On Going to the Library

First of all, it’s nothing like going to a bookshop. That is always a slightly distressing experience, for me at least. I am invariably overwhelmed by the sheer number of books published, probably close to a million a year at least, and that’s just in English. The vast majority of these I would never want to read, of course, but that still leaves thousands and thousands of books that I just might be interested in. New non-fiction titles, new collections of poetry, new novels–how can I possibly keep up? I don’t normally think all that often about Schopenhauer, that curmudgeonly old bastard, but one of his aphorisms frequently pops up when I’m browsing in a bookshop:

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.

And then there’s the sad realization that my book is one of these titles competing for shelf space; it’s literarally one in a million but a mere drop in this vast ocean of paper. In his wonderful memoir and rumination on the art of writing, Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly described his ambition “to write a book that will hold good for ten years afterwards.” A book that people would still want to read ten years after it was written, now that would be an accomplishment. Scanning the shelves in a bookshop I always wonder which titles will still be there in a decade. Will mine be one of them?

But going to the library is somehow much more like receiving a present. I’ve been going to the British Library a lot recently as part of my research for my encyclopedia of aphorists. When you think about it, going to the library should be a far more depressing experience for me as an author than going to a bookshop. In a bookshop, there are merely thousands of authors jostling for attention and literary longevity. In a library, particularly in the British Library, there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands of authors, all entombed inside their works, gathering dust in the Library’s vast storage areas. Samuel Johnson was searingly correct when he quipped:

No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library.

But I always get a kick from going to the library. Part of my enjoyment has to do with the way you order books in the British Library. First, you find a seat. Then scan the electronic database for the books you want and order them electronically. Depending on where the books are actually physically located, they arrive within 70 minutes or 48 hours. A little light goes on at your desk asking you to come and collect them. So you walk up to the desk, show your library pass, the librarian retreats into the shelves and emerges with a pile of books stacked up like Christmas presents. Then back to your desk to unpack your treasures.

What is encouraging about a library, I guess, is the tantalizing sense that at any moment I could make an incredible discovery: a brilliant new aphorist whom nobody has heard of, a great new source for aphorists from languages and cultures that are strange to me. This is similar to the feeling I get in used bookshops, when I never know if the next beaten up old hardback without a dust jacket will turn out to be that edition of Hart Crane’s poems I’ve been looking for for years. Discoveries can be made in shops that sell new books, too, but there it often feels like someone else is in control of the possibilities. It feels as if there is less room for chance, partly because of the unrelenting stream of new books that are constantly appearing. Very quickly, it’s out with the old and in with the new.

I guess it’s a sense that libraries are like wildlife sanctuaries for books. A book may not survive long in the wild Darwinian competition of a bookshop. If it’s not adapted to the commercial environment of the moment, it will be whisked off the shelves within weeks. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The writing, publishing and selling of books is a business, and only the strong deserve to survive in the marketplace. But in the marketplace of ideas a book must be judged by more than just its sales figures; its content might be priceless even though its sales are meagre. That’s why libraries are so important; that’s where books are not permitted to become extinct, where idea shoppers can roam the endless aisles inspired by the hope that they will eventually find the right product for them. That’s where a timeless book like Enemies of Promise, first published in 1938, can thrive for much longer than a mere ten years.

On Happiness

The other day at breakfast my younger son asked, “Dad, have you ever been 100% happy?” (My son has a way of asking impertinent philosophical questions at unexpected times.) I took a minute or so before I answered, because I wanted to give him a considered reply but also because I was a bit concerned about why he would be asking a question like that anyway. Finally I said that the times when I had been 100% happy were times when I was completely absorbed in some activity that I really liked. I had recently bought him a bag of 100 plastic soldiers, which he had been playing with obsessively for the past few days. “It’s like playing with your soldiers,” I said. “Aren’t you 100% happy when you’re doing that?” Then I discovered the reason he had asked the question in the first place. “Yes,” he said, “but then I remember I have to go to school and that spoils it.”

Schopenhauer believed that happiness and pleasure did not really exist. Suffering, he maintained, was our true baseline state:

The good things we possess, or are certain of getting, are not felt to be such; because all pleasure is in fact of a negative nature and effects the relief of pain, while pain or evil is what is really positive; it is the object of immediate sensation.

