WITH A LITTLE EFFORT, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence
is infinitely cross-referenced. And everything has more than one definition. A cat is
a mammal, a narcissist, a companion, a riddle.
I've been reading T. S. Eliot again, the nice hardback edition of his poems that
Roberta gave me before she left. I'd almost forgotten how heady Eliot is, how much
thinking he crowds into "Four Quartets":
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
I cannot imagine what Vivienne Eliot must've thought when she read those lines.
Locked away in Northumberland House, listening to German bombs dropping on London,
waiting in vain for her husband to take her home.
Hearing his poems in her head. Alone, listening, forced to reconsider everything.
What is that sound high in the air
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Roberta, too, will reconsider. She'll be stunned, of course when she hears the news
about the Hale bequest. But after she mulls it over, the whole thing won't seem so
astonishing. I think she'll appreciate my motives even if she can't condone them.
I picture her in her kitchen, the new poems spread out on her table. By now she's
probably learned them all by heartor the best parts, anyway. I wonder what they'll
prompt. More of her own, I trust; else why read Eliotor anyone else?
We shall see.
ALTHOUGH I VE ALWAYS BEEN CALLED MATT, my first name isn't Matthew but Matthias:
after the disciple who replaced Judas Iscariot. By the time I was four, I knew a
great deal about my namesake. More than once my mother read to me, from the New
Testament, the story of how Matthias had been chosen by lot to take the place of
dreadful Judas. Listening, I felt a large and frightened sympathy for my predecessor.
No doubt a dark aura hung over Judas's chair something like the pervasive, bitter
odor of Pall Malls in my father's corner of the sofa.
As far as my mother was concerned, the lot of Matthias was the unquestionable outcome
of an activity that seemed capricious to me: a stone-toss by the disciples. I tried
with difficulty to picture a dozen men dressed in dust-colored robes and sandals,
playing a child's game. One of the Twelve had to carry on, my mother explained, after
Judas had perpetrated his evil. The seat couldn't be left empty. Hence Matthias: the
Lord's servants had pitched their stones, and his had traveled the farthest.
So much for names. To the first-year students at the university where I work, I am
merely Mr. Lane, the grey-mustached warden of the obscure Mason Room. But to graduate
students I am something like a god, indispensable and unavoidable, keeper of
countless objects of desire. And in reality? in reality I'm the archivist at one of
America's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, where I oversee a
collection of rare books and manuscripts, the notes and letters of dead writers and
other prominenti, and boxes of miscellany donated by eccentric graduates. This
archive, housed in a quiet wing of the main library, is among the finest anywhere;
and I am its guardian.
I assumed my post in 1965, the year T. S. Eliot and my wife Judith died, and since
then I've inhabited a secure realm. Of course, there have been the predictable
encroachments of microfiche, computers, fax machines...I make use of these things, in
fact I find them entertaining; but they have nothing to do with the life of the mind.
The genuine scholars, those for whom books are nearly everything, pay little
attention to the junior librarians with their keyboard fixations. The real scholars
come to me. In this part of the library, I alone know where everything is. I have
memorized the stacks and shelves and drawers, I could find books in the dark: by
their broken spines, their covers' textures, their heft in my hand.
My work has always satisfied me. When scholars ask me about an unusual book that I
haven't seen before, I experience an almost physical pleasure. It's as if I'm a boy
again, scavengerhunting. When I'm on the trail alone, sure of my ability to find what
I'm looking for, I experience my rewards.
Naturally there are frustrations, when things are misplaced or my time is wasted. I'm
rough on pseudo-scholars, but I like assisting anyone who's serious even novices who
can barely use the card catalogue. I look for the sign of real intention, that hunger
which comes over a person's face when he really needs to find something in print.
Except for a few of the oldest and most fragile manuscripts, I allow the collection
to be read and used by anyone who passes my inspection. I don't hoard the treasure.
Materials not open to the public, however, are another story. Now and then some
unscrupulous researcher will ask for a "quick look" at items that remain under lock
and key until a specified date. This pushiness instantly annoys me, though it no
longer surprises me. With such researchers I assume a weary, antagonized look as I
explain that certain bequests arrive with clear restrictions on accessibility.
Violating those limits is a form of grave-robbing. Yes: the images that come to me
are those of exhumation, the unearthing of something meant to lie fallow something
that will appear waxy and lifeless if brought to light too soon.
Of course I don't put it in just those terms. But the message gets across to anyone
who thinks I'll pick up the shovel and dig for him.
