In Other Words / Sleeping With Shakespeare
I recently found myself engaged in rigorous conversation on the subject of books.
“A person no longer has to go to bookstores,” my friend says. “With Amazon.com, books can be ordered over the Internet.”
I cringe at the thought. Not go to bookstores? The idea is preposterous.
“It’s not the same thing,” I say. “What about the fondling of books? You can’t bond with a book over the internet.”
He gives me one of those looks so often seen on the faces of people, who spend most of their waking hours sitting in front of their computers.
“Amazon.com takes care of everything,” he continues. “You don’t have to bother with all the minutiae.”
“I like minutiae,” I say.
There are two kinds of people, I’ve discovered: those who can’t be bothered, as my friend suggested, and those who always find the time to personally get the job done without the aid of advanced technology. Book lovers need bookshops. They are direct links to their souls.
I explain this to my friend, who tries hard to grasp what I am saying. He acknowledges that, perhaps for me, on-line shopping won’t work. “But,” he adds, “you have to admit it saves time.” And, perhaps that’s the culprit: “saving time” is often the beginning of the end of all those experiences that can only occur when one is willing to waste time — to linger. Lingering has become a lost art, and when it comes to books, lingering goes with the territory.
I remember the first time I entered a library. I was four when my mother and I walked up to a large brick building whose path of entry was flanked by parallel rows of blue hydrangeas leading up to two white pillars aligning the stately doors.
“You’ll need to be very quiet,” she explained. “No one is allowed to talk inside a library.”
I was, at once awed and slightly frightened. I didn’t know what to expect. What I was about to encounter seemed analogous to a religious experience. And, in a way, that’s exactly what it was. Walking through those great doors was a rite of passage — a shrine to all the books I would eventually come to know, and grow to love, through all the years of my childhood and beyond.
The children’s library in my small hometown had a librarian, Miss Wildman, who was tiny and prim, but who, despite her elf-like appearance, was quite stern. I once giggled too loudly and she shot me a look that resonates still.
“This library is hallowed ground,” she said.
Even today, when I am inside a reading room and voices are raised, I think of Miss Wildman and how she would lift her eyebrows, peering above her glasses, ready to pounce.
That library of my youth had wooden filing drawers. Books were signed out with a date stamp attached to a pencil, pressed onto an ink blotter and marked on the inside cover. Borrowing a book was a thrill. I brought my selections up to the main desk where I watched as Miss Wildman smiled approvingly, always telling me not to forget to bring them back on time or risk the consequences of a fine.
The upstairs reading area was a large, airy space where I first spent hours reading “Babar the Elephant” and “Charlotte’s Web,” nestled beneath revolving ceiling lamps with “Mother Goose” characters and other literary figures circling those lighted domes. It was a magical place where I spent endless hours reading my favorite authors and watching the afternoon sun fade on the covers of “Make Way for Ducklings” and “Little Toot.” I later graduated to “Nancy Drew” and her exciting spy escapades, fancying myself to be a girl detective, too.
Perhaps, it was those early halcyon library days that paved the way to my love of books and my desire to write. Or maybe it was the smell of the place - the hum of the fans in summer — the radiators banging in winter — that made me feel so comfortable and safe. I only know this: even now when I am inside a library, or a bookshop, I am at peace. My senses are stirred. The feel, smell, and sounds of pages being turned, inspire me. Plant me in a room filled with books and I have come home.
I have a recurring fantasy: I am locked inside a library overnight with no means of escape. I am surrounded by all the literary figures I have grown to know intimately. Reading, after all, is a personal and intimate experience. All through the night I move among them, prowling the stacks. I share an hour with Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. I move among the dusty, moldy pages of Tolstoy and Kafka. I mingle a while with Thomas Wolfe, Irwin Shaw, Hemingway and the rest of the gang. I stop to relax with Updike and Cheever. I share a laugh with Robert Benchley. I snuggle up with Jane Eyre and the Bronte’s. When I am tired, I close my eyes, curl up in a stuffed chair, and fall asleep with Shakespeare.
Sadly, with the arrival of the new Millennium, many bookshops closed up shop, while large conglomerates sprouted up like literary McDonald’s. Today, vital information spills out at us in minutes from search engines. We no longer need to rely on humans to assist us or, we can find what we need on Google. But for me, the reading rooms and small bookshops still hold a certain mystique. There is a sense of awe in stumbling upon a book long out of print, suddenly rediscovered on a shelf. Literary characters have become my friends. I love the voyeuristic feeling of falling upon annotated margins penciled in on coffee-stained pages. I even miss Miss Wildman, who ruled her roost of noisy children with a shrill “shush” that rocked the room, and instilled terror in us all.
My grandchildren, Andrew and Caroline, are growing up in a new time. They are millennium kids who will reap the rewards of high technological living. In the process, I have taken take care to teach them what lies inside the hearts of books: the musty smells of old tomes, the secret crannies in libraries where they can hide away and discover magical worlds that can’t be found on computer screens. The independent bookshops that make browsing an enchanted adventure. Above all, I have tried instilling in them the art of lingering.
On the way home from a Sunday afternoon ride, my friend and I pass a house on Route #7 with a sign advertising: “Used Books.”
“Let’s stop and browse for a minute,” I say. “They might have something interesting inside.”
“Nothing you can’t order over the Internet,” he says, as I watch our friendship begin to crumble, for reasons he will never understand.
Westporter Judith Marks-White shares her humorous views monthly in the Westport News. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at judithmarks-white.com.