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Libraries

Last night I visited another Library You See In Dreams.

This must have been an academic library, because it was the haunt of grad students. Many grad students. Who lived there. On a vast subbasement level, innumerable grad students had carved out living spaces for themselves, forming library furniture–shelves, book carrels, whiteboards and the like–into rough territory-defining areas around cots. Their personal items were stashed about like a refugee’s household goods.

I was visiting. I was looking at the books. But naturally, I didn’t want to disturb anybody’s stuff. There was a shelf piled with folio-sized red hardbound volumes, worn at the corners. They held maps from World War II. I really wanted to take one down, but the shelf was currently forming a wall around one of the grad students’s cots. The student in question wasn’t there. Feeling like I was intruding, I tiptoed around their stuff, and got down the book.

Having my treasure, I tried to move out of the area, but knocked into an enormous duffel bag propped on the cot. The duffel bag hit a book carrel, which hit a floor lamp, which collapsed onto a whiteboard, which rolled across the tile. I tried to start picking things up, but the book carrel moved further and hit something else. In the quiet of the library, the clatter seemed deafening. People were looking at me. I knew that that untold numbers of grad students were ticked off at whoever that fool was making all the noise. At any moment the person whose stuff this was might appear.

Then the dream shifted.

Went down to the Boston Public Library for the first time since the renovations. There are now two cafes, plus a sit-down restaurant, in the building. It got me to thinking that in our day Americans demand three things of all public venues:

-Refreshments, particularly coffee
-Video screens (displaying something, it doesn’t matter what)
-Wifi

If you don’t have those three, forget it. Americans aren’t interested. Malls, rest stops, libraries, college campuses, churches–all must have them.

I do not wish to see the modern funeral parlor.

(Lest I seem too grumpy, let me add the renovations turned out very nice, greatly mollifying the harsh Brutalist interior of the new wing. Also, I had a quite toothsome lunch in the new cafe)

Last night I revisited one of the Libraries I See In Dreams, the academic one described here. The layout was different than it has been, an open space with galleries looking down at the stacks. My five-year-old daughter accompanied me, and, as always, I had to make sure she I didn’t lose her and that she didn’t get into any mischief. We ended up among the Periodical archives, in the basement. The semester was just beginning, with the prospect of new learning and new transformations. It’s always a thrill to revisit that feeling.

I have visited several libraries while asleep.

An academic library, a tall reading room faced with granite, lined with wooden shelves surrounding dozens of blonde wood reading tables, matching chairs, all occupied by students mumbling like monks. Tall windows flood the place with light. In the corner stands an octagonal circulation desk, busy, above which a spiral staircase leads to unseen galleries.

An urban library, housed in a Brutalist concrete skyscraper, the narrow windows set back in bays like arrow loops. A dingy elevator opens onto the fluorescent-lit seventeenth floor, home to beige stacks of the middle LC letters, crowded with people of every variety pursuing their passions, investigating, creating, learning.

A municipal library in a cavernous basement, sheet metal shelves far above eye level. To access the topmost books, one must wheel over a flimsy staircase and stand tiptoe on the uppermost rung, reaching heavenward with fingertips for the prize, risk losing balance and toppling to smash one’s face open on the footworn stone.

All these places and more—second-hand bookstores with piles of wooden crates, rummage sales with tables of paperbacks, rows and stacks and piles of broken cellophane dust jackets, half-cracked spines and rounded corners, the musty irreproducible smell of old books. Each one bearing potential, a hope of knowledge or insight or that cryptozoological thing called wisdom.