Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Crumpacker Family Library

11:40 AM Sunday.  Portland. I'll let you in on a secret. I'm not the world's most assertive person. Even less so when I'm traveling on my own to a city larger than the one I live in. To get around this I rely on costume to either distract myself or fool myself into being more direct. Hence, the Pegasus Ranger outfit. Yes, I like dressing up; yes, Boys Don't Cry was singing "I Wanna Be a Cowboy" in my head; and yes, there were a couple of moments when I squared my shoulders, shifted my body language, and thought, "Don't mess with me, I'm a Pegasus Ranger." And then I smiled; Pegasus Ranger is right up there with Laser Unicorns in terms of seriousness.

I walked a short distance and then found a yellow-line MAX. The disadvantage to having a laptop and a camera in my bag was the weight. And, alas, I'm getting old. Mark would tell me that I should walk more to build up endurance, but I kind of didn't want the balls of my feet to be sore from walking sixteen blocks. And besides, the Museum was opening real soon now and MAX would be faster.

The MAX train pulled into the stop and I boarded. Just before the doors closed, a young woman with a cardboard sign hopped on. "Whoo," she said, "I almost didn't make it." A few minutes later she strolled through the train, saying in a much tireder-sounding voice, "Spare change?" Her sign said something about karma.

"Hey, Joe," she said to a young bearded man who smelled strongly of urine and amonia. "How you doing? I heard you and your old lady broke up." Joe related his woes: a story involving abandoned dogs, Xanax abuse, and wanting to avoid cops. Karma-girl and Joe got off at Pioneer Square; she was giving him advice about lawyers.

I got off two stops later and walked a few blocks to the Portland Art Museum. The great coat received adulation from the check-clerk. But it turned out that my coat spent more time in the Museum than I did, because the Crumpacker Family Library -- although sharing some space with the Museum in the Mark Building next door -- was a seperate entity with its own entrance. So, abandoning my coat to PAM, I toted my bag next door. Past a curt security guard, past a plaster reproduction of two naked Greek wrestlers, through a book security grid, and into... Paradise!

I'll say it again, in my best imitation of Brenda Vaccaro climbing the ladder to George Hamilton's bedroom in "Zorro, the Gay Blade." Paradise!

Imagine the art history room at Powell's books. Add burgundy carpeting to the bare concrete. Now make the bookshelves 1920's library shelves. Add a stage, high vaulted ceilings and carved, wooden beams; an Euro-ecclectic vibe with pillars and red drapes. Now imagine being told by the librarian that the room was once a Masonic Temple. Realize the four thrones arranged in a circle in the middle of this gigantic, vaulted, lofty, sumptuous, quiet, book-filled room are very likely the ceremonial thrones for the masters of the cardinal directions. Restrain yourself from squealing at the top of your lungs like a five-year-old at 4:30 AM Christmas day and running a victory lap around the stacks before collapsing in an ecstatic heap!! It was like being Scrooge McDuck in a bathtub of gold coins. It was like being a cat on catnip. It was like being St. Agnes pierced by arrows. I was in bibliophile heaven.


I'd seen a picture of the thrones on the library's web page, and they were everything I hoped they could be. Sitting in one was a comfortable pleasure, with excellent lumbar support; although I did wish I wasn't looking at a reproduction of a small boy picking a thorn out of his foot. I walked, or rather, skipped, in a daze and found a gigantic, full color illustrated, coffee-table book of paleolithic art. Translated from the French. (gasp) Critiquing the methodology of Abbé Henri Breui. (gasp) With sub-headings like, "The Ideal Paleolithic Sanctuary." (gasp) And that was before I found the old electric magic lantern. (gasp) In the little niche room. (gasp) Hidden behind a half-curtain.

I set out to immerse myself in Every Single Tome in this TEMPLE. A short time later, I was back at a throne, reading a catalog of "The Stuff of Dreams," a Portland Art Museum show Mark and I visited many years ago. I made some photocopies. I learned that squinch is a real term describing multiple layers of arches holding up a dome.

Several books on Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelites, woodcuts, angels, and a book called "The Quest for Odysseus" later, I had a Mr. Spock in the City on the Edge of Forever moment. "I am a fool!" I thought. "They've got to have something on the Cult Wagon of Strettweg!" They didn't, or more precisely there wasn't monogram focusing solely on the Cult Wagon. The Librarian pointed me to a survey of world history, and pointed out how the shelves were arranged chronologically.

And this is where I nearly wept on my hands and knees as I searched: Because I found a book on Islamic Art, and another book on Roman art, and then another on Greek art, and shelves and shelves of Egyptian art. Being in the library was like being the proverbial moth consumed by the flame, the guest at the worldly feast or other metaphors from C.S. Lewis's  The Discarded Image: The problem was that I couldn't sit down and just read a book -- every book led to at least three others and I had to read all the other books. In less than four hours. Even if I had four days, or four years, or four decades -- well, maybe four decades -- there would be no way I could read all the books enshrined around me.

And I very much wanted to read them all.

I'd been wrong; I wasn't in Heaven, exactly. I was in a retelling of the Greek myth of Tantalus. I was Moses, stranded on Mount Pisgah, gazing at the Holy Land in the distance -- a Holy Land I would never reach.

After only three and a half hours, I was simply overwhelmed by all the books.  I didn't have a clear research plan (I hadn't been able to connect to the on-line catalog earlier in the week).  And being a Pegasus Ranger -- while probably charming the librarian -- wasn't going to help me. I packed up my photocopies and camera, thanked the librarian for all of her help, and strolled back to PAM, where I looked at actual works of art (silver chocolate pots, and tea sets mostly).
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