“A library, to modify the famous metaphor of Socrates, should be the delivery room for the birth of ideas - a place where history comes to life.”Norman Cousins
Though it’s an apt characterization, a library has been labelled in many more ways. For some, it’s a getaway, a place they tip-toe into to gain a momentary respite from their daily grinds. For some, it’s a vast ocean of knowledge they dip their minds in to get enlightened. For writers, it can be both. And so much more.
This issue features a few essays that depict what libraries mean to a few writers and what, according to them, they should mean to everyone else.
Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming
In this lecture explaining the importance of using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, Neil Gaiman emphasizes on why it’s an obligation for all us, citizens, to support libraries and to inculcate the love for books among children, right from early ages. Highlighting first the significance of reading books, specifically fiction, he goes on to make one understand why it’s absurd to “perceive libraries as a shelf of books”.
Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information. I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.
A library is many things
One would agree whole-heartedly with the title when it’s a mix of prominent personalities – an astronaut, a sci-fi writer, a painter, a cartoonist and a children’s author – convincing you about it. “Early-1971, in an effort to attract as many youngsters to the premises as possible, Marguerite Hart — children’s librarian at the newly-opened public library in Troy, Michigan — wrote to a number of notable people with a request: to reply with a congratulatory letter, addressed to the children of Troy, in which the benefits of visiting such a library were explained.” From amongst the responses from the likes of Neil Armstrong, Isaac Asimov, and Dr Seuss, here’s a snippet from the letter from E. B. White.
A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books. If you want to find out about something, the information is in the reference books—the dictionaries, the encyclopedias, the atlases. If you like to be told a story, the library is the place to go. Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had. And when you are reading a book, you and the author are alone together—just the two of you.
My Manhattan; Not Just a Library, an Oasis of Civilization
Susan Jacoby’s love letter to New York Public Library, particularly its newly restored main reading room and its Center for Scholars and Writers. As she recounts the time that she spent in the library as the world changed outside, you can’t help but wonder if there’s any other apt description for this place than “an oasis of civilization” as she refers.
In a compartmentalized and bureaucratized American academic culture, the library is one of the last bastions of respect for those who try to carry on an older but increasingly archaic tradition of independent scholarship embodied by men like Kazin. My current research is concerned with the marginalization of secularism and free thought – the lovely, anachronistic term that appeared at the end of the 17th century – in American history. The range of the library’s holdings on this quirky and controversial subject has given me a new appreciation of the courage and vision of past generations of New York librarians, who collected material without regard for the received religious and political opinion of their time.
A writer, editor and a teacher, Lena has published many short stories as part of publications and anthologies; one among them is the brilliant short story Mystery Lights published at CRAFT magazine. Though it’s not a mystery, Lena has you glued throughout as you learn more about the central character Windy and the other supporting characters. As the main plot about the show around Marfa lights is slowly unravelled, it glides into a crazed climax that brings a smile on your face. You can’t help but wonder if the Marfa town and the notorious lights that form the backdrop to this story are indeed magical.
Though libraries act as a repository of all the words ever written and published as books, many are also published independently online. Nonetheless, they can be equally significant, powerful and meaningful for an individual. As a free read-it-later service, Pocket allows you to catch up on these articles without being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of the written works available. With an optional premium subscription, it can also be your permanent library of articles and stories that you read online.
One Final Inspiration
This post was delivered first as part of my weekly newsletter Slanting Nib & A Keyboard. Do read the archives and subscribe here.