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The Gas Station of the Mind – 4/12/2015

One summer, a ten-year-old boy was sent by his family to spend a few weeks with his aunt, who lived in a town several hours away. On the first day of his visit, she took her nephew downtown to show him the sights: the stores and the shops, a park, a local museum, and the town library. Now, according to a survey conducted in 2008, there are 9,221 public libraries in the United States. However, these are not distributed evenly across the country. There are 370 in Massachusetts, for instance, but only 24 in Maryland. I tell you this to help you understand how it was possible, then, for a child to see the inside of a library for the first time at ten years of age.

It was an unfamiliar destination, and at first the boy wasn’t sure what to make of it all. Then he saw long, wide counter with a friendly-looking adult behind it, and he knew at once what a place like this was for. “Can we get something here?” he asked his aunt. She nodded, and so her nephew walked right up and greeted the librarian with confidence – and volume. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. “This sure is a fancy place you got here.”

“Young man,” the librarian said, kindly but firm, “I’m glad you like it here, but we use our quiet voices in the library. Quiet, please.”

“Oh,” said the boy, “I’m sorry.” He was almost whispering now. He leaned on the counter and got up on his toes, so he could get closer to the librarian on the other side and make sure she heard his request clearly. “I’d like a cheeseburger and fries, please.”

This year, I’ve been speaking on the spiritual implications of the spaces where we live and work and play. Today our place is the library: the storehouse of knowledge, the meeting place between people and ideas, and – in many towns and cities – the only place where a person can come in off of the street and use the bathroom without being expected to spend money.

For as long as human beings have been writing things down, we’ve had need of a place to store those writings. In Egyptian mythology, the god Thoth was thought of as the scribe of the gods, recording everything choice and event in the course of every person’s life. But it was his wife, Seshat, who was said to have invented writing itself, and she had the job of keeping track of the vast library created by her husband’s record-keeping. The library of Ashurbanipal, in what is now Iraq, is one of the oldest libraries ever recovered by modern archeologists. It dates back more than 26 centuries, and contains somewhere around 30,000 clay tablets. Legend says that when Alexander the Great conquered the city where the library was located, he was inspired to build one which would be even more grand.

Alexander died before he could see his vision accomplished, but the project was completed in his honor by one of his generals: the library of Alexandria, back in Egypt. That monument to the recorded word built a reputation powerful enough to last into modern times, but the strategy of the Ptolemy dynasty who built and expanded it was more aggressive than what we usually associate with libraries. It began when Ptolemy I coerced an older, better established library to loan him their collection: he had copies made of the books, sent those back, and kept the originals. For many years it was the law in the city of Alexandria to search the contents of any ships passing through the port: any books aboard were confiscated, and added to the library’s collection. The library at Alexandria eventually grew so vast that it was actually destroyed more than once: first in a fire set by Julius Caesar, next in an assault by the Roman Emperor Aurelian three-hundred years later, and finally wiped out on the orders of the Christian Patriarch Theophilus.

Libraries, you see, are frightfully popular targets in time of war. The House of Wisdom, a massive library built by the Abbasid Caliphate, was the center of learning in the Muslim world for hundreds of years. When the Mongol general Hulagu conquered the city of Baghdad 800 years ago, he had the House of Wisdom itself set ablaze, and dumped so many of its books into the Tigris river that it is said its waters ran black with ink. Such destruction was, and still is, a powerful way of destroying not just technical knowledge and scientific insight, but also cultural wisdom and a society’s sense of beauty and wonder. By attacking a library, one can attack an entire civilization.

Particularly before the era of mass-printing, building a library meant gathering a large number of extremely rare and valuable objects – i.e., books – and putting them all in one place where many different people could make use of them. It was a frequently dangerous risk which Victor Hugo described thusly, “A library implies an act of faith which generations, still in darkness hid, sign in their night in witness of the dawn.”

In the year 258, the Roman Emperor Valerian executed the Christian Patriarch of Rome and demanded that all the wealth and treasures of the local Christian community be handed over to him. At the time, the Archdeacon Lawrence was responsible for this collection of relics, valuable ritual objects, and books. He did his best to circumvent the emperor’s persecution by giving as much as he could away to the poor before he could be arrested. For this reason, Lawrence is considered the patron saint of librarians.

Lawrence’s is hardly the only example of the loyalty shown by librarians to the volumes in their charge. At the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq and for 14 years before it, Alia Muhammad Baker was the chief librarian of the city of Basra’s Central Library. In the weeks before the war, the library building was commandeered by Sadam Hussein’s regime: government officials and military officers took up residence in some of its offices, and an anti-aircraft gun was installed on the roof. Alia petitioned to have the books moved somewhere else, out of harm’s way, but they were actually part of the government’s strategy: the expectation was that US and British forces would hesitate at destroying so many precious books, allowing the gun on the roof to remain firing longer.

