It’s amazing what you find when you either aren’t looking for it or don’t need it. Take this helpful piece of advice from a Web site giving me directions from Basking Ridge to New Haven:
“When using any driving directions or map, it’s a good idea to do a reality check and make sure the road still exists.”
Conversely, it’s amazing what you can’t find when you do need it, such as a quarter, or the killer quote you know you’ve read but now for some reason can’t find, or a book that the library catalogue thinks it has but which has vanished into the capacious maw of the stacks, not to be seen again this side of Armageddon.
I mention this because I’d failed to find whatever it was I’d gone, sherpa-like, into the bookstacks for, but had instead returned with something much more valuable. Having stumbled across WMD, the suppressed sections of the Warren Commission Report and Michael Dukakis, I chanced upon the following comment from GK Chesterton:
“The person who cannot laugh at sex ought to be kicked.”
I don’t know about you, but — and this may be more information than you need at this time of day — that aphorism spoke to me with a sincerity and perspicacity completely lacking in any of the real history I’d been reading.
And that’s the thing about libraries: they may look dull, but meaningful occurrences of apparently random chance happen all the time. To those of us with the gift, Sterling is full of wormholes, eddies in the space-time continuum and conglomerations of random periodicity that disturb the ether and make every visit just crackle with potentiality. I don’t spend so much time in CCL for work purposes — I’m simply trying to tune in.
Apart from the cosmic vibe, I get a kick out of Yale’s library system for its staggering benificence. Should I so wish, and had I a train of pack-mules, I could check out almost hundreds of books, and — this is the real delight — keep them for months. As a Cambridge undergrad, I was forbidden to borrow books from the University Library, a hideous building staffed by photophobic trolls, and so had to resort to the (equally hideous) Faculty Library. Most of the books in this glass-and-brick monstrosity were overnight- or weekend-loan only, which usually resulted in a mob of historians descending on Fridays and hiding books they wanted in outlandish sections. These books had blue stickers.
However, there existed legendary works with yellow stickers, entitling the borrower to a whole week’s use of the book. To find a yellow-stickered book was to ascend to realms of happiness unbeknownst to the poor saps struggling with mere blue-stickered tomes. To this day, Cambridge historians belong to a sort of fraternity that knows the simple possession of a yellow sticker is to dance in reels of giddy excitement, to scamper round like Charlie in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” singing “I’ve got a yellow sticker!”
Perhaps it’s a result of that experience, or perhaps it’s because I’m English, it still feels somehow wrong or greedy to take more than four books at a time. I could check out the entire works of Agatha Christie — nobody else wants them — but to do so would be to assume a certain devil-may-care raffishness alien to my nature. It would be like ordering two bottles of wine at once — you know you’re going to drink them, but it seems somehow more civilised to pretend to the waiter that you’re not a wanton lush.
What also bothered me in those long-ago undergrad days was the annotation in these books. Open them at random, and the pages would be filled with underlinings, markings, and YES!-es scrawled purposefully in the margins; sometimes there were question marks, refutations, or entire dialogues between the author and the wielder of the pencil. It depressed me that generations of students had confidently asserted their mastery of the text and left their apparent superiority as a lasting rebuke.
And then, one glorious day halfway through my course, it occurred to me that this was all a sham. These marginalia were possessed of no more verity than the Protocol of the Elders of Zion. It was, like historical scholarship everywhere, a huge combination of bluff and self-assertion. And from that day, whenever I have taken a book from a library, I have opened it at random, drawn a thick vertical pencil line and written YES! — and, occasionally, DON’T PANIC. In this way, I like to think that I am somehow leaving a lasting impression on the next generation.
So as the semester winds its weary way downhill, take a moment to look for the unexpected, the chaotic, the random, the unplanned. Don’t be cast down by dull routine. The best piece of advice I ever read was “when feeling blue, lie on your back with your paws in the air. Life looks different.” Go on, try it. Try it in the library. And while you’re there, don’t forget to write YES in the margin.
Nick Baldock is, in theory, a graduate student in the History Department.
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