"A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.” — Shelby Foote
The first problem set for my class last September asked some questions about prox cards. One required students to speculate about why checking out a book at Firestone uses neither the wave of the prox that unlocks doors nor the swipe of the magnetic strip that pays for food. Most people figured out the likely answer (which is left as an exercise for the interested reader), but I was surprised that some confessed that they had never been in the library and thus didn’t know what happens when a book is checked out.
I visit Firestone four or five times a week, which is hardly unusual for some disciplines, but perhaps outside the norm in technical fields like computer science, for which the claim is sometimes made that “it’s all online anyway.” Many of my visits take me no further than the Dixon collection, a marvelous resource for which one need not even climb the stairs — a room full of new books and students racked out on couches. Five minutes of browsing is usually enough to find two or three promising books to carry home. I’m biased towards history, popular science and detective stories, but some of the best finds have been pure serendipity — an interesting title or topic that I would never have seen if the book were not right there in front of me.
Sometimes one of these accidental discoveries is so compelling that I want to read whatever else the author wrote. Or maybe something reminds me of an author whom I enjoyed before. Either way, that’s where one needs the rest of the library, since that’s where they keep the rest of the books.
Thus one of my most frequent downstairs destinations has become B-1-P, which holds Firestone’s remarkable collection of detective stories and murder mysteries. This corner of the stacks presumably has limited value for scholarship, but if you’re looking for escape literature, it’s hard to beat. I’ve found pretty near all of the Spenser stories I missed in my previous life. (That’s not the Faerie Queene guy, in case you hadn’t guessed, but Robert Parker’s flippant Boston private eye.) Several authors write detective stories set in Rome at the time of Julius and Augustus; they may not be historically accurate, but they’re good enough for me. And I’ve recently become intrigued by a Nora Roberts series of police procedurals set in 2058. I found some of these in the online catalog, but mostly it’s been pure shelving serendipity — an interesting title or cover, or an author who appears often enough to suggest publishing success.
I had a real reason for digging in the stacks last fall, trying to track down a couple of words coined by the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein that have become part of popular culture. The most widely known is “grok,” from “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961), which the OED defines as “To understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with. To empathize or communicate sympathetically (with); and to experience enjoyment.” It shows up today in names like Grokster, the file-sharing program that certainly did permit millions of users to experience enjoyment. Understandably, the purveyors of movies and music were most unsympathetic to the communication that Grokster enabled, and their lawsuit eventually led to a Supreme Court decision that shut down Grokster permanently.
The other memorable Heinlein coinage is TANSTAAFL (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”), from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (1966). Wikipedia identified the source, but I’ve learned to be a bit cautious about the accuracy of what one finds there, so down I went, and spent half an hour in the gloom of B-1-D to make sure I had the references right. (Apropos of Wikipedian reliability, another class assignment asked students to edit an article that they thought needed fixing; the intent was to remind them subliminally of how an online encyclopedia determines its version of truth.)
Lest you think that all trips to the library are just for fun and games, I do read occasional serious stuff, but the path to it is often much the same: a browse through Dixon or perhaps a review suggests a topic or an author, and then it’s time to hit the stacks. For example, a few months ago I came across a new book by my colleague Tony Grafton, with the catchy title “What Was History?” It turned out to be (sorry, Tony) too heavy going for bedtime reading, but of course it’s not the only book he wrote. So back downstairs, this time to C-10-N, to find “Bring Out Your Dead.” From the title, one might almost think it misfiled; it goes very nicely with Parker’s “Death in Paradise” and Roberts’ “Divided in Death,” the cop novel that I picked up on my return trip through B-1-P.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and is a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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