American publishing is pretty much dominated by books assuring us that no matter how stupid we may be, by birth and training, still we can find peace, fulfillment and a near-permanent spasm of joy through baba-baba or a study of stars or some new saint rounded up at Grand Platte, Ariz.
The other great enthusiasm of the publishing game is a whole series of volumes telling how you can take a packing box and a little spare time on your weekends and wind up with a house worth $419,000.
Ranking just below that perennial favorite of authors is the vast genre of tomes about the romance of street maintenance ("Potholes I Have Known") and behind-the-scene books ("Inside Continental Jelly-Jar" and "Sixty-Three Years at Atlas Gas").
You cannot live surrounded by books, in other words, without wondering how it is possible that scarcely a writer in all America can write a book that is not a chore, a Christian duty or a royal pain to read.
"So I asked frankly why the hell should anybody want to read a book about the Library of Congress?" said Charles A. Goodrum, author of a monumental new book about the Library of Congress.
A good question indeed.
And when I picked up this new five-pounder (320 pages of extremely heavy glazed stock) I resigned myself to learning that if all the pages of the library were laid end to end they would stretch right down the hill, and other impressive things.
"Well, of course, it was a surprise," said one high-ranking member of the library hierarchy, "to find Chuck's book entertaining and beautifully written."
Not a surprise so much as a shock. "I guess everybody was startled that the sentences had real subjects and verbs in them," said Goodrum.
What nobody wants to face is the plain fact that for 35 years Goodrum has been wasted on the Congressional Research division of the library, which answers such congressional inquiries as how to spell cat and whatever else baffles the lawmakers. And all this time he could have been writing like an angel. Life is not merely unfair; life is a bizarre waste.
Once, years ago, Goodrum did write a memoir about his father who was parks director for Wichita, Kan., and we should have known then that anybody who could write a piece about the romance of Wichita, Kan., parks and sell it to The New Yorker had the possibilities of glory in him. And on the side, when not advising Congress on the ramifications of legislation its members were dreaming up (for a congressman must think weightily of the ramifications of things, and deeply ponder that if you dam the Mississippi you may make St. Louis quite moist), Charles Goodrum wrote mystery novels that found favor with some.
"The hardest thing about writing a mystery is dreaming up a crime that seems heinous enough to justify getting worked up about it. Now that incest is lost to us . . ."
"You mean people are not even shocked by incest any more?" I demanded before he could say anything else terrible.
"Oh no, not now. They think of it as tender intimate sharing of something."
So as Goodrum enters retirement after only 35 years at the library -- a life that did, of course, raise his blood pressure substantially unfortunately -- he now commits himself to the discovery of crimes so awful the reader of his next mystery will set spellbound for the unraveling.
"There's child-molesting," he was reminded.
"Yes, there is that," he said, his brain doubless racing along to some forthcoming best seller.
But what makes Goodrum breathe heavy are not Jefferson documents, say, or photographs of Lincoln or a Walt Whitman manuscript (preserved in its day because he had used the back to write a lits on -- the rest of the manuscript of "Leaves of Grass" all wound up with the rag man and only this one page survived because of the practical value of the list on the back) but the illuminated Book of Hours with flowers and bugs painted in the margins, and the Oriental collection full of such beautiful color work, and the Arab Kufic script, zub.
He did find it necessary to remind us that the library possesses 200,000 papers from Clare Boothe Luce, 70,000 papers from Agnes E. Meyers, 9,500 papers of Carrie Chapman Catt, a general infinitude of papers from Susan B. Anthony, Minnie Madern Fiske, Lillian Gish . . .
"How many papers from St. Paul or Giotto or people like that?" I shot at him. "Don't you feel ashamed to have 200,000 papers of Clare Luce? You know perfectly well that if you have 200,000 papers of anybody, in no time people will start writing doctorates and books and the world will be all cluttered up and without the slightest disrespect for Mrs. Luce, who the hell is better off for 200,000 papers?"
Goodrum, who is very sane but who is, after all, an important figure of the library and has a fierce loyalty to it, leaned back in his most impressive Village Magistrate pose to address the barbarian:
"We are accused, needless to say, of wishing to collect everything that exists from any place that exists. For more than a century our great Chinese collection grew, without one human at the library able to understand enough Chinese to put the books on the shelves in order.
