I have a little story for you tonight. Just a small one, mind you. Not much to it. You’re warned.
I went down to the university around five. I had an appointment with one of my philosophy teachers — remember, my exams are coming up! He arrived about an hour late, which was not altogether surprising. He’s a very nice chap, endowed with a certain number of Typical Philosophy Professor Attributes:
- rather long and unkempt hair
- spectacles that seem to enjoy climbing up his forehead and down his nose
- the uncanny ability to produce long complicated sentences out of the blue
- an unnatural talent for understanding of the most cryptic philosophical writings
- most annoyingly: Arriving Late, Making Students Wait, and even (!) Forgetting Students.
Anyway. The story isn’t about him, so let’s get moving. Though I have to warn you again, you might be disappointed in the end. It’s just a little story, you know.
Well, we had a nice little chat, cleared up some philosophical and administrative issues, joked about being plagued by email, and to wrap it all up he suggested that I borrow two more books for my subject. He checked on the Internet (we have a very modern university!) and luckily, they weren’t borrowed.
I made my way across the university grounds in the night. Actually, I almost said “I made my way across the night in the university grounds”, because I thought it looked nice – but then, maybe people might think I didn’t do it on purpose and messed up.
Well, I got to the library. (If I’m really boring you by now, you can run off and fit me in the appropriate category.)
The library is a pretty dreary place to be in at night. The checkout desks are closed, it’s all neon-lit, and there are still students scattered around with big books and glazy eyes. I’ve never found it a place fit to study – too much stress and tension and brain-waves buzzing in the air.
I fought my way between the shelves to find my first book. Found the right shelf. Found the right part of the shelf. Found the right author.
I went to fetch book number two, which was well-behaved enough to be in its place. I looked for book number one again. No luck.
I admit this might not necessarily be an extraordinary happening. I mean, I know I’m not the only one to have gone through this. We’ve all heard these Library Horror Tales, haven’t we?
It was the first time it was happening to me, though – and that gave it a certain air of un-reality. Like, I kept checking the shelf again and again, looking at the spot where the book should have been, hoping that it would suddenly appear out of nowhere. I checked the computer again. I checked the shelf again. I discreetly looked through one of the numerous abandoned piles of books on the tables.
Did I mention there were piles of homeless books everywhere? You see, there are herds of desks grazing here and there in the library. Students sit at those desks with piles of big books and over-heated brains all day. They go home in the evening, and come back the next morning.
Now, if they put back the books they are using each night, well
- they will have to take them back out the next day
- somebody else might arrive before them and hide under a desk with the book all day
- or somebody might even (God forbid!) take the book and borrow it
For all those good reasons, students either leave the books at their desks or (much smarter!) put them back in the wrong place. That allows them to sleep without nightmares, safe in the knowledge that their precious book is waiting for them.
The fact that the book has to sleep out of its bed does not bother them, obviously. Nor the fact that the library staff have to regularly go around to put abandoned books back in their beds. Nor of course that honest people like me, who need to *gasp!* borrow the book, well, can’t lay their hands on it.
Yes, I know. This is getting rather lengthy, isn’t it? Well, yes. I mean, I said the story was a small story, but I never said it would be short. You must have misunderstood that bit. Nothing much happens, that’s all. But as you can see, I’m quite capable of saying a lot about nothing.
Well, that’s not everything. I’d better get on to serious things if I want to see my bed soon (and I have to get up early, I’m going halfway across the country for a day’s work).
I checked out my books at the machine — I took a few extra ones to make up for the one I couldn’t find — and saw one of the librarians coming out of the Staff Only Door and a corridor filled with trolleys of books.
— “Can you tell me if the books lying around everywhere are sometimes put back in the shelves? I mean, there’s a book I can’t find that’s supposed to be in there, and I want to know when it’s worth checking again…”
— [snip ten minutes of Venting Librarian and Smiling-Nodding-Approving-Understanding Me]
I’ll keep to myself the speech on Respect, Youngsters Nowadays Take It All For Granted, They Have No Manners, and Think Further Than Your Umbilicus that I had been preparing. You probably know all about it already.
This is where the story gets (relatively) interesting. I’m telling you that because I feel you might be bordering on despair right now — and maybe you’d be right about that.
I was about to leave (“Well, I’ll come and check for my book in a couple of days”) when she asked me which section my book was supposed to be in.
— “Philosophy? Oh… have a look through these.”
She pointed me to the trolley behind her, stacked with the homeless books they had rescued yesterday night.
I crept in through the Staff Only Door and started running my finger along the number codes at the back of the books. Halfway through the second row, it caught my eye. The name of the author in gold letters a bit higher up confirmed my find.
It was my book! After having looked for it with no success and much frustration, after having completely given up on bringing it home with me tonight, having it in my hands felt like a miracle come true. I couldn’t believe it. Strange how it didn’t look at all like I had expected it to. Fat and black. Lucky I don’t have to read straight through it.
It took me a good fifteen minutes to pack my books into my bag. Well, that’s because I was chatting with the two ladies behind the (closed) counter during all that time. The Lost Books Lady’s collegue has been working at the university library for eighteen years. She says it’s getting worse. I believe her.
I know we look at our times through a warped lens. We think new ideas are old, and that old trends are new. We think things are changing radically when they are not. We think we are living in a time of exception, when it is no more exceptional than any other time. We think the world has never been as bad or as good as it is today. In fact, what we overlook is that our present is past not yet past. Comparing “now” to “before” is maybe trying to compare two things which we (being “now” and living in it) cannot.
But still. All those homeless books.
No, I won’t make those speeches.