AN AFTERNOON AT THE LIBRARY

We had to evacuate the monastery the other day because our real estate agent was bringing potential buyers through to have a look. Evacuation was unnecessary, but I didn’t argue with him. He’d already demonstrated that he didn’t pay much attention to me.

At our initial meeting, I confessed that I was a recovering real estate broker. It had been a misguided effort that I attempted only because it was the least unattractive way I could come up with to make some money. In retrospect, I think I’d have made as much money and I would have enjoyed the work more, if I’d gotten a job at MacDonald’s. Nevertheless, I was once a broker and I’d also worked in mortgage banking and I’d taught a variety of real estate classes including how to make a financial calculator sing and how to figure an internal rate of return and a financial management rate of return on real estate investments. If my agent paid any attention to all this, he was not impressed.

The first time someone wanted to see the monastery, he sent us a fairly lengthy email setting forth Rule One in regard to showing property; selling should be left to the professionals. Owners should not be present when shoppers inspect the property. In fact, the two parties should never meet except at the closing table, and even then the sellers should not say anything other than “Where do I sign?”.

I thought of telling my guy the story of when Ann and I first viewed the monastery. The Prioress, Sister Gertrude, led the tour, and she was charming. She was not exactly the seller—the Diocese of Ogdensburg was–-but she was the chief resident. I would have thought that was close enough for the rule to apply, but it didn’t.

Although we had plenty of contact with Sister Gertrude, we didn’t see any of the other eight or nine nuns who lived in the house. (There had been as many as thirty-five during their forty-eight years of residence, but their numbers had dwindled.)

When we got back in the Realtor’s car after our walk-through, I asked where the nuns had been.

“They were there.”

“They were? I didn’t see them.”

“They didn’t want you to. So they stayed a room or two ahead of you.”

The house has three stories, a basement, an attic, and three staircases, but the women knew the floorplan as well as they knew the rosary. They evaded us with ease. They might as well have been in the next county. And they never got accidentally treed.

Ann and I could have done that during the showing last week. It would have been fun. I was pretty sure our Realtor wouldn’t have been open to it, though, so we evacuated.

Our plan was to spend the afternoon at the Saranac Lake Free Library. Then as we started down the driveway, it seemed like a good idea to have lunch first.

In seventeen years of Saranac Lake experience, we’ve been out to eat ten times at most. I don’t recall ever going out for lunch. Lots and lots of reasons for that. We have a dream kitchen, three fridges, and a commercial-type stove. The room is full of light, even on cloudy days. We both like to cook. And as regards lunch, leftovers from the night before are superior to anything I’ve had in local eateries. And—this is not to be taken lightly—if we eat at home, it’s a shorter distance from table to bed and a nap. But on the day I’m talking about, we did go out to lunch. In high-toned Lake Placid yet.

Immediately upon committing to this adventure, I experienced an unfamiliar feeling. How to put it? The prospect was sort of exciting, like we were doing something a little naughty. When we took a seat in the little restaurant, it felt unnatural. Nice but unnatural. It was like having a date, not something I do much anymore. It was the right situation for a glass of wine. Flirting, too, but we’re rapidly closing in on thirty years of marriage. I did my best, though. My voice fairly smoldering with romance, I said, “This pizza’s pretty good, isn’t it?”.

As we were settling the bill, the Realtor emailed that we were free to re-enter our house. The buyers had not showed up.

Ann was worn out by the heat of our middle-of-the-day amour au fromage, so she went home. I went to the library, even though I no longer had to. That’s what I’d planned to do, and I’m not very flexible.

I had in mind to use the time there to accumulate material for the column I write for the local newspaper. It would be an easy afternoon’s work—just hang around and see how life transpired there and have a chat with the librarian, Peter. (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the column pays so little.)

