The book next to the one I was looking for

I never mastered the art of efficient library research. But I found great stuff.

Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal/AP/File
Shelving books at Le Mars (Iowa) Public Library

The journey home for Odysseus was a long and tortuous one. Beset by mythical monsters, seductive goddesses, and the chill of loneliness, the warrior king never fell prey to despair.

There is a story in “The Odyssey” in which Odysseus and his crew must sail past the Sirens, who sang so sweetly that sailors would run their ships onto the rocks in order to embrace these heavenly chanters. Crafty Odysseus deafened his men’s ears with wax for safety’s sake. But he was so determined to experience these songs that he had his men tie him to the ship’s mast until they were out of range of the deadly music. 

Odysseus begged, he commanded, he demanded his release, but the ropes restrained him. He was known for his intelligence, which was fed by this boundless curiosity. He was willing to risk everything for new experiences, new emotions, new worlds. He would not be denied.

My college library was a modern Siren for me. It was not imposing. It wasn’t even large. But it had overwhelming intellectual breadth and depth. During my four years of undergraduate studies I never quite mastered the efficient and sensible method of scholarly bookmanship. In those days, the card catalog was the key to saving time and completing assignments in the most effective way. I enjoyed following the book trails to develop a topic. Bibliographic undercurrents were my fuel. But once I waded into the lower depths of academia, I faced my own rough waters of diversion that sang persuasively to me from the shelves. 

On a typical day I might find myself kneeling in the basement searching for a Library of Congress decimal. Somehow, the number I sought was always nestled on the lowest shelf, hiding in the shadows. Now where is it? Ah. There it is. But as I contorted my body to reach the desired volume, my eyes might fall on a nearby title. Interesting. A volume of Chaucer in the original Middle English with a gilded cover, sewn binding, and brittle pages. When I opened it, the musty smell of antiquity sent me sneezing. And before I knew it, I was sitting on the floor surrounded by books that had little or nothing to do with my original search. Helios sped me on his chariot while another afternoon spilled through my fingers.

Another day, another pledge to get organized.

While it seemed I had wasted a lot of time in the library, I now realize that I enhanced my education in ways I’d never dreamed of all those years ago. 

Hours spent paging through books is never wasted. There is something valuable in the random discoveries made while searching for something else. In those days I traveled with ­Dante through Paradiso, explored the blue highways with William Least Heat-Moon, mounted a sandworm on Arrakis with Paul Maud’Dib, and attended lectures in the Athenian Academy with master Plato. All by random chance.

To me, there was nothing more enticing than books plucked from the lower shelves of my college library. They filled a need that could never be fulfilled in the classroom. The desire for learning requires instinct and curiosity as well as reason. It was not always easy, but today I would never trade that “wasted” time on the library floor. They brought me an accidental education that continues to enrich my life.

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