Holding Books in Libraries
I know I've been talking about that phenomena a lot – when a book finds you, sometimes rather magically. I was pulled to my shelf of John Berger books, and started re-reading Bento's Sketchbook this week. It's mainly about the impulse to draw, complete with lovely sketches. But right about in the middle of the book, there's a 2 page description of Berger going to a library in the suburbs of Paris, and looking for a copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. He can't find it on the shelves, so asks.
“The librarian consulted a computer. We both waited. The wait was friendly, full of the special time that wanders in municipal libraries, like a solitary walker between trees in a wood.”
Both copies held by the library are out. He says he'll come back another day.
“She nods and turns to attend to an elderly woman – younger than me – who is holding three books in one hand. People hold books in a special way – like they hold nothing else. They hold them not like inanimate things but like ones that have gone to sleep. Children often carry toys in the same manner.”
This lovely observations stopped me in my tracks. So true, and something I see all the time in my work at a public library in Edmonton.
But there's more loveliness. Berger goes on to wonder if those two people who have taken The Brothers Karamazov out are in the library, and if so, are the reading the book for the first time, or are they re-reading it. And then:
“Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we'd both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognizing it, recognize one another?”
Berger talks about how stories become part of us. And here's the next lovely thing he says:
“What I'm trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one's life story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become.”
When you work at a library you are often holding books. Passing books into waiting hands. But you are also holding stories, lives. I'm writing this post after a work day. Almost every day that I come home from the library I can tell my husband numerous stories that have been told to me. Some of them are funny, a lot of them are quite sad. Some of them are astonishing. Today a co-worker and I were told an incredible story by a customer we've both known for years. It was threaded with a deep philosophical thinking, a real soul-searching, and we were the first people to whom he'd told this story. This to me, after everything spoken, was breathtaking. After that, I was sitting at the front desk, and I found out that a long time library user who I was very fond of had passed away. I wanted this person, a family member, to know how much those of us at the library had enjoyed her presence and so shared a couple of small things. Midway through though, I became verklempt and could have burst into tears. Stories will do this to a person.
In my every day work, I've been told stories about survival, abuse, neglect, hardship. I've been told stories about crushes, unrequited love, and break-ups. I've heard stories about living on the streets, and about fleeing another country. I've heard travel stories, childbirth stories, family sagas, and stories of poverty and job loss. I've listened to success stories, stories of people finding themselves, and following their dreams. Working in a library, I've been told stories that I never would have heard otherwise.
There is the understanding, that there is something like the doctor-patient confidentiality, between librarian and library visitor. So I can't tell you any of the stories I've heard. But I hold them. I'm holding all these stories in that special way people hold library books. And sometimes I exchange glances with someone and wonder what stories they're holding, too. And maybe, like in John Berger's story of the two people simultaneously reading The Brothers Karamazov, there is a sort of recognition between us.