Troublesome Books

Beset with problems large and small, Betty walked back to her library. The world is changing. Some say that these are the final days of libraries. 

Betty had gone home for an evening meal. Despite an early plan, it ended up consisting of last night’s leftovers.  To  balance  the  score,  Betty  had  poured herself half a glass of red wine. 

Locking  the  door  behind  her,  she  left  her  empty house and braved the night. The pavement was dark and uneven, but this was her part of town, and she walked with a measured step. From the forest’s edge  came  the  sounds  of  the  monastery  preparing for evening prayer through the crisp night air. 

At  the  bottom  of  Hill  Drive  Betty  stopped  and sighed at the gentle rise ahead of her. She trudged upwards  to  the  town  center,  forcing  her  mind  to dwell on commonplace issues: a fall of snow, Belmore’s  overdue  books  (she  tightened  her  mouth), and Genny’s tearful call. 

The  path  was  cold  and  slippery  in  reflected  light. But Betty had walked this way for thirty years and knew the places to avoid. 

Betty’s mind drifted to bigger problems. Once again she wondered if the little town (and the world for that matter) understood the danger swirling around them. She found herself thinking, “People have no idea about what librarians do. There is no real recognition.” 

But, then again, maybe that is for the best. 

Betty  finished  climbing  Hill  Drive  and  paused  to catch  her  breath  before  turning  onto  Main  Street. An  occasional  car  illuminated  the  pavement.  Free of  the  risk  of  bobcats  or  lost  dogs,  she  slowed  to savor  the  sounds  of  each  house  settling  in  for  the night. She smelled dinner being cooked in the dozen houses she passed, the distinct smell of warmth and a hundred different sounds of other lives. 

She thought, “Homes alive with families.” 

Street lamps now lit the path, as she walked the final block to the town-hall and library. 

Betty spotted Bruce sitting in his late model car. It was parked carelessly outside the only club in town. It had its top drawn back, despite the cold. She thought, “An edgy club, full of young women and old men.” 

A passing car lit his face and she heard him talking loudly into his phone. He stopped as her footsteps passed him. Betty avoided his eye. 

Betty resisted the urge to run the last few steps to the library. In the dark, she fumbled keys to the staff entrance, her usual practiced entry delayed. 

Finally inside, Betty locked the door. She stood awhile  in  the  darkness,  listening  to  the  muffled sounds outside. She knew Bruce and wondered how Genny had got caught up with him. 

She caught her breath and slowly turned her hearing to the quiet, subtle sounds of the library itself. 

In Betty’s Library, most of the books got along with each other. 

Many  aged  peacefully  together,  greying  slowly  as decades of dust collected, untroubled by the politics of the day, the threat of global warming or the pressures facing the librarians as technology tightened its grip. 

Other books shuffled uneasily on their shelves, demanding attention or affection. 

Betty walked down the non-fiction aisle, pausing to push  one  of  the  books  back  into  conformity  gently.  After  decades  of  neglect  Volume  II  of  Winston  Churchill’s  “History  of  the  English  Speaking People” had started to emanate a discernible air of smoldering resentment.

Others sat in quiet misery, unloved at inception, ignored at apogee and discarded in old age. Betty ran her hand over an old collection of the Forsyth Saga; untouched save by her hands the last twenty years. She quietly reassured them by a gentle touch of the eye that their time would come again. 

She  took  a  couple  of  steps  away,  suppressing  the awful thought that she was fast running out of space. Hard  decisions  would  need  to  be  made  to  accommodate more of those dratted public computers. 

By  and  large,  space  is  a  common  problem  for  all librarians, indeed, all book owners. In another time, perhaps the unloved would have been re-purposed on  the  floors  of  bird  cages  or  recycled  through church bazaars. Betty shook her head, and said aloud,  “But we  are  civilized  people  and  don’t  do this sort of thing anymore.” 

Betty’s  voice  echoed  through  the  bookcases.  Momentarily there was a soft shuffle of books as they looked anxiously towards her.

Her  voice  faded  into  the  walls,  and  she  listened again.

Some  of  her  books  crackled  with  potential. They pulled her back to them, time and time again, to taste the power swirling within: Snorre Sturlason’s Heimskringla, the Poetic Edda, the Rubaiyat of  Omar  Khayyam  (Betty  added  quietly,  with  and without Fitzgerald), the Gnostic Gospels, the Institutes of Justinian, Tolkien’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a small collection of T’ang poetry, Antoine De Saint Exupery’s Le Petit Prince, Lord John Julius  Norwich’s  Byzantium,  Mark  Twain’s  Essays and Bryce Courtenay’s Matthew Flinders’ Cat. 

She  felt  herself  grow  a  little  distant  from  the  real world each time she picked up one of those: 

“But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays 
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days; 
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays, 
And one by one back in the Closet he lays.” – Khayyam 

By and large, these books hold known risks for all librarians.  Touching  the  covers  of  some  of  these books can transport you through time and space in the  blink  of  an  eye.  “Do  you  wit  more,  or  how?” Betty thought, “Every so often, one of us does not come  back.  But,  if  you  keep  focused,  the  chances are good.”

To an experienced librarian like Betty, these are not the troublesome books. Librarians are trained to keep order in the midst of chaos and can balance one fearsome book against another. “That one gave you nightmares? Read this to calm your nerves.” But for a moment she felt a touch of fear and shivered. 

Within some libraries, there are some books of power: Books that cannot be tamed. 

Betty  suspected  she  had  a  problem.  Maybe  more than one problem. She took a deep breath and tried to remember how Mabel, the former Chief Librarian, would have dealt with this situation. For a moment she wished she had listened a little more closely. She thought, “Now is the time to concentrate on finding answers, not to ponder past mistakes.”


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