Sunday, November 24, 2013

Secular Churches: A Bibliophile's Paean to the Library

Photo: Glyn Lowe
When psychotherapist Thomas Mann writes about the need to incorporate soul into daily life, he distinguishes soul from spirit. The latter is transcendent, visionary, concerned with going forward; soul, in contrast, is grounded: concerned with the past, with memory, with the earth. Libraries nurture both my soul and my spirit. They are about the familiar, the comfortable, the known, but also the unexpected leap of intellectual and literary adventure, and the very anticipation of those adventures.

Every time I enter my local library I relive one of my most pleasant early memories: my father taking me to Malvern Library in High Street when I was about four. Surely I must have accompanied one or other of my parents to the library before this, but on this memorable occasion he signed me up as a borrower with her very own library card. I have never lost my reverence for libraries since.

Church was another early experience of soul. It held a quantum of familiar faces, school mates and their parents, choir members, a community of sorts; but it dictated the hushing of the voice, the quelling of the body’s tongue and momentum while grumpy Father Riley droned on to a God who was depicted on the cross as, well, dead. Every five minutes I turned around and checked the clock that hung over the back door. Pacing myself through each segment, the lion’s share endured once communion swung into gear. That was always a change at least, watching people shuffling obediently up to the alter like prisoners queuing for lunch.

The library was different. Just as hushed, just as respectful, but this time there was a point to the quiet, enabling a very different kind of communion with an equally absent presence. It was the sound of a hundred minds encountering the bright imagination of an author via the words on the page. A hundred small adventures, a hundred serendipitous discoveries, a hundred love affairs with the written word being carried on silently in this homely, local place that nevertheless offered many windows to the wider world, like the magic windows of Play School.

But discovering books was as sensual as it was abstracted. When you pulled the covers of the books back, their spines cracked and the opaque plastic on the covers broke free with a squishing noise. When you took the books to be checked out, the librarian pressed each one against a grey metal machine that recorded the date of issue. The deep clunky sound this made expressed the most complete satisfaction, and seemed to deliver each book to me alone with a unique authority.

I soon became addicted to books. This was my weakness and my strength. I did not always attend to the present book closely enough; I was thinking of the next one. While we were still at the house in Manning Road, after a visit to the library I would sit on the step between the kitchen and the tiny sunroom and go through my stash. It had to be at least five at a time. I swallowed them like Tic Tacs. At first they were picture books but it didn’t take me long to graduate to the proper books with chapters that belonged on the freestanding shelving in the middle of the children’s book section, a large sunny room with child-sized reading benches set at the perfect angle for comfortable perusing.

It was the serendipitous find I craved. I still go into nostalgic reveries when I recall some of these discoveries. Most were English, probably some American, very few Australian.

I was especially drawn to books that had a poignant, nostalgic edge or tipped over into the darkness of the occult. Charley by Joan G. Robinson (now called The Girl Who Ran Away) is the wistful tale of a runaway who moves into a chicken coop near the aunt she is convinced does not want her, and gets to know the local community while playing a series of fictional roles. A Candle in Her Room was the darkest of Ruth M. Arthur’s haunting tales. It’s about several generations of an ancient Welsh family, all haunted by an evil doll called Dido; the spare illustrations by Margery Gill were as important as the text. It’s out of print now, yet so sought after that hardback copies in good condition sell online for as much as two hundred and sixty five dollars.

It’s heartening – and very soulful in Thomas Mann’s sense – to see the way the internet links older readers like me with the past by making new and old editions of these books available, offering Goodreads reviews and helping to jog our memories on titles and author names, with a little help from Google. Just yesterday I tracked down the name of another book I had loved, All About the Bullerby Children by Astrid Lindgren.

It's no surprise that there's now a forum where members can post requests for information about books they revered as children but have forgotten the titles of. This is perfect for those books whose titles and authors have fled from the memory forever, while the stories themselves, with their themes of loss and longing, linger in the heart.

I remember being transfixed by the tale of a young girl who accidentally left her favourite doll in the park one sunny afternoon. When she realised what she’d done she and her nurse rushed back to search for it, but the doll was nowhere to be found. The months passed and the seasons turned, and yet the little girl always kept a lookout. The more time that passed, the more beautiful the doll became in the child’s mind, the grander her outfit, the brighter her eyes, the lusher her hair, until she was the very model of the perfect doll.

And then one day, in the middle of a heavy winter, on a familiar walk in the park, the dog nosed out something under the snow – a wrecked, sorry thing that might once have been a doll, its clothes in rags, its shoes gone, wisps of hair and perhaps an eye missing. It was the little girl’s doll. Could there be a harsher lesson than this, for both the heroine and the reader, about the dangers of excessive imagination and the hard thud of reality (if anyone by chance has any knowledge of this book please let me know)? And doesn't this story resonate, making us think of old flames whose recent photos convey a distressing physical deterioration compared with the idealised image the mind has created.

