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The Hidden Agenda
From the start, my goal in this blog was simply to emphasize what I regard as highlights of the library’s collection, specifically in the realm of literature . . . but I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t another unifying element, or, if you will, a hidden agenda. Whatever else I’m writing about, I always seem to end up trying to convey my profound love of books and reading. This has long been one of my defining characteristics, long before there was a blog (or even an internet).
Nabokov, in Lectures on Literature, writes:
“Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”
Reading for me has always involved that aesthetic tingle; it has become as essential as eating or breathing. It is, of course, the subterranean stream which led me to become a librarian in the first place instead of, say, a hedge-fund manager. It is probably also the genetic anomaly shared by most of us who work in libraries; if it had been detected at an early age, maybe we could have predicted where we all would end up.
Do you read a lot? Do you read all the time? The sensation of having words slide into the brain can be very addictive. During the morning shower, I even read the shampoo bottle (“Rinse completely. A second shampoo may not be necessary.”). But what a strange thing reading is, when you stop to think about it. Even reading something as undemanding as the words I’m putting down right now is a complicated process, which we’re bringing a lot of ourselves to, even if we don’t realize it.
Although I haven’t written anything too revealing about myself (except about the morning shower), you’ve probably made some assumptions about me. Perhaps I’ve also created a little image in your mind (What does he mean by subterranean stream? Some trickle in the black depths of the Carlsbad Caverns, glowing with phosphorescence? Didn’t I once see that in a movie?) And simply invoking Nabokov might have set off a personal stream of Nabokovian resonances, perhaps involving Lolita, perhaps not.
I suppose there are people who regard reading as a chore, words in the brain an irritant; but for the rest of us reading is an enduring and life-enhancing process that will continue for as long as we can flip the pages. Nabokov suggests that, “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” In digesting a book for the first time, sequentially, line by line, the entire complex of details, plot, characterization, and time span isn’t absorbed all at once, as we take in a painting, but only on a second, third, or fourth reading.
And there is a lot to be said for reading the same book at different periods of life, when we can invest different and hopefully more developed aspects of ourselves in the process. The Madame Bovary I read at twenty is not the same novel I went back to at forty. Fanny Price, seemingly a bit of a prig on an early reading of Mansfield Park, became with mature reading the novel’s only really admirable character, the one who knows what she wants and sticks to it. Some years ago I worked my way with great enjoyment and satisfaction through all six volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but after only a single reading all that’s left is a kind of perfumed Gallic haze. Whether I ever go back to it remains to be seen.
Where are all these reflections on books and reading headed? Probably to the Rose Main Reading Room, the New York Public Library’s great temple of books and reading. I have spent so much of my working life here that it has become not only my outer environment but my inner landscape. Sometimes it even filters into my dreams. As large as a football field and able to accommodate upwards of six hundred people at a time, the reading room has been serving readers for year after year, generation after generation. Since the basic motivations for using this space remain unchanged, time seems compressed here. Sometimes, when the light is just right, I can even imagine myself in a historical reading room, as it’s depicted in old black and white photographs, where the men are in suits and ties, the women all wear dresses, and there isn’t a laptop in sight.
Although part of my job as a librarian is to put people in touch with the books they want or need, once they reach their seats at the large oak tables I can never be quite sure what they’re involved in, or where their interest or curiosity has led them. Yet I still find it fascinating and mysterious to think about the transactions that go on between people and their books. As part of the open-shelf literature collection in the north hall reading room, we have a few scholarly editions of English and American authors, including the collected works of Charles Dickens.
Since these volumes can’t be borrowed, people generally use them to check quotes or references for their literary research projects, because no matter how elegant a space, who has time to sit there and read Dickens? A few years ago, however, I noticed that one of the novels had a scrap of paper in it, marking someone’s place. Now, whenever I pass that set of books, I’ve monitored that scrap of paper moving from one book to another, front to back, book after book after book. . .