12.24.2008

learning languages

A friend's recent post on libraries got me thinking about my own early book-borrowing trips. Our neighborhood branch was not the most glossy or glamorous; in fact, it was probably the least of them, with its unwashed, yellowish facade and cavernous interior. Surrounding the library on all sides was a jungle of a garden, full of tangled weeds and unkempt trees. Usually, a homeless man or two could be seen adrift in the dry grass. But we were there for the books. My brother and I trailed Mom through the peeling doorway before dispersing to our aisles of interest, armed with the cloth tote bags she'd passed out in the car. We filled them all the way up, three or four bags each--you didn't want to have the two of us ahead of you in the checkout line. I remember the feeling of opportunity, of overwhelming bounty, that hit when we returned to the car. Deciding what to open first was never easy, and sometimes I had to read the first page of each of the top contenders to make up my mind. Our enthusiasm for the library was fervent, but unsurprising: for kids who'd grown up without television, books were as good as it got when it came to entertainment. 

Plus, the library had other perks. In the northeast corner of the front yard sat a rickety, tumbledown play set my brother and I were crazy about. Its offerings included a splintering balance beam and a tremulous little slide, but to us the most extravagant of them all was a two-person tire swing, held up by long rusting chains. From June until August, the library had a Summer Reading program, in which prizes were awarded for the number of books one read. These were modest things--library pencil sets, multicolored erasers--but the pursuit of them was thrilling. I was never a sporty kid, and I avoided trips to the local park, mostly for fear of embarrassment. I'd tried and failed twice at sleepaway camp, unaccustomed to the peculiar traditions and flash friendships. During these summers I felt most comfortable spread out on the floor, paperbacks all around, taking breaks to get lost in the neighborhood's alleyways or work on something of my own. 

Later, I graduated to library's second floor. Gone were the miniature tables and fraying area rugs of the children's section; on the top level there were computers and adults and shelves that reached higher than my head. One year I became obsessed with the language section and took out teach-yourself books on Ukrainian, Japanese and Yiddish. None of it stuck, but I enjoyed the experiment. Somewhere between Yiddish and Nabokov, I started to buy books, as I'd begun to annotate in the margins. Now I write so many notes that getting my own copy is an unfortunate necessity. It's also nice to curate my own little library, although it is growing very slowly, as said annotation habit makes me go through books at a snail's pace. Still, a big part of me misses the days when nestling into a corner of the Richmond branch was so satisfying. 



The other night, I went home to my Mom's house for dinner. A bunch of family friends were over, fellow bookish people, and the conversation turned to Tobias Wolff. I'd read his much-anthologized short story "Bullet in the Brain" for a writing class and was floored; now I'm about halfway through the spectacular Old School. To me, the novel is just about linguistically flawless, but what he's writing about is equally captivating. Here the narrator describes the allure of the English professor (I hope my reprinting of it isn't illegal...):

"The other English masters carried themselves as if they too were intimates of Hemingway, and also of Shakespeare and Hawthorne and Donne. These men seemed to us a kind of chivalric order. Even boys without bookish hopes aped their careless style of dress and the ritual swordplay of their speech. And at the headmaster's monthly teas I was struck by the way other masters floated at the fringe of their circle, as if warming themselves at a fire.

How did they command such deference--English teachers? Compared to the men who taught physics or biology, what did they really know of the world? It seemed to me, and not only to me, that they knew exactly what was most worth knowing. Unlike our  math and science teachers, who modestly stuck to their subjects, they tended to be polymaths. Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They'd stitch it back together with history and psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science. Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel that what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too." 

1 comment:

Kira said...

I LOVED this post. i, too, was an avid crazy reader. Even to this day, I think the calmest, most serene place to spend an hour in between appointments (or to melt from summer sun or dethaw from the chill) is a bookstore. I find a bunch of books and lean sprawl on the floor, and I don't even care if the bookcases make my back ache.