I spent a few weeks there in the worst of last June and July, grazing around, letting the shelves make the connections for me, writing down notes for a book whose thesis grew obscure and finally implausible: I was looking up works on plague, fire and the Egyptian desert fathers. I learned well, but I felt even better. I took in great amounts of information without ever becoming fried or irritable. All that organization and nobody around — it seemed like trespassing in the history of Western learning, with no fear of cops. Not a lot of people spend time in the stacks anymore. (Except, as Ms. Green pointed out, around the graphic-novel section.) It’s not the current nature of finding information.
Doing it the inefficient way, you use the senses. You look at a row of spines, imprinted with butch, ultra-legible white or black type; your eye takes in more at any time than can be contained on a computer screen. You hold the books in your hand and feel the weight and size; the typography and the paper talk to you about time. A lot of libraries smell nice, but the smell of the Butler stacks is a song of organic matter, changing as temperatures do through the reaches of a pond. Get yourself near Goffredo Casalis’s life’s work on the duchy of Savoy, the Dizionario Geografico-Storico-Statistico-Commerciale, published in 27 volumes from 1833 to 1854, and breathe in. A fantastic, pre-acidic-paper smell: burned caramel, basically. Nobody there but you.