In the beginning, there was the Franklin Township Library that my parents took me to when I was just learning to read. The bookshelves looked so tall and they were so full of books. Even then I knew I wanted to read all of them. I settled on one: The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. This library was my Helen.
In W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, while standing on a baseball diamond that Ray Kinsella has built in cornfield, the eponymous Jackson asks Kinsella, “Is this heaven?” It is the question I frequently asked myself when I pulled open the doors of the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on hot summer days after a mile-long trek from my house. The door would WHOOSH as I pulled it open and I’d be assaulted by blast of icy cold air from the bowels of the library.
When I read of the Green Town library in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, it was the Granada Hills library that I pictured. I whiled away countless summer mornings in that library, roaming the rows of books. I knew the order of the books in the 500 section by heart. I went through the rack of Choose-Your-Own-Adventures countless times. I read Race Against Time by Piers Anthony is a single morning, not daring to tear my eyes from its page. This library was my heaven.
I am fortunate enough to work in a library. It is a library half-a-century in the making and it surrounds me on all sides for the better part of my days. There are more than a thousand books in this library, but I know where everyone of them is without even looking. But I look anyway. I look frequently, if for nothing else than the perspective the library provides.
After a long programming session or during a stressful Teams meeting, I can turn my head to the left and look across the room to the top of a corner bookshelf. There I see a worn copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and I remember that a bug in program or a disagreement in a meeting is small potatoes. If I’m feeling a little low and need a pick-me-up, I can cross the room and pull an Andy Rooney volume off the shelf. In minutes, I’ll be laughing. When I am overwhelmed, I’ll turn to E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat. A page or two, sometimes a sentence or two is often enough to steady my heart. This library is my sanctuary.
What is the opposite of a nightmare? The closest I’ve come is the dream in which I spent the night in the main branch of the New York Public Library–what is known as the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building.
What is the opposite of a haunted house? Because there are ghosts in this library. At first I just hear their muted whispers as I wander the stacks, my fingers trailing along the spines of a million books, here a translation of Horace, here a Harlquin romance novel, here Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year, here a tattered copy of the February 26, 1966 New Yorker containing E. B. White’s essay “Mr. Forbush’s Friends.” Then I realize the sound are coming from the reading room and I make my way into that great hall.
It is full of apparitions, whispering so as not to disturb the readers. There is Sam Clemons. Over there is Edward Gibbon chatting with Winston Churchill. Seated around a table stacked with science fiction paperbacks, Isaac Asimov is chatting with L. Sprague de Camp and Robert Heinlein. David McCullough is pestering John Quincy Adams, who looks just as cranky as he seems in his journals.. They are here, all of them, forever part of the books and articles and letters and journals that they produced. If you listen carefully, you too can hear them as you wander the stacks. This library is my fantasy.
I mourn all of the books I will never get to read for lack of time. I mourn all the books no one today will get to read because they no longer exist. I am envious of all of those long gone souls who visited the Great Library of Alexandria to explore its treasures. What great works of art and science and history and literature were lost there, never to be seen again. This library is my sorrow.
The ultimate library for my is the Library of Trantor from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. I often dream of wandering those endless stacks and corridors. Instead of the collected knowledge, wisdom, and art of a single world, here we have the knowledge, wisdom, and art of a million worlds.
That short book, The Nine Planets, from the Franklin Township library all those years ago had a huge scope: the entire history of our solar system. Zoom into a single planet with that solar system, and look at that world’s history. Will Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization covers the human side of the story in a mere 13,500 pages. Settle on a single person in that history, say Leonardo da Vinci. Walter Isaacson has written a fascinating biography that brought the man to life for me. da Vinci produced thousands of pages of notes and drawings in his notebooks over his life. Mark Kurlansky has written an excellent history, Paper, on which all of these books were written.
When I wander the Library of Trantor, I imagine following threads like this for worlds I’ve never heard of. Who was their Napoleon? Their Mozart? Their Moses?
What makes this Library truly special is that I imagine that somewhere, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, such a library existed, may still exist. That library is my hope.
- I’ve written about The Nine Planets many times before, but my favorite piece is one I wrote on how a single book can shape a life: Book Banning: An Alternate History.
- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. The movie version of the book is Field of Dreams, a good film. But the book is still better.
- “I pulled open the doors of the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library…” For a great book on the Los Angeles Public Library, read Susan Orlean’s The Library Book.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. This was one of the most incredible books I’d come across when I first read it in the fall of 1997. I often quote from the book in the fall, much to the dismay of my family, when October rolls around. “First of all it was October, a rare month for boys…”
- Race Against Time by Piers Anthony was the first of something like a hundred Piers Anthony books I read when I was young. At the time, I didn’t realize it was Piers Anthony. Today, when I think about that book, I sometimes confuse it in my mind with Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint.
- The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. I made some notes on the book after reading it.
- One Man’s Meat by E.B. White. This is one of my all-time favorite essay collections. As of this writing, I’ve read it six times.
- Wait Till Next Year by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you like baseball, you’ll enjoy this memoir of growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.
- “I am envious of all of those long gone souls who visited the Great Library of Alexandria…” There are some fun scenes and speculation in Jack McDevitt’s Time Traveler’s Never Die that take place in this library.
- The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. This is my desert island book. It is also an amusing study in scope creep.
- Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. If you can manage it, get the hard cover edition. It is printed on high-quality paper and makes the art pop.
- Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky.
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