Every word is a library. It speaks volumes of ideas, experiences, and desires. We each furnish our own library for a word – standard references for all, but the novels, the histories, the philosophies, the biographies, will be different from person to person. The architecture too.
Library. That’s a word to illustrate this. For many people, library conjures images of institutional edifices, cold and stone or tiled and metal, quiet places – perhaps too quiet – with rules and shushes and librarians who may be stern or hot, and any enjoyment to be had is from hanky-panky between the shelves.
Not for me. For me, library evokes a place of comfort, a warm building lined with thousands of doors to other worlds, a place in whose liberating embrace I may lie buried in literature, ideas, images, explorations. The very feel of the word warms me, the [r] and [r] rolling on the tongue like pages leafing past – a favoured form of R and R for me. The liquid [l] is soothing like a babbling brook or enveloping book. The [b] is hard but not hard hard, just hard like a hard cover on a book. The first vowel sound, [aɪ], is like a sigh or the eye that reads. The word ends in the sound of airy, and for me a library is a more infinite space than the open air. It is not a cocoon; cocoons are made to be burst out of and left behind. A library is a mind, a mind of paper that records all its explorations for re-experiencing. It is an interior that as as large as all outside and beyond.
Let me tell you a little of some libraries I have known.
One of my favourite childhood places was the Banff public library. At the time, it was housed in the same building as the Whyte Gallery; it occupied the upper floor, the gallery the lower. The building is still there – now entirely gallery and museum, with the new library next door. It is a heavy stone and timber building in the best Canadian mountain national park style. I recall a large room, wide and long with a high beamed ceiling, shelves to adult waist height at the walls and in standing ranks above eye level, and wooden tables in the middle. In one corner near the circulation desk was the children’s section, supplied with a complete collection of Berenstain Bears books plus an orange shag rug in kidney shape that had some thickness and seemed to be filled with gel or water, perfect for literary pronation. We would be greeted at the building door by a pleasant older lady at the desk; my favourite was Mrs. Shandruck, whose husband would pick her up in a Studebaker. In my Sunday afternoon visits I would peruse books of house plans (I fancied becoming an architect), theses on music (one book asserted that if you entered a room in the middle of a note you couldn’t identify the note), gnostic gospels, alternative orthographies, and picture-full books on history and flying and skiing. In the reference room I conceived a desire, fulfilled many years later, to ski at Stowe. In the lower level, tea could be had on Sunday afternoons, and art seen in many styles and forms; my favourite show was an amusing ensemble piece about an imagined nook of the Rockies: Beyond Exceptional Pass. It came with a thin floppy book, bought by my father and, two decades later, permanently borrowed away by me.
Another library I remember spread along a wall facing a fireplace and, past a glass door, climbed up a nook next to the fireplace as well. It had some two thousand books; I counted them once. It opened doors to me on linguistics and Tolkien and Zen Buddhism. It had as well, on a separate shelf, an Encyclopedia Britannica and an older World Book set, my favourite thing to read – an art gallery of the mind and the world. There was also a stereo with a library of vinyl, including a multi-disk collection of Gregorian chants and a two-disk concert of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, great music for reading and thinking. To reach this library I simply descended a spiral staircase from our family room. It was not a public place – there were none of those overheard whispered conversations by strangers, sounds that to this day stroke my skin and soothe me like petting a cat. I had no people to ignore, other than my brother and parents, who could be importunate and were too familiar to be decoration. But it was a likable retreat no less.
There were school libraries, shelves full of books new and old, books that opened to me the 1920s and PG Wodehouse and jackdaws, medical diagnosis and handwriting analysis and Frank Herbert. There were university libraries: The twelve-storey tower at the University of Calgary, which I first visited with my parents in my younger years and learned about how to mislead with statistics and what John Cage’s scores looked like and what photocopiers smelled like and how to read microfiches on transit projects. The Wessell Library at Tufts, expanded and renamed Tisch during my time there, with its study rooms and its rows of stacks that I got to know so well I remembered books by location, including one twine-tied seventeenth-century book with a slip in it on which each person who peeked into it wrote the last time it had been opened; I retreated to that library after dinner every night during my first year of grad school and the sight of bookshelves gained a Pavlovian stimulus association with the functions of digestion. The music library at Tufts, a basement room with a collection of CDs that I listened to while studying, music from every corner of the world. The Robarts library at the University of Toronto, a massive triangular brutalist block which Marcel Danesi has told me was the inspiration for the library in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (Eco was a visiting scholar while writing it). The tiny imperfect modernist Frost Library at Glendon College. The bookshops I have worked in.
And my living room. Two walls floor-to-ceiling with books ranked two deep on black-and-blonde wood shelving, sections for dictionaries and reference and plays and novels and books on religion and travel and my grandmother’s old Britannicas and large volumes of collected Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes, with a small shelf including a linear foot of my own bound publications; snug into the angle a welcoming chair reminiscent of a baseball glove; a stereo on the top shelf and a tall rack on the side holding fifty score compact discs. How can a home be complete without a library? We also have piles of books here and there – our collection has outgrown our shelving. But to me it is not clutter, it is just a lush garden of the mind that has grown and grown and spread seeds and creepers. It is a comforting bed and blanket of books. Not a cocoon. A thousand and more doors to other worlds. A library.