Wednesday, 10 August 2016

A Curious Find

My visiting mother reads several books a week, so it is a good thing that I have a library card. We fill up at three Edinburgh libraries, but her favourite is Central Library on the George IV Bridge because it has German crime thrillers. They take longer to read than English ones, you see.

One is allowed to have only 12 books checked out, so instead of browsing, I went to the language learning section and had a look at the half-shelf of Polish books.  A hardcover book had fallen behind the poetry volumes, so I fished it out. To my surprise, it was entitled "Homosexuality in the Nineteenth Century."

My first thought was that some disgruntled fellow Christian had hidden it there, so as to protect his (or her) fellow man from something or other. But, on the other hand, perhaps someone had hidden it from other patrons for his own convenient reading later. Later I thought perhaps it was a "drop" for spies, so I flipped through it to see if there were any interesting bits of paper. There were not. That evening I imagined that the book had been hidden by the author of a similar, rival work. And now it occurs to me that a censorious Edinburgh book-hider wouldn't necessarily be a Christian. To judge from the foreign language materials on clearest display, Muslims use the library, too.

After "who" and "why" I pondered "where". Did the book-hider assume that nobody was likely to thumb through the works of Milosz and Szymborska? If so, he or she does not know Edinburgh very well, as the largest migrant group, after the English, are Poles. Or, if the hider was a Pole, perhaps he or she judged that Edinburgh Poles are unlikely to want to read Milosz and Szymborska, having had enough of them at school.

Meanwhile I wondered what I should do with the book, someone else clearly having thought it too dangerous for public consumption. I have highly consistent Catholic friends who will throw books they (and no doubt all popes before John XXIII) consider evil on open fires although open fires are now so rare, such stories about them strain credulity. Possibly they cold-bloodedly set fire to the offending tomes out of doors after borrowing a lighter from an innocent smoker.

However, I really don't see a work on homosexuality in the nineteenth century as being in the pornographic or occult "book of shadows" class so disfavoured by my pyro pals. Moreover, I was given a row by my doting dad when I was 20 just for running off with a pile of student newspapers whose then-current issue featured an image disrespectful (although not actually blasphemous) of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In response to my bragging about this pious deed, he said this guerrilla action had been theft and censorship. "What about the Index?" I demanded, and lo, my father said the Index was wrong and always had been.

Pace patri, I am not so sure the Index was wrong, for books (like television, films and the internet) are powerful and dangerous traps for the unwary and semi-literate, and a little learning is a dang'rous thing, drink deep or taste not the Pyrian spring, etc. However, paternal disapproval drove at least the joy of faith-based vigilantism out of my soul. After checking the book for secret spy notes (which was foolish, for I should have looked for microdots or words in the book underscored meaningfully), I left it on an adjacent empty bottom shelf for the librarian to find.

Update: Here is Alexander Pope's famous poem on the topic of trivial vs deep knowledge. I am not sure what he thinks happens if you "drink deep" though. Surely he doesn't mean you don't attempt the Alpine journey at all?

As it happens, drinking deep--although essential for intellectual honesty, of which humility is the lifeblood--can highly complicate your life. This chap, whose videos I have been watching, is a hyperpolyglot almost entirely obsessed with languages--until recently to the detriment of earning a living.

However, this suggests that he is not particularly interested in himself, and indeed there is something deeply holy about him.Naturally he is interested in how his brain works, but that is not the same thing as self-regard. Curiously, thinking about how your brain works is a form of healthy self-objectivity. As Aquinas says, truth is what is.

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