Alpha by Title

I was feeling pretty uneasy last Tuesday afternoon when I pulled into the public library in Los Feliz. It wasn’t the library that was making me uneasy — quite the opposite, as you’ll soon see. No, it was a whole melange of unknowns: the awareness of looming events outside of my control, the feeling of waiting to learn what the future will look like, that sense of having a lot of responsibility and very little power. I’d come to the library to drop off my recall ballot, and even that was just a drop in the overall anxiety bucket, the seasoning in my stew.  

There was no way to get from the parking lot to the ballot box out front without walking through the library itself, and so I entered a library for the first time in 18 months. The Los Angeles Public Library system has been operational throughout that time1 but only recently did the buildings themselves reopen. It was a balm just to step inside the front doors. But a bit more peace of mind awaited me just through the security gates. 

As I entered, a cart of DVDs was jutting out from the broader selection of movie shelves. Above it, a sign read “IN ALPHA ORDER BY TITLE. PLEASE TRY TO KEEP THIS UP.”

My anxiety, while a fact of my life, is generally very low-level and manageable these years, especially when compared to certain chapters of my 20s. For much of that time, I lived with my father in a high-rise in downtown Chicago. We were just blocks away from the Water Tower, a building mythically lauded as the only one in the city to have withstood the Great Chicago Fire. Beside that landmark rose a storefront that would not have the Water Tower’s staying power: Borders Books. 

This downtown Borders was a behemoth — it must have been one of the biggest in the entire retail chain. It was three stories tall. I left no section of the Borders unturned during my downtown years, but when I think of the store, I picture myself entering on Pearson and immediately taking the escalator down to the basement, where fiction was housed. 

I think it happened by accident the first time. I was in the somewhere in the H-I-J region of Fiction, most likely, and I noticed that one of the books was mis-shelved. I pulled it and found its rightful position. And it felt good. So I took a closer look at the other titles on the shelf before me. And I noticed that this had not been the only book that was not in its place. 

Thus began a little ritual that I would perform whenever I was feeling emotionally depleted and had some unscheduled time to myself. I’d go to Borders, take the escalator down a level, pick a shelf — always in fiction, as the filing system was simplest there — and get to work. I’d run my eyes over each successive spine, looking for anomalies — an Achebe mistakenly filed after an Adams, an Alvarez mixed in with the Austens. Not to say that “A” got all the action, but I focused on only a shelf of two on any given outing. It never seemed reasonable to do more. For starters, the shelves at a major bookstore are tightly packed, so with every relocation, you risk having to make space by moving a bunch of other books down to a lower shelf, which then displaces a book or two on another shelf, and another. God forbid that the misplaced book should be particularly thick — an Irving or a hardback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow. I didn’t perform this ritual frequently, but I did live and work just blocks away from Borders for several years. Every letter would get its opportunity.

No one ever asked me what I was doing, or why. And I barely stopped to ask myself. I can tell you that it wasn’t merely the act of a Good Samaritan, saving the readers of Chicago from assuming their novel was out of stock. Nor was I angling, especially, to help out the harried employees of this giant bookstore, forever overrun by tourists and locals alike. It was simply that, when nothing seemed okay, it felt good to put something — anything — aright. 

I hadn’t thought about that Borders, or about my Rite of Alphabetization, for a long time. But back at the library, I saw the sign, and I knew it was for me. Please try to keep this up, it said. And I replied, don’t mind if I do. As at Borders, no one remarked on what I was up to, even though in this case I was right in the sightline of the circulation desk. And when I was done, I felt a tiny bit better. 

I’m writing to you now from that same library, almost a week later. Last Tuesday’s anxiety faded, and in the interim I’ve had stretches of sadness, of joy, of…just fine. Today I found myself feeling angry. Angry about what? Well, on the one hand, I have no idea; on the other hand, you name it. And while I’ve never worked from this library before, I was in the neighborhood, and I was thinking about that cart full of DVDs, and suddenly it occurred to me that I could go back and check again.  So I came back here, to see how things were keeping up.

In the week hence, the cart had gotten out of whack again in several spots. Jennifer’s Body should be by Jesus Christ Superstar. Broadcast News goes after Bringing Up Baby. In one particularly egregious move, someone had moved the copy of Lovecraft Country, Season 1 to the first position, even before the A’s! Perhaps all this should have made me even madder. But no. I was a hammer, and I’d found my nail. 

There will always be some things amiss, and there will always be the opportunity to set them a little righter. It’s not usually as easy as A, B, C, but in this one instance, that’s all there is to it.  

1

you could put books on hold and pick them up outside the library of your choice