I have a lot of books. In piles by the bed and underneath it, lining the book cases and shelves that in turn line the narrow upstairs passages of our late Victorian home. They are stacked by easy chairs, ready to soothe and transport an uneasy mind, slotted into gaps between kitchen units and propped up on bathroom radiators. They fill the cellar, lay in wait on stairs, accompanying me up and down them from the moment I leave my bed in the morning, stumbling and heavy lidded until they return upstairs to accompany my slide into sleep. I have read many of these books but many more await me, making me worry that I will run out before the books do – all that great writing published after I shuffle off this mortal coil that I will never get to read.
Schopenhauer said, over one hundred and fifty years ago, ‘It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them: but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.’ Sadly the last few years have been marked by an increasing lack of time to sit and read and I resent it, I truly do. If books build a person does that mean that my busy-ness has caused my construction to come to a temporary halt? Will I slip into a slow autophagy, a gentle and gentile decline in the manner of a stately home without National Trust guardianship unless I maintain an unspecified quota of books read?
I have always identified myself first and foremost as a bookworm from a very young age. A sticker on the front of a book I pulled from a shelf in the town library showed a pale young girl, eyes huge behind owlish glasses, her open book illuminated by the glow worm sitting on her shoulder. She sat late at night, the bedclothes tented over her head, (a nylon blanket and wincyette sheet set no doubt), reading in defiance of her parents who probably wondered why she took so long to rouse of a morning. I had found a graphic rendition of my own bookish existence at the age of eight and although my sheets have a much better thread count these days, I haven’t really changed all that much. The bedpost on my husbands side of the bed is festooned with a selection of eyemasks to better enable him able to cope with my late night reading.
Henry James may have referred to the city of Florence’s ‘many memoried streets’ but for me, Sudbury library with its separate children’s library and galleried upper floor containing the ‘big books’- encyclopedias and reference, is my street of memories. I started in the children’s area then ventured out into the wider spaces of this cavernous former corn exchange on the Market Hill. Tall, slightly dusty and echoing as a ‘proper’ library should, walking around here was, to me, as important as the hidden and darker corners of European cities, a surprise that taught you something around every corner and to a small child, as big and safe a city as they could ever need.
And if you are a bookworm, a library is the only way you can satisfy that intense hunger for books and choice because to buy all the books that I wanted to, and indeed did read, would have cost a small fortune. For children worldwide, the library is the place where their background and their income is irrelevant. Back in the early seventies, Sudbury had several independent book shops on Gainsborough and Friars street with fine collections of books but if, like me, you could read a Roald Dahl in three hours, the cost would soon become prohibitive. The desire to explore subjects and authors unknown was also inhibited by the risk of spending pocket money on a book that may turn out to be a dud and the comprehensive encyclopedias were completely financially out of reach. For children and families not born into stately homes with their own libraries, the ones in our towns are a fine substitute with the advantage of staff trained to guide children towards books best suited.
Before Sudbury library, there was the one in my junior school in Mexico where I started, aged four in the first year, the only English girl and the only blonde in a sea of inky black haired locals. Their library contained shelves edged with strips of onyx, lined with imported Jane and Peter books from the USA, classics such as the Phantom Tollbooth and Harold and His Big Purple Crayon (the latter went on to become a life long favourite of mine) alongside books of the saints and martyrs which terrified me. At the school library entrance stood a lurid plaster statue of Mary the Virgin pointing to her exposed and bleeding heart past which I scuttled on my way to the books. I learned to avoid the stories of saints, broken by torture and other terrible fates for as the only non Catholic in the school, the promise of eternal reward did not sit as comfortably on my shoulders and I grew impatient with their motivation. Instead I cajoled the library assistant into sharing her comic books and learned to speak Mexican Spanish via Yogi Bear, Speedy Gonzales and Porky Pig. I sat on her lap, ate bread dipped in milk caramel, read my books and tolerated her plaiting and replaiting my locks- she had never seen white blonde ringlets before.
From the library of another country to the one in my English high school: a place so alluring that aged fifteen, on being asked to write out the games lesson register at the start of the Autumn school year, I simply left my name off it and enjoyed a blissful year tucked away behind the shelves, reading for that double period instead of freezing my ass off on the hockey field. Nobody noticed me there, not least the school librarian who had developed the habit of walling herself behind stacks of returned books and only emerging if she absolutely had to. I read ‘Heart of Darkness’ with old copies of National Geographic on my knee, the glossy photos of old Congo and the Ivory Coast and Algeria acting as back up for my over worked imagination. I read ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘The Waves’ and Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and came up against race and class, mental illness and structural inequality all in one cold Winter term, my back pressed against a radiator, its paint thick and smelling of hot dust as it heated up.
I moved to the countryside as a young adult and had my first child where the long distances to the nearest town coupled with the pre internet age meant the mobile library van was a safeguard against losing my enquiring mind. Or rather it was the lack of opportunity to have my enquiries answered that was the threat then. A librarian prepared to ignore the ten books maximum rule, careful cross referencing of the Times and Guardian book review pages followed by the ordering of the books reviewed, ensured I retained my sense of being a participant in a world that was moving so fast I worried about dropping off. Staggering across the green to the giant orange library bus parked up against the kerb – squalling baby under one arm, carrier bags full of books in both hands then that journey reversed, back home, ‘Please, please sleep baby’ and my excitement that an ordered book had arrived.
A move to London meant an embarrassment of library and bookshop riches. The British Library- hallowed halls but nothing, absolutely nothing in comparison emotionally to the libraries that came before. Libraries that, when I moved back to Suffolk, became the same home from home for my now two children, books borrowed by them then purchased by me because they despaired at the thought of their return for some other child to enjoy. Using the online ordering service at Bury St Edmunds Library to locate the niche, and my particular love, kitschy American cook books then using it to order books for the children and they, in turn, learning patience and delayed gratification through this. It is never just about a ‘book’. My then training as a mental health professional and a post grad in health promotion in part belonged to the libraries of Suffolk (and the local hospital library) – the patient trawling of their staff through computerised lists of elusive and niche books to keep my studies going in the small hours, my children asleep and me nearly so, nose touching pages and pages of close type.
For a happy life, Montaigne wrote, we “should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop” and so I have. Mine is lined with books, their spines colourful or tastefully subtle, some with deckled page edges, others smoothly uniform: a psychological ISBN in my head that helps me make decisions or defer them; helps me cope and understand and interpret; long for, settle or decide to avoid. That room in my head has been stocked with the help of our nation’s libraries and it will be a tragedy if, in the future, cuts to library services mean that generations of children grow up with their own bookshelves depleted- the ones in their heads and the rather more literal kind.
I’ll leave the last word to E.B White:
“A library is many things,” E.B. White once wrote in a letter to the children of a small town to inspire them to fall in love with their library. “But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had.”
Further information on East Anglian library services and Bookstart-