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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Final Shush!

"But the little-known secret behind the Queens success story is that its libraries are thriving because they have moved beyond books and the age-old dictum of silence is golden. So expect very little shushing."
—Dean E. Murphy, "Moving Beyond 'Shh' (and Books) at Libraries," The New York Times, March 7, 2001.
I HADN'T done a reading at a library in ages. That's why the invitation in my hand—from one Micah Hobblewight of the Queens library system—struck me so sharply.

I had almost forgotten that libraries existed.

With the Internet making it possible to accomplish much of my necessary writing research from home, and with Amazon and eBay and ABE Books offering access to practically any title I wanted to purchase and read, I hadn't actually set foot in a library in possibly five years. I wasn't particularly proud of this fact. It was just the way things were.

But the more I thought about my neglect of libraries, the more chagrined I grew. All my childhood affection for these repositories of literary adventure and excitement rushed back over me, reproving me for my subsequent delinquency. Wandering the stacks redolent of the slow decay of paper. Rummaging through the cart of discards. The periodical room with its legions of elderly, homeless, and poor killing time on a winter's day over the newspapers of distant cities, soothed by the jets of steam radiators. A cushioned nook in the children's room.

How had I forgotten all these immemorial pleasures?

And then there was the role libraries had played in my adult life. Thirty years ago, when I was just starting my writing career, libraries were some of the easiest places where one could arrange a reading. Librarians seemed eager to accommodate even fledgling writers. They worked hard to publicize your event, and had always read your book and would converse intelligently about it.

Certainly I owed libraries and librarians a lot. I resolved instantly to agree to do this reading. The invitation lacked an e-mail address for reply, so I dashed off a quick old-fashioned note to Hobblewight, managed to dig up an actual stamp and envelope from the bottom of a junk drawer, and entered the date on my calendar.

The day of my reading I stood outside the proper branch of the Queens library, carrying a copy of my latest novel, which I would read from and later donate to the library. This branch was not one I had ever patronized before, so I had no special fond memories of it. But its impressively old-fashioned columned frontage resembled that of my childhood library closely enough that I was instantly suffused with a golden nostalgia. Eagerly I bounded up the steps and through the front door, anticipating the rush of book smells, the dusty radiance filtering through grimy skylights, and even the admonitory shushing of the corps of matronly librarians intent on preserving the sacred silence so vital to bibliophiles.

I nearly knocked down a clown standing just inside the entryway. In full makeup and costume, the clown was handing out balloons to a gaggle of shrieking children. The colorful balloons were imprinted with a message: LIBRARIES ARE FUN-TASTIC!

Well, I supposed the new generation of readers had to be recruited somehow. And as long as such flackery and hype were limited to the lobby, there was no harm done, I guessed.

I approached the front desk. The young woman behind the counter sported hacked-off hair dyed all the colors of the aurora borealis, as well as several intimidating piercings. The small knob jutting below her lower lip she sucked on like some metallic pacifier, giving her an air of aggressive contrition.

I told her my name and announced that I was here for my reading. Looking at me askance, she consulted her Palm Pilot.

"Sorry, you're not on my schedule."

"But this is the correct time and date," I protested. "I have the invitation right here, from Micah Hobblewight."

She studied the letter. "No such person works here as far as I know."

"But this is impossible. Can I speak to the head librarian?"

She pushed up the fishnet false sleeves on her arms like a bouncer getting ready to eject an unruly drunk. "I'm the head librarian. And we call ourselves 'informatics and activities coordinators' these days."

Baffled, I sought for some final thread to hang onto. "What about this room number where I'm supposed to be?"

She glanced again at the invitation. "That's in the sub-sub-sub-basement."

"How do I get there?"

"Just follow the signage to the elevators."

I left the unhelpful Informatics and Activities Coordinator behind and headed across the lobby and toward a door featuring the elevator sign and an arrow. Curiously enough, muted strains of bouncy music emanated from what I had assumed would be a quiet reading room. Just as I warily crossed the threshold, I was snatched up by a woman who urged me lustily to "join the dance!"

At first I thought I had stumbled onto some kind of bacchanal involving whirling dervishes who had stormed the library and taken over. But after a few quick turns across the marble dance floor, I realized that I had been swept up in some sort of library-sponsored class in Latin American dance. Hastily disengaging myself from my partner, I left behind the dancers and their tropical boombox, exiting out the far side of the room.

The next room was semi-darkened and filled with contorted bodies and clouds of incense, but at least it was quiet. My initial impression was of some sort of sculptural tableau depicting the death poses of a group of tetanus victims. But as a woman at the head of the group gracefully uncoiled herself and the others followed suit, I realized I had intruded on some sort of arcane exercise class. I sidled past the slowly writhing bodies and continued on toward the elevators.

So far I hadn't seen a single book or magazine on the bare shelves of the first two rooms. Apparently, the library's collection of texts had been relocated elsewhere in order to free up the space for these other anomalous activities, and to insure that any book-lovers wouldn't intrude. The sad gaping spaces where the books had been seemed to me like empty eyesockets on a skull.

My nose alerted me in advance to what awaited me farther on, so I wasn't surprised to encounter a cooking class. After succumbing to the class's entreaties to sample some of their output—a very nice margarita and several fish tacos—I continued on in my quest to find Micah Hobblewight.

In short order I passed through a screening of a classic Marx Brothers film; a children's face-painting session; a martial-arts demonstration; a poetry slam involving vinyl records being abused on twin turntables; and some amateur comedians amusing an audience in a setting that resembled a small nightclub, complete with waiters and open bar. I was heckled by the young man holding the microphone as I tried inconspicuously to cross the room.

"Hey, grandpa, what's that book you're carrying? Hope it's =How to Get a Life!="

I picked up my pace under the jeers of the crowd and soon, thank goodness, stood at the elevator bank.

The damp, shadowy sub-sub-sub-basement was lit by intermittent forty-watt bulbs. But I couldn't have felt more at home, for here were all the library's books. Jammed higgledy-piggledy into cartons and tumbling from raw industrial shelving in flagrant disobedience to the Dewey Decimal system, they nonetheless exuded their familiar allure, a mixture of physical attractiveness and numinous potential.

I moved on down the long dank corridor, looking for my designated room.

After what seemed like miles, I found it. A computer-printed banner with my name and the details of my speaking date on it hung above the door.

Inside the nitre'd crypt, about a dozen chairs faced an old-fashioned wooden library table. On the table a selection of my previous books had been nicely arranged, next to a tumbler and pitcher of water. The chairs were occupied by a motley collection of—well, readers is what they plainly were, gathered like a congregation of persecuted Christians in the Roman catacombs. Old and young, shy and bold, they all perked up when I entered.

One elderly man in tweeds, a pilly cardigan, and stained bow tie got up and came to meet me. His white mustache lifted with his friendly smile.

"Welcome, welcome, I'm Micah Hobblewight. We're so pleased you could make it. Not many authors persist through the gauntlet up above. We've begun to despair of ever hearing a live reading again."

"Well, I almost didn't make it myself. If it weren't for the sustenance of those fish tacos—But anyway, I'm here now. Shall we start?"

"Certainly."

I rested one hip on the corner of the table next to my books, put on my reading glasses, opened the copy of my new novel, found my place, and began to read.

Partway through my reading, one teenaged boy leaned over to his female peer and whispered something.

There issued then from Micah Hobblewight the most resounding and effective "Shush!" ever recorded in the history of libraries since ancient Alexandria.

It was the sweetest sound I had ever heard.

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