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.
It's not even a really great book on railroads with slick pictures and lively writing. It's one of those basic propaganda books they churned out in the Time-Life era. But boy-o, does he love it.
Who knows if he's a railroad expert and he recognizes this as Time-Life garbage, but he'll read anything about railroads. Or maybe he came of age in the Time-Life era, and that's the only kind of book he likes to read. Or maybe he reads any blessed thing he can find, so long as he can be here in the temple with other people and something to look at. The hard chairs and the teenagers and the freezing air are nothing to the canned food and the television and his filthy armchair.
Wouldn't it be nice if his need could jolt the bad librarians into a little devotion to their work? They could begin by loving this one man with exceeding tenderness. They should greet him by name and set aside all of the railroad books for him.They could even reward him for his exquisite example by making him high priest of the library: seat him on a dais out front, let him chuck the little kids under the chin, make the adults kiss his ring and show him what we're getting out. But his duties shouldn't be so onerous that they interfere with his reading. He should have a big soft chair and a good light and maybe some snacks (what's a little heresy for a good reader?).
It's not going to happen of course. They won't ever greet him or have the foggiest clue where the railroad picture books are. They'll sigh at him every time it takes him a little too long to get his library card out.
And, despite that, as long as no one is so mean that he becomes discouraged, they'll save his life. He'll have this clean, well-lighted place for the rest of his days, and vast treasures at his disposal for the price of a walk and remembering to pay his fines. In some cases, the temple is so magnificent and the god so great that it doesn't matter whether the priestess performs her sacred duties with much devotion. So long as she keeps the temple open.