I despise libraries.
Where other people see shelves of treasures, I see a gallery of horrors. Just look at the west wall of our library as an example; it’s lined floor to ceiling with books. Up on the top shelf (which sags slightly in the middle, under the weight of the tedium it must support), The Cabinet of Governor Elbert Lee Trinkle, 1922 – 1926 leers down like a human skull. Protruding over the lip of the third shelf is Flora of the Amazon River Basin, its leather binding dry and cracked like the shriveled carcass of a spider monkey. Hideously ill-conceived, Miss Bridget’s Guide to Raising Little Girls and Boys for Jesus is a slim volume wedged between two larger books, where it floats like a curled fetus in a jar of cloudy formaldehyde.
A leather binding is a bid for immortality, a promise that what lies within will be resurrected in the minds of its readers. Like the books themselves, it’s a promise with a shelf life. Inside these bindings hundreds of stories quietly decompose, unread and unlamented. Our biographers use their pens to pin the vibrant spoken word to paper, like butterflies under glass. But who can name the vital thing that’s lost in preservation?
Between the bindings the pages are filled with lies. We have faith in the printed word because entire orders of civilization arose from a few early editions. And then, the printed word dragged us out of ignorance and the Dark Ages, and yes, I concede, that was a useful service. But a pen is like a filter: when a story is pressed through it, what makes it to the page has been sanitized—corrected—in a microscopic way.
I wasn’t always so skeptical. When I was seven, my formal education commenced with history books for beginners. I did my homework with my mother at the kitchen table. Kitchen tables are sacred places; ambiguities are for the dining room, with its seating cards and social codes. Here we butter bread and tell the truth. Our table is a sturdy pine slab, plain and polished from decades of elbows and warm plates.
As a child, I had a love of perfectly sharpened #2 pencils and a violent faith in books that my mother had the job of disabusing.
“Mom, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, and his dad caught him, and he said, ‘Did you chop down this cherry tree?’ and George Washington said ‘I cannot tell a lie’ and he told his dad he chopped it down. But Mom. How can a kid chop down a whole tree?”
“Well, he didn’t chop down a whole tree.”
“No, he did.”
“No, he didn’t. That story is ‘apocryphal,’ which means…”
“It did happen Mom, it’s in my history book. See?”
I forced my mother to confront the truth as illustrated by a cartoon of George and George’s dad, whose historic words floated above their heads in speech bubbles. There it was, and not in black and white, but in primary colors—even more damning.
Mom failed to register her defeat.
“That’s just a story, sweetheart. It’s not history exactly. There’s a difference.”
Poor Mom. I had all the evidence on my side—documentation!
“It’s in my history book!”
My mother laughed, the cow!
“Sweetie, I wish that made it true.”
We regard the printing of words as transmutation, water into wine. A spoken word is a common thing, but when it’s anointed in ink and fixed on the page, it becomes powerful, revered, sacred. And the questioning of sacred things is considered by many to be impolite. Acorn Hill is the kind of house that imposes a certain level of decorum. So we keep these unread books, like elderly, foggy relatives who want nothing more than to pull you down next to them and tell you about World War II. Ultimately, the difference between a history book and an exceptionally long yarn by my ninety-nine-year-old Great Aunt Ethel is merely a mechanical process.
Still, a library is a perfect world for some, and our library tries to uphold that ideal. The north and south walls of this room are covered in wallpaper painted with a utopian Virginian scene—white and black ladies in elaborate gowns picnic on lawns together, white and black and Indian gentleman are kitted out in top hats and silk waistcoats, except for the Indians, who wear feathered headdresses and spotted furs. Virginia’s Natural Bridge arcs over all of these festivities, a gateway to a fictional world, far away from the grim record in the books lining the western wall. All are enjoying congenial discourse over silver-topped canes and glasses of punch.
Propaganda, revisionism, slander. Libraries are where we take the truth and bury it under black spadefuls of printed words. Why do you think no one is allowed to talk in libraries? Silence reigns where questions might be voiced, lies scraped away in skeptical whispers and sotto voce excavations, and the truth exhumed.
My grandfather Benjamin spent his final days in this room, killing off each quarter-hour with a paper rolled full of Virginia’s golden crop. The nerves in his chest had been surgically severed, so he couldn’t feel the pain of the cancer, and sometimes he even thought he might be getting better. He thought that until his brother Edward came to see him. He and Edward hadn’t spoken for years. After Edward left, he was quiet for a bit, and then he looked at my grandmother and rasped, “Now I know I must be dying.”
Grandpa wasn’t a reader. In fact he was fairly dyslexic, but that was of little consequence to an engineer and a farmer, especially one at the end of his life. A decades-old boxwood grew outside the library window; he ordered it sawed in half, so he could sit in a full square of southern light and look out over my grandmother’s garden and the ripening fields beyond. He sat surrounded by books about the past and walls papered in paradise, and received a steady stream of visitors. He’d built a business and filled its ranks with his family; he’d bought a farm and planted crops and harvested them; he’d bid for Acorn Hill and won it and restored it and raised his children there. And now he sat and looked out the window and smoked his cigarettes until holding them began to burn, in a room decorated with histories both beautiful and false. Stacked on the shelves and papered on the walls were stories about life the way it might have been. In the room itself, a real life was lived. Nothing of the Stewart family is mentioned in the books that decorate our library. And that’s just fine. Because the room, my friends, the room belongs to us.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.