Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Joy of Libraries

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
thumbing though
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.


Rachel Fox said...

There are so many positive things to say about libraries...and that's even without getting involved in cleavages and see-through blouses! Your relationship with libraries is interesting, Jim. One for the shrink, I think...

One of my favourite things about libraries is the important function they serve, particularly public libraries. You don't have to pay to go in, there is no time limit on how long you stay (if you behave...), you can always find something to do (hell, even if you can't read you can daydream, sit quietly, stay out of the rain...) and then of course there are the books. What could be better? I think more public libraries should have public toilets too (in our local you have to use the staff toilet if your child needs the loo and it's very, very small and through the offices...) but apart from that I've no complaints. Some might say more toilets in libraries could be used for getting rid of crap books...but that's just not the kind of thing I'd get involved in...

j said...

I am a former -- if one can ever be former -- librarian. After years of fighting off the bun and support hose shushing stereotype, it's refreshing to read a different viewpoint of libraries and librarians. Though I don't want to think about the "open shutters" too much ...

As an undergraduate, I spent some time in the Library of Congress, an imposing place where you request books via call slip and wait patiently for their arrival. The Main Reading Room has been fully renovated -- it's quite a sight.

And I've never been in an empty public library. They are always vibrant, well-used public spaces.

Jennifer (who used to work in a place where the boss asked for "the older Marian" when looking for the library director)

Steve Kane said...

For someone who loves books, I have never had much of a relationship with libraries. I think it might be because it is not enough for me to read a book, I have to own it as well.

Not that I'm rolling in disposable cash meself - I too never buy a book at full price and always shop around for bargains.

I've never fancied any of the librarians I've met either so maybe that's why I've never developed a love for the places.

Khachaturian is wonderful.

Conda Douglas said...

I sometimes forget my ongoing love affair with libraries--it's so much a part of my life and always has been.

Your post brought back lots of memories, Jim. And some gratitude for the fact that I live in a big enough town to have an online library catalog. Way cool!

Thanks for such a fascinating post.

Anonymous said...

After I worked in a bookshop I got a job in a library. I couldn't get used to the fact that shortly after I'd sold a book to a customer they brought it back again.

Sherry Pasquarello said...

we have the carnegie here. really something to see but i've lived here all my life(56 years)and have only been there once.

i love to look at them tho.
it's like they are cathedrals

Plot Whisperer said...

I serve on the board of our local library and yet seldom visit it. I like to buy my own books and continue to build my own library. But, what I do miss the most is the smell of all those books.......

Thanks again for the link to the essay on Mrs Dalloway.

Dominic Rivron said...

I feel rather guilty about it, but I stopped going to the library and drifted into spending my library fine budget on books at Oxfam shops. Perhaps I'm lucky with my Oxfam shop, but I find the books are often more interesting. There's a slightly random element too, which adds to the thrill. I bought an Iris Murdoch there I hadn't read only the other day.
A Kontakte fan, eh? Have you heard his Gesang der Junglinge? I used to have both on one album until I leant it to someone.
Have you come across Hoffnung? Your ruminations on libraries reminded me of one of his pieces of advice to tourists visiting Britain (although it's now out-of-date): "Be sure to try the famous echo in the Reading Room of the British Library".

Dave King said...

Snap! It is also the first time I have not been a member of a library. I waltzed along to take a look-see when I retired, wasn't much impressed with the book selection, most of their effort - and, I guess, money - was going in to computers, for which there was a long wait. I thought, well, I can do that at home without the wait!
The most embarrassing thing that happened to me was in the school library. It was a private study period - which meant we students took a book - any book - and chatted or played games surreptitiously. The music master had been detailed to supervise us. Noticing his approach, I opened my book and propped it up in front of me, bothering to check only that it was the right way up. He stopped and asked if I was interested "in that sort of stuff". I feigned great enthusiasm. He took the book to the desk and withdrew it for me to take home. My Gran, with whom we lived at the time, went crazy and was waiting at the gate for the return of my mum, to tell her that something had to be done about me. I don't even know for sure what the article was about - I was told something to do with cutting the thighs to ease the birth. Do they do that?

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry for not getting back to you all sooner but I've been very lax about sending out submissions of late and I decided I was going to do nothing yesterday until I'd done a dozen. As it happens I ran out of steam after nine but we'll see if we can pick up the slack today.

Rachel: loos! Yes! Why don't libraries have loos? The wee local library near us is part of a community centre so there is one but so many of the standalone libraries I've visited don't.

Jennifer. so it's once a librarian is it? Tell, me, when you're in a bookshop, do you get an uncontrollable urge to tidy up the shelves?

Steve: ownership. That has so much to do with it. I have a very strong need to hold onto books to reference later. It doesn't matter whether they're fiction or not, to a writer all books are reference material. There have been several times I've gone to find a book only to realise I've never actually owned it.

I have to say, Conda, I never checked to see if Glasgow has an online catalogue. It's the biggest city in Scotland so who knows? I use Amazon constantly as a reference I have to say, at least a first port of call.