I’ve never had much sympathy for that point of view. Even if it’s true, which I strongly contest, it’s not a very practical philosophy by which to live your life. The pursuit of happiness can indeed be fruitless, misguided, even ultimately doomed. But that’s all the more reason to make sure that the process itself is pleasurable; that way you enjoy the pursuit just as much as, sometimes even more than, achieving the goal. And if you don’t achieve the goal, you still enjoyed the chase.

My son’s question got me thinking about what makes me 100% happy. The last time that I was 100% happy for a full 24 hours was on my wedding day. As an adult, I find that happiness tends to come in short bursts; as a child, it was easier to be more intensely happy for much longer periods. That’s not because life becomes less pleasurable as you get older, but because children are naturally more able to inhabit their bliss. There are fewer intrusions on a child’s imagination when it is at play. Adults are more easily distracted, by work, by money, by a host of other more nebulous worries, by other people’s feelings. This is something my son, at 8, is now beginning to discover.

Here are some of my happiest moments from the past week: when I found my daughter’s stuffed bunny rabbit on the sidewalk where we had unwittingly dropped it on the way to school; listening to Led Zeppelin in the car with my elder son; when I heard my daughter had got a place at the same primary school her brothers attend; when I discovered two new aphorists, the German J.G. Zimmerman and the American Washington Allston, for my next book; when I wrote two new pieces for another book I’m working on and felt that they were good. These were all moments of intense happiness, however fleeting. String them together with all the other happy moments and they make for a pretty good week. Which is why I much prefer Spinoza’s take on happiness over crusty old Schopenhauer’s:

Happiness or unhappiness is made wholly to depend on the quality of the object which we love.

Later on the same day I had that breakfast conversation with my son, I noticed that he had been in the toilet for a long time. So I called upstairs to see if he was alright. Yes, he was alright, he shouted back. “But what are you doing?” I asked. “Thinking and writing,” he replied. “About what?” I asked. “It’s a secret,” he said. What bliss. An oasis of solitude and silence in which to think and to write. Your loved ones elsewhere in the house busy with their own activities and minding their own business. Ahead of you the prospect of several hours of uninterrupted play, and the weekend on its way. And who knows, maybe even pasta for dinner. A recipe for 100% happiness.

On Vocabulary

“Can I say ‘annoying’?” That’s the question my daughter has been asking me of late, as she explores the boundaries of the new vocabulary she is learning. “Yes, you can say ‘annoying,’” I reply. “Can I say ’shut up’?” she asks. “No, you can’t say ’shut up.’” “And I can’t say ’shit’,” she states matter-of-factly. That’s right, she already knows she can’t say ’shit’ but she still gets a tremendous kick from just quickly confirming that fact with me because to do so, of course, means getting to say ’shit’ all over again without fear of punishment. It’s like the joke my son told me the other day, warning me ahead of time that it contained a curse: A 6-year-old boy was scolded by his parents for still talking like a baby. ‘Why don’t you use more grown-up words,’ they said. So the next day, when he got home from school, his parents asked him what he had done in class and he said: ‘We read a book called Winnie the Shit.’

Words have an awesome power, and there’s no clearer example of that than when children deploy new vocabulary to see what effect their words have on the world. My daughter, for example, wields the word ‘annoying’ all the time now, using it to describe anything and everything that elicits her displeasure. My son, who’s eight, enjoys using mild curse words in safe contexts, like in a joke. He hears other kids using them for real in the schoolyard and can see the mixture of shock and admiration their use evokes in other children. My kids are learning that words are not just airy nothings; they have a very real and dramatic impact on the world—they can make other people laugh or cry, they can help get you what you want, they can get you into or out of a lot of trouble, too.

