two weeks ago, deep in a book I’m writing on Japan, I desperately needed — what else? — a copy of Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, the intrepid Englishwoman’s account of traveling, alone, to remote parts of Hokkaido, hardly seen by any Westerner, in 1878. I don’t have access to a research library, and I’m not sure that the travel-diaries of indomitable Victorian gentlewomen are often to be found in the PR stacks in any case. And though Santa Barbara is blessed with some of the finest bookstores on the planet, I couldn’t be sure I’d find a little-known work brought out 137 years ago even in Chaucer’s, The Book Den or Tecolote. So down I went to our great hospital-cum-community-center-cum-sanctuary-cum-chapel on Anapamu Street, tucked (perfectly) between courthouse and art-museum, and pulled down the volume in question. Within seconds, I was stumbling around the tatami rooms and kimonoed rites of Niigata sixty-three years before Pearl Harbor.
I wasn’t entirely surprised to find Ms. Bird tramping across the second floor of the Santa Barbara Central Library; for more than fifty years now, that indispensable structure has been my lifeline, my oasis, my reason to believe. Each of its volumes opens out upon an entire universe, of course; but for decades I’ve gone there also to keep up with The New Republic, Publishers’ Weekly, NewYork and any number of fine magazines I’m too stingy to buy. Friends of mine from Japan have all but lived in the Central Library, the one place in town so quiet and safe that they might (almost) be back in Japan. I’ve tapped away on the Library’s Internet terminals, attended exhibitions and lectures in its Faulkner Gallery, even caught up on my thoughts (my sleep) in its astonishingly deep armchairs. Whenever I’m off on a trip, I head to the second floor, armed with dimes for the photocopying machine, and defraud some poor guidebook writer of his royalties.
Five years ago, after my eighty-year-old mother went through back surgery, she began to howl in pain. I raced into her bedroom and asked her what I could get her from downtown.
Just a copy of P.G. Wodehouse, she groaned.
Now that she’s mostly around the house, after a stroke, I head to the library every three weeks and come back struggling under piles of Ursula Le Guin, P.D. James, Stefan Zweig and Jane Gardam for her to devour in bed.
It’s been a sadness, of course, in recent years to find the selection of periodicals shrinking each time I return, and more and more open space and machines displacing shelves of books; I can find that many other places. Yet it’s thrilling to think how, in our book-unfriendly times, the Santa Barbara Public Library is celebrating its centenary, having outlasted VCRs, Walkmen, computer discs and even Pontiac Firebirds.
An innocent friend might ask me, “Why support an institution that is cutting into sales of your own books?” The answer is that books teach us a different way of counting, on an account sheet written in invisible ink. They instruct us in subtlety in a world that is more and more bumper-sticker and sound-bite. They coax us into attention in a time of constant distraction and fragmentation. And they remind us of inner resources that are all we have to turn to when, in fact, a stroke (a forest fire, a dark diagnosis) comes down, and bank-account and business-card are clearly no help at all.
In fact, they deepen those resources and make us better able to face every eventuality in our lives. And all of this for free, as if to show us that what’s given gratis is what is truly invaluable.
The Santa Barbara Public Library — not least in its branches in Goleta and Montecito — has been my abiding sustenance and haunt ever since the day I arrived in town from Oxford, England, a bewildered, tiny boy of seven. I can only hope that a hundred years from now it will be the same for my grand-daughter’s grandchildren, teaching them that a community is as rich as the wisdom that it stores inside itself and that a room in which everyone is silently absorbed in something passionate, intimate and deep is generally, and rightly, known as a place of worship.
“When you are growing up,” the great guitarist of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards, observed, “there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you. The public library is the great equalizer.” When Mr. Richards brought out his own book, the one public appearance he made for it in the U.S. was at the New York Public Library (he chose to forget, for the moment, that one of his most serious, non-fatal injuries had come when searching for a book on Leonardo’s anatomical studies in his library at home).
Libraries are churches for people committed to conversation and exploration. And they’re among the beautiful public spaces that are a collection of privacies, along their shelves and around their tables. If Santa Barbara — God forbid! — were to lose its mission, its newspaper building, its finest restaurants, many of us would be bereft; but if ever it lost its library, we’d no longer be ourselves.
An excerpt from Library Book, Writers on Libraries, A Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Santa Barbara Central Library, edited by Steven Gilbar.
Pico Iyer is the author of two novels and nine works of nonfiction, and is usually to be found somewhere in the 900 section of the stacks.