Books and sex have a long and not especially illustrious history. This, however, is not going to be a blog about erotic literature nor indeed pornography. Maybe one day. What I want to waffle on about today are rooms full of books.
Currently I am not a member of a library. Neither is my wife. We haven't been for years. It's not that we have anything against libraries in fact there's quite a nice wee local library about a quarter of an hour's walk from here. We took a walk there once to see where it was but we never actually went in. I've never run across it since.
It's the first time I've never been a member of a library.
I have fond memories of libraries. I can't think of anything particularly special that's ever happened to me in a library. Unless you count seeing a girl in a see-through top. My first … and only now I think about it. That was on my first visit to Glasgow's Mitchell Library. I had never seen unsupported female breasts before, breasts that did not require support. The other thing about that first visit was my walking up to the counter and stupidly asking, "Excuse me but where are all the books?" The Mitchell Library is one of the largest public reference libraries in Europe. To see a book you needed to complete a request slip and one of the assistants would toddle off and get it for you. I kinda expected miles and miles of bookcases that I could wander around and drool over. I'd seen more books in a bookshop.
Talking about bookshops, it can't have been more than a few weeks earlier that I walked into John Smith's bookshop in Glasgow (founded in 1751). This was a book shop that had four or five floors. And my first thought on heaving that whopping great door open – you always had to give it the shoulder – was, "Orgasmic!" I've spent hours in that shop and been unable to buy a ruddy thing because there was so much choice. How do you choose? Sadly it's now gone, replaced by an Internet Café. Ah well.
The thing about libraries is that you can get it wrong; you can take a chance on someone you've never heard of. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first library I was a member of was our local town library. It was part of the town hall but it had its own entry at the rear. And that's where you'd find me on a Saturday morning waiting with as much patience as a prepubescent boy could muster for the librarian with her pneumatic bosom. (I have seen fit to mention her before – twin set, pearls and horn-rimmed glasses). She was the mother of one of my school friends. I suppose that's where my attraction to older women started but don't quote me on that.
Years later it moved to the council offices and the librarians multiplied – lots of pretty young things none of which were your archetypical librarian's assistants. I do have a clear memory of one particular girl with a fondness for low cut tops. I can picture her in my mind as some kind of proto-Goth. God alone knows what her face looked like. Sullen, I expect. I've never understood the female propensity to leave the shutters open and object when guys peer though the window.
You shouldn't look at women's chests;
they mind if you look.
They know you can see
but you're not supposed to look.
But you're allowed to notice;
they expect you to notice.
It's hard to see why you can't look
at what you've just seen
but those are the rules
even though they don't make sense.
21 October 1997
I suppose, the aforementioned taken into account, it's no great wonder that I had the protagonist in my first novel work in a library as a young man. And that's where he gets to meet the love of his life too. And, for those of you who’ve read the book, it's actually in the sequel we learn all about that.
I've only actually written one poem about libraries that I could find:
In my last year at school
I spent much time
in Central Library
encyclopaedias of modern art
and photography year books
looking for naked women.
Somehow their art
never reached me –
only their nudity.
28 April 1979
It is partly autobiographical I have to confess and my earliest exposures to the female form were first of all c/o the art books I would heave out of the Reference section and paw through with as much lasciviousness as I could muster.
I have no recollection of searching out erotica though, not even Lady Chatterley's Lover. I bought a copy for a girlfriend who wanted to read it but I've never been that interested myself. I don't recall seeing any dramatisations either now I think about it.
Nowadays, and this has been the case for a long time, I buy the books I want to read. It's not because I'm filthy rich because I most certainly am not. I couldn't tell you the last time I bought a full priced book. I buy books because my tastes have become refined and I'm fussy about what I read. For a writer I don’t read much but when I do read I like it to count. It's also so much easier these days to get books cheaply on the Internet and you can even sell them there when you're done or if you didn't like the thing.
It was an article in The Times by Jeanette Winterson that prompted me to write this post. She wasn't writing about sex and libraries although I have no doubt she could and far more eloquently than I. She was writing about the British Library and the changing governmental and social attitudes to libraries. She writes: "Change is inevitable and often for the best, but change always means loss…" and I have to agree with her. Not collecting my books together and trotting down to the library of a Saturday morning is something I find I actually miss. It was a part of a life I no longer live. And I wonder if maybe I should rekindle that love.
I'm still passionate about books although when I walk into Waterstones or Borders these days my first thought usually is, "Where's the gents again?"
Of course, now I'm older and I'm not looking at the world through hormone-addled eyes I can see that maybe what I was feeling in those libraries and book shops was a feeling of belonging. On one level I was a bibliophile surrounded by other bibliophiles. I could sit at a table with my nose wedged in the crevice of a book and no one thought me strange. But it was more than that for me; it was simply walking around a room full of books, being surrounded by books. There are plenty of photos on-line of some of the great libraries but I'm not so sure about them. I'd be afraid to touch the books. The libraries I've been used to were places where I was allowed to touch, there was no "Don't touch", "Keep your hands to yourself," or "I'll slap your face."
And then, of course, there're my experiences of record libraries (back when records looked like records). Our town didn't have one and I had to travel to the next one to use theirs. There I discovered Bartók's dynamic Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Khachaturian's stirring Second Symphony (The Bell) , Vaughan Williams' hairs-sanding-on-endish Fantasia of a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Darius Milhaud's jaunty Scaramouche, Stockhausen's electronically-incomprehensible Kontakte, Charles Ives' murky Central Park in the Dark and Duke Ellington's … well, jazzy New Orleans Suite … but this is supposed to be a literary blog so I'll keep all of that to myself for now.
Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
If you love photos of beautiful libraries check out the blog entry at Curious Expeditions. Lovely.