“Nothing” wrote Carl Jung, “is less effective than an intellectual idea.” How well I knew it!
I was eighteen, neurotic, half blind, anorexic and full of ideas. And so of course I took a job working at the local college’s library.
A buddy’s blue collar mom was working there checking the backpacks and briefcases of students, for those were the days before electronic sensors. Students lined up like horses in the paddock, steaming and impatient, some of them stamping their boots while Mrs. Kleinfelt rummaged among their lipsticks and bags of marijuana in search of a purloined Duns Scotus.
I imagined I could have a job like that. I felt the high temperature of such things in my unassailable head. I made a beeline for the library.
Mr. Petripallo was the chief librarian and before I knew it I was escorted to his office and seated atop a sidelong apple crate crammed with old copies of The Nation—their faded pages gone yellow, pages fanning out like a Fool’s origami as the magazines tumbled under my feet.
Mr. P. looked like an older version of Harold Lloyd. But unlike the silent film star he’d never left the library. He was pale. He was “all brain” and he had a strange way of curling his lips before he spoke as if a disagreeable hidden agent was fighting for control of his tongue. And here is where I should say he looked me up and down, but he didn’t look my way at all. He was bent over a shoe—not his own, or so I imagined since he was wearing two loafers, but maybe it was his shoe, who knows—but he was peering into it as if some holy scourge lay hidden there, or a Chinese fortune, I didn’t know, all I knew was I’d never seen a man fully absorbed by a shoe and I wasn’t sure I liked it.
“So you like books?” he asked while prodding the shoe’s laces with a pencil. It was as if he thought the shoe was some kind of animal—a porcupine—and he was testing to see if it was truly dead.
“Yessir.” (I thought the “sir” a good touch.) “Lately I’ve been reading Diderot.”
(My father was an academic so we had good books around the ranch. I didn’t add that I was too lazy to go to a library and get some middle brow stuff.)
“Well, yes,” said Mr. P. still looking into the shoe. “What do you think about dust?”
“Yes. Dust: the enemy of books and hence the enemy of ideas.”
He put the shoe in the drawer of a filing cabinet. He slammed it shut.
“Dust: a thing which you cannot analyze by dissection. It has no anatomy. The physical body of dust is a mystery. Yet it eats all the cerebralizations of humanity. Dust is the true foe of every book.”
As I’ve already said, I was 18, but I could spot intellectual mummery, the chronique scandaleuse of crazy people. I knew that it didn’t matter what I said.
I said: “You know there’s no substitute for dust is there? I mean I’ve never thought about this before.”
Petripallo squinted at me. He didn’t say anything. He signaled that I should follow him with a bent index finger. He lead me to an oversized closet crammed with cardboard boxes containing what appeared to be industrial junk—broken gears and exhausted rubber fan belts. In one box the head of a female mannequin stared out like some child’s doll one sees abandoned at a scene of violent weather.
With some grunting and shoving he retrieved an ancient, nay, superannuated Electrolux vacuum cleaner from behind a stack of boxes. It looked like Flash Gordon’s rocket with big scuffed, nickel-plated fobs that once must have held attachments but which now poked uselessly from its sides. It was so old it had a leather handle for hauling it about.
“I want you to vacuum books,” Petripallo said. “Vacuum them row by row, aisle by aisle.”
That’s how I found myself in the library’s basement with a temperamental old vacuum and thousands upon thousands of books, books that Petripallo assured me were sitting ducks for the ravages of dust.
At first this wasn’t so bad. The Electrolux roared and gargled. Its long hose was covered with duct tape and the attachment on the end, a rounded brush of sorts kept falling off as I tipped volumes one by one, gently trying to draw the dust from their spines and sheaves of pages.
But I would have to stop everything when the brush fell off and shove my head and shoulders among the books and grope for the thing—the ancient book shelves had a kind of well between the adjacent rows of volumes and there was no help for it, you had to crawl and flail to get the damned thing back. This happened with every fifth or sixth book. And so I’d put down the hose and the Electrolux would howl like Aiolus and I’d commence digging like a sharecropper there among the books, books with titles like: The Evolution of Nondiagramatic Hypoplasticities or Traditions of Architectural Mathematics—fine books I was certain, though after awhile I observed that no one had borrowed them since the 1890’s.
