I love libraries. Not only readers are nurtured there—but writers, too. This post is a hymn of praise to those libraries, private and public, that have been instrumental in my own development.
The first library I remember was my father’s, in our beautiful old house deep in the countryside of south-western France. This was a hallowed place, a place of light and shadows, cool in summer, warm in winter. There was a fireplace and a large winged chair beside it, a desk made of fragrant Indonesian wood, quills and silver inkstand and leather-bound blotter at the ready; blue toile de Jouy curtains featuring scenes of 18th century country life; a Persian carpet decorated with birds alighting in trees; and of course, books. Books in large wide open shelves of beechwood, built by a local artisan; books in a large antique bookcase with doors that were like fretted screens, so that the books behind them looked as if they were in a kind of beautiful prison; books behind glass and in sandalwood chests. You weren’t allowed in on your own; but sometimes Papa would call you in, sit you on his knee and read from some old collection of Perrault’s stories, or the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Other times, he would take down the huge volume of reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch’s art, and point out to his quaking offspring the hellish consequences of misbehaving, or else, driven by another mood, pull out from the sandalwood chests bound copies of 19th century magazines and read out ancient faits divers, or human interest stories.
We children had our own ‘library’ of books elsewhere in the house, shelves crammed with the pink-backed children’s classic hardbacks of the Bibliotheque Rose, and the green backs of the more modern Bibliotheque Verte; dogeared paperback collections of traditional stories from all over the world, and magnificent illustrated editions of mythology; well-thumbed copies of Tintin and Asterix, and, later huge 19th century novels: by Balzac, Hugo, Feval, Gautier.
On those shelves were journeys and escapes and spells; but they weren’t what we called the library. That word, spoken in rather overawed and excited tones, was reserved for Papa’s library. In that room was all the mystery and strangeness and ordered beauty of another world; a world you had to earn a place in, through patience and the gaining of wisdom, a world that beckoned, whose enchantment made time stand still. It is an image that stayed with me, and every time we went back to France as children – which was at last every two or three years – after having rushed around to rediscover toys and bedrooms, it was always the threshold of the library that drew me, to stand dreaming and hesitant looking in at the books, waiting for permission to be invited in.
In Australia, Papa had a room full of crowded bookcases, but it was not the same. The books were much less glamorous, there was no atmosphere in the room itself, and besides, I’d discovered another enchanted place. For the other world that drew me in Australia was our local public library. The children’s section was probably not very big, really, but in my memory it was huge, an enchanted kingdom, far away from the dull routine of school. At the rather modest Catholic parish primary school I went to, the only ‘library’ was a couple of sets of glass-fronted bookcases in the senior primary room. Insatiable reader that I was, I’d soon have desiccated from the need to imbibe stories if we had not discovered the local library. That was my real education in English, the library; left alone by Maman to make my own pathways through English-language children’s books, I made wonderful discoveries, but also missed out on some marvellous things.
Magic and fairies and giants and trolls and other worlds and mysteries always attracted me; anything that smelt of mundane routine I cast aside, and thus it that was I met, and loved dearly, Tove Jannsson and CS Lewis and Alan Garner and Patricia Wrightson and Leon Garfield and James Thurber and a host of others; but missed out as a child on Laura Ingalls Wilder because I was sure a book with ‘house’ in the title must be about housework! (though I read the books as an adult, to my kids, and both they and I loved them).
I loved my high school library too. It was new, bright, sunny, airy, and the librarian was a very keen reader who did a lot to extend my reading range. Because in an earlier high school, I’d been severely bullied, I’d also taken to the library as a refuge from harshness and cruelty. Libraries had always been associated with pleasure for me; now they also became islands of calm in the turbulent seas of adolescence.
The first novel I ever wrote – for I had written lots of poetry, short stories, plays and illustrated tales before, but not novels, thinking I could never finish one – was started thus, at the age of 16, in the library. It was a vast fantasy novel – I’d discovered Tolkien and his ilk by then – in which I tried to incorporate as many of the mythologies of the world as I could manage. I never finished it, but I still have it, and I still remember those afternoons in the school library, bent over my notebook, lost in another world.
When I finished school, I left home after one too many arguments with my fiery father, and struggled in poverty for quite a while. I was trying both to meet the requirements of a tough university degree specialising in Middle Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, medieval romances, and Icelandic sagas, and to keep food in my mouth by doing all kinds of odd jobs, from folding clothes in a laundromat (where once a customer, seeing me read in a quiet moment, said to me, What! You work in a laundrette, and you read a book!) to delivering junk mail to looking after kids to trying to clean flats(me, the least domestic person ever!) to working in cafes and restaurants and in a candy factory. None of these jobs ever earned more than a pitiful amount, and I was really quite poor. But I never felt poor in our local public library, which I had joined as soon as I could. There were many days when I felt very much like giving up the struggle and crawling back to Papa; but the library always put new heart into me. Not only was it free entertainment; but it also provided information on all kinds of literary possibilities. I entered many competitions advertised on its noticeboards, and spent many happy hours continuing on with my various enthusiasms.
The library reminded me that there was a world beyond flat wallets and gritty pavements and people who thought laundry assistants must be illiterate. It gave me heart, too, by reminding me that somewhere, sometime, people had cared enough about literature and about their destinies as writers to struggle through even the most difficult periods of their lives. No way did I want to follow the safe and dull careers of routine that had been proposed for me; in the reckless way of youth, I wanted to do what I felt I was born to do – and the library, so quiet and demure in appearance, but with such a multi-chambered, raging heart of tumult and vision and destiny and heartbreak and magic and joy, gave me the courage to continue, and not to lose hope.
Since that time, libraries have continued to be amongst my favourite places. These days, I am a regular of the public library in our high cold university town in northern NSW, and I have a large and messy library scattered in all of the rooms in our house. I also love trawling through the vast virtual libraries that one may find on the Net. I continue to follow overgrown, wild, exciting pathways through magical lands and undiscovered countries; many of my novels have started from something seen by chance in a library book. I have had a great deal of very pleasant interactions with librarians, and admire their great dedication, erudition and kindness to me who is often a rather disordered and awestruck traveller in their domains. Though I still love magic and mystery, I have come to understand, as I’ve grown up, fallen and stayed in love and had children; built a house of our own with my husband and cherished the garden we have made, that the world within the world incorporates all those things, that the flesh and the spirit are tightly woven together, and that the spell cast by the library, the spell that seems to stop time, is the spell not of old paper or old magical formulae, but of imagination, that greatest of all qualities, which makes us both fully human, fully mortal, yet immortal too. The library is the record, the garden, the house of souls; but it is also the place where the soul is helped to emerge from its chrysalis, to spread its wings and be truly free. And there is no price that can be put on that.
Image by laaura.