Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Scatter my ashes at the Newberry Library

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

“I have always imagined paradise as a kind of library,” Borges writes, and I’d happily agree, with one small revision. To me, heaven is a library book sale, despite the fact that the library itself seems to offer a better deal, at least at first glance. In any decent library, the books are organized in a way that allows you to quickly find the one you want, and even if a copy isn’t available at that particular branch, it’s often just an interlibrary loan away. Libraries are kind of miracle, and like all good miracles, we tend to take them for granted. People these days love to enthuse about having all of the world’s information available at their fingertips, but really, that’s been the case for a long time: the only difference is that the library imposes transaction costs—the journey to the nearest branch, the search through the card catalog or computer system, the retrieval of the book, and the location of the page you need—that are probably beneficial in the long run. This isn’t to dispute the wonders of Google book search, which has transformed my life as well. But information has greater value when uncovered as part of a more considered process, and the net result is that we aren’t any more informed now than when we had to rely on more old-fashioned methods.

Yet if I had the choice between spending eternity in a library or at the Newberry Library Book Fair, which just concluded here in Chicago, I’d choose the latter without hesitation. A library book sale takes the contents of a well-stocked library—the Newberry event offers upward of 100,000 volumes each year—and jumbles them just enough to make the search more interesting. Ideally, the books have been arranged in rough categories, with a big table devoted to each one, but in practice, the classifications can be a little arbitrary. (Having just volunteered for an afternoon of sorting at this coming weekend’s book fair in Oak Park, I’m all the more aware of how many tricky judgment calls, and human error, go into which book ends up where.) As a result, looking for any one book or author means that you need to poke your nose everywhere. If I want a book on Napoleon, say, it might be in Biography, History, or Military History, and Will Durant’s The Age of Napoleon is likely to be over in Reference. Even if I’m pretty sure that a particular book will be on one table and nowhere else, it’s still a crapshoot, both because the books are haphazardly arranged and because there’s no guarantee the one I want will be there at all.

The Newberry Library Book Fair

This can lead to moments of frustration, especially when you’re positive that a certain book has to be on this table somewhere, just out of sight. (A year ago, I found Volume II of George Saintsbury’s A History of Criticism and Literary Taste and spent many minutes searching in vain for Volumes I and III. This year, I found Volumes I and II, but not III. And I fully expect the entire set to be waiting there for me when I go back twelve months from now.) It can also lead to a heady combination of excitement and regret, especially as the time to leave draws near. I spent three hours at the Newberry sale on Friday, and as the clock ticked closer to my scheduled departure, I experienced a feeling that a lot of browsers must know: the conviction that there’s got to be one more book here that I’ve always wanted but haven’t seen, and I only have ten minutes left to make the rounds one more time. In a perfect world, you’d be able to browse forever, and even if you ended up going over the same tables again and again, you’d find that you’ve been subtly changed in the meanwhile. I often see the same books at the Newberry from year to year, and sometimes I’ll discover that one I’d passed over twice before suddenly speaks to me now. And at three dollars or so, it’s worth taking the risk.

That’s the real joy of browsing: not only do you find the books that you never knew you wanted, but you sometimes discover that you’re no longer the person—or more than the person—you always thought you were. I’ve been shaped in profound ways by chance discoveries at book sales that never would have occurred if I’d simply followed the Dewey Decimal System to the titles I had in mind. And it’s a little reassuring to find that no matter how many books I’ve bought or read, there are always serendipitous discoveries to be made. (This year, my big find was an original edition of The Times Atlas of World History, which I picked up for only five dollars. It was first published in 1975, so it isn’t entirely up to date, but that still leaves nine thousand useful years, or 99.6% of all recorded history, which strikes me as a pretty good percentage.) So if I end up with any kind of choice in the matter, I’ve decided that this is where I want to spend eternity. The Newberry, like all beautiful old libraries, is already crowded with ghosts, and if I end up haunting the tables one day, I hope you’ll give me a wave. And if I seem too busy to wave back, it’s only because I’m still looking for Volume III.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2014 at 9:44 am

2 Responses

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  1. <3 library book sales! I can spend hours upon hours in a sale, and nearly always leave spending far more than I had planned! :-)


    July 29, 2014 at 11:26 am

  2. I have banned myself, for the rest of the year (well, except for maybe during the holiday season), from library book-sales, historical-society book-sales, random side-walk book-sales and Powell’s (my local bookstore…) For precisely the reasons you listed… it is impossible to make my way through them without some amazing discovery, a book I never knew I needed. I have lost so many hours in those sales, and so much money… But until I actually have space for the books I have I’m not allowed to accumulate more.
    I generally tried to ignore the catalog system at the library, aimlessly wandering the aisles until something caught my eye, moving from room to room with no clear path. Which is why, when I was little, my mom knew that she could take us kids to the library and have a few hours time to herself there… :)


    July 29, 2014 at 1:36 pm

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