Saturday, July 01, 2006

Homage to Old Libraries

July 1

I have wonderful memories of libraries. As a child in Mobile -- we moved over the bay when I was nine -- my sister and I went every Saturday to hear Miss Kertsiek read to the assembled children of Mobile. We called her "Miss Curtsey;" I never knew that wasn't her name until Bob Bell, who was probably dating her at the time she was doing those readings, wrote about her in a letter to me. Miss Curtsey was lovely (in my memory most of the young women were pretty) and had that elegant, expository style of reading to children, stopping to explain or ask questions from time to time, that we found riveting.

I loved going to the library and exploring the shelves, picking out a book just for myself. The smell of a roomful of books was intoxicating. (It still is, in the right environment, not only a refreshing glimpse of the past but also a promise of excitement to be had being transported to another time and place through the act of reading.)

The big library in Mobile was a ticket to the whole world. The little library in Fairhope, on the other hand, was woefully ill-equipped for children, with old first editions and out of print books and very few of the shiny new books designed for beginning readers and rugrats of the day. But it had something else -- a librarian even more wonderful that Miss Curtsey, the gentle and brilliant if sometimes caustic Anna Braune. Miss Braune was naturally as quiet as a library herself, and as full of knowledge and promise. She was somebody you aspired to know better.

All the bookish kids in Fairhope, including my older sister, adored Miss Braune. She knew how to relate to them and to provide them with the kind of books that would inspire them. She once said that she related best to bad children. Found them congenial, she said. My sister once encountered a young man who was definitely in that category, one of her contemporaries whom we would identify today as an at-risk kid because he smoked and had a reputation as delinquent (if not actively, at least potentially). They were both walking in Fairhope and she asked him where he was going. "To visit Anna," he said.

"Anna Braune?"

"Yeah. She's a friend of mine."

This was a shock. Jealousy and outrage bubbled up as my sister huffily declared, "She's a friend of mine too!"

The atmosphere of the little Fairhope library was homey and musty. There was a fireplace in the front room, with a circle of chairs in front of it. There was an odd "museum" in one room off to the left, with glass cases of arrowheads and artifacts, and stuffed natural-history items such as owls. All this was dismantled later when a new librarian took over, and it was years before another Fairhope Museum was established.

And when a new library went up where Delchamps had built a modern building in the 1970's, there was tremendous controversy that this new librarian had had the bad judgment to put a copy of The Joy of Sex on the shelves. The librarian was fired and the mayor refused from then on to put any city funds into the maintenance of the library. Calvin Trillin came to Fairhope to write an article about the incident for The New Yorker. Our local library lost its innocence.

We are about to get a new library, over where the nut processing plant used to be. It is overwhelmingly huge; in fact, it will be considered a media center, and is said to fill a need for meeting spaces, a concert hall (I think) and all kinds of technological geegaws so necessary for modern life. I'm sure you knew this was coming: I'll miss the old wooden card catalog.

Even at the library today, if you're looking for an old book, you're apt to find it's been what they call deleted because it hasn't been checked out for its proscribed number of times. Not popular enough. There are just so many new books out there we have to make room for. Never mind those old first editions that earlier Fairhope women purchased to enrich the life of the townspeople.

My sister recently checked out a novel by Ellen Glasgow. She saw in it an inscription, "Presented by Marietta Johnson, Ada Womble, Shelby Holbrook." I told her this is a book that would be deleted soon because it isn't likely to be checked out often in the future, and that whoever works at the library wouldn't know the significance of the donors. I felt certain that the book should go to the local Marietta Johnson Museum.

That book never made it back to the library. The necessary fee of $10 was paid. I have it in my possession. It will soon be at the Museum.


birdwatcher said...

The smell of a new book is still intoxicating to me; here in small-town NM our library is struggling, but it does survive; never will print become obsolete. Never!

John Sweden said...

Somewhere between the ages 7 and 9 I discovered a "no"-where. It existed within a block of old, abandoned, three story, Brooklyn brownstones. They were to being razed to make way for a new addition to the housing projects where I was growing up. It was a forbidden zone, by both parents and authorities, that existed between the perceived progress of the time and the perceived past of the time. I have only to close my eyes and the complex labyrinths of shadows, light and the smells of damp plaster, mortar, combined with molded, burnt and rotten wood, begins to re-emerge in a reality of metaphors that could occupy a thousand writers for a thousand years. I was a magical "no"-where -- a place where rats the size of cats played and a hole in a ceiling could be transformed, after a trip up a splintered staircase, to a hole in the floor. A terrifying and thrilling place of imaginations and fears, stretched to the limits by light and shadow, sound and NO sound, air and NO air, things and "no"-things.