The enduring charm of the library

Libraries are unique environments because they represent the communal spirit that made so much social progress possible in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but is now under threat. If council-funded libraries had never been thought of up to now, and someone suggested them, the idea would be labelled bolshie, radical and socialist by the loony right. Libraries represent what we can achieve when we pool our resources for a common good.

When the conservative Coalition fought its successful election campaign in the state of Victoria in 2010, it failed to mention that it planned to slash funding to local libraries. In 2011 councils were left reeling when they were told that recurrent funding for public library operating costs would be cut by up to $7.1 million over four years. There was so much outcry that the government quickly backtracked, providing assurances that the funding would be maintained while it undertook a review of Victorian library services and funding arrangements; the fight is not over yet. (In the meantime it took an axe to TAFE colleges, but that’s another story.)

I’m always heartened by the sight of people kicking back in libraries and reading the paper at the communal tables, or poring over a novel in a secluded corner. I find this very hard to do myself. For some reason I can only relax to that extent at home, but for me, these communal readers are part of what makes the library worth going to. Because my local library is currently closed for renovations I go to a newly built one in Camberwell. It’s spacious and tall-ceilinged, and there are cushy beanbags arranged against one of the walls, inviting you to plump down and wile away an hour with the printed word. I haven’t seen anyone on those beanbags as yet; I’d like to think that when the nearby primary school finishes up every afternoon the local kids come streaming in and head for the beanbags, but if they do I bet they use them to play on their tablets and smart phones.

I still believe in serendipity, still comb the shelves for new discoveries; one of my recent browses yielded This Is How by M.J. Hyland and Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond, by Jane Haas. But I understand I can't rely on chance alone for my book thrills; I reserve books I've read about on the review pages of the weekend papers. I’ve just finished my library copy of Kate Atkinson's excellent Life after Life and I’ll be reading Christos Tsiolkas’s latest book Barracuda that way too, but I think I’ll be in for a long wait.

I am as hopelessly addicted to the mixed-lollies potential of libraries as I ever was as a child, and after all these years I do not have the willpower to  borrow only as many books as I have the time to read (I will often borrow new books while there are others sitting at home unread from last time). There are always a few that I have to return without having read them, having gone through the two renewals that are usually permitted. 

Memories of libraries past

I actually worked in a council library service for a year, in 1985. I lived with my parents and saved up for a five-month trip to Europe. I am glad I did this because it satisfied my curiosity – I decided I didn’t want to become a librarian, it was too dull. I did little else but shelve books, mend them, and check them in and out. However, although I was a library assistant only, because I had an arts degree I was allowed to do the occasional reference query; this was the 1985 version of googling and made a nice change from the endless wielding of the computer wand.

Now I curse my lack of imagination – this was an era before libraries had started holding the book discussions, author talks, adult storytimes and competitions that now pepper their calendars. If I’d thought about it I could have livened up ‘sleepy hollow’, our fond name for our branch library, which was surrounded by a vibrant Jewish community and not far away from the arty grunginess of St Kilda.

But I was only 22 after all. It took all my willpower to stay in the job because I had a bad case of love shyness (love avoidance would be more accurate) powered by OCD, panic and social anxiety. My fears centred on the young gay man whose job it was to transfer the books from one library branch to the next. He always did his rounds in the early afternoon and I would blush furiously when the glass doors swung open and he waltzed in. He ended up thinking I hated him, as I bristled if he approached me; the opposite was the case, I was a little in love with him, everybody was, but I couldn't and still find it hard to distinguish sexual feelings from feelings of love. He had so much life force in him, I could see it in the challenge of his liquid dark eyes, which reflected both a sense of anarchy and a narcissism that was forgivable – he resembled a short, slightly built version of James Dean, but was better looking. My fantasies of him were fairly chaste; we played hide-and-seek in a huge mansion with sweeping staircase and enormous chintz curtains of pale gold. When this clip for the new Tears for Fears single ‘Head over heels’ first played on Countdown while both of us were still slaves to the library service, I felt as if the yearnings of my soul had been bared for the entire world to see. Needless to say such tumultous emotions have done nothing to reduce the charm of libraries for me (he was only the first of a short series of male library workers I had crushes on; the women were unexciting). 

With the arrival of ebooks I refuse to fear the loss of the local library. I think it will stay around in some form or another as a gathering place for those who value the life of the mind, whether they’re two or eighty-two. Libraries are both a place of refuge from neoliberal madness, and the secular world’s answer to churches, and long may they remain so.

No comments:

Post a Comment