Recently I read Ali Smith’s Public Library, in which short stories are punctuated by testimonials about the importance and vibrancy of our endangered public libraries. I am thinking about libraries a lot. Maybe I should pack in the rat race and start a rickshaw mobile library? Today, the Saturday after Pay Day, with Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher in my pocket and Woolf’s The Voyage Out lurking in my handbag, I go out into the city, our strange little barely-city, cobbled village-city so full of stories its air is plasma.
I purchase a hellebore in a pot and a tiny book on photography, to add to my collection of books about stuff I know nothing about. I like to look at and read about photographs. They are a thing I cannot do but still can love. Somehow books necessitate coffee, which in turn invites cake.
I’m thinking about words and talking to Calasso and Woolf in my head and there are thousands of details crowding in. The pugnacious Chinese ducks accosting passersby, the varying densities of trodden chewing gum, a man berating his tearstreaked wife in the street. My steps peel half-unconsciously to the library.
The library I used to go to as a child was two small rooms in the bridewell, with the village police station occupying the rest of the building, and a small yard with a fountain where prisoners once would have circled, suffering human goldfishes. The grown-up library was in the bright front room, and the children’s library cosy in the back. It was here that I attended countless Story Times, and eventually made the momentous level-up to the Young Adult section, taking Ros Asquith’s I Was A Teenage Worrier in trembling, reverent hands. Finally, moving into the front room, I would request obscure tracts on green issues: John Evelyn’s Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets sourced all the way away in Petersfield, just for me. The library was quiet, light, and sparsely populated.
The Millennium Library is a different beast: the busy glass centrepiece of the village-city, whose atrium plays host to exhibitions and stalls, and where a women’s choir warbles a Westlife song from the second-floor balcony. It is a big library. There are many people here, though never quite enough in these austere times of cuts cuts cuts. There is a whole section on manga. It is impossible to find anything; here only one modus operandi will do. You must crack out your best Browse.
The choir vibrato on. People talk, including me, bumping into a friend who is clutching a book on fashion theory. Mobile phones buzz.
I trawl the sociology section, revelling in political and cultural theory, that is, when I can find it among the titles on how to afford your divorce and why women love shoes so much. There are always other things catching my eye. Deborah Levy follows me home. Like the people, the books here are cheek by spine, classified by anything but class. Here the history and potentiality of the whole world is free at the point of discovery.
Calasso is my companion as the scene shifts to another café, carrier bag of books at my feet and sleet outside. I cannot go home and just read the books; we must journey about noticing things together for a little while longer first. A colleague who I barely know murmurs to her girlfriend in the corner opposite, and I am confirmed in my bookwormhood. Bookworms are often introverts, and the first rule of introvertedness is that you don’t acknowledge acquaintances unless you absolutely can’t escape. Calasso is my means of escape; I am a bookworm because I am an introvert, and I am an introvert because I am a bookworm. We shore one another up.