed into a higher realm of being, where virtue is knowledge, as the Greeks claimed, where even knowledge of the worst must be valued as highly as any other, and where events as particular as any love affair, election, or battlefield are superceded by their descriptions [. . .] for these volumes are banks of knowledge, and are examples, carefully constructed, of our human kinds of consciousness, of awareness that is otherwise  momentary, fragile, and often confused. Among the shelves, where the philosophers tent their troops, there is a war of words–a war of the one supportable kind–a war of thoughtfully chosen positions, perhaps with no problems solved, but no blood spilt; shelves where human triumph and its suffering are portrayed by writers who cared at least enough about their lives and this world to take a pen to paper. Thucydides knew it when he said, concerning the conflict that occurred on the Peloponnesus, in effect: this war is mine. History occurs once. Histories happen repeatedly in reader after reader.

Every-one of these books is a friend who will always say the same thing, but who will always seem to mean something new, or something old, or something borrowed, something blue.

William H. Gass, “Slices of Life in a Library” in Life Sentences (2011)

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