One of my favorite podcasts, To the Best of Our Knowledge, recently aired a show about libraries. I was very excited about this particular episode because some of my favorite childhood memories are set in the library, and these memories more than others involve all five senses. I remember how the libraries I visited when I was very young looked and smelled, how they echoed and felt under my hand.
And yet while these are some of the my most vivid memories, I am strangely uncertain what elements of these recollections are based on reality and what elements are instead part of the imaginative apparatus that has grown up around my early experiences with books and the buildings that house them. I remember the children’s literature room in the public library in Franklin, Tennessee, for example, as brick-floored, yellow-lit with skylights, the air busy with dust motes. A paper-mache Chinese dragon hung from the ceiling, its segments sagging from decades spent suspended on fishing line but its curled tongue still vibrant enough to menace six-year-olds. That library smelled vaguely of an old cafeteria but mostly of warm parchment paper and glue — that mix of decayed paper and new bindings that characterizes so many libraries.
I also remember that elsewhere in this library there was a meeting room. It was a long, echoing hall, hung with hunter’s trophies — mounted heads, beneath the crown molding, of antlered stags and wild boar. In my memory, this room displays a menagerie of animals, real and imaginary, commonplace and endangered, feathered and scaled. I remember my mom or dad carrying me through the room to see them. I suppose that it’s possible that I am remembering correctly, that these were there and simply weren’t real, that they were plaster or wax or something else that would make the head of an emu mounted in a library possible. My memory insists upon the impossible variety of these mounted heads so stubbornly that I have to rationalize it somehow.
So as I began my jog a week or so ago listening to the voices of the podcast discuss libraries of all shape and purpose in that deep-toned radio way, I held Franklin’s library in my head, its Chinese dragon following me through the sidewalks of my neighborhood.
Not all of the interviewees discussed libraries in a manner that resonated with my own charged memories, but days later I am still thinking about one interview, about mid-way through the show, with Alberto Manguel. He’s the author of The Library at Night and owner of an extensive personal library now housed in a restored stone barn in southern France. He owns more than 30,000 volumes. Everyone, Manguel contends, imagines a perfect library. “Some readers like well-lit libraries and some like libraries that are towers like Montaigne’s or others prefer libraries in several rooms,” he says.
One of Manguel’s intrepid librarian heroes is a man named Aby Warburg, who arranged his library “according to the way in which he associated books, so it was a library which no one else could use, because they couldn’t understand the order,” explains Manguel. “He would associate one book with another in his own mind. The biography of a painter would remind him of a certain exploration in Africa, and so the book on Africa would go next to that. That would remind him of certain African masks, and so a book on masks would be next to that . . . [It’s] the library as mind, I would say, or the mind as poem.”
Manguel adds that this idea of the personal library as a reflection of the self, of an individual’s mind, was so true in the case of Warburg that when his assistants persuaded him to open his collection to the public — when the space of his library was no longer private — he actually lost his mind. Manguel doesn’t detail what exactly that means but does suggest that this was a definite mental breakdown, requiring a substantial period of recovery.
Listening to Manguel’s account of Warburg helps me reconcile my memories of the Franklin public library with its existence in the real world. Every once in a while I wonder how I would feel if I revisited the library, walked under the dragon again. (This is impossible, because apparently a few years ago they moved to a new location. I hunted up their website, hoping for a photograph of the children’s literature room.) I’m sure I would find it smaller, less impressive, and the leering mounted heads in the meeting hall would be local deer instead of impossibly large reptiles and open-mouthed lions.
But I prefer it this way. I don’t want to revisit the brick-and-mortar Franklin library, because the library that exists in my head — towering shelves and the hushed whisper of tennis shoes on worn brick floor — has come to represent that place for me now. And that image is probably much more evocative than the actual building of how I understand my experience as a child among books, running my fingers along the spines, trying to decide on just one or two to check out when the possibilities really seemed infinite.
One thing, however, I know I’m remembering correctly. That dragon was definitely there.