Monday, May 31, 2010

The ice of the blackest soul melts

A passage that caught my attention:

* * *
        I remember myself a boy of nine entering my first library; it was quite a small one, but seemed very big to me then. Behind a tall barrier, under paraffin lamp, stood a smooth-haired woman in spectacles wearing a black dress with a white collar. The barrier was so high — at least to me — and the lady in black so forbidding that I all but turned tail. In a voice overloud through shyness I reported that I had already turned nine and was therefore entitled to become a card holder. The forbidding lady laughed and bending over the barrier the better to see the new reader retorted that she had heard of no such rule.
        In the end, though, I managed to join the library, and the time flew so quickly in reading that one day I discovered with surprise that the barrier was not all that high, nor the lady as forbidding as I had first thought.
        This was the first library in which I felt at home, and ever since then I have always had this feeling when coming into a house, large or small, in which there are bookshelves along the walls and people standing by them thinking only one thing — that these books were there to be read. So it was in childhood. And so it was in youth, with long hours spent in the vast Shchedrin public library in Leningrad. Working in the Archives Department, I penetrated into the very heart of the temple of temples. Raising my eyes — tired, because reading manuscripts makes them tire quickly — I watched the noiseless work of the librarians and experienced again and again a feeling of gratitude. That feeling has remained for a lifetime. Wherever I go, to whatever place fate brings me, I always ask first thing, “Is there a library here?” And when I am told, “There is”, that town or township, farm or village, becomes closer, as if irradiating a warm, unexpected light.
        In Schwarz’s play “The Snow Queen”, the privy councillor, a dour individual who deals in ice, asks the storyteller whether there are any children in the house, and on learning that there are, he shudders, because at the sound of children’s voices the ice of the blackest soul melts. So does a house in which there are books differ from those in which there are none.
        The best writers can be compared to scouts into the future, to those brave explorers of new and unknown spaces, of whom Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer, wrote: “Let us follow the narrow tracks of the sled runners and those little black dots laying a railway, as it were, into the heart of the unknown. The wind howls and sweeps across these tracks leading into the snowy wastes. Soon they will disappear, but a trail has been blazed, we have acquired a new banner, and this deed will shine forever through the ages.”

(Veniamin Kaverin, preface to Two Captains)

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