An exhausting quest for a library ladder fails -- as civilization decays

November 03, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I have gone to flea markets and to flea malls. I have gone to furniture emporia, to department stores, the bookstores that sell everything imaginably related to books and much that isn't. I have gone to antique shops. I have combed catalogs and advertisements in book reviews and elsewhere. I can't find a library ladder. Literacy is in peril. Civilization teeters on the abysmal precipice.

One catalog, from a company called Levenger, recently added "Library Steps" to its fare. But the thing is a mere 21 inches high, no help for a wall of shelves, which is the proper way to keep books. A step or two is not a library ladder. Not nearly. Not at all. Why is this a matter of consequence? Because books must be read. Taken down. Opened. Looked at. Used.

A few months ago I built a wall of cabinets and bookshelves in my living room. That allowed me to unpack more than 40 boxes, much of the carefully culled accumulation of a lifetime. Instantly, they became books again. A book that cannot be read is no book at all. It is a box, or a content. If it is out of reach, a book is an ornament at best, and more likely simply attic clutter.

Thus the necessity of library ladders. My new shelves run to the ceiling, 9.5 feet up. Altogether, today, there are 1,400 to 1,600 books on 120-some linear feet of space. The volumes range from thin paperbacks to vast and heady tomes about 4 inches wide. About 45 feet of that, something more than 600 books, can't be reached when I stand on the floor. I need to rise a secure 3.5 feet.

In need of boost

The distribution of books in this accumulation is not all quite what it should be yet. My quirky book arrangements require a certain amount of backing-and-forthing: Is a book by a close friend or a blood relative properly in the "close friends and blood relatives" section or should it cluster with books on its subject, a major interest?

So, of course, on the top three shelves that can't be reached by my hand when I stand on the living-room floor, there are books I need constantly.

Climbing on chairs is perilous, and bad for the chairs. I could, of course, use a folding ladder (which was used indeed to get them up there) or a kitchen stool or other things made for climbing. In fact, in my kitchen I have such a thing, very kitchen-like, unbookish.

I am told by people with more tolerance than I that there are in libraries now little stools with casters on springs that, if you step on them, go to the ground so the casters cease to operate. Too mechanical. Books are not industrial supplies.

Some shred of memory suggests to me that Thomas Jefferson invented or designed a library ladder of some particular sort, perhaps with a folding step, a sittable top surface. But where might it be found?

All over the world there are library ladders. They are handsome or plain, ornate or severely simple. But all are appropriate to their purpose. Were they born with the houses they grace?

Why do I need to get to all these books? I am sure only that I do. It is not something over which I have conscious control.

How many of the books on that wall will I ever read in full again? If I remain healthy and clear-eyed for what I reasonably demand be my full term on this planet, I will reread perhaps 100 - along with a couple of thousand new books I have not yet read (many of which I shall want to find a place for).

How many will I turn to from time to time for reference? I may be overly enthusiastic, but I think in some way or another I will dip into more than half of those that are there. Those that don't seem to have continuing utility I may cull out again, as I did when I unpacked them this time (less than 10 percent went off to a public library), but experience cries out that such clearing out never makes room for all the new incomings.

During the year they were packed away, I missed the books painfully. I would have a hard time explaining why. But I am happier, more peaceful, now.

Inaccessible volumes

Occasionally in the course of reading, and writing - and often during an evening with friends - something comes up: I want to find a perfect paragraph, or a fact, or an attribution. Sometimes the main utility of a book is to settle some silly argument.

Some books that I shall never read again I keep in the moral certainty that one of these days there will turn up at my house a person whose very sanity or worldly well being will be immensely nourished by reading just that one sole single book. It will be shamelessly pressed upon her or him, and thus lost forever - and in all likelihood go unread.

As I began to write this column, I looked up among those books I cannot reach because they have been forced upward by more demanding or more convenient or more coherent arrangements in the lower shelves.

Immediately, blazingly, there appeared up there volumes that I know I need to turn to, that I want to see, to read from: Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum," M.F.K. Fisher's "A Considerable Town," Edmund Wilson's "Axel's Castle," Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word," Virginia Woolf's "Night and Day." Quite a Wo(o)lfepack here, I note; a new categorical shelf arrangement? This is insanity! The list can go on for pages. I need them all. I need a ladder.

Of course, I could give up, resign myself to being forsaken by the market, and build the thing myself. A tedious and time-consuming business that, and finally graceless. I deserve better.

` Pub Date: 11/03/96

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