Adrian, don't they bring books back in bookshops? I'm not one for returning items but I have done it a couple of times when we've bought duplicates by mistake.

Sherry, yes, it's amazing how you can live in a city and only use such a tiny bit of it. I'm afraid our Mitchell Library is nowhere near as grand as the Carnegie but it has served me well over the years.

Dominic, the west end of Glasgow is full of used bookshops and always an adventure although I still find I'm happy to take more risks with online purchases. I mean, you can pick up so many books for 1p + postage and even in used bookshops you'll get precious little for under £3.00 especially in Oxfam who I find a bit dear.

My experience of Stockhausen is limited to Kontakte believe it or not. He's not one I stumble across very often but I'll listen to anything. His Helicopter String Quartet caught my eye a while back but it looks gimmicky.

By Hoffnung, I assume you mean Gerard Hoffnung the artist. I've never heard that one but I do recognise a lot of his work.

Martha, yes, the smell of old books. There is a bookshop in Glasgow – down Otago Lane – which is the most olfactorally challenging place I have ever been it. But it is a wonderful place to wile away an afternoon.

And, Dave, yes, the wee local library has a room set aside with a couple of PCs in it but they were both occupied when I was there. The thing is, computers now are so cheap that there's no reason why anyone even on a low income couldn't have one. In all seriousness, I'd do without my TV and phone before I'd give up my PC. Like you I remember a world where a home computer was the stuff of science fiction novels … and now we have four of the damn things. It is a very different world to the one we grew up in. A lot of it I could do without but not computers.

I do think that libraries are important is for kids. They don't know what they like and it's great that places exist where they can have a taste besides they simply don't have the money to fritter away on books.

hope said...

I guess my favorite thing about libraries will always be the Children's Library in my hometown. It was downstairs, in a what amounted to a basement with that unmistakable smell of books. This kingdom was ruled by Miss Ivy, the lovely spinster with all the requisite "Librarian" attributes. Except the bun...her hair was short. Her "Shhh!" was polite however, never harse.

What will always stick with me is that the small windows were at street level, therefore the light came in from the top of the room and streamed downward. The way it lit up the stacks of books seemed so magical. Getting my first library card there was like taking a step toward adulthood...that sense of belonging to something bigger than you. I always thought of it as my passport to the world...that I could check out corners of the world where I might never venture.

When they built the new library, it became big and cold and impersonal. It has wonderful public restrooms, handicap accessible, but it smells of cold steel, not like the warmth of books.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Hope, modern design, does it not suck big time? Okay, not all of it but libraries, yes. The library I went to as a kid as at the back of the town hall and then they moved it in the 1970s to a new building and it was just a room with books in it and a library is more than books in it in the just the same way as a bokshop is more than a room with books in it.

Marion McCready said...

I love glasgow uni's library, esp classics floor which is/was second from the top - the views over the city are fantastic and being so high up it was always a bit chilly which saved me from falling asleep over my books! I also liked to study on the slavonic floor, a wee single table in a corner hunched between volumes of marx and lenin! But having just paid a ridiculous fine for the late return of books from my local library I can't see me borrowing in the near future, think I've exhausted their miniture poetry section anyhow.

Jim Murdoch said...

I checked out the poetry section in our local library. I believe it was two volumes of Burns, one of McGonagall and one of someone I'd never heard of.

Ken Armstrong said...

Great title Jim. I can picture the bearded man and the hirsute woman, sitting on their shag pile rug, thumbing a sizable volume. :)

I genuinely feel a little sad to learn that you don't currently belong to a library (Dave too). I get such fun from mine and it allows me to take out a book just cos I like the cover and see if it's any good. I've always found some nice peaceful time in my libraries, ever since I took out my first book with my adult library card in Sligo many moons ago (it was Heinlein, 'Glory Road' - I loved the cover).

Dominic: I also love the idea of you spending your library-fine money in Oxfam. :)

Oh and Dave, I believe you're describing an 'Episiotomy', look it up... if you dare!

Jim Murdoch said...

Kenneth, episiotomy…? No one likes a smart fart. As for not being a member of a library, when I took a stroll over to our local library just after I'd written that blog – which would be about a month ago – I can't pretend there wasn't a comforting familiarity to being there … squawking kids aside. The simple fact is that I don't live in a house where pandemonium is the baseline any more. I can wander into my office and have all the peace I need. I don't have the time to read the books I buy and if I went to a library I'd find myself coming back with all sorts of crap, books on tanks or tropical fish and graphic novels, things to waste time and I've got the one-eyed goggle box in the corner to do that whenever I feel the need.

Rachel Fox said...

I do think though that libraries are like lots of other public services...if we don't use them we will definitely lose them (OK we might lose them anyway but we have to be least some of the time). And to have no libraries at all...can you imagine it? There are some things I don't mind losing because of the PC revolution but I really don't want to lose public (or any other libraries).

Anonymous said...

