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March 16, 2012



Libraries I Have Known, De Facto and Otherwise

Libraries for me, as I was growing up and later as well, were places of discovery and sanctuary, hook-up points for meeting with friends, go-to spots for practical information of even the most mundane kind, and occasionally were able to rise up and flourish in the most inhospitable of places. I once even had a brief romantic touch-down in a neighborhood library of my youth -- in the darkish do-it-yourself aisle, as it happens.

My earliest library recollections involve my older sister and me visiting an imposingly large library, probably the one at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Some of the upper stack floors, I noticed, had circular Coke-bottle-bottom glass inserts that let in sunlight in mesmerizing ways that somehow involved mini-rainbows.

Later in our local store-front library in Flatbush (about the size of a small A&P, with huge plate glass windows) I once talked the rather forbidding reference librarian into letting me consult a 1956 Chevy owners manual so I could solve a persistently troubling mystery: Where was the entry to the gas tank located? Answer: Hidden behind one of the tail lights, which opened by means of a hinge. The library was also notable for having a large selection of older Agatha Christie mysteries in their original 1920s and 1930s editions: Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, Murder on the Links, The Man in the Brown Suit, etc. An embarrassing moment occurred when as a young teenager I brought my four-year-old nephew John with me to the library where I was to meet up with my friend Lenny. John spotted him before I did and whooped out at the top of his lungs with a resounding LENNEEE!!! I quickly put my hand over his mouth but most people were amused rather than annoyed. Fast forward to 2010 when my sister and I visited our old neighborhood and decided to call in at the library initially as a bathroom stop. It was largely unrecognizable from the outside: All the plate glass was gone and the armed-camp entrance was behind monolithic chunks of concrete in a maze-like arrangement that suggested a bunker within. Inside was better, though, as we saw storytime for happy young readers taking place in a welcoming and separate room that did not exist when I was a child.

The Erasmus Hall High School library, a beautifully built and furnished sun-lit arrangement of rooms at the top of the Flatbush Avenue building, did not hold happy memories for me. I remember using it once to research a term paper on Spies in American Literature and Life, and being told by a horrible witch with a hairy facial wen that I was monopolizing the time of her subordinate librarian who was helping me. Never mind that the library was at that time totally devoid of students or other patrons.  

Another local library, a 1900 Stanford White-designed beauty in Orange NJ, is also notable. It was as originally built quite small with a domed roof that made it resemble a classic planetarium. (The extensions over the years were unfortunately poorly planned and ruined the original design.) The inside of the building also resembles a church with altar, behind which is a large stained glass window -- but with secular rather than religious iconography. The second-level gallery-like floor also has the same Coke-bottle glass inserts, as described earlier. The library director who was in charge in the early 1970s was both innovative and creative. He directed his staff to affix narrow punch-out tape labels onto book spines, that often strikingly described the contents within. Grace Tully's memoir was taped succinctly as "FDR's personal secretary," while Judy Lewis's memoir offered "Love child of Loretta Young and Clark Gable." Often a biography or memoir of a prolific author would be prominently placed, for example, in the fiction section containing the works of that author: Dickens, Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis come immediately to mind.

And with the US Army in Vietnam in 1970, after being trained as a Military Police Sentry Dog handler, I became de facto librarian and book person when I was tapped for the Company Clerk position that had become vacant upon my arrival in-country. One of my duties involved opening mail, including bimonthly packages of paperbacks sent by a now defunct Chicago book distributing company -- known as a book jobber -- named Dimondstein. The packages always included a wide selection of books: art, entertainment, best sellers, biography, public affairs, how-to, sports, mysteries, sci-fi, westerns -- but not romances. I would wind up shelving them (I may have appropriated one or two for myself) in the Day Room, a place where soldiers could relax and unwind.

Some of the books that came in this way included: Hitchcock/Truffaut, the famous interview book with Helen Scott as interpreter; Andrew Sarris's Interviews with Film Directors; Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By, on silent films; the latest Wilfrid Sheed title; the latest mystery by Fred Mustard Stewart; Isadora Duncan's memoirs, recently reissued; Ward Just's Military Men (aka Soldiers); Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus; and a beautifully illustrated three-volume reference on African Art and Folklore.

The Day Room had numerous bookshelves and they quickly became filled with the Dimondstein offerings. We also made room for issues of the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes (I knew one of the S&S photographers, who would sometimes bring in issues to us via helicopter), copies of our Brigade magazine, issues of periodicals that were part of the subscriptions of some of the soldiers, as well as board games such as Monopoly, Scrabble, and the game of diplomacy and military strategy known as Risk.

There were also a few postage-stamp-size bookstores that sold books about Asia and by Asian writers. These were mostly published by Charles Tuttle, a Vermont-based company which at that time offered mostly Japanese books in translation. (The company still exists but now does business online only.) At one of these stores I got an edition of the multi-volume Tale of Genji, the first volume of which I had read in college and loved; a novel by the author known as Pierre Loti, a prose stylist writing novels of 19th Century Japan from the point of view of French sailors; a book about the Montagnard tribes of Vietnam; and others. Occasionally some of these offerings would find their way onto the Day Room shelves too.

These small bookstores also carried the novels of Yukio Mishima. It was at one of these that I was surprised to find his Confessions of a Mask, a graphically frank novel about homosexuality at a military boys school in Japan. It seemed like a poor choice for a military installation in Vietnam, let alone one that coupled dog handlers with their dogs, and made me wonder whether the higher-ups were aware of what it was about. Later that year Mishima made international headlines by committing ritual suicide after a failed right-wing coup against the Japanese government.

Access to these books, periodicals, and other diversions was a godsend in the middle of the Vietnamese quagmire, and made me forget where I was for more than a few hours. Our Day Room library may have been a makeshift one, but it was memorable all the same. As were the other libraries of my younger years.

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