Friday, April 13, 2012

What will become of personal libraries?

To me, this looks like heaven.  To my wife, it looks claustrophobic.  I can see how it might seem that way, and yet in a library I feel anything but confined.  To me this is a forest with seemingly infinite spaces to crawl in and explore.

This has much to do with the way I grew up, surrounded by shelves that towered over my head, covered with books and record albums.  My parents' combined collections amounted to the tens of thousands, and my father also collected a couple of thousand vinyl records.  These days, he has added an imposing collection of movies on VHS tapes and DVD.

My own collection of books is much, much smaller, and yet some of them still languish in boxes in the garage, as my wife and I struggle to find some middle ground on the matter of shelves.  It hurts, although I do feel grateful for the open shelves I've been allowed to set up.  Visitors can walk into this office and infer whatever they might infer from the books on display.  Moments ago, Gabriel -- not quite reading yet -- became curious about a book on the shelf and pulled it free for inspection.

That was a crucial part of my childhood: exploring shelves.  Of course, my father provided ample shelf space to explore.  There were days I would even attempt to play hookie because I was in a mood to explore the shelves, to see what new music or books I could find.  My mother was pretty sharp, so I rarely got away with that; but when I suffered a real cold infection or flu, the consolation was a journey into the wonderland of my father's books and music.  Early on, I imagined that this represented the endless layout of my father's own imagination; but eventually I realized something that was, for a child who was "smart" and somewhat isolated from his peers, quite comforting: that the human imagination is a shared resource.  Not quite the same idea as a mundus imaginilis or Hurqalya, but definitely a resource comprised of the presence and imaginations of countless human beings living and dead.  Among books, I felt I had company without social pressure.

And the discoveries!  Science-fiction and fantasy, history, and art.  Being very careful to put things back in place (my father was a stickler: to this day, he can walk through his numerous stacks and tell you if a book is out of place), I pulled out so many books and records, some of which seemed not to have been touched or exposed to the light in years.  Classical music.  Rock from the 1960s.  Novelty records.  Radio drama.  Stand-up comedy.  Avant-garde music, including some of the earliest recordings using electronics (what later came to be called synthesizers).  I discovered Captain Beefheart here, and Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.  Of the familiar classical music, I recall exalting to the Russian composers most, but Beethoven and Liszt thrilled me, and I discovered a love for the baroque that resembled an admiration for architecture.  (My passion for renaissance-period music and Asian music would come much later.)

I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been without a man's personal library to wander through over many years.  Oh, we went to the public library every couple of weeks, also: we went as a family, and I had a library card at a very young age.  Yet the private, personal library is by definition unique and close to home.  It is something I very much want for Gabriel and Lucca, even if it means figuring out how to finish the garage and turn it into a library. 

And as much as I admire the technology of our iPods and Kindle readers and e-books, I worry that what remains of the personal library will be shrunk and confined inside personal electronic devices to be kept to ourselves, inaccessible to the little hands and wide-open eyes of our children, for them to investigate on their own when we are not around to censor and filter the information.  The best story I could ever invent to enthrall my children cannot light up their minds the way their own curiosity and exploration might.  If there are no open stacks, no previously unexplored volumes, no forgotten places with an authenticating layer of dust waiting in the shadows, they are denied this.

That seems like a claustrophobic way to grow up.

[Image: One of thousands of images from the photo blog Bookshelf Porn.]


Kelly said...

The older I get, the more it feels wrong to "hoard" all the books I have. There are many I'll always want to keep around, but I'm trying to learn more how to give them away and share the pleasure with others. Only one of my children equals me on the book-hoarding front. I'm sure someday she'll end up with all those that still line my numerous shelves.

Debby said...

Probably, oh, 6 years ago, I despaired of children ever reading the classics I so loved. So I took probably a hundred books to their HS library.

Funny thing? The books shelves filled up again way more quickly than I thought possible.

Oh. And it was after the donation that Cara suddenly became a fan of the classics.