I was trying to think of something to blog about when out of the woodwork comes National Library Week. Now I have a topic!
I hated libraries as a kid. The one I was forced to wander, like an invading infection, was in Llanelli. My parents dropped me off at the imposing building so they could do their weekly shopping at the all-new buying experience called Tesco.
The library smelt old and was perpetually cold, the radiators coughed and wheezed, and the windows were always rain-smeared. There were many, many steps to climb to reach the children’s section. One time, I wandered by mistake into the adult area and in the holy hush and under the vaulted ceiling of some industrialist magnate’s magnanimous vision, I stared slackjaw at the stacks of books. Then I ran as if the devil himself were after me — it was too much to witness.
The librarians back then in Wales (circa 1978) were wizened and mean and drank brackish tea and glared with icy contempt at my library card (chewed and inked). They also frowned and sneered at my choice of books and authors: Fungus the Bogeyman, the Adventures of Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, Evelyn Waugh, and Oscar Wilde. They fingered the books as if they were dead vermin. They checked them out with an hereditary scowl that could be traced back to zealots at a witch burning.
I loved the books I read. Loved them so much, I feared returning them to that bone-chilling prison. Which only made it worse for me when I did return the over-due books. Now the on-duty librarian had knives for hands and the condemning eyes of a priest. My teeth chattered as I approached with my small stash of Poe and Carroll and Dahl and the Dungeons and Dragons’ Monster Manual. I expected gargoyles to swoop down from the old stone and devour my liver. And I waited. Hoping for that grisly moment.
All that happened was that the librarian checked-out my books, stamping the cards with an end-of-the-world pronouncement and a the strong whiff of whiskey. (Note: Librarians drink no more or no less than ordinary folk.)
Ok, I know a lot of writers credit libraries as the birthing stool of their writing life, but I can never claim that a library nurtured my writing life. It was always the books, which just happened to come from a library. I was so much a happier sneaking into a library, getting my stash, and creeping out. Then I’d head to a graveyard or a park or a bus or the train or a friend’s house — any where but the solemn hush and the austerity of a library: I always wanted to read but hear the rush of life going by, I wanted to be near enough to that life that created those books I devoured like an orphan.
Actually my great dream as a child was to be saved from the library. I wished that some obscure relative, an aristocratic dowager with a big manor in Kent, would appear one day in our driveway in an old Morris Minor with two Mastiffs that growled at everyone but me, and she’d offer me to stay with her in the summer at her estate and she would have this huge library full of books. And I would sleep in the library on a fancy divan and have my meals there and be always surrounded by books and read them and not put them back, but litter the floor with them and place my empty plates and cups on the shelves and never be disturbed again until I was 18 and ready to write my first book….
My life with libraries has slowly gotten better, though, especially since my family moved to the States and my British aristocratic dreams have been replaced with the American reality of working for a living. In fact, I have now become a bona fide visitor of the Rockport Public Library in Maine, happy to go in and look up a favourite author or just randomly snag a spine from the shelf. And as I’ve aged, I have become just another regular, prudent, and levelheaded individual who loves the last bastion of democracy that a library represents. And now when I check out books, the librarian does it pleasantly with the occasional lifted brow as if communicating some shared imagination or else with a sagacious nod as if I am now a member of the lucky, happy few who knows a good book when they see one.
Fuck, how I miss that old Llanelli library!