Sacred Interface

Recently I had the odd occasion of checking out a physical copy of a book from my university library. It reminded me of how I used to get dizzy walking the many parallel rows of shelves at my local library as a child.

I remember the different spaces of the Shelby Township Library in images and emotions that flutter up to the surface of my memory and wash back just as easily. It has been at least a decade (likely longer) since I was last there. My mother took me very often as a child, and I was enrolled in a few children's reading groups as best I can remember.

The front doors were manned from the inside by large white pillars equipped with sensors to catch book thieves. I remember the constant worry that overcame me whenever I entered or exited them, as if I might be stealing something without my own knowledge. The circulating reference desk hid a massive dictionary behind it, held up on an ornate wooden book-holder. The lighting here was dim, and I remember gazing at the cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling that flapped every time the air conditioning or heat cranked on.

There was a small common area in the middle of the rows of books. It was lit by small skylights on the ceiling above, and smelled like wood varnish more so than the rest of the library. In my mind I can make my way from the front desk towards the common area, and I pass a spinning rack full of trashy romance novels. One cover is deep purple, with orange lettering. I remember snickering to myself at how similar the figure on the cover of the book resembled Fabio, whom I knew from a popular margarine commercial on television.

Rows of booksEndless, symmetrical rows of books.

Outside of the bright common area, the long rows of the library are shadowy and smell a little like mildew. Every few rows a small stepping stool sits, but otherwise the long halls are indistinguishable. It is here that I get dizzy. My mother is on her own in a row somewhere else, and I've ventured inward. It is farther, darker. I start peering at the colored book jackets: beige, maroon, black, and dark turquoise. I start mouthing out the names on the spine of each book. The books are old, older than me. I heft one up off the shelve and open to a page in the middle. This catapults some emotion up from my chest into my throat. I can't stop wondering about the last time this book might have been read. Pencil marks, finger smudges, or ripped pages mark someone else's time with the book. Every book I open feels like a black hole pulling me in to someone else's experience. Something about the thousands of pages to be opened, the seemingly endless symmetry of shelving, the dim lighting, and the noxious smell of books and old wood overloads my senses.

What I think overtook me in those kinds of moments was something uncanny about books. They were, for me, both temporal and timeless all at once. The moment of opening up a random tome made me imagine cirucumstances in which someone would read it (perhaps the last person to check it out) while also simultaniously experiencing the moment of opening it myself without any knowledge of its content. As a young child, this had an odd effect on me, and I often felt like opening books in this way was a looking glass into someone else's physical experiences with a text.

Opened bookOpening a book like peering into another's physical experience with a text, from some time ago.

As a child I often felt out of place. The in-between state of opening an old book that I had no reason to read felt very much like an "out of place" moment. Each book I opened in this fashion kicked me into a place—an "out of place"—that caused me to feel as if I had intruded on something, like barging into someone's living room uninvited. The proper way to open a book was on page one, and jumping into a library book, especially those marked by age and wear, was jarring. All of the physical manifestations of "use" etched a history onto the interface of each book, something I noted then with intense interest.

In my childhood, books in the library differed from store-bought books in that they had a history of use. Libraries are communal spaces, but so are the books within them. The experience of reading a text, beyond just the memory of its content, was something I attuned myself to as a child. An overactive imagination probably contributed to the gravity of those events, but they were sparked by an engagement with a community of readers I could only imagine. The library was sacred, and the spaces within it—the circulating reference, the common area, and the interface of the books themselves—held meaning and a history of experiences.

I read too often now to contemplate the etchings in the interfaces of my books (also, most of them are purchased new). What strikes me in reflecting on my childhood interest in this sort of "history of use" is my recognition of a community strung out along a timeline. To read a book was to add my history of use to the community's, and similarly to jump straight to the middle of a text was to intrude on it without due course.

The experiences of others—etched into the interface of the book—were punctam and out of sorts with my "schooled" understanding of a book as access to knowledge. There were felt elements to a text as well (though perhaps thinking I could "feel" them as a child was immature). These felt elements, the punctam emotions and memory glimpses of another's experiences, along with my own, are what I hoped to recover in reflecting on these childhood experiences. Reading as a grade-schooled, print-literate child meant "learning," but that process of learning was stung by personal experience, something that is often shed or discarded as insignificant in Literacy. Electracy, in my own grappling of the term, aims in part at this recovery.