Recently, I made an unwelcome discovery: I have not been a member of a library since my master’s degree. Even accounting for lockdowns and my various house moves, this was mortifying to realise. I like to think of myself as a bookish person. I do a bookish job. I keep a record of all the books I read in a year. I have written bookish articles on bookish subjects for small bookish magazines. In August, I heaved a flatpack bookcase a mile and a half, mostly uphill*, to address The Book Stacks that were slowly but carefully taking over one corner of the living room. And yet, I was not a member of a library. This could not be allowed to continue.
My local library is down a little side street in Headingley. I spoke to the staff behind the front desk and soon had a library card in my wallet – a handsome sage-green thing featuring a quotation from Lilian Jackson Braun. Soon after that, I had a stack of poetry collections, a memoir about tennis, and a book of short stories by Vanessa Onwuemezi clutched under my arm. I wandered through the shelves, hooked on the wild giddy feeling that I could have any book I wanted on any subject I fancied. It took whole minutes to check out the stack that I plonked onto the counter. The receipt was as long as my forearm. I walked through the sliding doors and out onto the street and felt as though I’d committed a crime.
That was a month ago, and I’m pleased to say that visiting the library has become part of my weekly routine. I now know most of the staff by name and have gotten the hang of the slightly grouchy self-checkout machine. I think that there’s something profoundly liberating about library books, and not just because they represent the idea that knowledge and stories and records of the human experience should be available to everyone for free. The physical object of a library book is a liberating, down-to-earth, unpretentious object. It’s worth the effort to look at why.
Let us begin with the covers. My local library encases all their books in thick transparent plastic jackets, which gives them a tough and rugged feel in the hands. The effect is not beautiful, which – and I promise I’m going somewhere with this – is a very good thing. I’m sure we’ve all bought a handsome and expensive hardback from Waterstones – or received one as a gift – and then caught ourselves cringing away from creasing or even opening the pages. While I do think it’s important for good books to be well-presented (and yes, a first edition hardback of Infinite Jest is on my list of Fantasy Purchases) it is easy for the physical prettiness of a book to get in the way of its contents. In other words, it’s hard to get invested in a story or an idea if you’re worried about damaging your Fancy New Expensive Thing. The library’s plastic jackets solve this problem beautifully in their ugliness. It’s somehow difficult to be intimidated by a book – even a 1000-page doorstop – when it’s covered in yellowing PVC.
Then there’s the slip of paper glued to the title page, which gets stamped with the due date each time the book is borrowed. To look at these slips is to read the history of a book in miniature. My (borrowed) copy of The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith was checked out five times in 2016, then three times in 2017, then sat on the shelf for six years until I picked it up and added it to my stack. By the time you read this it will have gone back onto its shelf and will presumably be waiting for a new heart to break. The week it spent with me is now just one more mark in its passport. These small paper records remind us that no story is ever really finished, and that no idea ever truly goes away. A story might go unread for years – long enough for the world to change around it – but once the book is opened, the words will be just as fresh and as new as they were on the day they were printed. Radioactive elements decay very slowly but eventually lose their potency. The same cannot be said for books.
Finally, there are the notes. In some circles this is considered bad form, but few things delight me more than opening a library book and seeing paragraphs full of underlinings and margins full of handwritten questions. Sometimes – especially in non-fiction and in poetry – you’ll even see notes in different hands, often articulating wildly different interpretations of the text. I love this so much. It’s easy to think of books as inert objects, but margin notes remind us that all books are living documents and are small parts of bigger conversations. In their own small way, our margin notes and highlights are, too.
I often tell my students not to pay for any resources during their study, on the grounds that they’ve already paid for access to Arden’s library through their tuition fees. In a very real sense, you have already paid for your local library, too. If you live in the UK, your local library is funded – along with roads and schools and all the rest – through the taxes that come out of your salary before it hits your bank account. Many libraries also have audiobooks to borrow, and huge online archives of newspapers and magazines. I mean it when I say that using a library feels like a crime. And it’s all there waiting for you. And the late fees are very reasonable. And if you find a copy of Jean Sprackland’s Tilt with exclamation marks pencilled in every other page, it was – briefly – mine.
*I'm a bookish person, not a person with a realistic idea of their upper body strength.Guest Posts