I was set on edge, then, when last spring a young woman approached me about some
letters of T. S. Eliot.
I want, said this woman in a tone neither loud nor soft but direct, to read the Emily
Had I not looked straight at her, I'm sure nothing would've ensued. But I stared at
this woman, and in her eyes, which were large and curiously coloreda moss-grey
shade, lustrousI could see the genuine intention I've never been able to ignore.
There was something else. Her eyes summoned for me that strangely evocative line from
Eliot's poem "Usk": Where the grey light meets the green air. And Judith, whom I'd
buried two decades earlier. Since my wife's death I had encountered no one who
reminded me of her in any way.
Glance asideI heard the poem now as if it were being read to medo not spell old
enchantments. Let them sleep.
The young woman stood very still, waiting, her face a question.
The answer, I said aloud to her, is no.
MY WORK IS WHATEVER I WANT IT TO BE, and I report to no one regularly. The head
librarian?the man in charge of the University's entire collection is a figurehead,
well-to-do and poorly read, with whom I have only pe unctory contact. His deputy is
Edith Bearden, who supervises several Junior librarians. Once a week, over lunch,
Edith and I trade news or solicit one another's advice on technical maters We ve
always gotten along, and after all these years we know ear other reasonably well.
Then I'm withdrawn, which I suppose I often am, she doesn't pull at me. But when she
needs my help or wants my company (for libraries can be lonely), she's not afraid to
break into one of my unresponsive moods. Hers is the only lasting friendship I've
known, and I'm grateful for it.
Each month I supply the library's Board with a brief summary of the activities in my
wing. I prepare these reports in my office, which adjoins the Mason Room. Normally I
leave the connecting door open so I can see who comes in and out. On busy days the
receptionist admits around twenty people; on quiet days we have only a handful of
visitors, and peace reigns.
During these calm days I become a literal bookkeeper. First I return calls and answer
correspondence from other archivists, and then I catalogue new acquisitions. After
that, I check the drawers containing oversized materials and generally see that
everything is as it should be. I need those hours of silent physical labor, when I am
alone with the collection and can experience it in its entirety. It's become almost a
living thing for me. The bound books and loose-leaf manuscripts and files of letters
and photos are a many-voiced convocation I attend as a kind o permanent host.
Whenever I can, I read. Familiarity with the collection is my first obligation.
When I was a child, I had dozens of books. My father built me a bookcase for my tenth
birthday. It ran the length of one of my bedroom walls, and I prized it almost as
much as the books I arranged neatly on its three shelves. I employed a very simple
cataloguing method alphabetization of titles, which meant that my Bible sat between
Babar and Boats Under Bridges, a story about the difficult life of a New York harbor
tugboat operator. I remember my mother expressing dismay at this arrangement. As a
devout Presbyterian, she felt that the sacred Book should not be tossed in with
profane paperbacks, and she urged me to keep my Bible next to my bed. It was her
desire that I read it nightly and attend church each week with her, duties I fought
then and have never undertaken since.
My mother was an unhappy woman, and unhealthy too terribly overweight and easily
agitated by small things. She entered marriage with few established friendships, and
as my father discouraged the formation of new ones, she became something of a
recluse. Gradually, as I was growing up, she isolated herself from the people in our
neighborhood in Washington Heights who might have helped her. Eunice Carey, who had
an antique toy train set I coveted, and Betty Keep, a cheery widow I used to
accompany on long rambles through the Cloisters these were women who wished my mother
well and who felt sorry for me; I was, after all, the only child of an irascible
accountant and a housewife who quoted the Bible a little too frequently. By the time
I was twelve, my mother had ceased even the pretext of a social life for the family.
And as both sets of grandparents were long dead and neither of my parents had
siblings, I was effectively cut off from a community of adults.
Each Friday night my father satisfied his own needs for company by going to a bar
around the corner from his of fice near Herald Square. There he would drink for a few
hours with other dlssatisfied husbands, finally wending his way home at around eight
o'clock, smelling of smoke and scotch. My mother and I would watch him descend from
the heights of his drink-induced good humor to the foul mood that typically
enshrouded him. He would bark orders at my mother, who lumbered anxiously from table
to kitchen to fetch him extra water or more salt, and in my direction he would level
a barrage of questions about my performance at school that week.
