Writers, the Library, and the Persistence of Geography

I’m getting to work on a new book. It’s a book I’ve been thinking about vaguely for a while – a book about, at this early stage, the complex consequences of transportation. I wasn’t able to get seriously down to work on it, though, until I discovered my new favorite thing – the Queens Public Library.

My fiancée and I moved to New York four months ago for our careers – hers in art, mine in letters – but mostly in my mind that had to do with jobs, with networking, with collaborators. I didn’t for a second think about the vast differences in public resources there would be between St. Petersburg and New York.

I’ve been thinking about this project for years, you see, but it never seemed to go anywhere. To be fair, there were many reasons for this. But one that I had barely registered was that whenever I tried to get my hands on an even vaguely obscure book related to my topic, the St. Petersburg Public Library didn’t have it. I would file the title away for later, but ultimately I would never get back to it.

Of course, I could have gotten nearly any of them from Amazon. But I, like most writers and researchers, read a LOT. In my grad school days, I’d have a stack of thirty or forty or fifty books in my office at any one time. Most of them, I scanned for a few relevant passages. Some, I read all the way through, taking meticulous notes – but from that point on, only the notes were important to me. Only a scant handful of works – maybe a dozen – did I come back to again and again during the research for my first (as yet unpublished) book.

You simply can’t do that by digging on Amazon, unless you’re willing and able to spend $300 or $500 a month on books that are mostly going to be wrong for your needs, or only very marginally useful, and end up in the trash heap. The Queens library – and note, I haven’t even needed to venture to the Brooklyn system, much less Manhattan, which I’m sure would each open up yet more dizzying vistas of knowledge – allows me, for free, the omnivoracious reading style that produces real, rounded knowledge, makes sparks fly, gets the blood boiling.

That’s not something that most people using a library system need, or even want, so when I compare it to a library system like St. Pete’s, my point isn’t that St. Petersburg is failing its citizens’ intellectual needs. They have a good system, for readers. But it’s not a system that’s sufficient for serious writers, at least of nonfiction, and probably of fiction, too. The access afforded by the internet can substitute for what I have here, but only partially – and only for the fairly privileged.

It’s all a stark lesson in the persistence of geography, the persistence of history, and the power of cities. Being in New York is a huge advantage for people in many fields, giving them access to the concentrated and accreted power of generations. Some of the books I’m digging out of the libraries here may not have moved for decades, but they’re there for me, now. I’m standing on the shoulders, not just of their authors, but of their previous users, their custodians, and their funders. It’s a privilege.

It feels like waking up.

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