In explaining how the act of reading can be likened to a drug-taking experience, the masterful essayist, stylist and author, E. B. White, noted how this “sort of ecstasy” could only be derived from literature “under ideal conditions”.
What exactly are these conditions? Are they similar to those unique requirements writers need to help them through the process of writing? Or are they universal – accessible to anyone and everyone of us?
Perhaps a clue lies in the conditions present in those most important centres of creativity and learning: the public library. These monuments to human thought and communication, which have that fascinating ability to function both as institution and metaphor. Of course, no library is alike, yet we ascribe them all a set of conforming features: studiousness, solitude and quiet, above all else.
From the earliest scholastic archives of writing at Ugarit of Ancient Egypt, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. Most importantly of all, they have provided countless doses of White’s “ecstasy” to readers and writers, because of the conditions inherently present within the walls of every library, and the corridors of books within them.
In praise of libraries
These qualities of libraries are at the heart of the belief that all humans have a certain responsibility for maintaining and taking care of these cultural hubs. Indeed, Neil Gaiman asserted that “we have an obligation to support libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”
Part of the reason for this is clear. In our digital, Post-Fordist world, it is becoming harder and harder to free ourselves from distraction. To find solace and places of quiet. To think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds.
Of course, the fundamental need to slow down – to find the time and space to think – is nothing new. For centuries, wiser souls have reminded us that we will never be happy unless we live quiet lives. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
British philosopher, Bertrand Russel, meanwhile, opined that “a happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”
It is the opportunity libraries offer us to sit quietly by ourselves that makes them such fitting sanctuaries for books. As we lift a book from a shelf carrying the words of so many others, these buildings remind us, in their calm, quiet serenity, of the conditions in which the words are best read. For it is within these conditions that some of the greatest rewards from reading are reaped: these being a deeper consciousness of oneself, increased creativity, increased freedom; increased joy.