Some children are raised by villages, some are raised by wolves, and a few, like me, are raised by libraries. My bibliomania has led me to the rare book collection at the Library of Congress, to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and to the painted ceiling of the Rose Reading room at the New York Public Library.
I’ve hidden books within libraries so as not to endure the humiliation of having to check them out. (Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, Virginia Public Library, Williamsburg, circa 1982)
I’ve snuck into libraries late at night when I just had to have the next book in John D. Mcdonald’s Travis McGee series. (Rawlins Municipal Library, Pierre, South Dakota, circa 1986)
I’ve snuck out of libraries after accidentally being locked inside after closing time—don’t blame me, it was Jim Harrison’s fault. (Sundog, Alderman Library, Charlottesville, Virginia, circa 1990)
I was almost strangled because of a library. While flying to my mother-in-law’s funeral, I decided during a layover to pay a quick visit to the library at the University of Alaska to read some rare diaries of 19th century fur trappers. Who hasn’t done that? One thing led to another and I lost track of time. As I left the library for the airport I forgot to retrieve my driver’s license from the library sign-in desk. Imagine how much fun it was telling my wife I might miss her mother’s funeral because I’d stopped at a library! (Alaska Room, Consortium Library, Anchorage, circa 1998)
About the only thing I haven’t done in libraries is that which certain books have been banned for featuring. (Tropic of Cancer)
Irishmen have what they call their “local,” the pub where they congregate at the end of the day to have a pint and share a good story—a home away from home. In San Francisco my “local” is the muscularly named Mechanics’ Library, which is run by a sparkling-eyed woman named Inez Cohen who oversees her domain with a benign grace only sparkling-eyed librarians possess.
Her motto should be: Ordo, Pax, et Ingenium Bonum!
Order, Quiet, and Good Humor!
I hate to publicly reveal this for fear of jinxing it, but never once have I looked up a book in the card catalog of the Mechanics’ Library and found it missing from the shelves.
Far more than a gathering spot for people who “love” books, the Mechanics Library is a place for “serious readers.” A place for people who need books. The sort of person who would walk through hail to get a new, excellent biography of Antoine de Saint Exupéry (i.e. Stacy Schiff), or discover a forgotten classic they’ve always meant to read (i.e. Sister Carrie).
In other words, YOU!
And me too. My name is Rodes Fishburne, and I wrote a good part of my new novel Going to See the Elephant at the Mechanics’ Library. In fact my main character, Slater Brown, has dreams of becoming a writer good enough to be shelved one day “below Balzac and above Chekhov” at a reputable library.
The world is full of Slater Brown-style ambition—young men and women so charged-up by their literary aspirations that nothing can stop them. They fill up notebooks with observations about the world while hunched over, writing at cafés, park benches, and . . . libraries.
In fact, I’ll bet if you look up right now and scan your own library—big or small—you’ll see one of these Romantic souls intently scribbling away, turning imagination into words.
It is this connection—between books that have already been written and writing that has yet to be turned into books—that sustains me, and I suspect too that it sustains many of your patrons.
It is also why my vision of the afterlife has always been dominated by a long table, a large quiet room, and infinite rows of books.
Please visit the Bantam Dell site to read an excerpt of Going to See the Elephant.
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