I Once Saw an Aristotle
I've been dreaming a lot lately. This morning I awoke with an old, faint memory. I remembered the public library my mom used to take me to back in Oregon. It had three floors (including the basement). I include the basement because that's where the kids' section was. We'd walk out of the rain and the swaying pine trees into the silence of the books within. In the basement, I remember learning for the first time the difference between 'Fiction' and 'Nonfiction'. Fiction meant stories - and Nonfiction meant everything else. Ok, so it's no wonder I'm writing fantasy now, I know, I know... I guess I grew up biased.
I'd rush over to the old elevator with the dim yellow lights - try not to press all the buttons once inside, and then fast-walk towards where the stories were. I don't know what exactly I was looking for, but I knew I was looking for it. We had a rule where you could only check out up to 5 books, I think. And you had to be sure to read them all, otherwise the number could get reduced. Anything but that!
I'm remembering more as I write. I was in the basement tracing through the fiction isles... still not finding quite whatever it was I was after... Eventually I wandered upstairs to the main level... and looked up. And somewhere in my small mind, I started realizing there was more to the library than just the basement. There was more to books than just the fiction and nonfiction 'for kids' downstairs. (Plus, I remembered thinking, I bet the view looking down from the upper floor would be cool!) Back into the elevator with the dim yellow lights I went... but this time, I pushed a button I had never purposely pushed before. This time I pressed the '2' button.
I think I forgot to mention how the center part of the library's main and second floor were open, so you could peek down (if you were tall enough). I watched people whoosh through the library's slow, automated front doors out of the rain and the swaying pine trees for a bit... then padded off into brand new isles. Terra Incognita. I already felt older and cool... like I had discovered some great secret well ahead of my time. Already, there were new mysteries... like, what was with all the numbers at the ends of the isles (already, I was thinking like Indiana Jones in a booby-trapped ruin).
I think I spied my mom down one of the isles... but I didn't want the adventure to be over or made safe just yet. I still had books to find. In the stillness - in the quiet silence of the books - I lurked. Deftly padding down isles, I found books on planes and Aztecs! I found books written by a few authors I recognized from back down in the basement. Cool. I grabbed some of these. I learned without realized it how I actually liked some non-story books (nonfiction, I mean). I think I debated over the last book I was allowed to check out. - hard decisions, I know...
As time went by, I still went down to the basement now and again... but now I wasn't bound to it. Any book was mine. All I had to do was take it. Anything. Anything I wanted to read about or hear... I could. So I did. (and I still do).
Juxtaposed with this is the time we had a class field trip down to the Portland down town library. We were learning about biographies and autobiographies, and we had to pick from a list of people to write about. I learned 'Auto' means self. A self-story... but you couldn't make up stuff. I was and still am a bit blurry about that line. Made up stuff is like lies and what not. Everything else is fair game in my mind. Anyways, we all trooped in out of the rain. I'm sure we were being herded like cats to the right part of the ginormous library (the biggest I'd seen yet). My assignment had me covering the Wright brothers. They were cool and all - I started reading up on them - trying my best not just to get books about them, but primarily autobiographical books about them, and then biographical books, if I couldn't find the first. I don't remember if I succeeded with this quest, because something caught me eye...
It was probably just something on tour. But it was cool. There, in a special glass room in the very heart of the huge library, on a (and I'm not making this up) a glowing pedestal surrounded by yet more glass, was the oldest bit of writing I'd ever see. Original work of Aristotle. Yeah. Like The Aristotle. There was a place for people to handle the document with special gloves you could put your hands into, so you could reach into the sealed case. I didn't know what an Aristotle was, but it was... mythic. The parchment was yellowed, and was made from a different material than I was used to seeing. The writing was soft black - looping in the beginning... then fading down to meticulous chicken scratches from there.
So yeah, I've seen a bit of original Aristotle. I'll always have that.
The feeling I remember watching it from across the floor was something like reverence. It wasn't a feeling I conjured up - it was something the work exuded. Like the light making the words visible didn't really come from the florescents overhead, but from the work itself. Old books are cool. But books that mean something - books that, I don't know, visibly shaped Western thought for thousands of years... now that's a whole 'nother level. The closest thing I can think of now that musters a similar feeling is like when you walk inside the old churches in Santa Fe - the ones that have been there since the 1600's. There's a hush and then you feel silent inside. There's a grandeur which makes you keep your voice down as you look up at towering pillars and ideas.
I've carried these memories all my life. I will remember them. I will hold them close until they become a part of me - until i live and breathe them. Until they are more feeling than images.
That is what books mean to me.