Friday, July 20, 2012

Librarians in Lit: A Periodical Perusal

Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pnin is delightful and yet dolefully melancholic too. There is a scene in Chapter 3, Section 6, where Pnin is on his way to his "favorite haunt," the Waindell College Library.  There he is, almost losing his balance as he crosses the campus on the icy flag stone path and up the slippery library steps. The requisite campus squirrel makes an appearance stage left, or right. It is Tuesday, post lunch, and his afternoon at the library is before him. Pnin, with a query, stands before Mrs Thayer, the librarian:

"Mrs. Fire, permit me to ask something or other.  This card which I received yesterday--could you maybe tell me who is the other reader?"
"Let me check."
She checked.  The other reader proved to be Timofey Pnin; Volume 18 had been requested by him the Friday before. It was also true that this Volume 18 was already charged to this Pnin, who had had it since Christmas and now stood with his hands upon it, like an ancestral picture of a magistrate.
"It can't be!" cried Pnin.  "I requested on Friday Volume 19, year 1947, not 18, year 1940."
"But look--you wrote Volume 18. Anyway, 19 is still being processed. Are you keeping this?"
"Eighteen, 19," muttered Pnin. "There is not great difference! I put the year correctly, that is important! Yes, I still need 18--and send to me a more effishant card when 19 available."
"Growling a little, he took the unwieldy, abashed book to his favourite alcove and laid it down there, wrapped in his muffler.

Perhaps only employees of libraries would appreciate the fun of this passage, all too common in every day work.

The next selection may seem dated, but it is so rich in memory of old libraries and odd patrons:

He was still at the blissful stage of collecting his material; and many good young people considered it a treat and an honor to see Pnin pull out a catalogue drawer from the comprehensive bosom of a card cabinet and take it, like a big nut, to a secluded corner and there make a quiet mental meal of it, now moving his lips in soundless comment, critical, satisfied, perplexed and now lifting his rudimentary eyebrows and forgetting them there, left high upon his spacious brow where they remained long after all trace of displeasure or doubt had gone.

And last, this humorous bit, almost a precursor to a Mr. Bean skit:

Before leaving the library, he decided to look up the correct pronunciation of "interested," and discovered that Webster, or at least the battered 1930 edition lying on a table in the Browsing Room, did not place the stress accent on the third syllable, as he did.  He sought a list of errata at the back, failed to find one, and, upon closing the elephantine lexicon, realized with a pang that he had immured somewhere in it the index card with notes that he had been holding all this time.  Must now search and search through 2500 thin pages, some torn! On hearing his interjection, suave Mr. Case, a lank, pink-faced librarian with sleek white hair and a bow tie, strolled up, took up the colossus by both ends, inverted it, and gave it a slight shake, whereupon it shed a pocket comb, a Christmas card, Pnin's notes, and a gauzy wraith of tissue paper, which descended with infinite listlessness to Pnin's feet and was replaced by Mr. Case on the Great Seals of the United States and Territories.

Since it is Friday, perhaps Mr. Bean would not be out of place.

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