In the Bowels of the Bodleian

Why British libraries just don't stack up against Meyer and Green.

January/February 1998

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I am a lover of libraries: grand research capitals or the small-town variety, specialized libraries, personal libraries, even vanished libraries like the one in Alexandria. So it may seem surprising after a year studying in Britain, home to some of the world's most venerable collections, that what I miss most about the States and Stanford are--the libraries.

Grumble as you might about the prison look-alike contest Meyer Library would surely win, complain about its weekend hours, but if you have a ticket to get in, count yourself lucky. Never mind the fact that Stanford's is a lending library, while Oxford's Bodleian and the British Library--the titans of English book repositories--are not. The biggest privilege granted to Stanford students is that increasingly rare commodity: open stacks.

While the idea of having someone else fetch all those hard-to-reach titles for you may sound appealing, remember that this gofer has to tend to a hundred other nervous scholars. So no more eleventh-hour dash to the library to get that last, crucial fact, no more browsing in your general subject area and just happening upon the perfect book. Closed stacks mean you must know exactly what you want and sign your life away in front of a witness to get it.

Once you've got that book, you hold on to it and check on it every day by asking the librarian to see the little pile of treasured tomes reserved under your name. Because if you let it go, it returns to the underworld.

True, nothing can beat the Bodleian for atmosphere and inspiration. As a copyright library, it holds at least one copy of every book published in England. Stanford's Special Collections, though impressive, can't compete with the priceless holdings in the dark, wood-paneled Duke Humphrey Room. Beyond the stained glass windows, spires and bell towers hold up an English sky.

If sitting at the desks where Donne or Shelley or Wilde once composed isn't enough to charm you into some good ideas of your own, you can always go to London and visit the British Library.

Ah, the great Round Room, where Marx and Sun Yat-sen authored their revolutions and Yeats, Eliot and Shaw whiled away many an hour. Ah, Round Room, ode to inefficiency! Never has illogic reached such epic refinement as here, a kind of Bermuda Triangle of books. Ordering, picking up, returning and reserving your book means negotiating a nest of ninnies who've turned each hairsbreadth task into a complicated ritual. It is glorious, absolutely medieval, this indulgence in impracticality. To get a book, you must beg for it a day in advance and fill in a medley of forms with carbon copies. The British Library surely consumes a hearty portion of Brazilian forest daily.

I won't talk about the computer system, which is as quick-witted and nimble as an elephant. Nor will I say a bad word about staff members, who have each taken an oath of malcontentedness.

For all my lighthearted haranguing, I do bemoan the imminent loss of the Round Reading Room as the British Library moves to a new

monstrosity of a building. I pity the scholar who will never have the chance to sit under that blue dome, a half-shell of some giant robin's egg, and feel the presence of genius. To Virginia Woolf, being there was "as if one was a thought in the huge bald forehead."

And yet to me, the issue here remains something older than Gutenberg's press itself: reading, touching, smelling, getting lost and finding oneself in books. On my next trip back to Stanford, I plan to wangle myself a

visitor's pass to the library. When I do, I intend to settle down in an enormous mountain of books, if only for the sheer pleasure of once again being up to my ears in so much nonsense.

Nicole Krauss, '96 earned a masters' in English at Oxford last year and is studying art history at London's Courtauld Institute

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