Friday, December 17, 2010

Pulled from my shelves #13: “A library is print in its gaseous state.”

Last week I confessed to having an oneiric bookstore compulsion.

I am also (predictably) drawn to libraries.

Small and large, a collection of books will no doubt attract my eye. Whenever I am at someone else’s house, I am drawn—like so many of my colleagues—to my host’s bookshelves and their evidence of reading. Authors, scholars and academics are often socially awkward and I find myself discovering more about a host’s personality by their bookshelves than I am by conversation: how are the books arranged; what subject matters (and authors) are represented; what periods are reflected; how are the books kept?

I have a friend whose library consists solely—as a means of limiting the size of his library—of first editions; a friend who does not loan his books; a friend who believes that his books are best preserved for posterity under UV-protective glass.

Another friend’s books were re-arranged by his spouse from a random array into a more graphically attractive sorting system based upon colour and height… the books soon wandered back to their original randomness reflecting his more idiosyncratic way of looking at the world.

My own shelves threaten to overtake the apartment, and are arranged by genre, author’s last name and then by height … with a few nods to practicality (Joseph Campbell’s indispensable A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork (1944) is filed next to Finnegans Wake; The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1947) is filed between Ida and To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays). There is a bookshelf for visual art; two for graphic novels and comics; four for fiction, poetry, drama and theory; and one that is a mix of additional visual art, graphic novels, typography, travel books, literary journals, and a hodge-podge of other genres (which oddly places Blazing Combat next to The Holy Bible)—and that doesn’t include my daughter’s growing collection, nor my partner’s. The juxtaposition of books upon a shelf and is one of the thrills of wandering a library (my own shelf has an intriguing juxtaposition of Francis Picabia, Vanessa Place, Gabriel Pomerand, Francis Ponge and Bern Porter).

I am dumbfounded at the University of _______’s decision to move any books from their collection that have not been signed out in the last 3 years into off-site storage. These books will only returned to the shelves if requested by name and call number. In my opinion this “culling of the herd” based on frequency of usage not only prevents the thrill of browsing, but it also prevents unexpected eruptions within directed research. Students will no longer encounter any books on the shelf that haven’t been placed there by previous research. The ocean of eye-catching spines, unexpected misfiled books, or volumes sadly unexplored by recent scholars will be drastically reduced into a much shallower pool. Over the last year I have heard a veritable choir of graduate students and colleagues bemoaning the disappearing joy of browsing.

Craig Dworkin’s The Perverse Library (York: Information as Material, 2010) is a love-letter to the library. Critiqued by a colleague for possessing a “very perverse library,” Dworkin’s volume combines 3 distinct bibliophillic fervors. The book opens with a masterwork introductory essay that borders on Calvino’s If on a Winter’s night a Traveller for hallucinatory descriptions of collections, shelves and stacks. In a brilliant ’pataphysical moment, Dworkin postulates that canonicity is not an aesthetic prioritization of genre but is in fact an architectural necessity:
A library is print in its gaseous state, filling every available space and then increasing pressure—compressing, rotating, double shelving—until, according to the constant required by Boyle’s Law, either the current container breaks, loosing books onto new shelves and stacks, or else the volume stabilizes, stabilizing volumes. (14)
The Perverse Library continues with 2 separate bibliographic catalogs; “The Perverse Library” and “A Perverse Library” each of which is a giddy playground of potentiality. Borges’s library need not be a fantastical one, it is inherently embedded in every library, every shelf. Due the exigencies of moving, Dworkin has sorted his library by publisher’s trim size (my Green Integer edition of To Do, as an example, is 6" x 4 ¼") in order to fit an ever-increasing number of volumes in his residence. “The Perverse Library” is a bibliographic listing of each book that Dworkin yearns to add to his personal library, while “A Perverse Library” is a listing of each volume already possessed barring books at his office, tomes not on the shelves at the time of indexing, volumes of theory and anthologies. The paragraph-long list of categories of omitted books reflects that “A Perverse Library” is, in fact exactly that—a perverse choosing of volumes which provide a non-pervasive, yet complete, portrait of Dworkin’s working library.

The Perverse Library opens with an epigraph from Thomas Nakell, “[t]he library is its own discourse. You listen in, don’t you?” These Pulled From My Shelves columns have been an opportunity to listen in to the fantastical discourse happening in the unusual corners of my own working library. Thank you Lemon Hound, for hosting this chance to eavesdrop on the whispered conversations in my own little hexagon.
Author of five books of poetry (most recently the visual poem suite silence), three volumes of conceptual fiction (most recently the short fiction collection How to Write) and over 150 chapbooks, derek beaulieu’s work is consistently praised as some of the most radical and challenging contemporary Canadian writing. A collection of his critical writing entitled "Seen of the Crime" is forthcoming from Snare Books. He is online here. You can read "Nothing Odd Can Last," from How To Write, here


John B-R said...

"I am dumbfounded at the University of _______’s decision to move any books from their collection that have not been signed out in the last 3 years into off-site storage."

Well, I agree with you entirely. But I work in a library that has to do the same thing, tho we use a 15-20 yr period when we consider which items to store remotely.

This "crime against culture" is NOT the fault of the libraries. We are out of space, w/no room to shelve new material, and no relief in sight. We don't want to be doing this, what is the option? Having only books that don't circulate on the shelves, and all new books left in boxes in the basement?

I assure you that all - almost all - librarians are in misery at having to do this kind of thing. We're just the messenger that our civilization has run out of the communal courage that adequate library facilities symbolize.

PS I am responsible for the humanities and socials sciences collections at one of the U of Californias ...

dada_smyrna said...

You will be even more dumbfounded to learn that almost all public libraries cull using circulation stats. The next step is book sale and then dumpster. I say this after 20 years experience of working in libraries.