Another song has been running through my head since I’ve been on campus. It’s a bouncy little tune from “She Loves Me,” the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical about two employees of a Budapest parfumerie who despise each other in daily life but fall in love via lonely-hearts mail. (See also “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In the Good Old Summertime” and “You’ve Got Mail.”) This song belongs to Ilona, their rather shallow co-worker who’s always getting involved with the wrong men. Then, in the second act, she discovers a new love – a “clearly respectable thickly bespectacled man” — in, of all places, the library:
A trip to the library
Has made a new girl of me.
For suddenly I can see
The magic of books!
I’ve always been under the spell of books, as anyone who’s seen the piles in my apartment can attest. But here at the University of British Columbia, I’ve rediscovered the magic of libraries.
“It was amazing!” I told a friend after my first trip to Koerner, the main library on campus. “All I had to do was show my faculty card, and they let me take out books!”
Well, yes. That is, after all, what libraries do. But in 40 years, I’ve barely checked out a book.
Having been a reader since age three and a half, according to my mother, I naturally gravitated toward the grade-appropriate mini-libraries in my elementary school classrooms. In junior high and high school, the libraries seemed immense: separate rooms with shelves stretching from wall to wall, floor to ceiling. I loved exploring the stacks, sometimes on a Dewey Decimal-guided quest (literature: the 800 section), sometimes just browsing. The distinctive smell of paper and ink — such a high concentration of it in one enclosed space – never left my sense memory.
Then, just when you’d think I’d have been in library heaven, I stopped going. Pattee, the main library at Penn State, was perhaps a case of too much information; for the first time in my life, there were too many books. Or perhaps the problem was the library itself: too big yet too cramped, too complicated and entirely inhospitable to browsing. Having gotten into the habit of buying textbooks, I now bought my leisure books as well. In any case, being a journalism major, I needed the library less and less, since journalists tend to get their information from interviews, not books.
A journalism career brought an unexpected bonus: free books. Almost every book published – often multiple copies, sometimes dozens — finds its way into the offices of newspapers, most of all The New York Times, courtesy of authors and publicists desperate for reviews. When I first moved to New York, there were about 150 books on my unread pile; when my mother used to advise me, “You should be saving for your retirement,” I would gesture grandly toward the pile and say, “I am!” After 20 years at The Times, the unread probably number two or three thousand, some filling a walk-in closet, some in those piles on the floor, which occasionally collapse. Now that I’m in those gap years between end of career and actual retirement, paper books seem to be all but obsolete. I’ve been traveling with a Nook for two years, and now, with a laptop and an iPad as well, I can choose among three separate reading options.
I did join the Boston Athenaeum for a few years when I lived nearby on Beacon Hill, but when I did go there, it was more to soak up the atmosphere than to do any real work – and, of course, to smell the books. When I arrived at The Times in 1988, I was delighted to find on the tenth floor a real, old-fashioned library, with stacks and card catalogues and bound editions and shelves of back-issue magazines and, yes, that smell. The destruction of that library was just one of many great losses when The Times moved in 2007; it was one of those things that made The Times The Times and could not be replicated in a glass tower. But at the last-night-in-the-old-building party, word seeped out that the library was giving away books, and I raced upstairs in time to grab a few — prizes to no one but me.
It took me more than 20 years to bother obtaining a New York Public Library card, and then only because I was passing through the performing arts branch at Lincoln Center and thought it might come in handy sometime, especially since I had moved into long-form projects. But that library, and another with an extensive dance collection, proved less than helpful in my research on a slice of ballet history. So, once at UBC, I found my way to Koerner.
On my first visit, I went to the research help desk to ask if the library had a dance collection. While far more modest than those two elusive ones in New York, it does exist, and the librarian gave me a slip with the call number of the section most likely to hold what I needed to know. As I turned away, I noticed two display towers. A book jumped out at me, thanks to its cover portrait of one of my heroines, Judi Dench, in the guise of another; it was “Elizabeth I in Film and Television,” by Bethany Latham. On another shelf I found an early P.D. James. I went back to the helpful librarian and pointed to the towers: “Do those books . . . circulate?” They did. I grabbed my two and took them upstairs to the checkout desk. Evidence of the passage of time: instead of slips and rubber stamps, library books now come with bar-coded labels that are simply scanned. A printed receipt, suitable for use as a bookmark, states the due date, but you can always renew online.
So I put away the Nook for a few weeks. I’ve already gone back to the library for works by two favorite Canadian writers, Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland. As for that dance collection: yes, it’s small, but it had what I needed. I checked out Lynn Garafola’s Diaghilev biography, read the relevant sections lying on a couch in front of the fireplace and called it work. Since then I’ve made two or three trips to the stacks, staking out a study carrel (remember those?) beside the dance section, then pulling half a dozen books off the shelves and settling in for the afternoon, with one sole purpose: to read and think. My apologies to the young man I nearly crushed when, in my eagerness to explore my section, I turned the handle on the movable shelves without looking first.
“How did you like the library, Ilona?” is the line in “She Loves Me” that leads into her song. “You’ve never seen such a place,” she answers.
So many books.
So much marble
Dating from only the mid-1990s, Koerner is built not of marble, but of granite, stucco, glass and zinc. Quiet? Definitely. Books? Capacity, 800,000. It could take a girl a while to get through them, with or without optometrist. A trip to the library hasn’t quite made a new girl of me, but it does remind me of the one I left behind.