Sunday, 14 June 2020

Reveries of libraries, the thirty-fifth: Reverence for the Conversation

At library school we found out about national, state, public, private, research, business, university and school libraries. Then there was the category: special libraries. They are special because they collect in a specific subject area. The conversations of those engaged in that special subject have grown so large and complex that it is necessary to collect all of their works in their own library. Such a library is the Carmelite Library.

A special library collects in its own main subject area, in this case Carmelite literature, mysticism, and spirituality, and then everything that in turn is talking to that literature, that is engaged in a conversation with all of those people. In fact, you cannot have one without the other. The library collection is having a huge conversation with itself, each book responding or connecting with a book in another part of the collection.

The more years that are spent adding to this special collection, are years spent increasing the inestimable value of that conversation. Indeed, each new book added to the collection sparks fresh thought and discussion, thought and discussion that would not be happening if those books had not been brought together under one roof. Reverence for the conversation is an unwritten guideline behind all ordering in a special library.

Conversation is fairly much how most books are made, even for the solipsistic philosopher or self-referential poet or searching mystic. At some stage in the process, conversation happened to make the thoughts begin. At some stage the esteemed and anonymous author had to talk to someone else about all of their thoughts, or nothing would have happened. That which was hidden had to come into the light. That which was unspoken, turned into a conversation.

Sometimes a person is talking to someone long in the past, or the future. The languages can be different. The conversation with the future is especially pertinent here because it is the future reader who will listen and understand. They may be the only person who really understands. Having a place where those two people can meet is sacred, and it will be most of the time, a library. One conversation leads to another through time and the way to trace them is here.

I certainly don’t want to wear you out with this awareness of the library as an immense conversation. It is a perfectly obvious idea once it is expressed. That we are having this conversation at all is due to libraries. It must be satisfying sometimes to know that our words may start up whole new conversations in the future. It is an honour to be part of the conversations that we have each day that are substantially inspired and supported by a special library.

The point about a conversation is to make it happen, not to stop it from happening, or interrupt it by removing one or another of the speakers. We are told when young that one of the rudest things we can do is interrupt someone else’s story while it is in flow. The story is much more important than our interruption, which anyway can wait until the end, when it can become the next part of the conversation. Hearing the story can be a form of grace.   

Removal or downsizing of a library is another way of stopping the conversation. The way that one author spoke to another, and continues to speak to the living authors in the library, is stopped. The potential for new conversations to start up is unavailable, there is no interlocutor, no host or listener, no friend from another time who can prompt the conversation you have been having with yourself all these years. Books in a library await their ideal listener.

During the day, when the library is available, librarians observe these conversations going on, as they loan out more books to readers. Sometimes hardly a word passes between borrower and librarian. But sometime soon the librarian will catalogue the book written by the borrower, or must order similar books for borrowers engaged in what is plainly a long and intense conversation with the relevant authors.  

And at night, when the lights are turned out, the generations of pages rest again. The conversation continues even in the silence and in the dark. It is you and I who are the ideal reader. Next morning it is we who will walk into the library to encounter, in an aisle or at a reading desk, the conversation we never knew we were going to have, the conversation we have been meaning to have for a very long time. The book is responding and connecting us to other human books nearby.

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