Julius Caesar died 2,054 years ago on the steps of the Roman forum. We know the exact date and manner of his death (March 15, 44 B.C., stabbed to death by one Quintus Caepio Brutus) because of writing, the seminal invention of human civilization. Thanks to that invention, I can walk into the library's history section whenever I like and pick up something Julius Caesar actually wrote. “The Gallic War” (in translation from the original Latin, non-fiction 878 c) is Caesar's account of his expedition against the great barbarian warrior Vercingetorix. Reading it, I can learn what it was like to lead a Roman army into the dark and dreary wilderness that would someday become France; I can enter into the mind and thoughts of a man who lived before Christ.
After the fall of Rome, writing went into decline and the past grows dim again, obscure. Yet here and there, amid the gloom that would forever after be known as “The Dark Ages,” a few pinpricks of light still manage to reach us. Among the brightest of these is The Venerable Bede's “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” (available through interlibrary loan or online at http://books.google.com/books). And don't let that word “ecclesiastical” fool you, there's enough war, rapine, plague, romance, and political intrigue in this book to satisfy even the most jaded history buff. But what really makes Bede's work fascinating is the glimpses it gives us of individual men and women who, however distant they may be in time, remain recognizably human and sympathetic.
Consider Bede's record of a speech delivered by an Anglo-Saxon warrior to his king in the year 627 A.D. (quoted from Leo Sherley-Price's translation, Penguin Books, 1988): “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day with your thanes and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”
And so it is that a nameless Anglo-Saxon warrior joins the ghosts—Caesar and Bede among them—that haunt our library, that reach out to us across time, demanding our attention, a moment's resurrection, in the vast internal theatre that is a reading mind.
And how lucky we are to have them!
In its brief span upon the planet, a single generation can learn so little. Without writing, without places like the Talbot County Free Library where writing is stored and preserved and cherished, we would be doomed to repeat the mistakes of our forefathers. But thanks to the works our library safeguards, we can rely upon the wisdom not of one or even two generations, but of scores. Rank upon rank of wise men and women rise up from the past to speak to us, to tell us the gentle (and not-so-gentle) truths without which we would be lost.
And it's not all Sturm und Drang either. The library's ghosts not only advise; they entertain: Shakespeare sends his Faerie Queen out to court an ass, Tom Sawyer waxes eloquent about the joys of fence-painting, Ella Fitzgerald goes “Stompin' at the Savoy,” the Marx Brothers spend “A Night at the Opera,” and Gary Cooper walks unfailingly (if not unflinchingly) down a Western street at “High Noon.”
All of which goes to show that the Talbot County Free Library is one place where William Faulkner's oft-quoted adage actually comes true: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”