Saturday, September 22, 2007

The penny drops...

For years I've wondered why librarians and figures of authority associated with books are so brusque with me. They LOOK at me, and in that instant, they seem to spot the inner space-cadet. I am rapidly filed away - I think - as the person most likely to read a book on the bus and dreamily leave it behind; the one who's going to shove a book behind the bed and leave it there two months after the due date; the one who appears to love books but seems to see them more as friends she can eat and drink and sleep with, rather than as teachers who you sit with primly at the table.

But I've never clearly understood why they hate careless people like me so. Stupid question of course. One with an answer that I am aware of intellectually, but am unable to accept at the emotional level. Put me in a large library with an ocean of books behind the counter, and I always bridle and cringe at the same time, feeling a mix of guilt and anger. Almost instinctively I start thinking, Shit, what have I lost
now; and
why-the-hell-are-they-so-anal-can't-they-smile?

Finally I've sort of got a peep into the archetype of the librarian. I re-read Umberto Eco's
The Name of the Rose after many, many years, and had this eureka moment when I understood and - more importantly - accepted the Dirty Looks given to me by all librarians past.

Eco's book is a detective story set in a medieval abbey where monks spend their days illustrating manuscripts in a large scriptorium. The most fascinating parts of the novel (for me ) are the ones that dwell on the monks who illuminate the manuscripts carefully - with gold, silver, jewel-bright colors, strange figures and animals. The scriptorium and the library hold precious books. They are painstakingly hand-crafted, and are therefore irreplaceable and priceless.

The library at the Abbey is also a fulcrum of seething emotions. On the one hand, there is the fact that it is a cleverly-constructed lode of knowledge (it's built like a maze and only the librarian and his assistant are privy to the route through it). It is a store-house of learning, but there is a school of thought within the abbey which feels that while books are precious, what they contain is not suitable for everyone.
Knowledge and learning untempered by piety are considered dangerous. And intellectual joy and pride are both viewed with clear suspicion.

Plus of course, each hand-crafted, hand-written and hand-bound manuscript is a delicate treasure. Too much handling might destroy them. Effectively, the library is a place that hoards books for themselves and for the future. It is not storing up on them to help young monks broaden their minds (and perhaps their desires as well).

So the monks need permission from the librarian and sometimes the abbot as well before they can read a book. The young men seethe with intellectual curiosity and many resent the system of restricted access to the library. So much so that they are willing to trade sexual favours to be able to read certain books.
To frighten the curious young illustrator-writers and keep them from exploring the library at night, it is locked and hallucinogenic herbs are burnt. Rumours of ghosts-of-librarians-past are fed.

Central to all of this ferment is the librarian, a man who must be well-versed in Arabic, Greek and Latin to qualify for the job. He needs a prodigious memory and must guard his treasure passionately. The librarians are next-in-line to becoming the abbot and as the abbey is a rich, powerful one, the post is obviously covetted. Young monks and old lobby for the post. Eco's librarian, Malachi, is a clever creation - a complex man who is insecure, has power, is sexually promiscuous and not-very-learned.

I think centuries of not being able to be sure that what you write can and will be preserved in handy, sturdy hardback (or now, soft copy), has imprinted on us a fear of and adoration for the written word, and for the books where they are collected. Though often full of abstruse theological debate (which you can skim through shamelessly), The Name...
puts into perspective our general tendency to regard books as things that are to be prized, to be cherished, hoarded, and generally be considered irreplaceable. Printing has been with us for a couple of centuries, but it obviously hasn't penetrated our racial subconscious yet!

Coming back to my original point: The Name... made the librarian's anxiety clear to me. If books are fragile treasures, and if I were responsible for tens of thousands of them, I don't think I'd want the likes of me to hang around either!

5 comments:

Space Bar said...

Ah...NAme of the Rose! When i was appearing for THE interview at a terribly prestigious and anal college in Delhi, these guys asked me what I'd read. Among the books I'd named was this one. The lady perked up. Talk about it, she said. What is it about?

I think I was supposed to say, it's about theology, about censorship, about subversion through transgression or some other high-sounding things.

Instead is said, it's about book. They looked at me blankly and a little while later, I left. (Needless to say, i did not get admission!)

Raghu said...

What about books you filch from trusting friends promising to return and then conveniently filing them away as yours. The thin line between meum and teum is something you cross. Schnozzles and you are 2 peas in a pod.....

anita & amit said...

see raghu, this is what the post is about - this unreasonable sense of holding on to something that could be found again so easily ;) hee, hee, hee! but ur bloom counties are yours, my friend, don't worry! muwahahahhaha!

dipti said...

Loved this post Anita - not only because it brought back memories of ploughing thru NOTR and like you confessed - shamelessly skimming thru the prodigious chunks of theology - but because you recaptured the magic of Eco's writing. Enough for me to want to re-read the damn thing.

kavimona said...

Ani...loved reading ur vivid description of the book ... haven't had the good fortune of reading it yet ...am going to pick me up a copy ...

kavi