As some of you know, I hold a PhD but use it only for activities such as washing the car or trying to get a free upgrade on international flights. It would be a lie to say I’ve never regretted my decision not to pursue an academic career, but for the most part my regrets constitute brief flare-ups punctuating an otherwise happy and healthy life as a layperson.
However. There is one thing about not being an academic that I feel the pain of, if not constantly, at least every time I have cause to think of it (which, sadly, is actually pretty often): I desperately miss having constant access to a good research library. What’s especially frustrating about this is that if I lived in a different city–say in Halifax, where I grew up and did my BA and MA, or where I did my PhD (Kingston)–I would be able to purchase, at an affordable yearly rate, access to a good research library. But I live in Toronto, which with a painfully ironic knife in the gut, houses the brilliantly stocked libraries of the University of Toronto which does not allow outside access to almost anyone.
I had access to the U of T libraries when I was a grad student at Queen’s–free then, now prohibitively expensive even to Ontario grad students, the bastards–and so I know too well what I’ve been missing.
But then, a couple of weeks ago, something magical and completely unexpected happened. (Admittedly, it shouldn’t have been completely unexpected; but don’t ruin my moment by dwelling on it, okay?): I started taking a class at U of T through their continuing studies program and found out during the first meeting that I was eligible for a library card for the duration of the course. I almost ran out of the classroom and straight to the library; I found it difficult to sit still and pay attention. I almost squealed and clapped my hands out loud; I’m pretty sure I did both silently, and was noticed.
You will not be surprised to learn I went the next day and got that library card and wandered through the stacks and almost wept aloud in pure joy and relief. (I’m going to write a photo essay later about some of the ridiculously awesome things you can find in Robarts just on the regular shelves, instead of hidden away under guard and charms of protection in Special Collections.)
For now, two things: why I love university libraries so much, apart from the sheer volume of awesome things unavailable anywhere else; and the first book I borrowed–an exceedingly minor novel by Anthony Trollope.
The Toronto Public Library is a great resource but it’s not organized the way my academically trained brain needs it to be organized. TPL spreads its considerable holdings throughout its 99 branches, and fiction is organized simply alphabetically by author. I need a university library organized according to Library of Congress principles. I need all my authors and everything about them together! I need to go into the stacks and find myself in the Victorians–which is precisely what I did during my first foray back into bookish heaven.
The reason that this way of organizing books is so important is that it gives me a sense of everything I’ve been missing, it provides so many more possibilities for realizing how much I haven’t yet read by and about any given author. Standing amidst such wealth of unread possibility, it feels like anything is still possible. I don’t mean that it feels possible that I might be an academic, I mean it feels like anything is possible–that, and just as likely and much more importantly, that I will find a novel by Dickens no one’s ever read before, or I will learn to find okra delicious, or that Shakespeare wrote a cookbook. Anything. It’s like going to the library as a child for the very first time, but every goddamned day.
I went to Trollope first, of course I did. I almost wept, again, when I saw something like 10 novels of his that I’ve never seen before anywhere, that I hadn’t even heard of! I made my way through the Victorian section and made plans.
Indeed, all my reading plans for between now and March 31 (the terrible day on which my library card expires, unless I can scrape together the money to take another con ed class) changed. I do believe Proust will have to wait. You see, I have many minor novels by Trollope, Thackeray, Gissing, and Oliphant to try to storm through. (A plan undermined somewhat by how slowly I read these days, and that I have to read something else (that looks amazing) for a prior commitment, and that I didn’t have the sense to borrow more than one book the first time back there and so am now reading something from my own collection until I can return to the giant university library of ultimate joy, satisfaction, and magical magicalness.)
By the way, no, my joy about having access to a bunch of minor novels is not one bit ironic. The major Victorian novels are available everywhere, including on my shelves at home. They are snugly waiting for their time in the sun. The others–they’ve been waiting for me to come release them from prison! How could I possibly resist such claims upon me? I have a responsibility.
My first borrow was Anthony Trollope’s The Golden Lion of Granpere, a short novel of Shakespeare-esque tensions between youth and age over who gets to marry who, why, when, and how. It lacks, however, both the hi jinx of a good Shakespearean romp and the careful detailing of the characters’ complicated and unique motives of a really good Trollope novel.
The Golden Lion of Granpere tells the story of the Vosses of the Lion D’or Inn in northeastern France, specifically of the owner’s wife’s niece, Marie, and the owner’s son, George. They, of course, love one another but are threatened with eternal marital separation by George’s good-natured but stubborn and misguided father, Michel.
There is nothing particularly surprising about the plot or its resolution, and while the book is enjoyable, it reads more like an abstract of an Anthony Trollope novel rather than a completed Anthony Trollope novel. One of the things I love about him is that he is, as a good friend of mine said recently, like a warm comfortable blanket in which you sometimes find surprisingly sharp and dangerous bits. Trollope simply can’t seem to properly set up either the fuzzy warmth or the terrible barbs in a mere 265 pages.
Also, it’s set in France, and I really can’t think of why it should be. Not that it shouldn’t be, but its special setting in no way contributes to the partially drawn characters’ adventures in this rushed little tale. Trollope doesn’t seem to have thought much of it either, noting in his Autobiography only that it was “written on the model of Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, but is very inferior to either of them” (p. 321), and yielded him a meager 550 pounds sterling (p. 364). I haven’t read either of these other, apparently much better, novels but maybe I will shortly!!
You see, my ambition is to read nothing less than everything and university libraries promise that possibility, even though it’s clearly not practical. No matter: libraries that don’t offer up an infinity of reading aren’t doing their job, and readers who don’t answer that challenge aren’t doing theirs. End of lecture; I have some reading I need to get back to.