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.