Sunday, November 27, 2005


Reading Room

E.B. White, Reading Room:
Sadness and languor along the oak tables
Steady the minds of the sitters and readers;
Sleep and despair, and the stealth of hunters,
And (in the man at the end of the row) anger.

Books are the door of escape from the forest,
Books are the wilderness, too, for the scholar;
Walled in the past, drowning in fables,
Out of the weather we sit, steady in languor.

Which are the ones that belong, properly?
Which are the hunters, which the harried?
Break not the hush that surrounds this miracle --
Mind against mind, coupling in splendor --
Step on no twig, disturbing the forest.
Enter the aisles of despair. Sit down and be quiet.
Robert Frost said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in." I'd say that the reading room of the public library is that place. The reading room was my refuge, the center of my universe, when I was a teenager. When I got kicked out of high school, it's where I spent every day, reading Musical Quarterly and the novels of Knut Hamsun.

Especially in cold weather, it was also the refuge of those you wouldn't ordinarily find in a library. I remember one fellow, dressed in a lumberjack shirt, dirty pants stuffed into his packs. When I walked by him, the smell reminded me of a story my father used to tell, about the time he spent working for an undertaker in a small Missouri town. Once my father was assigned the job of cutting a dead farmer out of his long underwear, into which he had been sewn for the winter. The lumberjack smelled as if he had not changed his underwear all winter, either. He usually had an entire oak table all to himself.

It's been many years since I've been back to that reading room. Probably now it's filled with row upon row of computers. The abomination of desolation in the holy place. Probably the novels of Knut Hamsun and the back issues of the Musical Quarterly have been discarded, too.

I often wish I'd never left the small town where I grew up. It might not be a bad life -- haunting the reading room at the public library, dressed in a red flannel shirt, having an entire oak table all to myself.

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