Now, for some good news: Library browsing in Louisiana is back | Entertainment/Life

I was at my neighborhood library the other day gathering research for a writing project when a bright bit of red caught my eye as I walked through the stacks.

What had gotten my attention was the spine of an art book, bright as a valentine, that I decided on a whim to fetch from the shelf. It turned out to be a collection of pictures drawn by Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist who lived between 1760 and 1849.

Interesting enough, I thought to myself, though not why I’d come to the library. But returning the book to its place, I had second thoughts. It would cost me nothing to borrow the book and take it home, and I’d lose not a thing if “Hokusai’s Lost Manga” turned out not to be my cup of tea.

That’s how a middle-aged man in the depths of a south Louisiana summer has managed to spend a few moments each evening on a vicarious journey through 19th-century Japan. I’ve always loved editorial cartoons, and Hokusai’s lyrical and frequently funny drawings can seem like prototypes for the toons I spot in the newspaper each day.

Maybe because I live in a coastal state, I was naturally drawn to Hokusai’s drawings of fish, which can look as solemn as saints staring back at you from a stained glass window. He also was fond of drawing rice farmers, and that made me think about Acadiana. What I most liked about Hokusai’s pictures was their simple view of daily routines. In seeing long-ago people going through their day, I’ve reconnected with a basic sense of life’s continuity, which has been a comforting idea in a summer touched by so many worrisome headlines.

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When I consulted summer book recommendations this season and drew up my own reading plan, suffice it to say that Japanese antiquarian art wasn’t on my list — or anyone else’s I know. Hokusai’s handiwork dropped into my lap because I went to my library for one thing and stumbled upon something else. That’s the magic of browsing, which is having a rebound of sorts now that public libraries and bookstores are open again after the worst days of the pandemic.

South Louisiana’s libraries and bookstores should get credit for finding creative ways to serve residents when the lockdowns prevented readers from mingling among the shelves. When social distancing made it impossible for patrons to roam the collection on their own, my library allowed visitors to request items and collect them from the front desk. Bookstores offered similar services.

What was understandably missing was the serendipity from browsing a bookshelf on your own. In a season shadowed by its share of bad news, let’s welcome this glad tiding: Browsing is back at libraries and bookstores across Louisiana.

It’s time to return my Japanese art book to the library. Goodness knows what I’ll find on the next trip.

Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.

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