Much as Steve Kane says: I have to own the books I read. And then, when read, they have to go onto a shelf with others of their kind. When we moved to the house we're in now, we had to have a 13' x 8' mega-shed built just to house all the books we couldn't stack up here. I sit amongst them with the rain pounding down on the roof and feel a great sense of peace. Sad, really...

Anonymous said...

Much as Steve Kane says: I have to own the books I read. And then, when read, they have to go onto a shelf with others of their kind. When we moved to the house we're in now, we had to have a 13' x 8' mega-shed built just to house all the books we couldn't stack up here. I sit amongst them with the rain pounding down on the roof and feel a great sense of peace. Sad, really...

Art Durkee said...

I joined the local public library last year, after not having been a member for a long time. But then, it's not possible to join a public library when you're nomadic enough that you might not actually visit it more than twice a year.

One of the best grad school classes I ever had to take was a killer course in bibliography. We worked harder for that course than I ever had before. But now I can walk into almost any library in the world and know how to find what I want. A very useful bit of training.

I also have a personal library at home of some 7000 books. (Whittled down from 10,000 earlier, and still being slowly whittled down.) The reason is that is partly because I love books. But another reason is that the public library, even interlibrary loan usually doesn't have everything I need or want, when I want or need it. A big part of my library is reference, on multiple topics that interest me. I am a very thorough researcher, and a pretty good one.

But I am also whittling down the books I'll never reread from my library. The truth is, I remember almost everything I read, and I read very fast compared to most people, or so it seems. As long as my memory lasts, anyway. My mother had Alzheimer's so we'll see about the long run, won't we.

Libraries are a great place to study, to sit quietly and write. Almost as good as coffee shops for that; the main advantage coffee shops have over libraries is that you can sip tea while writing and reading; but they're often not as quiet or soothing as places to hang out.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, I do wonder what kind of future faces our kids and I think libraries are the least of their worries. We'll certainly never see them disappear. So much depends on when e-books make their way into the mainstream and how that's administered. But I do envisage a society where people gather less and less not that libraries have ever been a place I've gathered. I went alone. I browsed alone. I spoke to no one most of the time. I don't need to leave my house to do all that.

None of my mates were bibliophiles and a couple may not even have been literate come to think of it. I certainly have no recollection going to a library with people. Libraries have never been about people for me. If anything, they've always underlined feelings of loneliness and isolation.

And, Dick and Art, I see you both already have your own private libraries. Mine is nowhere near as extensive I'm afraid but it does me. And, I do have a quiet and orderly place in which to work built to my own needs. I really was never one for studying in libraries. I'd look up what I needed, make my notes and bugger off home to do the work.

And I've never tried working in a café. I really don't get it. Why? I can make coffee and tea at home and at least at home I can decide on what music I have to listen to and its volume.

Tam said...

What Steve and Dick have been saying about the importance of book ownership, that’s something that definitely strikes a chord with me.
It’s now something I’m trying to get away from.

If truth be told, I’m never going to refer to any of the fiction titles on my shelf. Like a lot of other people, they are just there to make me feel good. I don’t know how that works exactly; is it about showing off to any visitors how clever you must be, is it about showing off to yourself? I’m not sure, all I know is that lots of books on the shelf make me feel good, and when something feels good you don’t ask questions.

I grew up surrounded by bookcases. My father accumulated a lot of books; I don’t think he had ever discarded a single one in his life. He would never be able to simply walk by a second hand bookshop; he would bid on lots at the local auction house that consisted of boxes of miscellaneous old books, titles unseen.

I think that’s why I wanted to keep all my books. That I may one day live in a big house and my offspring will wander from room to high-ceilinged room, bookcases in every one, and they would be free to browse the titles and discover all the wealth that books have to offer. Did I want my unrealised sperm to become respected members of society, well-grounded in the way of the words, or did I just want them to think that daddy was clever?

Either way, I’m not sure it will help. Now that I think about it, I have no vivid memory of my father ever actually reading a book. I have come to the conclusion that having a huge personal collection full of books may not be the be all and end all.

Did my father really love books? Of this I am not sure. I don’t want to do the same thing; I don’t want to teach my kids that books are things to be hoarded. I want them to learn that a book is a thing to be shared.

They may not be able to run around a huge house full of bookcases, but that’s not such a bad thing. It will simply necessitate frequent trips to the local library. I want them to learn that libraries should be public and not private, perhaps for no other reason than discovering ladies breasts in a public library is less incestuous.

On a similar subject, I hope you don’t mind that my copy of Living with The Truth is currently en-route to a house somewhere in Englandshire via a book swapping website.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks a lot for that, Tam. I can see your father had a very different relationship to books than mine. I never saw my dad read a fiction book in his life. As you'll note from the dedication to my own book he never even finished mine. I have to say, perhaps partly to counter any genes she might have had kicking around to the contrary, I did everything I could to instill a love of books in her; she had 100 books waiting for her before she came out of the womb!

And, as for swapping my book. As far as I'm concerned the more people who get to read the thing the better. It was written to be read, not to sit on a shelf.

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