walking

I’m haunted by a library. When you’re studying George MacDonald, you quickly discover that he was haunted by libraries. They recur with as much frequency and with as little explanation—or critical explanation—as clocks in Thurber. As I’ve tried to understand the image, letting it sink into my own imagination and writing, I find it’s unsettlingly swift and haunting me as well.

What is this library? What does it signify? Why is it at once so dark and terrible and so enchanting and wondrous? How do bookstacks become places of spiritual travail and imaginative journey? Who’s dream is this, anyway?

Today, I wanted to post a salient quote from Lilith (1895) describing that greatest and weirdest of MacDonald’s libraries. But finding a suitable quote is like finding a gallery in an art gallery. It’s just—everywhere. How do you separate it out?

I found myself strangely drawn to the quote MacDonald put at the front of Lilith. It’s a selection from Thoreau’s “Walking.” And it moves me strangely. So here it is. Because I think that somehow, in a way I can’t quite describe–

–it has something to do with libraries.

Let me know what you think. Read and discuss.

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,—who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; their trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbour,—notwithstanding I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labour. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed.

But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy.

If it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord.

–Thoreau, “Walking”

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4 thoughts on “walking

  1. “Now, listen. This is important. There’s the real world and there’s the world of nightmares. That’s the way it is. You understand that? What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie and your nightmares are real. The Library is real.”

  2. From the Thoreau passage: “Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed.”

    As a librarian, surrounded on a regular basis by students hard at work in the library, I can attest to this “sweet musical hum” composed of the sounds of readers’ thoughts all around me. And to be clear, I do not refer to the actual sounds of pages turning or groups whispering as they study–I mean the “sounds” that are not scientifically considered such (in terms of sound waves), of those students’ thoughts buzzing all around as they make sense of what they are reading. I swear sometimes I can sense this movement in the space around me, like a voracious symphony. How cool to have this experience put into words so well by Mr. Thoreau.

  3. It’s been a while but I seem to remember Terry Pratchett making a deal out of L-space, at least in one or two of his earlier books.

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