For all her studiousness, Liz would never make a good scholar. She's too lunar, just the characteristic that women are traditionally supposed to have. Although not exactly on a monthly cycle, her intense interests shift in a regular, not-quite-predictable pattern. A scholar, on the other hand, would think nothing of devoting a lifetime of energetic study to Growth Patterns in the Left Front Little Toenail of Giant Killer Shrews. Liz flits through the knowledge groves like a hyperactive hummingbird. Right now, it's Russian literature, specifically Gogol. Liz's great-grandfather, Lazar Shulman, had been a wheat merchant in Kiev before he came to America. Maybe she gets it from him. Her poetry has a distinct Russian tinge (Tsarist, not Bolshevik), even when no dashas or dashing troikas appear. She can't stand Verdi operas, but loves Boris Goudunov. I, being of the same race as Bjorn Borg, the tennis player, enjoy reading the Russians, but I can't help thinking that if only they had a little more sense, cooled down, reasoned things out, saw a psychiatrist, or maybe just took a long walk, the heroes and heroines wouldn't get into such messy relationships.
On Wednesday, I called work to say I was sick. It was really Liz who was sick, but we've been sleeping in the same direction for so long that animal magnetism now causes us to behave as one organism, spiritually speaking. Nursing chores were minimal, and I was amusing myself by entering family finances on our Apple II computer, which stores this stuff on flexible magnetic disks, called "floppy." The idea of storing specific data on a floppy disk amuses me. I would think that only imprecise memories, fits rather than bits, could be stored on them.
My back was stiff, my data-entry fingers fatigued, it was a fine day, and my floppy disk was almost full. I decided to walk the short distance to our local computer store, located in a former shoe repair shop between a florist and a co-op food store. On the way I passed the Linden Hills Branch Library, and remembered that Liz had been looking for Vladimir Nabokov's biography of Gogol and his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, neither of which are available at the Hennepin County Library.
We have recently been patronizing the Hennepin County Library, located at Southdale, a nearby shopping center. It is very large, centralized, carpeted, air conditioned and designed on the latest principles. There is a certain attraction in being able to walk between the stacks of the new library and see all the books on a particular subject owned by the county which are not presently out on loan. Still, for all its intentional accessibility, I feel a little uncomfortable when approaching it. It is built on stilts, the way neolithic Swiss Lake Dwellers lived in the encyclopedias of my childhood. Drawings showed, in photographic detail, daily life in a Swiss lake village, entirely on platforms, probably to protect from the dread sabre-tooth tiger. Cavemen fishing right outside the door of their thatched houses, safe from tigers or wooly mammoths in rut. Alas, the village crashed to the ground during my adulthood, when it was discovered the Swiss lake bottom was dry during prehistoric times.
The county library isn't even built on a floodplain, so suburban profligacy must be the reason for the stilts, flaunting wealth that allows one to start the first floor on the second floor. The building itself is simple, consisting of some large, perhaps prefabricated blocks piled on top of each other. "Piled" isn't quite right; it should be "placed". It exudes an air of precision, reminding me of a math handbook I once saw, where the old Greek Golden Rectangle had been calculated out to 46 decimal places. Everything is so modern, so exactly so, that you can understand why I smirked when the stairway carpeting wore out in less than a year and had to be replaced by old-time terrazzo.
The Linden Hills Branch Library, about 50 years old, possesses all the characteristics stored in my brain (in a drawer titled LIA-LID) that comprise a library. It has a brick exterior, with just a small amount of frivolous decoration, like the flicker of a smile you get when you tell a literary joke to a librarian. There are marble floors, high walnutted ceilings, varnished card catalog cabinets, and (most important) the smell, found nowhere else, of ink and book paper aging under anerobic conditions. I have loved this smell ever since, as a teenager, I began to hang around libraries. Way back then, the Minneapolis public library used a signout card stored in the book. While reading one book, I would find reference to another, which I would write down on a 3X5 file card. As I finished the first book, I would begin to think about the next book as about the prospect of a blind date: surely it will be the most beautiful book in the world. I would rush to the library, open it, and catch the scent of words which had not been exposed to air or light for a long time. I could look at the card, find it was taken out by Clifford Carruthers five years earlier, by Sylvia Peterson seven years before that, and by no one at all before that. I proudly checked out the book, knowing not only that I was in rarefied company, but also the names of my companions.
Alas, we're a big city now. The lakes, parks and streets are illuminated all night by mercury vapor lights, monochromatic blue-green of a color and intensity to allow, in an emergency, a surgeon to perform an appendectomy on a sidewalk in the middle of the block. In addition to eliminating mid-block street crime, they have removed the signout cards from the books, and I can no longer make phone calls, obscene or literary, to Clifford or Sylvia about the book we discovered.
On entering the library, my 3x5 mentality is further confounded by the fact that the walnut card file cabinet has been replaced by a continuous strip of microfilm entombed in an illuminator-magnifier called a "reader". Having already been read once, the image on the screen is second-hand, and looks it. There is no focus adjustment, and the last user was evidently pointing at items on the ground-glass screen while slowly eating a chocolate ice cream cone. I used to have a recurring dream where I was reading the comics in the newspaper, but couldn't make out the words. I would then try opening my eyes to read them better, only to wake up. I thought about my old dream, wishing that, like signed checkout cards or dark sidewalks, it would recur again. The books had to be ordered from the Main library downtown, so I dutifully filled out the order slips for the Nabokov items: Gogol, Onegin, and a book of poems which looked interesting. "They will be here in three days," assured the Branch Manager when I gave him the slips.
The three days were up yesterday, and the phone rang with Russian bureaucratic efficiency. It was a librarian, breathless. "You have six books here," she said.
"I only ordered three."
"Oh, the Onegin book is four volumes. You can come down and examine them, and you can refuse some if you want to."
It sounded like a good deal, so Liz (who had by now recovered) and I stopped by. I showed Liz the maddening microfilm reader. Since we were loudly discussing it, an aide came up. "You should use the microfische instead," she said.
The microfische method replaces the single strip with plastic sheets in alphabetical order, LIA-LID on a floppy sheet. It gets its name because of the difficulty of pulling a sheet out of the holder: you have to fish it out. But in a good example of the need for numerous interdependent technologies to take us to the evolutionary stage where we were before any of them started, the microfische reader does have a focus control allowing one to achieve a clarity almost equal to that of a typewritten 3x5 file card,
While Liz was fisching, I went to the checkout desk, staffed by a high-school-age girl. "I'm here for my six books," I said.
Another librarian, of my generation, whirled around and edged the girl out of the way. "Right here," she said in the same breathless voice as the one who had called me. She repeated that I was not required to take them all. I said I would.
"I'm surprised you don't have Lolita here," she said as she whirred the checkout machine.
"I've already read it," I said.
"I read something about Nabokov recently. I think he wrote another novel," she said.
"He died this year."
"Oh well, I knew it was something important."
"He did write lots of novels, though," I said, "both in Russian and English."
"Oh well, Lolita's the only one known." "At least by me," she added after a pause.
We left the library, with its marble capable of holding coolness for centuries, and the smell that stimulates my literary salivation, out into the warmish autumn sun. Liz was already starting Gogol's biography, her passionate Russian heritage surfacing; blood of old Lazar Shulman. He had come to the promised land to engender a new breed. But the genes were from the motherland, and like the subtle scent in the library of unread solemn oaths, prancing steeds and rosyfingered dawns, they remain in her as hints of whiffs of fir forests, bearskin caps, a jingling troika skimming over frozen steppes, boisterous blusterings, and the report of a matchlock pistol in a birch grove at dawn over a stupid affair of honor.