The other day I was puzzling over how to get access to a friend’s mother’s thesis. I learned that it is in storage at a university library. No worries, you think, just request it at the desk. But that is a late-lamented custom. The problem is Covid: you can no longer enter this library without a student ID card, which you apparently insert into a robotic machine that has the power to approve or deny.
I desperately want to read her thesis, which is an analysis of the role of women in 19th-century literature, in a political context, and let’s face it, it may also shed light light on my literary education. My friend and I frequently borrowed books from her mother’s shelves, including 20th-century classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. One of my best T.A.’s also wrote a thesis on women in 19th-century novels, which I would love to read. And I imagine there are other brilliant dissertations there by former T.A.’s, the unsung heroes and heroines propping up university life.
And so I can’t get into the library. How has it come to this, I wonder. How very, very tired we are of all the Covid rules. Here we are, the gray-hairs and white-hairs, vaccinated and rule-abiding, but now too tired NOT to sit down in the cafe for a cup of tea. (It is the most exciting thing I’ve done in a year.) And the voice of reason asserts, If the vaccine is not adequate protection for drinking a cup of tea in an empty cafe, what is it good for? Naturally, I put on my mask after I finished. To the end we must be good role models, even after vaccination!
I am doing all the things I’ve done for a year–washing hands, wearing masks, and social-distancing-and I’ve lost the feeling of panic, which is a good thing. The number of cases is down here, perhaps because of the smooth roll-out of the vaccine. When I read about lockdown in other places, I am sad. Is the lockdown the only way to control the virus? I suppose it is. And so in and out of lockdown everyone goes. Think of it as a time to be peacefully at home…
Ah, the public library of our youth! The musty smell of old-fashioned books with library bindings, the discovery of such diametrically opposed writers as Angela Carter and Elizabeth Goudge, Dostoevsky and Betty MacDonald, the reference room lined with the card catalogue and encyclopedia sets, and the comfy chairs in front of the fireplace. I checked out Carter’s The Magic Toyshop at the age of 11, under the impression it was a children’s book. I didn’t finish it…
There is an excellent public library system here, a public library in even the smallest towns in Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. On a visit to Hawarden, Iowa (population 2,836), a librarian at a newish library called a volunteer to take us on a tour of the writer Ruth Suckow’s house. And so she helps preserve the culture.
And here are we Americans in 2021, with our excellent libraries closed and culture denied us because of the plague. Much as I appreciate curbside pickup, the experience has its limitations. There you are, in front of the library, unable to go in and browse. All you can do is sit in the car, show your ID at the window to the masked clerk, and pop open the trunk so he or she can deliver the reserved book. The pop of the trunk is the highlight of the transaction.
And so when one of libraries reopened, I couldn’t wait to go and gaze at hundreds of thousands of books. I resolved to pat the bookshelves, too. (Just one of the high shelves.) And I planned to check out all the Gladys Taber and D.E. Stevenson, so the librarians would not weed them from the shelves. They seem to have weeded most of them anyway, so perhaps the check-out-once-a-year rule no longer applies.
I asked my friend Dora to come along to help me lug the Tabers and Stevensons. But she was dithering, Working at Home.
“How can you think of the library at a time like this?” asked Dora dramatically. “They have taken me off the Warner project.”
“What?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “You called it Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.”
“They’re trying to get in my head.”
“There’s nothing in our heads,” I said soothingly. “And that group of narcissists are too miserable to notice anybody but themselves.”
“And now I have to pretend to do work.”
Now that is a very grim situation for Dora. She is really good at work, and it gives her what she calls a “nucleus for angst.” She misses complaining to co-workers in the break room, not “having time” to throw out the teabag (which steeps all afternoon in the cup), and staying at work till at least eight p.m.
“So come with me to the library,” I coaxed.
“Which mask shall I wear?”
I suggested the mask with the happy face.
I know this is not a glamorous outing. Going to the library is ordinary by definitions. The librarians all wear soothing conservative clothes from Talbots (traditional clothes of which I approve!) so as not to distract us from books, and we patrons look like urchins in identical jeans and sweaters. There is less talking than you would expect these days. The library staff sit behind the counters and stare silently at the PEOPLE. Perhaps we are the first people they’ve seen besides one other in months.
Dora said thoughtfully, “I’d forgotten there were other people.” That’s because she gets everything delivered.
I haven’t forgotten. I know there are LOTS of other people because I still recognize what I call “the blog people.” By blog people, I mean actual bloggers, people who “like” my blog (thank you!), occasional commenters, and vloggers at Booktube. All of them are virtual, of course.
I told Dora to check out the “blog people,” especially those who are participating in a Japanese literature event this winter. “You need something to do while you find a new Jarndyce.”
I have other reading plans myself.
Meanwhile, I plan to write haiku about waiting for the vaccine. Next week I plan to write one about the inauguration, if I remember to turn on the TV and watch it.
Have a good weekend! And has anybody else been to the library?
Mind you, I have my own books, andI don’t go to the public library often. But I wish I had made it to a university library before the Covid-19 outbreak. There are some books I NEED which are too expensive to buy.Occasionally I check the university library websites to see if they are open.Still closed.They’re not CRAZY.
Some people complain that they can’t get their books on reserve. I empathize. There the books are, in a building a mile or two away, and they can’t pick them up. We cannot even return books here, because apparently the books have to be quarantined.
