Think what you will about Kafka’s famous claim that a book must be an axe to break the frozen sea within us. We read other kinds of books in addition to the tremor-inducing ones. What Kafka’s dangerous, proud pronouncement does not take into account is the conditions, the very places, in which we read any books: whether murderous or life-affirming, complex or simple, tragic or comic, heavy or light. For many of us, the library is the—dreadful phrase—safe space, that place where blood pressure goes down, imaginative and intellectual pleasures abound, where silence at least used to prevail, and where the world’s plenty is at one’s finger tips.
I have spent my life in libraries. When I was 8, my family moved to the green Philadelphia suburbs. I went to the local library to get my card. It was a proud moment. In ninth grade I did my first “research” paper, encouraged by a noble English teacher with whom we were reading Les Misérables. For reasons unremembered, I decided to write about the Paris sewers. Mrs. Ehrlich told me to go to the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway: a splendid, 1927 Beaux Arts building by Julian Abele, modeled on the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. These were the days when a 14-year-old boy could safely use public transportation on his own. (He still can, of course, although fearful parents refuse to believe it.) I presented myself at the research desk and asked to see the maps and plans of the sewers, which then appeared at my desk. Ask, and it shall be given. A scholar, although not a future engineer, was made.
I have never looked back.
Last year, I retired. I left my academic post. I had to de-accession. As everyone knows, this is an initially terrifying but finally a liberating experience. People ask, “Was it hard to get rid of books?” Not at all. Hundreds of my books were paperbacks, brittle, yellowed, with small type, unread for decades and unlikely ever to be reread. I invited my students to scan the shelves in my office and take what they wanted. I donated books to libraries. My university included in its Willard Spiegelman Archive (!) copies of books from which I had taught, complete with annotations, and others autographed by their authors.
Ownership of anything is a fool’s dream. We take nothing with us; hearses have no luggage racks, especially for books. In 2017, I moved north from Texas with 150 books. (Some retire to warmer weather; I had waited for decades to feel the northern chill again.) In my tiny seaside Connecticut town, I marched, on the first day after my move, to the Village Square, climbed the library stairs, and addressed myself to the nice English lady behind the desk. I felt like my 8-year-old self from decades before. “Please, miss, may I get a library card?”
Six years earlier, in anticipation of my retirement, I had taken a small apartment in New York City. I excitedly got a New York Public Library card. Then I made a donation to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, on whose bountiful resources I have relied over the years, during countless trips there. What I was not expecting was to find a third northern library—a fourth, if you count the one on the Connecticut shoreline—in my basement on West End Avenue. I knew that I had hit pay dirt and also that I had come home, symbolically, when I went to the laundry room of my 28-story building with 400 apartments. Hundreds of books, neatly arranged and for the most part alphabetically ordered, filled 12 large wooden bookcases. Above the first shelf was posted a stern note from the head librarian, whoever that was. She (it’s a she—more on that in a moment) wrote:
Books Are Limited to Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mysteries and Biographies.
Magazines, How To Books, Travel Books, and Cookbooks Will Not Be Accepted.
During the six years of my residency here, new books have entered the shelves; others have disappeared. I was responsible for at least one liberation: a nice copy of Leaves of Grass is now in my bookcase. I figured that since poetry is not among the accepted categories down below, I was justified in bringing it upstairs. No one has complained.
A recent scanning of the Laundromat Library shelves reveals the pleasures of randomness. In “Fiction” I glanced at books by Mary Higgins Clark, James Clavell, Carrie Fisher, Jay McInerney, James Michener, and Anne Tyler. Moving up the ladder toward high seriousness, I saw Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, Michael Chabon, A.J. Cronin, Dickens, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, John Irving, Kafka himself, Thomas Mann, Mary McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Thomas Pynchon, Norman Rush, Vikram Seth, Anthony Trollope, and Virginia Woolf. My laundry room is a literary United Nations of people and their books, created by neighborly readers’ charitable instincts and people’s need to do their own de-accessioning. Its arrangement is the result of the nimble fingers of the shelves’ organizers. The volumes look heterogeneously and ingeniously happy together.
Nonfiction gave an even better indication of the high seriousness of my neighbors, many of whom are, like me, am ha-sefer, the people of the book. Jimmy Breslin abutted Simone de Beauvoir. An anthology called Jewish Women in Historical Perspective was pretty close to, although not touching, Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. There were familiar names: Maureen Dowd, Frances Fitzgerald, David Halberstam, Irving Kristol, Robert Jay Lifton, Robert Massie, Jonathan Raban, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Edmund White. And some surprising items: The Letters of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis; Richard Buckle’s biography of Nijinsky; Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome, still a pristine paperback; A History of the Armenian Genocide; a two-volume, boxed biography of Sir Walter Scott; and another of Sir Kenneth Clark.
Everything seemed haphazard, like life, and appropriately organized, like art. Books make good company and can get along with their neighbors. In any library, classification is an experience in taxonomy. My small laundry library is also a civics lesson, a testimony to democracy in action. Susan Sontag, Thomas Mann, and Friedrich Nietzsche, those staples of the university humanities curriculum, did not protest their proximity to avatars of popular culture. The books, like their authors, have no choice in the matter. E.L. James and Henry James, Fifty Shades of Grey and Portrait of a Lady: together at last.
Looking at their contributions made me curious about my neighbors. Who had read, and owned, all this stuff? The books, even if I had no inclination to read them, made me grateful for the very existence of their donors. And I became equally curious about the supervising agent. Who had written the admonishing note telling us what was, and what was not, acceptable?
It turned out that the stern overseer of the laundry library is my next-door neighbor, whose name is, appropriately, Stern. Stern is the star of the basement, who causes literary lights to shine at random across from the washers, dryers, folding tables, and laundry baskets on wheels. She was never a librarian but, by her own admission, a neat freak, a woman who cherishes order. When asked by a member of the co-op board to command the stacks, she accepted the challenge. And she says that over the years she has had to reprimand would-be benefactors who continue to offer things the library will not accept, including, some years ago, a 20-volume encyclopedia.
Manhattan is a small town. Perhaps the entire world is smaller than we think. One day at my Chelsea yoga studio, I was chatting with two ladies of a certain age and describing my laundromat library. One woman, who lives in the West Village, expressed envy. “I proposed setting up a library in our building,” she said, but her project stalled. The building has only 90 apartments, most of which are now occupied by younger people, none of whom seems to read or have an interest in books.
The other woman chimed in: “My building has a library, too. Where are you?”
“I’m on West End Avenue, near Lincoln Center” I replied.
I told her my address. Then, she gave me hers. We are literally next-door neighbors, living in adjacent, matching buildings.
When I told her that our library was in the basement laundry, she bragged that hers was a separate room, with tables and chairs. I immediately developed a strong case of Library Envy. I have since learned that my neighbor’s library has more space, but fewer books. It is spread out, and less well ordered. This knowledge abated my envy.
In addition to all the other advantages of a home library in a basement laundry room, I can now also assert proudly that I have more clean clothes than I ever have.
Reading offers new gratification when it is accompanied by the pleasing hum of washing machines, the fragrance of detergent and fabric softener, the warmth of dryers. My life with books has now entered a new, synaesthetic phase. There’s nothing so fine as reading David Copperfield while the drying cycle is working its magic. Virginia Woolf and Mary McCarthy would, I hope, like Dickens, be happy for me.
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Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English, emeritus, at SMU in Dallas, the author of a dozen books, and a longtime contributor to the Leisure & Arts pages of the Wall Street Journal.