I have a confession—a terrible one, for a book-lover.
I hate libraries.
Stepping through the front door gives me a sense of vertigo. Rows and rows of shelves and shelves of books! A wild impulse seizes me: I need to read everything. I have visions of working my way methodically along the stacks, consuming every volume in turn till I’ve absorbed all of humanity’s collected experiences. But there’s far too much for one person to handle, and more is being published all the time. I’m overwhelmed by the fathomless volume of words and a queasy sea-sickness sets in.
Ceridwen Dovey says she, too, suffers from the “ailment” of being “overwhelmed by the number of books in the world.” In her essay on reading, she quotes bibliotherapist Susan Elderkin on the subject: “If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.”
The fear of drowning in literature coupled with comments on the inevitability of death. Cue my library anxiety. With each trip to pick up a few holds, I worry: Will today be the day the Dewey Decimal System induces a full-fledged panic attack?
Happily it’s never come to that. Still, once I check out my selection and head for the door, I’m not home free. As I emerge into the world a second impulse tends to grip me: I need to stop writing.
To write is to add to the world’s burden. Publishing only bloats its bookshelves with more titles to taunt time-strapped readers. No one needs another book on their unfinishable list! And if someone does read my work? In the zero-sum game of mortal pursuits, I’ve deprived them of the chance to enjoy Tolstoy instead.
So you see, I hate libraries. I hate them because they paralyze me with impossible impulses, first as a reader, then as a writer.
On the other hand, yes, I confess—I also love libraries.
I tend to feel this love best when I’m not in one (as I was this morning) but reflecting on them from the safety of my couch (where I am now). After all, what’s the alternative to libraries? Not collecting and cataloguing all that humanity has written over the millennia? Not giving communities a central place to exchange stories, experience their heritage, explore each other’s minds?
Libraries may terrify me the way the ocean does with its unknowable depths and unswimmable widths, but the idea of no libraries seems as deadly as the desert. Pick your poison: to lose yourself on an endless voyage in the waves of others’ writing, or to die dried up by drought. Queasy as it makes me, I’ll take the ocean.
And if an ocean there will be—waves of human writing on all sides—I may as well give myself permission to contribute to it. Hilton Als speaks to this in his essay “Ghosts in Sunlight”: “Jean Rhys says that she considered her writing to be the tiniest stream, one that trickles into the vast ocean that is world literature. But without those streams there would be no ocean.”
Better to live (and die) in a world with more streams than any one mortal could see, to ensure that collectively our species’ oceans never run dry. I try to remind myself of this when that library seasickness hits: you are just another explorer, buoyed up by others’ work; you don’t need to chart every corner of the ocean, only enjoy the journey you’re on. Keep reading.
And you may as well let your own literary stream flow into that ocean as well. It might not seem like the world needs you to swell its volumes, but your story is part of humanity’s story and deserves its sliver of shelf as well. Who knows which fellow human will ride your wave one day? Keep writing.
The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.