Adults are usually unconscious of the latent power of language, but you can feel it in full force again when learning a foreign tongue. One of Austrian philosopherLudwig Wittgenstein’s best aphorisms is:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

I felt my linguistic limits extended when I learned Dutch about 17 years ago. Each language has words in it that don’t exist in any other tongue, and one of the greatest joys of speaking another language is stretching your mind to encompass this new vocabulary.Gezellig is a word like that in Dutch. It has so many nuanced meanings that it’s impossible to find a simple English equivalent. Indeed, thereis no single English equivalent since gezellig is a word that expresses a distinctly Dutch state of mind. It means different things in different circumstances. An evening with friends can begezellig, meaning friendly and intimate and fun. But inanimate objects can also be gezellig, like a room with a roaring fire in the fireplace, meaning cozy and inviting. But an individual can also be gezellig, meaning that he or she is warm and welcoming. It was not until I learned Dutch, and came to understand the meaning of this word, that I was able to recognize the quality of gezelligheid when I saw it. This not only added a new word to my vocabulary; it added a new experience to my world.

And so it is with my daughter. At almost four years old, she is intrepidly exploring the world of words, experimenting with language to see which words cause happiness, which words cause pain, which words make people laugh, which words make them cry. By trying out words like ‘annoying’, ’shut up’ and ’shit’ on me, she’s testing to see if they cause the desired effect. This is something we never stop doing. What American poet John Hall Wheelock wrote is just as true of adults as it is for children:

On Waiting

Thought for the day: Why is every public building in Britain so stuffy and overheated while every private home is so draughty and underinsulated? Take our house, for example. You could drive several small turbines on the chill wind pouring through the enormous gaps between our windows and their fittings. We could probably generate enough electricity that way to heat the house for a year. But last week, while waiting for the man in J. Shiner and Sons to retrieve my brass caster from the basement of his shop, I was practically sweating to death. My throat was parched. I was just about to start peeling off the layers I had piled on to protect me from the biting March wind when he reappeared and I knew that soon I’d be back in the refreshing cold again.

I had gone to J. Shiner and Sons to pick up a new caster for a footstool that my wife, a painter, textile designer and increasingly skilled upholsterer, was refurbishing. There were two other people ahead of me in the shop but just the one man to take care of them. He was a small, frail-looking man whose polite, professional manner didn’t quite seem to match the tight-fitting football shirt he wore. Each of the customers before me had a very specific request—they needed a brass fitting of a particular size and shape—and, strangely, they each needed casters like myself. The man behind the counter (presumably a descendant of J. Shiner, who founded the shop on this site in 1879 or thereabouts) listened patiently to their descriptions and then disappeared to the basement. I heard the sound of his footsteps fade away as he walked downstairs, then silence. I didn’t hear anything from him again for several minutes until the clomp, clomp, clomp that signaled he was coming back upstairs. When he did reappear, he held in his hands several shiny brass casters carefully wrapped in white tissue paper. Each time it was exactly what the customer wanted.While the man was gone, I had plenty of time to wait (and become increasingly oppressed by the air in the stuffy, overheated shop). Waiting is a strange business. It happens so often, and often so imperceptibly, every day. There are mundane forms of waiting–for your browser to load, for your child to finish swimming lessons, for the lights to change. And there are existential forms of waiting: for an opportunity, for a sign, for a second chance. Waiting should never be a wasted, though, which is why this aphorism from John Milton’s Paradise Lost appeals to me so much:

They also serve who only stand and wait.

What purpose was I serving as I waited for my brass caster in J. Shiner and Sons? Well, it was a poignant reminder of the overwhelming amount of stuff in the world and the amazing fact that somewhere someone out there is an expert in all of it. The shop was festooned with fixtures, and looking around I saw different types of letterbox, dozens of doorknobs, a clutch of knockers next to a row of drapery rods, the occasional lamp or lantern, a run of house numbers in different sizes and fonts, and boxes and boxes of variously sized screws–all of it in brass. No casters on display, though; they must all be in the basement. And the guy behind the counter knew absolutely everything about all of it. When he gave me my caster, for example, he explained that they didn’t make the model I needed anymore (the footstool is pretty old) and the one he gave me had a larger wheel but would still fit the leg of the stool. He even provided the tiny screws I needed without me having to ask. He had similar stories to share with his other customers, either some technical detail about the casters or an anecdote about how the neighborhood around his shop was changing. In my haste to escape the sultry shop–as well as the more general hurry in which I too often rush to get things done–I was reminded that such friendly, informative little encounters are always worth the wait.