The workroom for staff in our library is not large. Add to this the fact that it's almost always full of people cheerfully going about their business, trundling book carts up and down the aisles, and you can see why I sometimes like to go out into the library proper to get my work done. My favorite place of refuge is a table that sits roughly along the dividing line between our adult fiction and non-fiction sections. There, with my back to the books, I metaphorically take pen to paper (boot up my laptop) and begin anew my daily struggle with that most unrelenting of adversaries, the English language.
There's something comforting about having the library's main book collection at your back, covering your flanks as it were, all battles in that quarter won, unruly text brought to order, marshalled into columns and sent marching toward its authors' goals. I was sitting there the other day, enjoying the feel of all that learning behind me, when I realized there was another, decidedly less martial way of thinking about our book collection.
As we now know, the human brain is divided into two distinct hemispheres, each hemisphere providing different but complementary services to the creation of our individual minds. This is the famous right-brain, left-brain divide which, in very general terms, relegates works of analysis and computation to the left brain and those of creation and intuition to the right. Sitting there at my desk, looking out at the main entrance, I realized the collection of books at my back follows a similar design. Down on the right, there's the fiction section, shelf after shelf devoted to the stuff of dreams, while on my left, in non-fiction, the hard sciences of biology, chemistry, physics, and math counterbalance literature's more illusory load.
Of course a neuroscientist will tell you that the distinction between the two halves of the human brain is, in a sense, equally illusory: that the no-nonsense left brain's incessant need to break reality down into quantifiable bits becomes positively absurd absent the right brain's systematic reconnecting of those dots into a recognizable whole. So too the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. We like to think of great novels as works of the purest imagination, but where would a book like Death Comes for the Archbishop be if Willa Cather hadn't done her homework on territorial New Mexico, where Michael Shaara's Killer Angels without its author's intensive study of Gettysburg? Even the wildest of fantasies must be founded upon forms and notions we know from the real world, otherwise it would not ring true.
Similarly, non-fiction. Science itself began as a sort of myth-making. Just as our distant ancestors conceived of Zeus to explain lightning, so our more recent ones have called upon electromagnetic fields to perform the same function. Story-telling is central to the scientific method (think “hypothesizing”). Where would Schrödinger be without his cat, Newton without his apple? Absent his love of music (pure right-brain), do we really believe Einstein could have pictured the equally unseeable, ineffable space-time continuum?
All of which may go some way toward explaining the stricken look I've seen on several patrons' faces lately. In anticipation of our move to temporary quarters while the Easton branch is renovated, we've begun removing from the collection books that time or age have rendered superfluous. No point in paying to transport items we know we're just going to have to replace or jettison at a later date. Still, some of our regulars find the growing gaps on our shelves disturbing. They come up to the desk like something out of Kafka: What's going on, they demand, the books have all begun to disappear?!
You can see what they're thinking. Remember the murderous ship's computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey? In order to defang the thing, the vessel's surviving astronaut removes its memory chips one by one. As he does so, the heretofore villainous machine becomes suddenly pitiable as, begging the astronaut to stop, it tells him (and us) what it feels like to have one's mind slowly slip away. So too these patrons when they think they've discovered some hidden conspiracy to rob them, book by book, of the library's collection. But they need not worry. Thanks to what we are doing today, the library's collection will not only be sustained, it will grow and thrive. For we who work here also know and love the tranquil spirit that animates the Talbot County Free Library, the accumulated power, majesty, and genius that rests so unobtrusively upon our shelves.