Remember to look in culture's eddies

They go straight through the library's double doors.

They go past the sign that says "no food;" past the shelf of new titles, some of which are old, but only recently arrived; past the girl sitting at the circulation desk and up to the computers.

It's fall break, here in this seminary library, but still, there's enough of a flow of human traffic to get the sense of the current that can carry you through all these hard-back volumes. There's enough of a flow to get the sense of the current and a sense of the eddies curling off to the sides.

I followed an eddy. I'm in the back. In the corner. I'm by a window in the A section of the journals: American Catholic Quarterly, American Anthropologist, American Baptist Quarterly, The American Benedictine Review, The American Bible Society Record.

The main current features all of the things you're supposed to see. But, sometimes, if you stray, you see more interesting things.

I found my way into the archives, earlier. I'm not even sure if I am allowed in there, since I don't go to this school, and since the door was closed and the light was off. But I found my way in there and saw a newspaper clipping with a picture of the school's groundbreaking.

Skinny, white men in suits stick shovels into the ground underneath the headline of another story: "23rd body found in Calf. mass murder, officials continue dig."

There was a file full of folders on circuit riding preachers in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. There was a large, tapestry-looking hanging, which explained, in the course of five feet, the history of the world, the bible and the meaning of life.

All of which I never would have seen, if I hadn't been wandering around a seminary in Tennessee and hadn't had the habit of following eddies.

There is a driving force that keeps everyone walking straight through those doors and to the main, populated, well-traveled, well-lit sections of the library. It's economic. It's architectural. It's social, religious, biological and political. It's the same force that keeps everyone going to Starbucks, watching CNN and having weddings in June.

It's a good thing - I mean, it's the currents' pressure that keeps would-be cannibals from eating people, that keeps would-be world dictators painting poorly in Austria, that keeps would-be snuff-film-makers making documentaries for Animal Planet.

The much vaunted "path less traveled" can be dangerous, destructive and damning. The beaten path is beaten for a reason, and it keeps everyone safe and most people happy and, generally, the bulk of what you need and what you need to know is there, in the main stream.

There's also, though, a kind of flattening and a shrinking. That force is the force that keeps all the new books sounding the same as the old ones, that turns out radio DJs sounding like ubiquitous radio DJs. It's the force that turns all women's jeans into low rise jeans and all TV dramas into shows about cops and doctors and cop-doctors. It's the reason you've never seen a movie staring an archivist, or a botanist, or a hymnologist.

The beaten path is safe, but it's also tired and predictable. Ask the people who rate television shows. Ask the students of architecture about the houses they're being asked to draw.

They say that architecture has changed, in this country, since everyone now plans to move. No one builds homes expecting to live there until they die. They construct houses as investments, so they build a place where anybody might want to live. We make it so that anybody, in general, might like the place, by ensuring that no one, in particular, might love it.

It knocks the wind out of the character of architecture, like the whole world is suddenly playing it off-white safe. All the quirks are gone, all the peculiarities and foibles are gone, and the risks are avoided, and every boat is rushed out into the single direction of the main current.

It's safe. And safe is good. But the world isn't that flat. There are interesting things to see, if you shun the turn pike, if you stray off the prescribed reading list, if you sleep somewhere not approved by AAA and AARP.

When John Steinbeck was wandering around with his dog, he worried about disappearing accents. He worried that everyone would someday soon talk like the TV, and there would be no more Ohio accent, or Idaho accent, or Arkansas accent. I think he's mostly wrong (there will always be dialects to some extent and they shift all the time), but I am glad he worried about it.

Because, while there will always be weird ways of speaking English, always be odd accents spoken somewhere, we have to be reminded to hear them. We have to be reminded to value them.

An eddy swirls, it gets muddy. It doesn't really, successfully, go anywhere, but it turns up all sorts of interesting stuff. I'd like to make a sign - maybe in big, block letters handwritten on bright, pink paper - and put it on the door of the archives in the back of the library. I'd say, "Look in here!"

Because the world is more interesting, if you look in the eddy.

Daniel Silliman covers crime and courts for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770)

478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.