On Friday, January 25, from 4:00 - 5:15 pm, I'll be on a panel at the American Library Association's Midwinter meet-up to discuss the topic "The Novel is Alive and Well" with Seattle authors Terry Brooks, Ivan Doig, and Gregg Olsen. I'm looking forward to this because I love librarians, I have always wanted to be one, and I do believe that the novel is alive and well so talking to these guys about this topic should be fun.
Regarding libraries—one of my summer jobs in college was in the library, where I was hired to put little magnetic theft prevention strips into the books. This required physically taking each book from the shelf and opening it in order to slip the strip into the spine. Needless to say, this was extremely time-consuming work, because how could you open a book without spending at least a few moments reading it? I remember the thrill of pulling books one by one from the shelves, skimming through them, and watching ideas form in my mind, triggered by these random juxtapositions. It was hugely exciting, and I kept a notebook next to me so I could write down all the stories that emerged. I'm surprised I wasn't fired, but now when I think about it, I imagine all of the other students hired to do this work were similarly occupied, and none of us were working with much efficiency.
That summer, in the library, I discovered the generative power of randomness, juxtaposition, and browsing. Browsability is something we are losing in the Internet age, where so many of our searches are controlled by algorithms, which deliver results that are pre-shrunk and tailored to what we think we want, or we've wanted before. How can we stumble across anything new? Google and Amazon doom us to the rut of our habitual mind where, as we find the same things over and over again, our interests narrow and we grow smug, believing that everyone in the world is just like us, like we are and used to be.
That summer I also learned the approach I still use to write novels, an approach that requires a high degree of randomness, juxtaposition, and browsability. It reminds me a lot of meditation, because it requires keeping the mind alert and open enough to allow disparate elements to filter in, accumulate, and combine into a story. Inspiration is this happy convergence of random factors, which if you are lucky and awake, you can notice and put to good use.
I started thinking about browsability several years ago in the Prelinger Library, talking to my friend Rick. Rick is an archivist and a maverick librarian, who started the Prelinger Library with his wife, Megan. Together, they have raised browsability to a fine art. The stacks are arranged in a way so as to maximize browsability. Here's how they describe it:
The main shelves are organized according to the library’s unique geospatial taxonomy. This arrangement system classifies subjects spatially and conceptually beginning with the physical world, moving into representation and culture, and ending with abstractions of society and theory. It can be summarized as a walk through a landscape of ideas, from feet-on-the-ground to outer space. Within that framework are dozens of associative links between subject sections, moving from site-specific, to mediated, to abstract; from particular to general, and from micro- to macro-. The geospatial system is set up in five rows, each row holding part of the structure in a consistent series of smaller sections. The system begins at the front of Row One and ends at the back of Row Five.
Each labeled section on the main shelves is a composed set of juxtapositions, bringing together government documents, periodicals, monographs, and occasional works of fiction, in greater or lesser order, to illuminate a subject area. Within these sets, the compositional structure is fairly loose.
If you haven't been to the Prelinger Library and you find yourself in San Francisco, you really should make an effort to go. And if you are going to be in Seattle next weekend and you happen to be a librarian, please come to our panel and say hi.