A Library Lost, Another One Found

One of the more challenging aspects of the shut down here in Oregon is that it closed our local library system. I realize that’s a minimal challenge, hardly disastrous; still, Kate and I love our local library and use it religiously. We are lucky in that Multnomah County has one of the country’s best systems, with a circulation that is second highest in the country for library systems serving fewer than a million patrons. We’re doubly lucky that the branch we use is within a good walk of our home, and so it is not uncommon for us to visit it on any average weekend, picking up new holds, perhaps taking a few minutes to browse, and returning home with our newfound treasures.

Multnomah County’s library inventory is strong, though perhaps not quite as esoteric as I might prefer. We use it for books primarily, but also for the occasional DVD to watch on a laptop. (Our current enjoyment is the old television show Northern Exposure, which we are very slowly working our way through and which is a delight in its oddity, its frequent philosophical and literary references, and its kindness towards its characters.) It has a strong interlibrary loan system, as well, which has proven helpful when my tastes have skewed a little too far off the map.

But the library is now closed, and has been for about a month and a half now. At a time when we are reading even more than normal, that’s unfortunate—already there have been numerous titles I have wanted to place on hold, but to no avail. In response to this loss of resource, we did place a significant order with Powell’s to help tide us over with some new and exciting titles (well, not new—used books published years ago but that we have not yet read, thus making them exciting to us) but it still has been tough not having access to a library of thousands of titles when we most want it.

There is a clear bright side, though, which is the opportunity to actually get around to reading some of the couple hundred books I already have. It’s not as though Kate and I don’t already have books at our disposal, after all—we have quite a few lining the shelves in our apartment, and plenty of them are yet to be read. It’s just that the convenience of the local library and the roving literary eye make for a tendency toward seeking out books not already owned over reading the already-acquired ones awaiting attention.

This is an unfortunate habit of mine, and one that I suspect quite a few of you reading this might also have. I am a collector of books—about the only thing I still collect. I am not so much one as I used to be, and that is partly because my wife is not willing to let me fill our small apartment entirely with the written word. But it is also due to my own desire to control this impulse and to make better use of our library system; to not, in other words, own too much.

That said, our shelves have traditionally been full, we have for most of our time here had small piles of books stashed in various other places in the apartment, and I have had boxes of books stashed in our basement storage space. But, lo and behold, that’s beginning to change. I still have books in storage, if I’m going to be honest, but most of the piles of books have been cleared and the shelves, typically packed, have actually sprouted a few loose spaces in them. As Kate and I work our way through a good number of books during this shut down, we are whittling the library.

It’s been a small joy rediscovering it. It’s easy to get caught up in new discoveries, to lust after new recommendations, and to revel in the finding of a new author and their bibliography. But it’s also a joy to rediscover that which once excited me. It’s fun to browse my own shelves and to remind myself why I picked up that book in the first place, or to revisit an author I have not read in quite awhile. And it’s very satisfying to whittle my way through the books I already own.

Why is that? Well, part of it is the somewhat guilty fact that it means I may get to refill that hole, giving me an excuse to purchase another book—something I still and will always love doing. But the collecting of books I so enthusiastically have engaged in much of my life admittedly hit certain points of absurdity. Over the past few years, I have sorted through and sold and given away hundreds of books, many of which I had long since lost the desire to read and others I no longer felt the need to own. And as I have done that, the actual ability to read all the books I own has started to become feasible to me. That’s a change; when I owned some five hundred books or more and would buy, say, at least thirty new ones a year (probably more) and would be reading perhaps forty a year . . . well, you do the calculation. I could never read all the books I owned. And that actually saddened me, the thought that I owned all these books that I would never actually be able to read. It was something of a betrayal of the desire that led me to purchase them in the first place.

Now? Well, realistically I am probably not going to read every book I currently own, but it feels much more feasible now. And that’s a pleasant feeling. So while I am sad that we have lost our local library for the time being, I am pleased to be rediscovering my own library held right here at home. And with luck, a little down the line when the bookstores are back open, I’ll have the joy of purchasing a couple new books that excite me, bringing them home, and slotting them into an open space on the bookshelf.

In the meantime, I’m getting plenty of reading done and enjoying the quiet simplicity of it. This shut down is good for something, at least.

5 thoughts on “A Library Lost, Another One Found

  1. I feel your pain! We recently (pre covid) started downsizing our library, donating several each week to local thrift stores or our local library’s used book store in hopes of regaining that room for a spare bedroom. Our local library (Sweet Home) will deliver books to your door, but I haven’t needed that yet. Soon I will. Right now I’m in the middle of rereading Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? by Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D. No, really, I am. I just finished the section “Are there real cases of premature burials?” (I spent my career looking at dead plants, bugs, and assorted weird stuff submitted by the public under a microscope. Nothing grosses me out anymore.) But I really look forward to the end of all this social distancing. I have visited a few friends, being careful, and spend more time talking on the phone, which normally doesn’t appeal to me.

