I am speaking of the library.
Libraries have been havens for me for as long as I can remember. I clearly recall wintry evenings on which I skipped to the Children’s Section of the library in the city where I was born, where books gleamed and glittered at me from their shelves, calling in voices high or low, triumphant or soft, lulling or commanding, saying the same words in all these tones – PICK ME! PICK ME! PICK ME!
And I did – I picked them all. And pored over them. And devoured them. And then went on, out to discover and conquer other libraries, other depositories of story, other citadels of the word.
It is a love affair which has lasted a lifetime – from the time when I was just a little girl to this very moment, when even the mention of a library, the word, the concept, the idea, makes me smile. I love them. I believe in them.
And some of them, I am in awe of.
If I had to pick and choose between the many deserving candidates to write about, for the simple purpose of preventing this blog entry from turning into a book-length manuscript in praise of libraries, let me pick two – the New York Public Library, and the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland.
Why the latter, you might ask…? Or, well, if you know the treasure it holds, you might not ask at all.
There was a recent animated movie made about that treasure. These are its opening words:
"I've lived through many ages
Through the eyes of salmon, deer and wolf
I have seen the north men invading Ireland
destroying all in search of gold
I have seen suffering in the darkness
yet, I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places
I have seen the book,
the book that turned darkness into light..."
I remember, one rainy Irish morning, ducking into the Trinity College Library, and making my way towards its heart – its heart being a climate-controlled, illumination-controlled room with two glass cases in which, glowing like jewels, two medieval manuscripts lay open to the adoring gaze of those who filed past, struck into awed silence at the sight.
The Book of Kells.
The Book of Kells – the four Gospels, plus additional ecclesiastical impedimenta and addendums – was created by Celtic monks from the Abbey of Kells (from whence in draws its name) in (they think) approximately 800AD.
It is, quite simply, EXTRAVAGANT. Saints and Christian symbology vie with intricate Celtic knots and images of mythical beasts. It is Christianity melded and fused with myth and legend, a twining of the worlds of faith and imagination, done in glowing hues of inks extracted from lapis and gold leaf, and royal purple, and scarlet, many inks costly imports from faraway places, lavished on this book with full hearts and minds full of faith and inspiration.
You can’t really stand and stare for as long as you might want to – because others are following in your wake and it seems churlish to deny them the opportunity of being as dazed and humbled as you’ve just been by the merest sight of this book. So you pass on. And some, like me, actually close their eyes as they walk away, trying to trap and preserve the memory of that glow, to imprint it on the inside of their eyelids, so that they can find it there again when they drift into sleep, so that the glow and the glory might come into their dreams that night and give them strength, and courage, and inspiration. A glimpse of this book is a sip from a well of holy water – and blessed is the house that holds it, the library, the museum, the guardian of one of Ireland’s greatest national treasures.
I remember walking outside again, into the rain. And the world seemed transformed to me. Seeing what the monks saw made me look on my own surroundings with new eyes – and the rain was silver, and the sky was pewter gray, and the grass was a sparkling emerald green, and red bricks glowed warm russet against the gray. The world was full of colour.
It has faded, a little. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the wonder of that book. But even just the memory of it serves to light it up in mind’s eye. It is dark outside as I write this, and the night hides the world – but had it not been, had I written this in the daytime and glanced out into my cedars, I feel certain that I would have seen the glitter of gold as the weak winter sun filtered through the dark green of my cedars, the deep brave blue of the Steller’s Jays in the branches, the apricot belly of the little Douglas squirrel sitting up on its haunches right outside my door, the faded jewel colours and shrivelled browns of the remains of the autumn leaves on the ground. The Book of Kells illuminates, like that. Even in memory…
Back to the New World, and the great library in the heart of New York City.
I had heard of the lions, of course – Patience and Fortitude (just the latest names by which they have been known, but the ones by which I have always known them….) I had heard – and even seen, in movies and documentaries – the fabled Reading Room in the main library building. But the first time I actually stood on the pavement and stared up at the lions, the first time I stepped inside the gates of the library itself and made my reverent way to the Reading Room, that was an iconic experience. Yes, I hugged the damned lions. Did you have to ask? And yes, I wore a silly and exalted grin as I stepped into the Reading Room itself. I remember, I had brought my laptop with me – and I found myself a spot at one of the long tables, and opened up my computer, and sat there with that same loopy silly grin on my face typing away for an hour or so – because somehow I had done something extraordinary – here I was, sitting in one of the most famous rooms in one of the most famous libraries in the world and I was writing and I was a writer and oh, my cup was full, full to overflowing, this was all that I had ever wanted – surrounded by books, in the hallowed silence that surrounded me, where even the dust motes that danced in the shafts of light were special somehow because they were dust from these books, from this place, from these halls. And I was a part of it all, sitting there, weaving my words, making another book – a book yet to be born, barely a collection of words and sentences on a blank computer screen, surrounded and cowed and awed by all these other venerable volumes that had come before and sat and brooded in their leather-bound silence, exuding wisdom and grace.
You might not call them museums, not strictly so, not by the narrowest of definitions.
But they are.
They gather, and they hold, and they protect, and they display, and they share. It’s no less of a museum if all the exhibits are books.
I dream of a library, sometimes. I dream of being surrounded by walls and walls of books, from floor to a ceiling so high I cannot quite make it out, ladders and stairs and platforms and walkways all around so that I could touch and reach the serried ranks of volumes on the shelves – all the books ever written, all the books that ever will be.
And I know that I am in Heaven.