By Tom O'Malley
The journey home for Odysseus was a long and torturous one. Beset by mythic monsters, seductive goddesses and the cold chill of loneliness, the warrior king never fell prey to despair. There is a story in “The Odyssey” in which Odysseus and his crew must sail past the Sirens, who sang so sweetly that sailors would run their ships upon the rocks in order to embrace these heavenly chanters.
Crafty Odysseus deafened his men's ears with wax for safety's sake. But he was so determined to experience these songs he had his men tie him to the ship's mast until they were out of range of the deadly music. He begged, he commanded, he demanded release but the ropes restrained his passion.
Odysseus was known for his intelligence, which was fed by this boundless curiosity. He was willing to risk everything for these new experiences, new emotions, new worlds. He would not be denied.
My college library was a modern day Siren for me. It was not large. It was not overwhelming. And yet it had a length and a breadth all its own. During my four years of undergraduate studies I never quite mastered the efficient and sensible method of scholarly bookmanship.
In those days, the card catalog was the key to saving time and completing assignments efficiently. I enjoyed following the book trails to develop a topic. Bibliographic undercurrents were my fuel. But once I waded into the lower decks of academia, I faced my own rough waters of diversion that sang to me from the musty shelves.
On a typical day I might find myself kneeling in the basement searching for a Library of Congress decimal. Somehow, the number I sought was always nestled on the lowest shelf hiding in the shadows. Now where is it? Ah, there. My body contorted painfully as I reached for the desired volume when my eyes were captured by a nearby title.
Interesting. A volume of Chaucer in Middle English. The book had a gilded cover, sewn binding and brittle pages. When I opened it I was set to sneezing, enhanced by the musty smell of antiquity. And before I knew it I was sitting on the floor surrounded by books that had little or nothing to do with my original search. Helios sped me on his chariot while another afternoon spilled through my fingers. Another day, another pledge to get organized.
While it seemed I had wasted a lot of time in the library, I now realize that I enhanced my education in ways never dreamed of so long ago. Hours spent paging through books is never wasted. There is something valuable in the random discoveries made while browsing for something else.
In those days I traveled with Dante through Paradiso, explored the Blue Highways with William Least Heat Moon, mounted a sandworm on Arrakis with Paul Maud’Dib, and attended lectures in the Athenian Academy with master Plato. All by random chance.
To me, there was nothing more enticing than books plucked from the lower shelves of my college library. They filled a need that could never be fulfilled in the classroom.
The desire for learning requires instinct and curiosity as well as reason. It was not always easy, but today I would never trade those “wasted” hours on the library floor. They brought me an accidental education that continues to enrich my life.
Tom O’Malley, of Buffalo, is an English teacher at St. Francis High School and Canisius College, and a creative writing specialist.