Lunchtimes at the library


The recent #rememberingmylibrary hashtag has stuck with me, much in the same way that library memories themselves do.

Libraries have a church-like aspect – with their own rituals of giving and reciprocation, their own incense. They demand tokenistic sacrifices. They offer sanctuary.

As a lonely schoolboy, I retreated to the library. I found my corner and read – often science fiction – though one of my haunts happened to be the psychology section. I remember digging randomly dug into Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. I borrowed a book by Tony Benn and was duly denounced as a communist by my unpleasant physics teacher. One summer, lunchtime after lunchtime, I made my first long journey through Lord of the Rings, sneaking boiled sweets from my pocket as the party made and broke camp. I read Ray Bradbury’s short stories and any number of the other bright yellow Gollancz titles I could find.

I was greeted every day by that sudden dampening hush as I pushed through the doors, the rushing in of books. A kind of soft tension. Possibility.

I offended a school librarian by refusing her offer of a position as an assistant. I felt sorry for her disappointment but I knew which side of the counter I wanted to haunt. It is the same today with bars, coffee shops and bookstores.

At University, I made the library basement cafe my campus home – drinking bad vending machine coffee and eating limp cheese and pickle sandwiches, making raids upstairs for prizes from the short term loan collection.

That library was another retreat but it also became work in a new way. I hadn’t leapt the counter but I was meant to be there and so it lost a little of the lustre of the secret retreat.

A few years later, debt and fatherhood (go together like a horse and carriage) channeled me into a corporate job – something I resented horribly. At lunchtime, I walked alone, counting out my minutes and bouncing between cafes and bookshops. One day, I noticed a public library and, on impulse, I walked in. And there was that smell – full and dusty and bursting with itself – words flowering away itchily. I walked the aisles with a growing sense that this was somewhere quietly to belong – a kind of homecoming.

After that, I visited almost every lunchtime, sometimes to read and sometimes just to wander and browse. I became part of an unspeaking little community. The elderly woman who read the Financial Times through an enormous magnifying glass, the homeless man who paged through Dickens and smelled of damp biscuits, several students.

I carried on in jobs I didn’t much like, doing work I didn’t much care about, mostly surrounded by people for whom an interest in books and writing were mystifying eccentricities at best. Even when I moved offices – and then countries – the library remained with me.

Eventually, I returned to the UK and set about applying for Creative Writing MA courses. I found myself back at last in a University library, hunting again for the elusive perfect desk, drinking better (but still inferior) coffee, happily and officially home again.

photo credit: Underpuppy Mother of all libraries 13 via photopin (license)

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