The governor has declared libraries can reopen, but they’re not doing it here–yet. I read an essay in Book Riot about the frustrations of Chicago librarians, who have been ordered to return to work. According to the writer of the article, the planning is pretty hazy. Employees will not be given protective gear and have been told that patrons will automatically practice social distancing. In Chicago???!!!
Speaking of which, are your social distancing standards rigorous?.Six feet?That’s for amateurs.I like a good ten, twelve feet distance. First, I was a crazy person hopping into the street. Then everybody was doing it! I was a role model. Back to crazy person now that the state has reopened, I suppose.
If only things were normal this Memorial Day weekend, we would go to a park, have a picnic, take a walk…but there are huge crowds.
It’s one big Jane Austen novel these days.Take a walk, take another walk, take another walk–and if only we could go to Bath, like Anne in Persuasion.
You were there when the library closed, long a dream of many conservative Republicans. You stood in the lobby, waiting for a friend, not daring to touch the books–you, the venturesome and fearless. The very few people in the non-fiction section smiled from afar.Inevitably, they were alone.Perhaps anything was better than being alone.
And so the doors slammed. You hadn’t expected it. You had received an official email explaining the library would stay stay open to serve the community as long as it was safe.
And so, you fantasized, you would take trip to the university library so you could check out some obscure books you would need in the next few weeks.
Slam. It closed, too.
Thank God you have your own books.
Where do the bums go, as we used to call the homeless?They sat at the library all day,all winter long, except when the security guard kicked them out. Then they sat in a little park.
Meanwhile you begged, pleaded, with relatives to stay home from work.Nobody took it seriously.Or if they did, they hadn’t read about Italy and didn’t take it seriously enough.“Please read this.”You sent links.
Then they came home, one by one.They came home with computers, files, and phones. They set up home offices in whatever corner they had.
In a country where stores are never closed–not even on holidays–people are petrified.
And bored.So very bored.
“Welcome to the occupation,” as R.E.M sang back in the ’80s (only that was about policy in Central America).
I didn’t have time to read Rumer Godden’s Gypsy, Gypsy. After 30 pages, I regretfully put it away. Set in France, this charming novel focuses on Henrietta, a young woman who has been raised by Aunt Barbe, a Colette-like debauchee with “gentlemen” friends. Henrietta wistfully wants a simple life in the country but her warped aunt has other ideas. The book is a study in the contrast between simplicity and dissipation. Published in 1940, this does not seem to be one of Godden’s better-written novels, but I do intend to finish it someday (if I can find it). I predict the end will be (1) marriage, and (2) a move to the country.
I was at the library to do research for an article which is not exactly scholarly but perhaps a bit esoteric. It wasn’t exactly boring—I enjoyed much of the reading—but then I found some lighter books in the stacks that I prefer. There was Gypsy, Gypsy, as well as Dear Dodie, a biography of Dodie Smith, and Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Gratitude, a volume of her autobiography. Such a treat!
But there is much to do when you’re on a brief “research” trip. If you don’t do research, the trip is not justified, let alone deductible, and I’m not at all sure about the “deductible” part anyway. You look up articles in a not very orderly way, you drag a lot of books to a table, you take a lot of notes.… and then decide to change the focus of your article. I was delighted by Sarah Lindheim’s Mail and Female: Epistolary Narrative and Desire in Ovid’s Heroides. And so I wondered, Should I mention the Heroides, though I’ve always considered these poems substandard? This book had caught my eye in the stacks, and is unusually well-written. Some scholarly stuff really is not.
I was also astonished by what I could access on my tablet. Free access to articles from obscure journals! What? You don’t have to go up in the dark stacks and find the right journal? Oh, wait, this article is by a former friend and who knew how smart she was! Well, you did know… still. And it turns out you can subscribe to a service online and access these journals. But so much more fun to go to a library and get it free.
They try to make libraries “fun” these days. The “fun” is on the first floor. There is a cafe, really more a market where you grab wrapped sandwiches and drinks. Then two TVs are on ALL THE TIME. I did not care for this concept. The sound was off, thank God.
The library IS a bit spooky at night. The lights are on a sensor system, so you walk miles in the stacks before the lights come on. I got the jitters one evening and got the hell out of there. It’s a daytime place!
But then there are the books. Books and books and books, occupying four of the five floors, I think. Wouldn’t it be fun just to read at the library for a week?
The copy of Gypsy, Gypsy has that old-fashioned library binding. I like the feel of the cover and the library book smell. The dust jackets are not a part of a research library’s apparatus, even though the special library binding seems dead.
At libraries I’ve found the little-known novels of Anna Kavan; Rhys Davies’s Honeysuckle Girl, a novel about Kavan ; Lilian Pizzichini’s The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys; Vita Sackville-West’s out-of-print novel, The Easter Party; and a Welsh duology about coal miners. (Can’t remember the title, and it’s not How Green Was My Valley!) Where else would I have found these books?
If, like me, you’re a library enthusiast, I recommend Christine Thompson’s amusing essay at The American Scholar, “The Ritual of Renewal.” After finishing a writing project, Thompson realized she has 200 books checked out from Harvard University Library.
5. Marilynne Robinson recently visited Ruth Suckow’s birthplace home in Hawarden, Iowa. (I’ve been there; it’s charming and simple .) For more information about Ruth Suckow (1892-1960), a novelist and chronicler of small-town life in Iowa, visit the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association Website.