The Library's Secret Treasure Trove

by Bill Peak

I would guess that most people, if they think about such things at all, think of the library's adult non-fiction section as a sober, high-minded place, the sort of place grown-ups go to when intent upon doing the hard serious work of being grown-ups. And non-fiction is, of course, full of books that would lend credence to such a notion, books about real estate law and automobile repair and differential equations and ductwork.

But those of us who shelve for a living—who have to lift and tote all the books our community reads, weigh them one against another—we know better. We know adult non-fiction is really little more than a children's section for grown-ups.

I mean, think about it ... If the children's section is a collection of books designed to answer every question a curious kid could ever think of ... well, what service do you suppose adult non-fiction was designed to perform?

The adult non-fiction section of the Talbot County Free Library contains books about the mafia, and books about chicken mole; books about Socrates and Plato, and books about the Three Stooges; books about Second Manassas and Antietam, and books about contemplative prayer; books about hunting and fishing, and books about how to be a vegan; books about paranormal phenomena and books about plasma physics, books about parlor games and books about parlor construction, books about coin collecting and antique collecting and gun collecting and ... well, you get the idea, books about pretty much anything your little heart desires.

Oh, did I mention desire? There are books about ... But we'll leave that for another column.

Singing the praises of adult non-fiction, I'm tempted to compare this part of the library to a search engine—a Google or Yahoo you can actually walk into, explore—but even so obvious an analogy pales when set beside the richness of this place.

Think of the New World. Think of the towering forests, the teeming rivers, that greeted John Smith as he sailed for the first time up the Chesapeake. Here everything is new and fresh and exciting—everything is yet to be learned, yet to be judged, yet to be experienced—all of life is spread out before you, the world is your oyster: there are pearls to be plucked from every shelf, untold riches to be found down every aisle.

Or at least that's the way the place looks to me.

For most of our patrons I'm sure adult non-fiction is just another tool in the kit they use to fix life's little problems, a wrench or screwdriver which—always helpful, always near-to-hand—has become something of an old friend.

There are, for instance, the ladies I sometimes find leaning against a shelf in the 740s, absorbed in the knitting books, their fingers absently rehearsing stitches I couldn't reproduce in a thousand years. Then there are the men of a certain age, jaws set, hurrying back into the 900s to answer a question of vital importance ... the role, say, of gunboats in the Union victory at Shiloh, or that of rain and mud in the French defeat at Waterloo.

But let's you and I wander over into the 800s, end this column on an entirely different plane. For it is in non-fiction's 800s that, interestingly, one finds the poetry of our world. (What are we to make of the fact that the Dewey decimal system, in its infinite wisdom, classifies “Beowulf” as non-fiction? That we must watch for Grendel when we make our lonely way across the marsh at night?)

If it is true that a culture's soul lies in its poetry, then surely it is equally true that a culture that no longer reads its poetry has, in a sense, lost touch with itself. And so it gives me great pleasure to report that here in Talbot County I find myself—week in and week out—wheeling my cart back into the 800s to return books of verse to their shelves.

Lord Byron once said he didn't really think of himself as famous till he learned he was read even along the wild, uncharted banks of the Ohio. Poets nowadays, of course, aren't fawned over as they were in Byron's time, so I can only imagine how happy it would make Sharon Olds or Wendell Berry to learn their words are read today even along the relatively tame and wholly charted shores of the Miles, Choptank, and Tred Avon.