20 September 2012

Libraries: Woods Between Worlds

I'm back in the land of my favorite libraries--the land where, at the age of three, I was made a library card holder, plenipotentiary.  My business was the borrowing and consumption of books.  I would pile them into the minivan regularly requisitioned for such a purpose--the next picture books and chapter books which would transport us to other worlds.

Although we read ourselves, we also had the immense pleasure of being read to.  Both of my parents were excellent readers, transporting us en masse to other worlds.

I had the privilege of studying in Oxford, England for a semester--a city where the population of books far exceeds the population of readers.  It seemed a city, and perhaps a country, of librarians.  And many of my professors were like libraries themselves, so vast was their knowledge.  Having a conversation with a library is a particular kind of heaven.  They have card catalog brains and ready encyclopedic summaries on just about anything.  C.S. Lewis was a professor at Oxford for some time, and while there, enjoyed meeting with his literary friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, in a group known collectively as the Inklings, at a pub called the Eagle and Child.  Much world-creating went on in this pub.

Oxford also boasts the Bodleian Library, which is the second-largest library in the world, after the Library of Congress.  Until recently, the majority of the Bodleian's holdings were underground, and had to be retrieved by trolley, which reminds me of the vaults in Gringott's.

Love of books seems to be rather pervasive in British culture.  The honoring of Britain's long literary history, and especially its rich children's literature tradition, in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony is evidence of this.

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens describes the title character as suffering under his strict new stepfather's harsh regime, yet finding solace in his late father's library, through the introduction to "a glorious host [of characters], to keep me company.  They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time...."*  Books allow us to travel and to meet with places, ideas, and characters.  William Nicholson, in his 1993 screenplay for Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis's later life, has the character Peter Whistler quote his father as saying"  "We read to know we are not alone."  We read to connect with ideas and events, hypothetical or real.

This weekend I had the opportunity to visit a couple of favorite bookstores, together with my favorite fellow intrepid world-explorer:  my brother.  I found a lovely edition of The Wind In The Willows, with beautiful illustrations, and a capacious edition of Robert Burns's poetry, some of which I enjoy singing.  My brother found a role-playing game by the makers of Dungeons and Dragons, set in space, with some great illustrations.  It appears that someday everyone will wear sleeping masks in space, although my brother informs me these are solar goggles.

Home libraries are also an important part of the book-verse.  I feel that by collecting books, I am collecting portals to other places, portals through which I visit other characters, as David Copperfield did.  And portals through which I contemplate ideas, and hopefully in discovering kindred minds, feel less alone.  Books give us thousands upon thousands of occasions to venture out and to come home.

And this summer I've come home to my favorite of libraries... nestled in the river valley, with holdings reaching to the far corners of the physical and metaphysical universes.

In Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, he sends the first pair of intrepid explorers, Polly and Digory, from our world to Narnia, where they find themselves in the Wood between the Worlds, in which are many small ponds, which if entered will send one to another specific world.  In time, other means of travelling to new worlds evolve, such as through wardrobes.  The Wood between the Worlds is like a library to me.  Each book is like a world, waiting to be explored.

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