Sunday, 21 December 2008

Susan Price: The Pleasure of Library Visiting...

...Is one pleasure I'd almost forgotten, so I've one thing to thank the credit crunch for.

I'd grown used to buying books, mostly on-line, but now that I really have to find ways of saving money – apologies to fellow authors, but I really do – I'm back to the library again. At least I'm adding to your PLR (Public Lending Rights).

I first joined the library when I was fourteen. Dudley Library, in the West Midlands. A stately Victorian Goddess sat above the door, reading a book. Come to think of it, she's still there, still reading, and good for Her.

It was a different sort of library then. There was a lot of emphasis on silence. And it was no use looking for anything except books, newspapers, and the occasional magazine. I wasn't complaining. I was a book-lover, and I'd never seen so many books in my life. Adult and children's fiction downstairs – and cooking and gardening. Oh, and biography and history, national, international and local.

Upstairs – well. The heavy stuff. Psychology, criminology, sociology. Literary criticism. The reference library. The archives. Ecology. Mathematics. Science. And I had an adult ticket. I could take any book from any of those shelves. It was dizzying.

But hard to make a choice, when I could only take five books. I spent hours in there. In the first years I would walk through the door and look round for the red and yellow books. Because they were science-fiction, weren't they? And I was into sci-fi at the time. Except they weren't science-fiction. They were Victor Gollancz – a firm that happened to publish a lot of science-fiction. I remember being very puzzled the first time I grabbed a red and yellow book that wasn't sci-fi.

What a forcing house for a writer, though. I read every kind of fiction – crime, romance, thriller, kitchen-sink, historical, humourous, shed-loads of fantasy, ghost and sci-fi. Curiosity led me to read a lot of classics: Jacobean tragedies, most of Shakespeare, and, in translation, Classical Greek plays, Tolstoy, Balzac, Sagas, Moliere, Medieval Romances, Beowulf... All for the price of a bus-ride. If I'd had to buy the books, I could never have afforded it.

I read widely in psychology, because I wanted to know how – or why – people tick. Forty-odd years later, I'm none the wiser, but, with the help of these books, I have given it a lot of thought. For the same reason, I read criminology and sociology – with much the same result.

I read books on popular science, and there's nothing like astronomy and quantum physics for making you feel that you must urgently hold your skull together with both hands.

And if any mention of anything caught my interest – well, the library was sure to have books on it.

It was in Dudley library, I well remember, where the man Pratchett first came into my life. I was looking at the shelf of 'recently returned books', as I always did, and there was this book called MORT by someone I'd never heard of. I didn't like the picture on the cover, but read the blurb, then almost put it back because I am naturally suspicious of 'humorous fantasy'. Then I leaned on the shelf and read a few pages – hardly got as far as page 96 – and decided to borrow it.

Well, since then I think I've read everything the man's written, including such titles as STRATA and DARK SIDE OF THE SUN. Something else to thank both Dudley Library and Pratchett for, is that I passed MORT on to my Dad, and he loved it too. For years I bought him the latest Pratchett for Christmas, reading it myself before wrapping it (buying books as presents and then reading them yourself before wrapping them is a strong Christmas tradition in my family). For years me and my Dad discussed the Disk-world, made jokes about it, reminded each other of 'best bits', tried to pinpoint our favourite characters. (Death was always a strong contender, and I hope He came to collect my Dad. They would have got on: they both loved cats).

The library I go to now is very different. It's a small branch library, but it still has ranks of computers; and it loans dvds and computer games as well as books – and sells greetings cards. But there are still, thank whatever gods there be, shelves and shelves and shelves of books, which is really all I'm interested in. (I can get all the internet's sex and violence at home).

I'd forgotten the thrill of scuttling back into my house with a stack of thick, heavy library books, but I'm realising anew how much I love the feeling. It's a bit like having a big box of chocolates to open – all those wonderful flavours and textures, and which one to go for first? The fluffy, light-hearted confection of romance or fantasy? The hard-centred, gritty realism of Rankin's wonderful Rebus, or something by Minette Walters? That rather cloying self-help book with its interesting 'case histories'? The serious book on Iron Age brochs, which fascinate me strangely? Or the one on bog-bodies, some of which are real nightmares. (I don't recommend anyone to look at photos of Grauballe man). I can spend a day or more dipping into the different books, and looking at their illustrations (if any), before deciding which one to start reading.

And when I finish them, there's still a library-full waiting for me!

In fact, I feel a bit of a fool for ever giving up the library. What a truly wonderful, altruistic institution. And what a lot I owe it.


Rackstraw Press said...

Ah, Gollancz Yellow Jackets. Long remembered, much missed.

Lucy Coats said...

A brilliant reason for all of us to be supporting Campaign for the Book--and to make sure libraries are full of them and not turned into IT suites. Well done, Susan.

Anonymous said...

Love this post! That is exactly the thing about libraries - you can try out all sorts of books and styles of reading and authors that you'd never come across otherwise. And I love that style of "mighty architecture" too. Think we should get the Goddess lined up for the Campaign for the Book? Certainly (from here) has attributes that might attract the media . .

Penny Dolan said...

Did not intend to be anonymous or mysterious - I just got caught in the blogs IT system. So now will add that the librarians quarters in such places are often poorly- lit dismal basements - a shock to some one who grew up believing the librarians inhabited the stately green copper dome at the top of the long-gone Wood Green library!

John Dougherty said...

I love my local library - I'd never be able to sustain my reading habit without it.

I've also been going there a lot recently in order to write. It's much harder for people to track you down and interrupt you.

Anne Rooney said...

My public library has been closed for at least two years (Cambridge). There's a mobile library, which has about two books, and the local village library which used to be frequented by Philippa Pearce and is lovely, but has about three books. I want my library back!! It's being done up, which presumably means it will have a trillion computers and about four books. Thank you for recreating the libraries of our youth, Susan - dark, silent, full of mystery and promise. Going there - ours was through an archway, which made it even more magical - was always rather like pushing through the musty coats in CS Lewis's wardrobe: you never knew what you would find. I don't think the done-up library will be like that, sadly.