"Now, because the library collected like mad, even when we knew little what we actually had, the collection is priceless. And you know, of course, of our very great Tibetan collection, yet I suppose readers do not line up to consult it.
"You remember that wonderful librarian who was finally fired here (in the past century) for collecting and collecting and collecting. He wanted to raise the Capitol dome 50 feet to provide storage space. The rooms were full to the ceiling, the corridors were clogged, there was no way to walk around, and of course it was althougher impossible to find anything, because all the effort went into collecting, and none into making it available for use.
"That is all changed. Now the great emphasis is on use. [The library is exceptional among great libraries in that people blowing in off the street consult it, without any credentials at all beyond curiosity].
"But my book is not about the library, but the treasures of the library. If the place burned, I think I'd save the obvious things -- the examples of the Book of Hours, the Gutenberg Bible -- the things that in wartime are stored at Fort Knox.But there is a deep-freeze system now. If there were a fire, whole vats of water would deluge everything. Not just sprinklers but whole vats of water would pour over everything, then it would be frozen immediately, and the water got out while still frozen."
"In a fire, then, the staff might be drowned but the books would be saved?"
"Exactly," said Goodrum with unnerving satisfaction.
"The thing that gets me," I went on, "is that you don't even play the flute yourself, but you must have 100 flutes in full color, and there's that whole chapter about the musical, 'Oklahoma,' which of course means leaving out a trillion other things in the library, and . . ."
"Yes. Those flutes," he said, showing a vestigial glimmer of sheepishness at being caught red-handed in a naughty business. "All I did was ask the curator of the flute collection to get together a nice little collection showing the range of flutes here. Well, he lined up about half a mile of flutes, and when I saw them I told the photographer to click a good many times, you know. The curator had gone to endless pains to get his million flutes lined up. But then when I saw the pictures, I started thinking, my goodness, who ever saw a flute like this. And this. And this. So we did wind up with a lot of flute pictures. But I thought it might serve to show the range of the library collection. After all, you can't deal with everything."
The astounding thing about the book is that Goodrum is not in some breathless haste to tell you all about everything in the library. You see and read about the amazing flutes, but he leaves it to your imagination to say:
"Well, if they have this vast collection of flutes, just imagine what they have on Sinclair Lewis."
"As a matter of fact, a lot of our treasures among books were collected not knowing they were going to be treasures. Take the Whitman manuscript. If we had been in the business of literary evaluation, can you imagine that some judge here might have said of Whitman's poem, 'Why this is not literature, this is merely obscenity, or merely trash.' It is safer to collect everything and leave it to the future to decide what is most valuable."
"The book of the library is closed," I said as momentously as possible, "and your long career there is ended. What has it all amounted to?"
"Well," he said, "it has kept me off the streets and has enabled me to feed the kids. Beyond that, I freely admit I have been a librarian. You know how it is in small towns, the librarian is on the side of the angels. A librarian is like a professional worker for the girl scouts. You can't really argue against those ladies who think the most important thing in the world is girl scouts and who dress up in uniforms in their middle age, no matter what they look . . .
"My point," he said, not pursuing further the Girl Scout professional workers, "is that it is something to have been a librarian." (As the great Dr. Johnson said of dictionary makers, "harmless drudges.") "Sometimes I think of the Congress we have served." (Goodrum decided not to pursue that line further, either.) "I can say a vast amount of information has been asked for and been passed along.
"Somebody once said how fortunate it was that the Library of Alexandria burned. At least we don't have all that to cope with." (The greatest library of the ancient world, at the burning of which civilization came to an utter halt, not to split hairs.)
"Sometimes I think no book is lost. I personally believe many lost works of antiquity may yet be discovered in unexplored manuscripts of, say, the Vatican Library."
Forty-thousand grocery lists of Petronious, one ventures to think? But Goodrum has fallen silent after several hours of brightness. He fingers his own "Treasures of the Library of Congress," then withdraws his hand. It is unseemly for the writer (he is obviously thinking) to show any foolish fondness for his own stuff.
He is thinking of that lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne. Chaucer, dumbbell.
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge.