The other day I went somewhere I haven’t gone in ages – the library. There is one here at the university, on the first floor. Most of our fine students, alas, have never been there, nor are many even aware that there is such a place on campus (I am aware of this unfortunate fact because I casually asked some students).
In truth, I hardly go there myself. The last time I was there was shortly before the pandemic. I checked out a worn, yellowed copy of “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” It remained in my possession, or at least on my desk at the school, for the better part of two years as we were all forced to work from home during the lockdowns. Funny part of that story is, that when the campus finally reopened and I was able to at last return the long, long overdue book, the librarian took it with a quiet nod and gesture of polite, understanding dismissal.
Anyway, I got to thinking the other day. As a writer, when you feel your spirits lagging, or find yourself at loose ends, there are usually two immediate options. The first is to go somewhere, take a trip, ideally some place you’ve never been before. The second is to pick up a book, and not that old favorite that’s practically etched upon your soul.
Well, a trip to the library seemed to hit two birds with one cliché. After all, I hadn’t been to any library, or even a bookstore, in how long? When was the last time I’d picked up a book?
As I said, the university library is on the first floor. It’s not large, a single, long room with a window facing the courtyard, where you can see students on break sitting at benches smoking and chatting in small, gossipy groups. When I entered, I breathed in that familiar silence, as well as the smell of books. There were precisely four students, easy to count. A trio of girls, sitting at a table and whispering girl talk, and a solitary male standing deep in one of the rows of books, poised, looking like a sailor trying to get his balance on a tipping vessel.
Assuredly, I approached the English section, which comprised five or six rows (the rest of the library is mainly Turkish obviously). I enjoyed the old feeling of letting the names and titles present themselves, waiting for a particular one to stand out. In such moments, one is always transported back to youth. In high school, I used to cut classes I didn’t like (algebra, chemistry, the usual suspects) and hide out in the library to avoid the hall monitors. I’d busy myself browsing the books to appear studious, so as not to alert the suspicions of a pesky librarian. It was through these classic adolescent avoidance strategies that I discovered the world of literature, and it was here that I also found that some books do indeed find us, or so it seems.
It was in the high school library that I read books like “Call It Sleep,” “Of Human Bondage,” and “This Side of Paradise.” The titles seemed to whisper something in those silent afternoons. They had some secret, some urgent thing that I wanted to learn. Or maybe they just offered the best chance of escape, of forgetting about the nagging worry that I was in the process of failing algebra and chemistry (and a few other classes, no doubt).
A few years later, as a young man living in Eureka, jobless and hyped up on the local geeter, I often sought refuge from the cold, winter rain and my own nightmares by going to the city library. It was free, warm and other economically bereft folk hung out there too. Nobody seemed to mind if you picked a book off the shelf, found a not uncomfortable chair or sofa and sat for hours reading. It was there I found books like “The Moon and Sixpence,” “Cannery Row” and “The Possessed” (the last one I liked without really understanding).
And later on, in Prague, I used to retreat into the city library on those afternoons when it was a few days before pay day. It was there, in that old library in Old Town, a proper old library with stone steps, round columns and high ceilings, that I read Kundera, Capek and Hrabal, and Neruda’s wonderfully picturesque stories about Malastrana. Afterward, I’d go to the next door cafeteria, where you could get roast chicken and mashed potatoes for less than a dollar, then head off to teach my three o’clock lesson.
These and other memories breathed out from the dark, cool aisles that morning in the university library, and it felt rather like catching up with an old, neglected friend. I felt a little bad for my students. Sure, they have their smartphones, their social media, their beloved Netflix (OK, they got some good shows on there, I know!). But how could they not know about this place? Hadn’t they discovered, as I had, what a wonderful secret hideaway they had at their disposal right here on the first floor?
I stepped languidly, thoughtfully, back and forth, gingerly, the way an old veteran does when returning to the spot of a battlefield (like the guy in “Across the River and Into the Trees,” not Hemingway’s best effort, but still —). I chuckled as certain titles and names appeared on the shelves, familiar ones. You know how we say that some books and authors just aren’t ready for us yet, that with time we will grow to appreciate them? Well, some names, like Trollope, like Henry James, didn’t do anything for me twenty five years ago and they still fail to entice me. And certain books. I picked up a scarcely touched copy of “Ulysses” off the shelf rather anxiously (maybe now’s the time!) only to feel my heart sinking and revulsion rising the minute I read those same first two or three paragraphs I have tried to read at least a half dozen times over the years. Maybe that trip to Dublin a few years ago, when you visited the Joyce statue near the Spire and paid tribute, now it will all make sense … Nope. Failing again, I shoved the book a bit rudely back in its place. Screw you, Buck Mulligan and your buddy Stephen Dedaelus or however you spell it! Maybe catch me when I’m ninety and got Alzheimer’s.
Of course, you can’t help but scan for old favorites, almost like a litmus test. Do they have any Capote? Check. Fitzgerald? No, not Penelope Fitzgerald, damn you! (who the hell reads her anyway?) Ah, yes, um … “Afternoon of an Author,” a nice, underrated choice. Dostoevsky? Check. “The Gambler” even. Nice. Somerset Maugham. Yes, several titles, including good, old “Moon and Sixpence.” Steinbeck, yep, lots of Steinbeck. Lots of Dickens. Way, way too much Dickens, as a matter of fact. Why do libraries (and bookshops) always overstock Dickens? What does it prove? “We’re a real library – see, we’ve got Dickens! Lots o’ Dickens!” they seem to say. My dickens, it’s desperate, I say. The same goes when they overstock Twain, which again is the case in our university library. I love a good Twain as much as the next bloke, but let’s not overstep the Mark. Henry Miller … they got him, but nah. Hey, Bukowski! “Notes From A Dirty Old Man.” Sorry, not in the mood, Chinaski.
I’ve lost my train of thought … see how easy it is to get lost in libraries?
For some time, I have had my eye on the volumes of Proust. Always wanted to read Proust, or at least say that I have read him. For years, I was frustrated because whenever I went in search of “Rememberance of Things Past,” I could only find “In Search of Lost Time.” Turns out, the two were in fact the same book. Well, fuck a duck! How was I supposed to know (translators, blame them!)?
I made several more languid sweeps through the aisles, always alert for that magical whisper (“Me!”), picking up and putting back a dozen titles (some of the books were so old and hadn’t been touched for so long that the pages were literally stuck together, or they had organically molded together with the books on either side, so you could not take the desired book off the shelf without fear of ripping the cover off (shh! I actually am guilty of this offense. Whilst trying, with the best literary intentions, of finally seeing what this Isak Dineson was all about (both Capote and Hemingway raved about her), I accidentally tore the cover off; I put it back. As long as you keep your mouth shut, dear reader, I am safe, as I am pretty sure nobody is going to even touch that book for another few decades).
No Joan Didion, by the way. Like many others, I read her recent obits and was moved enough to actually look up and read her famous, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” at least the one about the young people in Haight-Ashbury. I was impressed enough that I specifically went to our library hoping to check out one of her books, but sadly, no Didion was to be found. Instead, I had to settle for Proust (Vol. 1 “Swann’s Way”) and then slouched toward the checkout counter.
Back at the office, there was still plenty of time before my afternoon classes. I opened up the Proust to where I had left off. I was still in the early pages, where the narrator is talking about sleep, and the sensation of waking and not being sure where, or even who, one is, and how places and time itself seems to move around and transform as one sleeps and wakes. Reading these passages, an aroma or perfume, not unknown and yet vaguely familiar, washed over me, a registered experience or expired dream:
“As a rule I did not attempt to go to sleep again at once, but used to spend the greater part of the night recalling our life in the old days at Combray with my great-aunt, at Balbec, at Paris, Doncieres, Venice, and the rest; remembering again all the places and people I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me …”
I read on, and was very glad that I had gone back to the library, and back into the old new world.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul. His new book, Building for the Apocalypse, is available on Amazon.