A tale in three parts.
Back in November, when my coming-to-back-to America was still new, I went to the Swampscott Public Library with my mom. She was going to return some books, and I was going to borrow some – the disease of anti-accumulation, nomadic ways were still coursing through my blood. The American “buy, don’t borrow” ethic had not yet been reintroduced.
Here’s what happened:
From the bright, chilly November afternoon we step inside the fluorescent dimness of the library. Behind the desk, two middle-aged checkout managers (I’m sure they’re not actual librarians) sit, gossiping. My mom turns into the room on the right, where the pulp and other fiction lives. I go in the other direction, to nonfiction. I am looking for a reference book about travel in Mongolia, a “how to start a home business,” and…well, when I’m in a bookstore, I just like to browse around, to let books surprise and delight me.
Standing on the threshold of the reference room, I’m disoriented by wave of nostalgia, of musty stacks, of card catalogues. Worse, like a flashback to a fumbling, pre-adolescent first kiss, I recall that there’s a code-like numbering system at work here. The Dewey Decimal System, used by libraries to organize nonfiction books, represent what navigating the internet would be like using only IP addresses. Looking for a book at Amazon? Visit 18.104.22.168 (or 22.214.171.124, or 3, or…) Bob’s BBQ Shack? 221.54.342.6. Easy, right?
As I search in vain for the giant, well-lit sign that will show me to the business section, a spunky librarian approaches and chirps, “Can I help you find something?”
No! I don’t want to explain what I’m looking for. I want to browse, to engage in a leisurely stroll through the aisles, to happen upon the right book, plus a half-dozen others. I want to run my eyes along the crisp spines of the books, drinking in their titles, guessing their cover art from the font and spine design, scan for familiar names or compelling titles.
Around me, retirees are checking email on old Dells with flesh-colored CRT monitors. Another librarian plods behind a wooden cart of books to be re-shelved. When I was in the third grade, I volunteered as a re-shelver in my elementary school library. My skill at filing away words based on a system of numbers was a source of great pride at the time.
“I’m looking for the business books?” I sputter, so flummoxed that I add the question mark. Thirty years on, my brain is trying to dig up old Dewey. But he lies hidden beneath layers of real life. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve even been in a library.
“Oh, those are downstairs,” she explains, leading me to what looked like a fire door tucked into a corner. I peek through the wire-mesh reinforced window. A sad little stairwell, the kind you would find in an elementary school in the 70’s, leads to the basement.
Two months later, I spent $43 on books at Amazon.com – mostly in the used/discounted section. At least one of my purchases was an impulse buy – my version of a candy bar (“Everything Bad is Good for You,” by Steven Johnson). The rest were in some way related to Papua New Guinea. I swear.
Just before I left for PNG, I spent part of the afternoon in one of my favorite places, the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York.
I went to do some research – to pull books off the shelf, sit in one of the reading chairs lined up by the floor-to-ceiling windows, and read. I did more than that, of course. I couldn’t resist pausing by the tables at the front of the store, browsing the latest fiction and non-fiction. I wandered the travel section – a terrible habit that has had life-changing consequences for me. I finally sat, with a stack of travel lit and diver porn (glossy, photo-heavy fish-ID books). As I worked my way through the pile, the sun dipped below the NYU buildings on Union Square West. At least three homeless people (who come in to get warm and sleep), were evicted by impatient but kind B&N staff. I’m lost in my world, in a sea of books, with my people around me – fellow NYers who are also using this place as their library. Not many leave with books they intend to buy, but a few do. I didn’t.
Along the deep window ledges, stacks of books left by the B&N readers sit, waiting to be re-shelved – alphabetically, within clearly labeled sections.