Museums: Home for unpublished books: William Hartston visits the Brautigan - an unusual library in Burlington, Vermont

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The Independent Culture
I NEVER wanted to go to America. I feel more content with an ocean between me and the land that invented Arnold Schwarzenegger, television evangelism and Hillary Clinton. But the Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vermont, seemed to sum up so well everything that America isn't, that I made the trip after all.

'The world's only home for unpublished books,' as it describes itself, began life in the pages of a novel: The Abortion, An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan. A typical Sixties love story, it is a tale of boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl has abortion. And it all takes place in a library of unpublished books. The text reads: 'This library came into being because of an overwhelming need and desire for such a place. There just simply had to be a library like this.'

Todd Lockwood, 45, a Brautigan fan from way back, agreed. There had to be such a library. So three years ago, the Brautigan Library was made real, with the objective of forming 'an archive that will distinguish us from other libraries; that will be of use to historians; that will offer a unique, grass-roots view of America'.

In Brautigan's fictional library, there was no classification system. The authors brought in their manuscripts and were free to place them wherever they wanted on the shelves: 'It doesn't make any difference where the book is placed because nobody every checks them out and nobody ever comes here to read them. This is not that kind of library. This is another kind of library.'

In its Burlington incarnation, people do visit the Brautigan Library and read the books. So they have a classification system with 12 categories kept separate on the shelves by mayonnaise jars. ('Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word mayonnaise', wrote Richard Brautigan in Trout Fishing in America.)

So Allan - You May Use Your Ballpoint Now] (SOC 1990.002) is kept away from In Search of Missing Socks (HUM 1990.009) and Theory, Design and Application of a Photocombustion Reactor (ALL 1990.011) by the Hellmann's jars separating 'Social/Political/Cultural' from 'Humour', 'Poetry' and 'All the Rest'. They all have the same drab binding, with only the catalogue number on the spine. It encourages serendipitous browsing, explains Mr Lockwood.

In the street outside, I spotted a poster in a shop window with the slogan: 'Spot the Monkey and Win a Water-Bed'. From that world, people wander into the Brautigan Library, an oasis of meaninglessness in a world of cliches, in search of peace or bewilderment.

From the librarians' book, 20 March 1993: 'A man stopped by from Washington. 'Is this the library?' he asked. 'Yes', I said. 'It's the Brautigan.' 'What's a Brautigan? Is it the City Library?' 'It's a home for unpublished manuscripts,' I said. 'Why?', he asked.'

The librarian told the visitor it was to look after them and keep them alive, so people could read them, but the truth is more complex and diverse. For the writers, the library provides a caring home for anything from literary horrors to reminiscences that had to be written down and could not be thrown away.

For the readers, it provides an intimacy that published books cannot offer - I could be the only person other than the author ever to have read these words - and for the librarians and custodians of the Brautigan it is a literary club for those who, like Richard Brautigan himself, would like to see writing stripped of its commercialism and restored to the status of folk art.

'This great country of ours was founded on one great principle above all others', writes Donald McNowski, in The McNowski Papers (SOC 1990.001). 'The principle was that US citizens can own all the guns they want. No society can maintain its freedom without private ownership of guns. That is a historic fact.'

Only in the Brautigan can one read the marvellous rantings of Donald McNowski (a pseudonym of Burlington's answer to Henry Root), or browse through Ray Sikorski's A Life Without Porpoise, in which the writer, 'driving north on highway 191 near Moab, Utah,' picks up Nelson Mandela as a hitchhiker. One can read In Search of Missing Socks, a spoof on the best and most exciting investigative journalism.

It is impossible to characterise the writing in the Brautigan. There is a good deal of poor poetry, philosophical rambling, some novels too imaginative to attract publishers, and a great deal of autobiographical writing that was never intended for publication at all.

The writers give the impression that they had a compulsion to write. A part of their life or imagination had to be let out, put on paper, bound in the Brautigan's drab bodybags for dead books and left on the shelf, perhaps in the hope that someone would one day come along, read it and understand.

'Thank you for founding the Brautigan Library' wrote one author. 'I hope this book is worth including. If not, please damage it beyone repair.' But they never turn away a book at the Brautigan.

While I was there, a shy fellow ambled into the library, avoided everybody's eye, looked intently at the shelves and signed the notice asking for volunteer librarians.

'I'm on the third draft of my novel', he later told us. 'If I didn't believe it was good - a work of genius, to be modest - I wouldn't have continued with it.' He had been working on it for 14 years and if it doesn't get published he says he will be intensely depressed. Perhaps he is already getting acclimatised to the atmosphere of the world's only home for unpublished books.

In Richard Brautigan's book The Abortion, he writes about some of the books in his fictional library. One of them is called 'Moose' by Richard Brautigan.

'The author was tall and blond and had a long yellow moustache that gave him an anachronistic appearance. He looked as if he would be more at home in another era. This was the third or fourth book he had brought to the library. 'What's this one about?' I asked, because he looked as if he wanted me to ask him something. 'Just another book', he said. I guess I was wrong about him wanting me to ask him something.'

Richard Brautigan would have approved of the Brautigan Library in Burlington, Vermont. Especially the jars of mayonnaise.

(Photograph omitted)

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