It has always been my experience that menial work is perfectly agreeable until the tools of meniality break down. I saw within the hour that it would take me a natural lifetime to vacuum a single row of books. Even this didn’t bother me for I felt the sublime character of my duty. But though it was summer and the little college had no classes there were still students using carels and as my Electrolux howled and I crawled in search of the brush, spilling books and cursing softly to myself I found that I had acquired a hostile audience.
“What the fuck are you doing, man?” I looked up. A large, pink college boy wearing a New York Yankees tee shirt was astride my Electrolux which was roaring sans brush. I made a snap judgment and stood up while leaving the thing running. I made the universal gesture of resigned helplessness with my palms turned out. I started to turn away. Pink boy was not done with me. Again he asked me what the fuck I was doing. I shouted over the howl of the machine: “Not since Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquio have I heard such forcible and melodious speech.” (I thought De Vulgari Eloquio a nice touch. We had it at home.)
“Hey, you’re ruining the fucking library!” He inched closer. I ventured a thought. “Go upstairs and tell the chief librarian that the dust boy is interfering with your studies. I merely follow orders. Perhaps they will assign me to another floor.”
I hoped that this would lead to a new job. I saw the Augean stables for what they were. To my dismay pink boy grabbed his books and stomped out. As they used to say in the “Hardy Boys” books, I was “crestfallen”—I had to go back to my inarticulate show.
When the brush wasn’t falling off the books themselves would decay in my hands. Bindings fell off. Pages scattered. One book, with a title like The Uses of Stationary Image actually flew apart, its pages rising like wings.
This went on for days and days. There was no more pink boy. The college was a liberal arts school and no one used the library when the place was on vacation break. Not even the professors emeriti could be found nosing among the decocalcimined signatures of 19th century books, books that were bad in their times, books that only promised dark contentments of sleep but not before you got a rare infection from a stiff page, the kind of infection that killed Pope Innocent the Tenth, or was it the Eleventh, who knows, but he got lockjaw from handling a Papal Bull, died howling as I remembered it. What if I died here in the Episcopal basement among books so useless that one couldn’t rouse an emotional sun spot for their defense against the merciless dust? No one would find me for days. The vacuum would keep vacuuming, its patched hose swaying like a cobra, a cobra with no enchanter, no dulcet flute. And when they found me, well, the very happenstance nature of my demise would seem as nothing for there is no heroism associated with library death. There would be no 21 gun
salute from the librarians;
no honor guard of stampers; no, I’d be walled up in the library like one of the freaks in the old London hospital. Obviously I needed to get myself fired.
I wasn’t certain how one might be found deficient as a book vaccumer. A mad man would vacuum only a single book, something like The Anatomy of Melancholy but you obviously couldn’t do that if you were even half sane.
Maybe you could bring dust into the library? They’d find me pouring vortex upon vortex of filth into the stacks, little tornados of dust pouring from a customized icing dispenser which I would steal from the bakery.
Then it hit me. I could make a statement of sorts by vacuuming only liberal books. I saw that I could be a defender of ideas while getting fired for a kind of statistical gold bricking. This I thought was a great idea. I actually tried it for a day, dusting Toynbee, Wilde, Voltaire, but no one noticed.
And of course I never did get fired. But one day I discovered an iron ladder that lead to a hatch in the library’s roof. To my delight, that hatch was unlocked and I found myself high on the parapets of the Gothic building, though sufficiently hidden from public view by those same parapets and I saw that I could lean back and read books up there and that no one would ever care.
I remembered from the Devil’s Dictionary:
ACHIEVEMENT, n. The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.
I also remembered:
RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the
shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor. In the days
of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.
So there I was, high above the vacuum which I’d left running all by itself my detachable burden unloaded as it were and I saw already that the world proposed no end of books, that there were more critics than poets, and that the dust was predictable as an 18th century essay. I left the library without a word. I don’t think I ever got my meager pay.
This is where I should affix a moral. Mothers don’t let your babies grow up to be academics. Of course the moral has something to do with staying earnest, to keep thinking romantically of anything that isn’t overtly destructive: the old library, fly fishing, a summer’s job pruning the trees on an old estate, following colors for the sheer sake of following them in a strange city, protecting ideas from dust, staying in love all your life, never giving up on Shakespeare, owning just enough, owning very little, talking to yourself, talking very little but talking to yourself…