So Alia took matters – and books – into her own hands. She managed to smuggle about 70% of the library’s collection into a sequence of hiding places. By the time the library itself was burned, several days after the invasion, Alia had books on grammar, science, religious history, and all manner of other subjects filling her house. To make room for as many books as possible, she even packed them into the frames of her windows, costing her her view but providing a place to a few hundred more volumes. After the new government began to function and the library was rebuilt, all those books went back on the shelves, and Alia went back to being the chief librarian.

In 1976, the author Kurt Vonnegut spoke at the dedication of a new library at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. He described the act of writing as a form of “socially fruitful” meditation, with “hot and prickly” mantras like, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, and the Red Badge of Courage. Near the close of his remarks, Vonnegut offered these words:

It would surely be shapely on an occasion like this if something holy were said. Unfortunately, the speaker you have hired is a Unitarian. I know almost nothing about holy things.

The language is holy to me, which again shows how little I know about holiness.

Literature is holy to me, which again shows how little I know about holiness.

Our freedom to say or write whatever we please in this country is holy to me. It is a rare privilege not only on this planet, but throughout the universe, I suspect. And I is not something somebody gave us. It is a thing we give to ourselves.

Meditation is holy to me, for I believe that all the secrets of existence and nonexistence are somewhere in our heads– or in other people’s heads.

And I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of mediation anyone has so far found.

By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.

This to me is a miracle.

The motto of the noble library is the motto of all meditators throughout all time: ‘Quiet, please.’[i]

Buildings dedicated to the storage of books have an extremely ancient lineage, but the modern public library – freely accessible to all – is a rather new idea. In this country it’s not even two-hundred years old yet: the first public library in the US was established in Peterborough, NH in 1833. Prior to this, libraries were the personal province of monarchs or the very rich, or of students studying at major universities. They were also available to the somewhat-less-rich as a sort of club or subscription service: ‘pay a fee each year, and you can make read any of these books. No cash, no edification.’ Libraries which were actually free to the public meant that, in many ways for the first time, the general population of just about anyone – folks whose lack of money and social capital had locked them out of nearly every avenue of power and success – could explore the accumulated wisdom of their society.

Contemporary author Robert Powers once said of the noble folks who work in the service of such idealistic institutions, “Librarian is a service occupation. Gas station attendant of the mind.” The contents of a library may be a source of mental fuel, but it’s their curators – librarians – that make that fuel most useable.

Our culture has, also, a negative association with libraries, and books in general: they’re sometimes brushed off as symbolic of a sort-of anti-social, idle intellectualism. This sentiment is perhaps best summarized in a classic Twilight Zone sketch, in which a meek, bespectacled poindexter-type continuously fails at work and at life because he is distracted by his love of reading. When a global catastrophe kills everyone on earth besides him he is not overcome with shock and grief, as one might expect any sane, compassionate person to be. Instead, he is glad to have ‘time enough at last,’ to read all the books he wants. The last man on earth receives his fitting comeuppance, however, when he manages to break his glasses, leaving him unable to see well enough to read.

This is where the deep link between the implicit theology of the library and our own living tradition as Unitarian Universalists comes in. For we, too, have been accused of being too cold and impersonal in our religious expression – engaged in the idolatry of wisdom to the detriment of everything else. There is a perceived contradiction at work in our world between head and heart, reason and emotion, truth and love – a dichotomy which is certainly much larger than Unitarian Universalism, but which crops up as a sticking point in our tradition over and over again, just as it plays into the image of the library as an ivory tower, disconnected from the actual world. But here, listen: a library is a palace of truth, but when it is shared – so long as it is shared – it is shared out of love. Compassionate trust towards others requires us to allow them their own decisions, and even their own mistakes. Building and maintaining a library and filling it with ideas and information that no one person can possibly know or approve all of, is a profound expression of such trust. The librarian can never know with certainty to what purpose the knowledge they help others to find will be put. Yet, it is their calling to share knowledge freely, in the belief that the good of free information far exceeds the evil of learning bent towards harm.

And this is also the case in our tradition, at least when we are at our best. Our highest calling is not to choose between love and reason but to defy their contradiction, and to choose to live within their fruitful tension. Our faith trusts us – and bids us to trust each other and everyone else – to explore the range of spiritual wisdom and insight, because the freedom of the spirit leads to greater good than anything which can be accomplished by trying to imprison it within our own finite and imperfect ideas. In this way, our congregation is like a spiritual library. But let me tell you something plain, friends: I ain’t the librarian here. Or at least, I am not the librarian alone. That work, of helping to guide each other towards the sources of meanings that will help us to find and live out our purpose in life, is work that all of us must do, together.


[i] As recorded in his essay collection, Palm Sunday


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