I would start Peter off with an easy question or two to let him get warmed up. Something like, “how many books are in the Saranac Lake Free Library?”. Then, I’d ratchet up the stress level slightly by asking him to express an opinion. “Don’t you miss the card catalog?” (Like many of life’s most precious items, it has been replaced by a computer system.) Then, I’d plumb the depths of his information store. “What is the annual expenditure for those “DATE DUE” slips that are on the endsheet of each book? And what is the least checked-out and the most checked-out title in the SLFL? What does the standing of those particular titles say about local culture?

My impression is that books (those things with words on paper) still outnumber dvds and cds and such at SLFL, but I fear that electronic media is gaining. So I would use my audience with the librarian to persuade him to stand his ground against a complete takeover. I’d point out to him that an eReader is to a book as health care provider is to a physician; health care providers and eReaders cannot offer the richness of experience that physicians and books can.

Besides that, reading a book on an electronic device can be harmful to your health. The novelist Anakana Schofield recently reported on the London Review of Books blog that reading Balzac on an iPhone had resulted in a broken rib. Actually, there was a little more to it than that. She read it in bed until 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Day. (The time she commenced this session was not indicated.)

My afternoon at the library didn’t work out any better than showing the monastery had. The librarian was on vacation. And there were so few patrons, I couldn’t find anything interesting to observe. I stuck around for a while, anyway.

I looked at Consumer Reports 2014 Buying Guide to see what I could learn about hearing aids. (It’s come to that.) Hearing aids were not among the products evaluated. I browsed a couple of other magazines, or as they are referred to in library-speak, periodicals.

While waiting for something interesting and column-worthy to happen, I reflected on what constitutes libraryness. It’s abstract and hard to define, but it’s real. The feeling you experience in a place that’s used to house and loan books is unique.

In among the shelves there is the smell of paper and bindings and such. It’s quiet in a special library-like way. Not absolutely—not like a quiet car on a Swiss train—people click away on computer keyboards in libraries. There is a certain amount of talking too, but it’s done softly, (more softly than in church where people have to go loud in order to be heard over the organ). Though patrons may be excited by something they’re reading, they keep it internal. It’s difficult to imagine anger or crying or guffawing in a library. As Brits say, it’s just not on.

To be in a library is to be at the limen between ordinary experience and that which exists beyond the ordinary; it’s like being in the back of the wardrobe about to enter Narnia. You have but to open a good book and start reading to go away to a time and a place that never was and always will be.

As I idled away the afternoon under the guise of doing research, I thought about other libraries I’ve known.

First up was Tyrrell Public in Beaumont. It constituted a DIY summer camp for me. It was housed in a former church of Romanesque Revival and Gothic design. In memory, it went every which way and offered oddly shaped rooms and niches suggestive of burrows—great places to hole up under a fan and read books. Until sports and girls got more interesting than books, I’d ride my bike down there almost every day.

Then there was the great University of Texas Main Library that was housed in most of the thirty stories of the University Tower. Up on the high floors, it had carrels that graduate students could reserve for use a semester at a time and where books could be checked out and kept for the whole term. It also had a locked area that housed books too racy for college students to be allowed to use. I never saw any of them, but I guess they were not much fun by today’s standards; Lady Chatterley’s Lover and titles like that.

And somewhere in the upper reaches, a prominent linguist named E. Bagby Atwood had an office. He received the New York Times by mail, and when he finished one, he’d lay it on an army cot that he kept by his desk. He napped on top of the pile. Or so I was told.

For impressiveness, it would be hard to beat the great circular British Library’s main reading room located under the great dome in the center of the British Museum. I spent several years there enjoying the company of Dickens, Karl Marx, Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, Yeats, and others who had warmed chairs for me. It is thought by many to be “the world’s greatest research library.” According to the clerk who issued my Reader’s Pass (library card), it is also “just a bunch of old books.” He was right, of course, though “just” is problematic. (More on the British Library in the August Rumination.)

I’ve visited and used a number of other libraries, large and small, workaday and exalted. So far, the only one where a librarian greets me by name when I walk in is the Saranac Lake Free Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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