An Leabharlann

by Brian Doyle

One time I was in Connemara, that tiny remnant of the Gaelic kingdom that once ruled all the green rocky sprawl of the Irish island, when I finished the books I had brought to read while traveling, and realized, with a start, that I was well and truly screwed as regards reading material, for I had already read the books my companions had, one of them twice, and the cottages where we were staying had nothing whatsoever to read, not even old magazines, so I wandered off in search of the local library. This turned out to be a small cottage with a small librarian and a sweeping view over the sea behind it—“Bertraghboy Bay,” said the tiny librarian, “which is supposed to mean ‘yellow sandbank’ according to what’s in your guide books and such, but it doesn’t mean that at all, and in fact means something more like ‘a great place to find the oysters.’ Names mean more than the words that compose them, you know. But you know that, as a literary man. No, I am afraid we do not have any of your books, but yes indeed, if you send them to me we will happily shelve them, although where to do so is a mystery at present, as you see. We are sold out, as it were, in the matter of shelf space for books, and given the parlous state of the economy, and the ruinous political management of the district, I cannot imagine that money will be miraculously found for the expansion of the library system. But having too many books is a happy problem, is it not? Because the books do wander out every day, and most of them come back. I used to be much more fidgety about retrieving them from those who kept them too long, but I gave that up years ago, on the theory that if it took some fella in Errisbeg longer than a lady in Crumpan to read such and such a book, well, then it took him longer, and as long as he did return the volume eventually, all was well. Here and there someone would lose a book, twice into the waters of the bay, but almost always a new copy would appear somehow, and to be honest it seems to me if a book goes into the bay then it’s a good death for the book, and surely we owe the bay a bit of thanks after all it’s given us, don’t you think? Not to mention maybe there’s a well-educated lobster tribe down there, for all we know, and good for them.

“How did I become a librarian? Well, now, I’ll tell you, and it’s a strange bit of a story, for I think it all began with the very word itself. I was just a bit of a boy with not a word of the imperial English in my head when my grandfather first took me to the library. It wasn’t this building, no, it was a smaller one, someone’s old cottage, as I remember, and it was no bigger than two crows standing back to back. I remember as we walked up to it my grandfather said, with real respect and reverence, an leabharlann, which is the Irish for ‘the library,’ and the way he said it, slowly and gravely, has never left my ear. To him and so to me it was a holy word, a sacred word, a crucial word. Your library is where the community stores its treasures. It’s the house that imagination built. It’s where all the stories that matter are gathered together and celebrated and shared. It’s exactly like a church, it seems to me. People come to it communally for something that’s deep and ancient and important beyond an easy explanation. Who you are as a town is in the library. It’s why when you want to destroy a place you burn down the library. People who fear freedom fear libraries. The urge to ban a book is always an urge to put imagination in jail. But in the end you cannot imprison it, just as you cannot imprison the urge to freedom, because those things are in every soul, and there are too many souls to jail or murder them all, and that’s a fact. So a library is a shout of defiance too, if you think about it: dorn in aghaidh an dorchadas, a fist against the dark.”

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Brian Doyle Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine, in Oregon. He is the author of many books, most recently the novels Martin Marten and Chicago. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

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