One afternoon, amongst the nothings left behind by the "no"-bodies, my friend Irving found a box of cheap paperback books. We took it to room with a window that had become just holes of early summer light and air coming from what had been a garden. In that light and breathing that air we began to read. They were mostly dime store detective books and a few westerns but it was a library, our library, and there will never be another library like it, even if over the years it has changed and taken the forms of many different libraries. I did read Tom Sawyer in the library of "no"-where and later went on to be Tom in a school play. I saw an ad from a book club offering the complete works of Mark Twain and convinced my mother to buy it for me. I finished reading all Mr. Twains work by the age of ten.

In late summer the bulldozers and wrecking ball brought progress, and "no"-where became somewhere. More to your point, Fairhope becomes Finding Fairhope.

John Sweden said...

I have more direct response to Old Libraries that I hope will inspire another blog from our fair, fair hope blogger. By far the most influential book in my life has been Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Early on is a scene where Maugham discovers that the hero of the story “Larry” is not the lazy, non-interested, do-nothing, waste of a human being that he and the readers had been given the impression to believe. He discovers this by observing Larry at the library and realizing from his daily regime that Larry is as diligent, serious and determined as any person he has ever met. It is the Library scene and the discipline of the search for the knowledge of a path not chosen that pivots the whole book and my whole perspective on my life and what I wanted it to be, somewhere around the age of 14.

"The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature."
W. Somerset Maugham, THE RAZOR'S EDGE:

This is for all you who-was-he-really? buffs.

I just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s wonderful “Kafka on the Shore” which also has as the central focus a library.

Brian said...

Although I did not know them we are all grateful for people like Miss Kertsiek and Anna in our lives. They make a lasting difference in the way we live, enjoy and pursue our existence. If only we continued to meet and be influenced by individuals like them along life's journey how much fuller life could be.

"I cannot live without books" (TJ,#3).

John said...

Thanks for reposting the library pieces. After re-reading them it made me realize why I like this site. Speaking only for myself, it brings to mind so many real things, both past and present, and gives our lives as we lived them a certain rightness of time and place. The tragedies will never have a place of rightness or fairness, nor will the ecstasies they’re the exceptions that make the rule. It is the in betweens, the quiet spaces, filled with all those wonderfully unique, as Joseph Campbell described them, “helping hands”. Some are people, some are places, some are cups, some are books, some are blogs, some are fictional and some are real. When I look back they all seem to magically appear when needed with the right word or image to guide us on a path that appears in hindsight to have been our destiny. They somehow mystically fade away when their task is done. It takes time and ageing to place a certain trust in that aspect of one’s living a life, both as a giver and a receiver of that magic.

The interior of the old library, as you described it, is almost a duplicate of the image of that Maugham placed in my mind so many years ago. I would have liked to read that book there, sitting in one of those old chairs by a fireplace. Instead that particular set of helping hands revealed themselves in a corner of the boiler room in the basement of the church, where we lived and where the library of “no-where”, now consisting of more than 150 books, had taken up one of it’s many reincarnations.

Like the old Fairhope library that little corner library of the world served several purposes. It had a large old desk with an old fashion, rolling chair, both donated by Pastor Eriksson. My chemistry set on one side and large metal vice bolted to the other framed my scientific and technological world of imaginations. Along the other wall that held this tiny library was my drawing table/easel on which a first oil painting would firmly shape the ultimate destiny of a life to be lived. For the comfort of reading, dreaming and meditation was and old, large, out of, but very much in place, orange, canvas beach chair, set facing the front the oil burner. It would years before the musty smell of old books would add it presence to that of oil paint, accented by diesel, punctuated by strange chemical concoctions, and the smell of burning sterno as instant java, dried soups along with tea made with Creamora and honey was prepared to feed the eclectic, if not unhealthy, tastes of adolescence independence. Every so often, the fiery roar of the oil burner would kick in to make the point that a mind was being forged here.

Incidentally, if you want my version of the ideal alpha male check out Tyrone Power in the 1946 movie version of the "Razors Edge".

This is the only place I get inspired to write things like this and that is why it will always be my favorite stop along the information superhighway.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Thank you, John. Awesome.

John Sweden said...

I seem to be on roll today check out the my answer to robin on Mouse's blog. There is a little in for you.