Fortunately I was a good student. Books were my refuge; I made friends, but often
they interested me less than books And at home, in the face of my mother's perpetual
anxiety and my fathers cantankerousness, I retreated into my small bedroom, where my
books awaited me, reliably patient and tolerant. Now and then my father would engage
me in conversation about a story I was reading, or my mother would read aloud a poem
by Wordsworth or Blake. Those interludes I remember with intense clarity. Everything
else from that time feels like a bruise feels when pressed: painful in a dull,
Judith used to say I became an archivist to spite my parents. I suppose that is
partly true. I knew my father wanted me to go into a more lucrative line of work, and
my mother was eager for me to become a teacher or (better yet) a pastorneither of
which I had any intention of doing. But the truth of my choice ran deeper. Having so
few emotional resources to spare after wasting them on a soured marriage, my parents
could make no hard claims on my future. That it should include higher education was
perhaps the only point on which we three were in unspoken agreement. Even on this
issue, though, there was friction. My father was proud of my academic competence but
uneasy about my lack of interest in business, and my mother was concerned about my
spiritual life, unsupported as it was by any church. Neurotic and awkward and ailing,
she still managed to convince herself of the necessity of a spiritual community, and
she went to church each week until she became bedridden. She could never accept my
solitariness, though I'd learned it from her.
On the day I entered college, I realized in a bitter flash that I owed my parents
nothing. I believed, however, that I owed something to books, which had kept me going
throughout my least happy stretches, and this belief eventually outweighed all other
considerations. After a half-dozen years of work in bookstores, I enrolled in
graduate school and began the study of library science.
I saw myself then, and still do, as inheritor of a rich tradition, one that straddles
the line between mind and spirit. The great 1ibrarians have all been religious
men, monks, priests, rabbis, and the stewardship of books is an act of homage and
faith. Even Thomas Jefferson, that most rational and ingenious of librarians, revered
what he called the Infinite Power. It's impossible to be a keeper of books and not
feel a gratitude that extends to something beyond the intellects that created them to
a greater Mind, beneficent and lively and inconceivably large, which urges reading
and writing. Judith used to complain that libraries are full of too many false, banal
books and she was right, of course, though it's never bothered me. A library is meant
to be orderly, not pure.
In 1939, when I was twenty-one, my father and I made our first and only trip
together. We took the train down to Washington. My mother was quite ill, and my
father (normally no traveler) wanted to get away from the apartment. He proposed that
my college graduation present be a visit to the capital. I had been there on a school
trip and had no interest in the sights, but I accepted the invitation eagerly. I
wanted to explore the Library of Congress.
As I'd anticipated, my father quickly tired of sight-seeing. By the time we reached
Capitol Hill he was bored, and he left to seek out a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Alone and happy, I entered the library's cool foyer. At college I'd read many
descriptions of the vast collection, but I was unprepared for the beauty of the
building itself its vaulted ceilings and marble floors, its magnificent circular
reading room fitted with mahogany benches, rows of soft reading lamps, and heavy
brass-trimmed doors that kept out all noise. I walked around the upper gallery,
reading the inscriptions that ring the second-story walls just below the ceiling, and
I knew then that eventually I would claim such a place as my home.
My mother died that year, my father four years later, in 1943. A few months after his
death, I went back to Washington to see the library again. This time I took color
photographs, explored the stacks, and talked at length with the librarians. I also
wrote each of the wall inscriptions on note cards. When I returned to New York, I
bought a leather binder and made myself a scrapbook of the photos and cards.
Judith knew as no one else did what libraries meant to me. The scrapbook was among
the first of my possessions I showed her, not long after we met. My memory holds an
indelible image of Judith turning that book's pages, reading the inscriptions aloud.
Literate as she was, she identified most of the authors. Then she read her favorite
inscription: The True Shekinah Is Man. It came, she said, from the Kabbalahthe
writings of Jewish mystics.
I asked her to explain the concept of shekinah. As she spoke about the Trees of Life
and Death, I watched her full, mobile mouth, her long-fingered hands and slender
arms, the shadows at her collarbones. Her entire body was suddenly an astonishing
surprise to me. I can clearly remember how she looked up from the book's pages, her
gaze locking with mine. I knew unconsciously, as one senses a cry before hearing it,
that my life was going to be changed.
Crossing the room, I circled her shoulders with my arms. Her hands tightened at my
back as we held each other for the first time, swaying back and forth, our lips
skimming each other's cheeks and then meeting, lightly at first, my teeth on her
tongue gently pulling and being pulled. I had experienced nothing so urgent and
terrifying as the sound of my pulse at that instant, blood-driven beat of my heart.
Copyright © 1999 Martha Cooley.
All rights reserved.