My library was Dukedom large enough.
~ The Tempest, William Shakespeare
My buddy Joe Kelly is what Yiddish speakers call a mensch – a great guy who seems to have an innate sense when to turn up.. In May of 2005, I was single-handedly unpacking and shelving my book collection in our new flat in Moscow. I had been itching to get this done, and so had spent much of the day, unpacking and stacking boxes with careful labels announcing, “Fiction Buchan – Dickens,” or “Dan Brown Studies,” and “Queen Marie of Rumania bios.” When Joe showed up, looking for a clean bathroom, a cold drink, and a nap on my new couch, he found me more than ready to take a break.We sipped our ginger lemonades, feet up on piles of books, as we surveyed the stacks on the floor and partially filled shelves, which stretched across the length of two rooms.
“Want me to help you throw these up onto the shelves?” asked Joe.
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “Thanks…but I have to figure out where to start each section…that will take me a while.”
“Dude,” said Joe laughing, “what do you mean…section?”
“You know,” I explained, “like biography, early church history, interior design, fiction, foreign fiction –“
“Jenny B!” exclaimed Joe, laughing his head off, “you really catalog your books…like according to what, the Dewey Decimal system?”
I was confused.
“Don’t you?” I asked.
Joe is still dining out on this…he calls me the Call Number Girl, and because he’s Joe, it’s funny.
Today is All Russian Library Day! From Kaliningrad to Nakhodka, we are celebrating Russian libraries and librarians! Be sure to take a moment and stop off at your neighborhood public library and thank the librarians for all they do to make our lives richer, fuller, and happier.
That, of course, could be a problem if you live anywhere between Kaliningrad and Nakhodka, because you might not be able to get into the library. Not unless you have a special access pass (which is very different from a card) like the one Lyudmila, the gutsy husband-hunting heroine of “Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears,” finagles in order to spend a Sunday afternoon in in search of a likely-looking graduate student in Moscow’s Lenin Library.
“What are you going for?” asks her more practical and studious friend, Katya, “surely not the books?”
“Well,” says Lyudmila, “you see…there is a cigarette break room.”
It goes without saying that there isn’t the Library culture in Russia that exists in the West. There are libraries, to be sure, but you don’t get taken to them in a stroller for Story Hour as a toddler, or exhaust the Young Adult section by the time you are 13. You don’t inhale Victoria Holt or become riveted by Nicholas & Alexandra. They don’t offer free Internet access, and aren’t staffed by nice people who talk to you as they check out your books about the latest Rachel Cusk. They certainly don’t hunt down an out of print copy of “My Ordeal” by Queen Marie of Rumania for you. You can’t check out a DVD of “My Man Godfrey” when you are feeling blue or a 30 hour engrossing Book On Tape for a long car drive…in fact you don’t check out anything, you stay in and read stuff there. You don’t volunteer to go to an endless series of what are known in my family as “regularly scheduled emergency meetings of the Library Board,” on cold January nights.
There are no real libraries in Russia. Not that I could find. Not that satisfied my insatiable desire for books. There is the Library of Foreign Literature which doesn’t smell super, but is a place where you can go and sit and read Jane Eyre or a three-month old Time Magazine if you are that desperate, but you have to bring six copies of your passport and leave your first born as hostage.
I took three books with me to Russia in 1992, and I read them until the spines cracked and the pages were waterlogged. When Saint Steve came out with the iPod and I could download audio books, I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven. English books were like gold in Moscow: every trip to London included a long session at Hatchard’s or a slow trawl up Charring Cross Road. You had to know someone really really well to lend them a book, and Russian drivers criss-crossed Moscow to deliver and return the precious commodities to book club members. Today, my own library in Moscow to me seems nothing short of miraculous: Over 2000 volumes: impressive lit in the public areas of the flat, comfort lit downstairs in the privacy of the bedroom. Each one, a triumph over logistics. Each one, a friend. Each one painstakingly trawled for in used book shops or online to satisfy the completist in me: my childhood favorites added to Velvet’s shelves: Laura and Mary, Heidi, and Frodo joined the five sisters from All-Of-A-Kind-Family, and made room for newcomers Princess Mia, Harry, Ron and Hermione.
As Velvet got older, she would ask for new stories and I’d pull Lizzie Bennett, Linda Radlett and Fanny Logan, Patrick Dennis or Scout down from the shelf.
My books keep me company and make me feel safe. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say they keep me sane.
“One stop to make first,” I said, climbing into the car.
“Where?” asked HRH, puzzled.
Happy Library Day to librarians – wannabe or otherwise – throughout all of Russia and the world!
This post is part of The Stunt.
Let's shout it out for the Librarians!!!!! Leave a tribute by clicking on the comment button below, and don't forget to say "Thank You" to the people who make your library possible! Consider becoming a member of your own local public library, volunteer for story hour, or just browse the shelves. Or, if you're in Moscow, come and see my Library....if you are very good, I'll lend you a book!