Sunday, March 9, 2014

"This is the old library"

It's been ages since I spent a Saturday at leisure, reading magazines in the library atrium beside the burbling fish pond, and then going home to read a book on the couch all afternoon. Memo to the good people who dreamed up and wrote the article in Real Simple's current issue on iconic beauty and skin care products: you really must consult my Pond's cold cream saga, here, and of course here.

My day began with a look in at the library used book sale, held the second Saturday of each month. That was a case of awkward-turtle-on-its-back-beside-itself-with-awkwardness and on fire. (Ask your young people for the reference.) I used to be a member and even a past president of the Friends of the Library, and I too attended meetings, staffed the book sale room, and worked the cashier table at the sales. It was here in fact that I learned the essence of power struggles, especially women's power struggles. If you want to win them, you make it your business to undo the other person's work.We had a woman who would spend six hours a day moving Travel books to the Biography section, or Religion books to Self-Help; when questioned, she would explain her reasons in flutey tones. Other volunteers learned quickly that if they did not want their time and effort wasted after the fact, they had better ask Peggy what she wanted done, or else quit the group. And so Peggy became the queen of the basement stacks.

But that was ages ago. When I went to the sale yesterday, of course I did not want to float in, in muff and Hermès scarf as it were, and say "here I am, children!" to people who for all I knew might be entirely new volunteers or have no memory of me or both.

Therefore I was circumspect. I sidled in. At first my circumspection was rewarded. I didn't gush over unaware people and I didn't earn a pop-eyed "Oh ... yes of course" in return. I browsed the shelves of the quiet library basement annex, finding things that I used to borrow but that are now stamped "Withdrawn." The Friends still wear yellow shirts on book sale days, and atop the yellow shirts there was a face or two I didn't know, or another whom I had to rack my brain to remember. No Peggy.

I kept on browsing, taking on the familiar book-lover's posture, standing upright with the head severely tilted to the right so that one may read the titles printed on the spines. Isn't it odd that, in Europe, one would tilt one's head to the left, because European -- or at least French -- book titles are printed the other way? A French table of contents comes at the back of the book, too, which seems not only odd but psychologically completely nonsensical. Don't you want to glance over a quick summary of a book before it begins?

I browsed, at first just picking an ancient collection of Great Plays because I like to read plays, and where else am I going to find Shelley's Cenci? -- and not expecting much more. Every local library has its glut of books that served a purpose once but now must go, and these make up the bulk of this annex collection, too. Here were biographies of Lee Iacocca or the Olympic figure skaters of yesteryear, or the twentieth copy and beyond of Twilight. But my tracing of fingers over spines and plucking down of interesting things grew less desultory as I moved along, crook-necked, and spotted more treasures. I was of two minds about my unfolding experience: there are things that, perhaps, no library should "weed," else it ceases to be a library; on the other hand today was a good shopping day. Soon I was snatching up nothing less than the omnibus volume Make Way for Lucia, the very book I am pictured holding in an old glossy portrait photo from my Friends days, when we all posed cradling favorite books in imitation of celebrity "Read" posters. I found also André Castelot's Queen of France, a great favorite, three novels of Angela Thirkell -- I could never renew these enough -- all Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner stories together, Elizabeth Burton's Pageant of Elizabethan England to go beside my copy of her Pageant of Georgian England -- you remember that's where I learned porcelain collecting -- a sumptuous coffee-table book on the Victorian Heyday with text by J.B. Priestly, a like-new Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet which evidently had been checked out five times in fourteen years and so got itself banished to the magical library downstairs. Possibly best of all is a thick paperback called Mrs. C. W Earle's Pot-pourri from a Surrey Garden (originally published in 1897), a "National Trust Classic" that was also a banished markdown even in its native land ("was £5.95") before finding its way to my library and then to refuge with me. "I can only hope that it will not prove too great a disappointment," the authoress modestly warns in her one-paragraph Preface.

More books on heirloom flowers, a 1940 edition of the above-mentioned Lucia novels (All About Lucia -- for some strange reason the universe smiled upon me and E.F. Benson this day) and Elisabeth Sheldon's A Proper Garden (1989) rounded out the purchases for the morning. And, query, why do all garden writers, I daresay all naturalists, buy a two-hundred acre farm in upstate New York after having lived "around the Mediterranean for many years," and then complain that all garden books are written by English people who have no clue how lucky they are in climate and home?

But I was telling a story of awkward turtles. When I was done shopping I had two brown paper grocery bags full of books, and it was time to go to the annex foyer and pay for them. There were all the Friends in their yellow shirts. And, wouldn't you know it, all five of them were long established members whom I knew and who, unless I am extremely unmemorable and that is perfectly possible, also must have known me.

We all said absolutely nothing to one another beyond the niceties of complaining about the weather and counting out change. It was exactly like the scenes one reads about in old etiquette books, purchased at library used book sales, in which authority lays it down that men and women who danced and flirted at a ball one night need not acknowledge each other in public the next day, because a ball does not constitute a proper introduction. Did they all really not remember me? Did they recognize me at once but leave me to my freakish coldness? The situation became more and more absurd but also more impossible as the seconds ticked by. If a man had been present, I feel sure he would have said something and all would have ended in laughter. For its part divorce lends deeper awkwardnesses to those moments in life when one faces a simple, disinterested "How have you been?". The Friends, like any small group, being a bit like a small town and having tentacles everywhere, may know more than I know. As it was, I thought as I was leaving that the scene would have played well in an episode (coincidentally enough) of Friends, in which one of the more hapless characters describes everything and concludes haplessly, "I know!" 

The bags of books went into the car. I returned to the atrium and read Real Simple beside the burbling fish pond. I then went home and read Wafa Sultan's A God Who Hates (2009), straight through. Not a library "weed," I am glad to say. Professional historians may argue over her ideas or spot discrepancies in her logic, but the throbbing pulse of her experience beats through the book like blood flowing through a body. Here she is at her best:
"The Koran does not distinguish between the concepts of "force" and "power." It confuses the two in an odd manner, and God's power manifests itself only as an ability to use force. What is the real difference between the two concepts? A person has power when he can do what needs to be done in a peaceable manner appropriate to the circumstances. He will resort to force only when he is powerless. In other words, power represents peace [i.e., the presence of it], while force represents violence [i.e., the need to resort to it  -- addenda mine].
"...A powerful god, like a powerful person, rules his throne and his kingdom in love, peace, compassion, and mercy rather than by killing, inflexibility, and internal strife. A powerful god does not fear that his authority or his mission will be undermined by rebellion, nor does he resort to violence to defend that authority. That is the difference between the Muslim God and the real God, if there is any! The God of Islam uses force, but he has no power" (pp.174-175).
There is more to her book than this -- granted this is a lot -- but with these passages plus the title for a start, she really seems to be asking us to consider that Allah is not God, the Lord, the Most High, nor is it the Arabic name for the Creator or Providence or anything like that; she is saying, she is shouting, that that is polite fiction; she is saying that he is, literally, a god on the order of Zeus or Apollo, or one of the horrible Hindu deities whose teeth drip blood. We can understand what those names meant to the people who once adored them; we're just not accustomed, polite as we are, to thinking that those gods really do have a fellow, alive in his people's minds now.   

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