Monday, 5 May 2014

Night in the Library

So engrossed was I in my search for the perfect combination of books to borrow that I didn't notice the overhead lights being switched off one by one. I didn't hear the jangle of the librarian's keys as they were slid into the lock and turned with a click of finality, I didn't hear the fading footsteps, the car start and drive away, and I didn't notice the dimming daylight.

Still I pored over the shelves, crouching in the Politics and Philosophy corner where the librarian had failed to notice me reading jacket blurbs and admiring cover artworks. It wasn't until I heard that voice that I suddenly stood and looked around and noticed it was night time.

The voice came from over in the Fiction section. It spoke with stately authority and had a distinct Russian accent. I'll never forget what it said, for the words seemed somehow familiar as they echoed around the darkened library. It said "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Quite a statement, I thought. Intrigued, I stalked over towards the voice and sure enough, there on the shelf, with TOLS on it's spine, was a Tolstoy making all this racket.

Before I had a chance to do anything further, the book's neighbour responded.  This time the voice clearly sang, ringing with a shimmer of delight. I thought I heard the sound of pan-pipes in the background as the singing went...
"Hey dol! merry dol! Ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow!"

This jumble of nonsense, sung with the joy of all life, was also familiar to me but I couldn't place it until the next lines made it clear.

"Reeds by the shady pool, lilies on the water:
Old Tom Bombadil and the River-daughter!"

Of course, it was Tolkein! The singing was old Tom Bombabil, that zealous master of the woodland. He and his wonderful wife Goldberry, whose merry dinner table was laden with yellow cream and honeycomb, white bread and butter; milk, cheese and green herbs and ripe berries gathered, where singing came more naturally than speaking, were a happy family quite unlike any I knew of. Tolkein certainly had a point there. 

I was curious to know how Tolstoy would respond, but just then over towards the Ms, I heard the sound of a ghostly wind echoing across the Texan plains and the tormented voice of one who had wrestled demons in the dark slowly drawled “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” 

I didn't need to see the MCCAR on the spine to know they were Cormac McCarthy's clipped sentences, sharing his thoughts in his characteristic poetry of the damned. A mood of melancholy and the terrible beauty of darkness fell over the library, but then I heard the tinkle of tea cups and the satisfying slurp of steaming tea being poured. An irreverant Scottish voice announced  “It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin.”

I had an inkling, but it wasn't until I saw the MCCAL on the spine that I knew it was Alexander McCall Smith, using his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to give quite a different view of things. 

The tumbleweed blew again, and McCarthy retorted "People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn't believe in that. Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them. It didn't even know they were there," as though to prove that darkness also has a sense of humour, albeit laced with arsenic. 

I didn't stay around to hear the debate develop because from the next aisle I heard the unmistakable din of working class nineteenth century Britain, and a confident voice proclaim a favourite line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was..." I raced over to see Dickens orating, but as I got there he was interrupted by science fiction master Philip K. Dick  with “A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope.”

"-It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness-"
“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
"-it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity-"
"If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others.” 
"-it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness-"
“Don't try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.” 
"-it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,-"
“No single thing abides; and all things are fucked up.” 
"-we had everything before us, we had nothing before us-"
“Everything in life is just for a while.”
"-we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-"
“I can see Richard Wagner standing at the gates of heaven. "You have to let me in," he says. "I wrote Parsifal. It has to do with the Grail, Christ, suffering, pity and healing. Right?" And they answer, "Well, we read it and it makes no sense." SLAM.”

Things were getting louder. Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac were trying to out-hip one another, but it was made difficult by the absurd interruptions of Kafka, who thought he was a beetle, a few books down. 

Tom Wolfe was trying to joke with Virginia Woolf but she kept disappearing into her interior monologue, and Coelho was dispensing quaint wisdom to Coetze. 

"Call me Ishmael" Melville proclaimed, and Conrad screamed "The horror! The horror!" while from the Ss came the sound of  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” 

Joyce chimed in with “Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.” 

Ideas were ripe and flowing, the words were crisp and vibrant, life and love were lived and lost; it was a most beautiful night in the library.   


  1. steve, this is wonderful. and wonder-filled!

  2. Another great story Steve. Have you decided who you want to play you when it makes the big screen? (Surely not Ben Stiller)...

    1. Hmm, no Ben Stiller isn't nuanced enough for this role - too slapstick. I'm leaning towards Gerard Depardieu for the classy touch that the film adaptation will be going for.

  3. i second that this is wonderful!

  4. Excellent, excellent, excellent.