Rara Avis

All libraries contain secrets, even the most sterile and unwelcoming collections.  One thinks this must be why conservative politicians despise public libraries and continuously go after their funding.  It can be frightening to imagine that the public has access to knowledge that those in power have neither the time nor the inclination to discover. 

A library represents free information and therefore runs contrary to the ethos of authoritarian capitalism and consumerism: if something is free, it’s suspect because nothing of value can be free.  So when corporate culture and its politicians aren’t creating more poverty to criminalize, they devote a certain amount of their free time to portraying libraries as cesspools of homelessness.  People can’t be going there to learn.  The knowledge marketplace demands that information be endowed with a certain market value.

Libraries are all too often described as places where bad-smelling, mentally ill, bearded men spend their afternoon snoring with titles like Les arts de l’Asie centrale or A Catalogue of Turkish Manuscripts and Miniatures, volume III as dusty pillows.  No one sleeps in Amazon.com or on the stack of Reader’s digests and Wall Street Journals in front of the local newsstand.  And that’s how conservative America likes it: if you’re not going to buy anything, please go away and die somewhere discreet.  And maybe take The History and Development of Ancient Chinese Architecture with you.  No one wants to buy that.

But I, for one, find unwashed old men in libraries reassuring if not a little endearing.  Just as when it rains, I take solace in the regularity of storm clouds, when I hear that tell-tale snoring, I enjoy the thought that some vet named Burt will be sitting around the corner in the Dewey 930s, pretending to read a text in Arcadocypriot Greek when the librarian passes by.  If you look closely, you might notice that the book is upside-down.  But you won’t look that closely.

At the end of the day, when one of the librarians picks up the book to reshelve it, she’ll no doubt experience a sense of wonder: someone finally came in search of that obscure Peloponnesian dialect—and casually to the extent that the person didn’t even feel the need to check the book out!  The possibility that it was merely being used as a sad old man’s headrest would be too cynical for a true librarian to entertain, at least straight away.  Instead, she’d prefer to believe that someone walked in determined to learn more about the world of pre-Dorian Cyprus.  And that is why true librarians are wonderful people (people filled with wonder).  But, as with anything else in this late age of revenge politics, throwback Enlightenment scientism, and YA fiction for adults, true anything is rare.

Still, libraries, like museums, are meant to preserve such rarities.  So it makes sense that a library might contain hidden practitioners of true arts the same way it secrets knowledge away from the broadcloth-and-pearl-wearing delinquents currently ruining the United States and demeaning the arts and sciences of the West.  Maybe Burt was (is) a sculptor.  Maybe the gentleman with the Fu Manchu and the Army surplus jacket at that table in the corner has a masters in historical musicology.  Maybe the toothless wonder currently snoring into a puddle of drool once wrote a dissertation on the rejection of evidentialism in religious epistemology.  You never know. 

Maybe a star seen through a library window at midnight is actually a symmetrical angel—too distant to be clearly perceived in its full geometry.  Yet, if viewed from within a dark library with one’s feet in the proper position while speaking the right Arcadocypriotic line from Pausanias’ Description of Greece, one might have a rare insight into stars and angels.  One might even begin to comprehend the range of symmetrical possibilities that converge on a functioning library card: that a library is a city of doors, that it gratefully accepts the snores of sleeping homeless men the way the hills accept the rain, and that it is, above all else, an infinite palace of vaults and ritual chambers in which one finds all the angels, devils, and true adepts resident in the human imagination.

How many people will come along with the necessary Arcadocypriotic, having read the Pausanias’ prescribed ancient manuscript (even right-side-up in translation), and capable of accessing the library at midnight in order to stand by the dark window on the appropriate night and have this mysterious realization?  Very few.  This is how libraries veil their secrets.  The information is available, but you have to do the work of discovering it.  And then you have to engage with it beyond merely using the book as a headrest.  The librarian believes in you.

If you succeed in this, unlike Betsy DeVos, you may attain a level of knowledge and conversation with the deeper mysteries of the library and what it represents; though, you may not reacquire your teeth or find a place to sleep after closing hours.  But you will grasp the golden chain of true insight that has come down, unbroken, through the hands of countless artists, scholars, monks, philosophers, scientists, and mystics—the other end of which may be held by Venus or may disappear in the source of all books, a cloud of unknowing silence which nothing but silence can express.

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About Michael Davis


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