    I worked over 20 years at Auburn University and had access to their 4-story library. It’s one of the things I miss most about Alabama. I binged for a while in their African history section and checked out dozens of childrens’ books when my kids were tots. I remember Powell’s Bookstore from back in… several years ago. An old building in downtown Portland with an upstairs bargain room. A wonderful place! They gave out free T-shirts that said, “Powell’s likes Reedies!” I wore mine out.

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  2. Hi Joel! As someone who works at a Public Library in the catalog department I also feel your pain. Signing up for unemployment was one of those curve balls that I never saw coming back in February or March. But with the large tax hits to the state and county -the main source of funding here in Ohio- they had to slash hours, and adjust budgests.

    I suppose this is all a reminder that the things we write about in our deindustrial and cli-fi fiction are taking place. And that the skills we are relearning are also very important as the world gets hit by these various incidents that will take us down the staircase of decline one step at a time.

    But there are good things out of it. I’ve had a lot more time to write my own material -stories, articles, sections of my larger projects- and spend time every Friday hiking with my grandson (Field Trip Frdiays) and just generally slowing down and having a chance to refocus and connect or reconnect with people.

    I do miss the ease of access I had as a library employee to the materials -on a positive note I had some hefty interlibrary loans myself, and they didn’t want them to be returned as of yet, so it’s given me more time with them than I would have had otherwise. And it is also a chance, as you reminded us of, to go through the books on our own bookshelf. Luckily I pick up a lot of books that I don’t usually read right away -probably because I’m reading a lot from work. So it’s given me that chance to work through some of those too.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the next issue of Into the Ruins issue and all your future projects.

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  3. Debra, Powell’s is great, and I miss it. The big downtown store is a treat that Kate and I occasionally get to, but we also have the local Hawthorne branch that is a similar walk as our library branch. Browsing there is a pleasant, and sometimes dangerous, experience. I’ll be happy when it eventually reopens.

    Agreed on the social distancing. I’m getting a bit bored with it, though I do feel like it has some benefits, and I’m ready to see some friends I haven’t in awhile and to get a drink with them at a local bar. I’ll be glad when things start to open back up again.

    Your book sounds fascinating! Are there actual cases of premature burial?

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  4. Justin, sorry to hear about the unemployment! I hope the filing wasn’t too painful and that the extra federal payments are making it more bearable. I presume that once things bounce back and the library is reopened, you’ll be quick back to your job. Certainly I hope! I don’t know what has happened with our local librarians, as I haven’t heard if they have been temporarily laid off (I would kind of suppose) or if they are somehow keeping them otherwise occupied. But I’ll be glad when the library is back and I imagine they will, as well.

    I’m glad you’ve been able to fill the time well, though, and that you’re getting hiking time with your grandson. That sounds lovely.

    Our library also did not want any of their materials back for the time being, so it’s giving me a chance to actually read through all the books I have out, in between reading books off my shelf. I usually have a nice pile going from the library that I may or may not ever get to. I had seven at the time the library shut down; so far, I’ve finished up five of them, including a couple from Ursula K. Le Guin, ghost stories from M.R. James, a large collection from Caitlin Kiernan, and Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast. So I’m feeling pretty good. I just have a story collection from Beth Piatote and Wallace Stegner’s account of John Wesley Powell’s explorations left, so fingers crossed I’ll get through them all before the library reopens!

    As for the writing, I’ll be posting a bit of fiction soon. Not a full fledged story, but something of an aside from a story I’m currently working on. Hopefully it’ll be well received.

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  5. Hi Joel. Yes, I’m still employed… just “working” ten hours a week now -until we phase in the reopening that means doing online training and “professional development” from home.

    I love what I’ve read by Caitlin Kiernan -which has only been a story collection or two. I’ve been wanting to read one of her novels. M. R. James is on my list too. Kingsnorth’s name has come up before, but I’m not really familiar with him at all. Good luck with your reading. I love exploration accounts so the one on John Wesley Powell should be good.

    Right now I’m most of the way through Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell which had been on my list for quite awhile. Also, interspersing that with Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra by John Szwed which I picked up at a used bookstore before the pandemic hit. In a similar vein is Other Planets -the book I got through interlibrary loan- the complete works of Karlheinz Stockhausen 1950-2007 by Robin Maconie. I want to buy my own copy of this at some point because I’m a bit of a Stockhausen freak, er, fan.

    I have several novels I’m usually wanting to read but I hope to get to Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard this summer.

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