We all need temples. Witness the gold and labor and imagination lavished on the great cathedrals and museums and universities. Something fundamental in us needs places large enough and beautiful enough to simultaneously excite and fulfill the longings of our best selves.
I have found cathedrals and museums and universities insufficient for my needs. Sooner or later (unless you becomes sacristan, docent, or tenured professor), they make you leave. And, while you are entitled take to what you can carry in memory, you must leave behind the tangible treasures.
There is a temple with much of what the big institutions offer and something that they don't: treasures to take home. I can go to the five public libraries in my area as often as I like for as long as I like. And when I leave, I take home all the books that I can carry.
Perfect, you say. Perfect, I say.
But I'm having trouble with my home library. I chose it based on driving distance, charm, cleanliness, and the quality of the collection. My problem is the librarians. With few exceptions, they are uncommunicative and unfriendly. The children's librarians have even been curt to my daughter (hanging offense).
When I check out they give me terrible looks. I realize that I might be a little immoderate in my library use. When I come through with a bad stack (definition: both arms too full to safely carry the load), other patrons sometimes raise their eyebrows. That's fine; maybe they have better things to do with their time. But I don't think it's right in the librarians. Shouldn't they be gratified that someone wants to read their books?
They serve the temple. To fail in the proper observances (like jumping for joy at my bad stacks or cheerfully finding books with "pictures of real princesses" for my daughter) seems to me a terrible sin.
Assigned though she was to the least promising temple imaginable (one room over a bar), my childhood librarian was a model of devotion. She worked the shelves with me: looking for books I hadn't read, telling me about books she had heard good of, stretching the age limit when we found an adult book that was not too unwholesome.
This is how to run a temple. It's not an absolute requirement that you faint over Charles Dickens or the orange children's biographies or (here comes the dirty secret) Georgette Heyer, but you need to have one set of books that you do faint over. Because once you faint, you'll have all kinds of motivation to help fellow fainters. You'll ask the central library for new Dickenses or new Heyers. You'll set aside Jane Austens thinking you might wean your Heyer-lover onto better things. You'll turn a tolerant eye on bad stacks as long as fines get paid.
She and her temple saved my life. I grew up miserable, day in and day out. But there was this place, this single room above the bar with sustainable abundance. There was peace and ritual, compassionate company, and books. It was truly a temple, and an oasis and a paradise. For the cost of a bike ride and remembering to return my books.
The gifts of my childhood library are present to me in every library. The structural details (the book drop, the desk, the stacks) give me security. Libraries will always look and feel the same, and librarians will always perform the same rituals: check out, check in, shelve. I join in the ritual when I drop my old books in the return slot, check the stacks, check out my new books. Time wrinkles, and the good world that I found in my childhood library returns.
When I wander through the stacks, the books I have read and love make me more at home in the world. The happy works celebrate the best in us: our beauty and our humor and our goodness. The bleaker works make me grateful for the writers who are willing to struggle with the worst in us. I'm always flooded with hope when I find one, then two, then 15 promising books. Writers will write and I will read; there's a reason to keep getting up in the morning.
The reading room makes me love humanity more directly. When I sit with the other readers, I am one of a fellowship: we sit, we read, we share our darling authors. If my fellows are going to invest their time in the poetry of Walt Whitman or the travel writing of Robert Louis Stevenson or, heaven be praised, the novels of Jane Austen, then I have to believe they are worthy people, or at least people working very hard on being worthy. I want to love them more and be better myself in order to deserve them.
Next to me right now in my grown-up library is a man I want to deserve. He's quite old, and he's wearing an orange-ish suit with a peach shirt. I imagine pretty much the worst for him_lots of television and food from cans. He's been sitting here for about an hour poring through a book of railroad pictures. He looks carefully at each picture, left to right, up and down, then he works the tiny captions, word by word with his finger, whispering as he goes. After he reads the caption he checks back up at the picture, usually with a little nod of admiration. Then he carefully turns the page.