Visiting the incredible libraries Claire Voon describes in her online article, “Seven Spectacular Libraries You Can Explore From Your Living Room,” was enjoyable, but reminded me of Sappho’s line, “Once again love drives me on, that loosener of limbs, bittersweet creature against which nothing can be done.”
As Harvard librarian Matt Cook said, the 360-degree virtual tour of Widener Library’s gorgeous architecture “is the next best thing to being able to walk through the building,” but it sure made me miss our dear Noel Wien Library.
The past two months are the longest I can remember being outside a library. Having run public libraries for 30-some-odd years (some odder than others), I most miss standing aside quietly as the library opened up, watching the stream of intent visitors, a library’s intellectual lifeblood, flow in and feel the institution rouse to vibrant life. Fortunately, we can at least pick up books, DVDs and other library materials from 11 a.m. through 5:30 p.m. at the Bookmobile Pick Up Service in Noel Wien’s parking lot.
It’s a good thing UAF’s Rasmuson Library has a similar service, and borough library card holders can borrow there, too, because they own “The Book of Contemplation,” an anecdote-packed Arabic classic by Usama ibn Munqidh, a princely Moslem knight, diplomat and famous writer, who battled the crusaders in the 1100s. He wrote “Contemplation” in his 90s, when he was advisor to Saladin, and, as Paul Cobb wrote in the introduction to the Penguin edition of “Contemplation,” Usama was “a warrior, courtier and distinguished man of letters” who “included anecdotes from his own checkered life that are as informative for students of the medieval Near East as they are entertaining for any curious reader.”
“Usama is most famous today for his observations on the manners and customs of the Latin settlers who inhabited his part of the world,” Cobb wrote, and “his marvelous eye for detail and human portraiture. And it helps that his stories are also rather funny and a bit risque, too.” However, many of Usama’s recollections are from the “Relief After Misfortune” genre of Arabic literature. One of Usama’s greatest misfortunes was the destruction of his personal library by illiterate crusaders.
“The news that my children and my brother’s children and all our women were safe made it easier to take the news about all the wealth that was lost. Except for my books: they totaled 4,000 bound volumes of the most precious tomes. Their loss was for me a heartache that lasted all my life.”
His woes are my distractions — reading Usama’s memoirs transports me to dusty Western Syria 900 years ago, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much if my copy of “Contemplation” wasn’t replete with explanatory glossaries on unfamiliar terms, maps, measurement conversions: in a word, “annotations,” or “notes added by way of comment or explanation.” I revere well-annotated books that illuminate the “stories behind the stories,” and possess a fair number, including “The Wizard of Oz,” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Riverside Shakespeare,” and the Landmark edition of “Herodotus’ Histories.” The latter’s a particular favorite since I’m intrigued by, but not trained in, ancient history and things have changed so since Herodotus’ day that it’s difficult to follow him without the inclusion of 127 maps, copious footnotes, illustrations and appendices aplenty (“Classical Greek Religious Festivals,” “Hoplite Warfare,” Women and Marriage,” etc.).
Over 200 of Mark Twain’s personal books, many retaining his handwritten notes and marginalia, reside in the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Connecticut, where shortly after arriving in 1908, he founded the Mark Twain Library Association to facilitate the construction of a public library in his new hometown. Twain’s books weren’t included in PEN America’s “First Editions/Second Thoughts” auction of first editions annotated by famous authors like Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich and Don DeLillo, each of whom inserted notes, essays, drawings and other memorabilia into their books, and they raised $920,000, and an anonymous donor made it an even $1 million. PEN (“Poets, Essayists, Novelists”) is dedicated to worldwide freedom of expression; their website has an article about the recent Mat-Su book bannings and they assist the 238 international writers incarcerated by dictators last year.
Tyrants are quick to jail, disparage, and ban those who disagree with them, even here. Historically speaking, pendulums balance things out; as Usama reminded many times, “Mysterious are the works of the Creator, the author of all things!”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.