Sunday, September 11, 2005

It is amazing

but also slightly horrifying how little time I've had to read this week, I can't remember the last time so many days went by without me reading a novel (it is possible this is a sign of virtue--it's true I got a lot of work done and even [and more remarkably] quite a bit of exercise--but I don't really buy it, I think it's more because of the lighting in my sublet being inadequate and also I haven't yet had a chance to build a supply pipeline of suitably light reading--got my Harvard library card yesterday, though, so things should pick up soon).

However I've just finished a book of stories that I've been really looking forward to, and it completely lived up to my expectations: Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners. Everything in here is good--she's a fantastic writer--and for some reason although in general I have little time for short stories as opposed to novels, I have always made an exception for stories of the fantastic or the uncanny, it seems to me that the short-story form was perfectly made for this sort of thing. The most likeable story is "The Faery Handbag," the scariest is "Stone Animals" (an all-too-plausible account of what I secretly believe would happen to me if I went to live in the countryside at the end of a commuter rail line), but my favorite is definitely the title novella--it's almost like a short novel. It's got some great stuff about a demented TV show called The Library but the real-world aspects are most vivid as well. My favorite passage: "Jeremy comes home from school, feeling as if he has passed the math test, after all. Jeremy is an optimist. Maybe there's something good on TV. He settles down with the remote control on one of his father's pet couches: oversized and reupholstered in an orange-juice-colored corduroy that makes it appear as if the couch has just escaped from a maximum security prison for criminally insane furniture. This couch looks as if its hobby is devouring interior decorators. Jeremy's father is a horror writer, so no one should be surprised if some of the couches he reupholsters are hideous and eldritch." Sharp, smart, funny, perceptive and genuinely unsettling.

While I'm on the topic of libraries, my strangest experience today was going into Widener, Harvard's main library, a place that I used to know extremely well. I've got an awful sense of direction so I'm not surprised at my vague disorientation on the streets of Cambridge, it's pretty pitiful since I lived here from 1988 to 1994 (with a year out in New York in the middle) but I never really pay that much attention to where I'm going. Cambridge is notoriously one of those towns where apparently parallel streets later diverge and suddenly it's forty minutes later and you thought it was a ten-minute walk and just when you thought you really were lost (this happened to me on my way home last night from my first day at the Academy) you realize you can see Mass Ave and you're just where you should be but took a ridiculously roundabout route. So as I say, that is more or less what I expected.

But libraries are what I really know, libraries are where I pay attention and can put my hand on exactly what I want, and though I vaguely remembered reading about renovations and though I was struck when I walked through the main door at the top of the front steps at (a) the whole electronic swipe set-up, which was just a gleam in someone's eye when I last used the library and (b) the brightness and lightness of the interior compared to its previous incarnation, I ambled up to the second floor in full expectation of seeing all the things I remember so fondly, the privileges desk and the long checkout area when you turn to the right and then again to the right the entrance to the stacks. And it was like one of those awful nightmares where nothing is where it should be and the house you live in has an extra room that you didn't know about and everything's completely strange.

After a moment of horror I looked at the floor plan and realized that everything is far, far more different than I had imagined. I walked back downstairs and took a few turns and found the new entrance to the stacks, highly convenient. And inside the stacks I discovered that some GENIUS must have been on the planning committee, a genius with a strong affinity for British literature and culture, because they have done something I never saw before but is COMPLETELY BRILLIANT and incredibly convenient for me in particular (all right, if you're not a library fiend who has some vague associations with random Library of Congress call numbers this is going to sound unbelievably obsessive, but it strikes me as REVOLUTIONARY AND LIFE-CHANGING!). RIGHT inside the front of the stacks are.... (drumroll) the DAs and the PRs! Now PR is English literature, and DA is British history, and in a 'normal' research library they are probably in two totally different places because, you know, the letters of the alphabet are different and it's a mind-bending problem to figure out how to arrange a gazillion volumes anyway and who could expect anything better. (PR--English literature--and PS--American literature--are usually right next to each other and this has a certain logic of its own, you find all English-language fiction on a single floor of the stacks.) But someone realized how sensible it is to put PR and DA together and actually did it. AND they put the British stuff right next to the door where it's the first thing you get to. I am thrilled.

I really do have an extreme fondness for the whole Library of Congress classification system. (If you have never thought about this, do take a look, it is a wonderful thing.) PR has to be my favorite, I read vastly more PR books than any other single category. But there are other ones I like too--Q's a good one--and I also think nostalgically of what I might call exes--call numbers I used to frequent all the time but now only encounter now and then. HQ and HV were particular favorites when I was an undergraduate. I read more B books when I was in grad school than I do now. I like T but it's often housed in a specialized library (the classes are disproportionate in size, even the best planners get carried away by systematizing). Z books are often funny-shaped and interesting to read. J and R are likely to be represented on my shelves at home.

Posting still very light over the next week or so, as I'll be in NY without reliable internet access from Tuesday to Sunday.


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  2. Ok, so I totally didn't realize that the call numbers are standardized, although it makes total sense. I suppose I figured there was some peon in Butler making all the numbers up.

    I do think it's kind of funny, though, that I know the way to the Faulkner shelf in the stacks and that I've read a fair number of those books. They're actually in two places, as there's a fairly sizable section in Milstein as well...


  3. It's so exciting to find that someone else thinks in LOC letters, too! There are so many reasons we're friends! HQ and GN and QM are my favorites, and they were on floor 2 of Butler stacks and in the back corner of the Bio library, sometimes a few things in Psych. I would love everything all in one place... Hurray for genius library planners!

  4. This sounds so corny, but it really is like going to visit a friend when you have those spots that you know without having to look up. I still remember the place on the shelf in the Philadelphia public library I went to as a child that had my favorite novel of all time, Rebecca West's THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS, which I used to check out over and over again.

    Lynn: HQ is a particularly good one, isn't it?!? All three of yours are ones that are usually represented on my shelves at home...

    Gautam: Yes, those ones are standardized (and the ones that look like 808.11 are the Dewey decimal numbers that never got upgraded, mostly because the 'important' things in them are duplicated in the LoC-numbered collection); but there are usually a few other systems mixed in, like old systems that were idiosyncratic to the particular library & can sometimes look deceptively like LoC numbers (at Yale, for instance, quite a lot of books when I was there were still in a Yale class that might look like A 3534.Br3, which could easily be mistaken for one of the other ones if you weren't paying attention).