I went to my local library yesterday. Normally this wouldn’t be remarkable but this was my first visit since the library reopened earlier this month. I made an appointment to pick up a couple of books I’d requested and dropped off the ones I’d had since March. This was easily my quickest library visit ever. I was in and out in less than a minute. And while I understand why they’ve set it up like this at the moment, I really miss the joy of browsing.
I’ve been in one bookshop since shops reopened and it was a total joy. I wandered about picking up things which looked interesting, a book on steampunk, a non-fiction exploration of Yorkshire and then I found a book called ‘Lost for Words’ by Stephanie Butland. It was set in a bookshop in York (I was at Whitby at the time so it wasn’t quite as meta as it could have been). Obviously, I had to buy it and I loved it. It was funny and touching and chimed with everything I’ve ever felt about the magic of bookshops.
“Books are our best lovers and our most provoking friends.” Lost for Words.
I’ve just finished another novel about books, bookshops and libraries. ‘Mr Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore’ by Robin Sloan is set in San Francisco. It celebrates books in all their forms; ebooks, paperback, dusty ancient tomes, audio books, anything you might find in a library or a book shop.
“Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.” Mr Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore.
Both novels acknowledge that you can find friends in books and find friends because of books and that has been true for me all my life.
What I find sad about the way my local library has reopened is that there’s not space for exploration; for wandering about not knowing what you’re looking for, waiting for the moment when a cover or a title catches your eye. I’ve always found solace in libraries and bookshops. At times of stress I’ve been known to head there as others might go to the pub. One of the great joys of doing my MA was being able to hang out for long hours in a library and claim I was studying.
I miss the space to do that. I miss the discoveries of new books and new authors from spending time in a bookshop or library. I have a Kindle and I like it but I’ve never found it very good for coming across new authors. I suspect my reading tastes are too eclectic for Amazon’s algorithms. It’s asking a lot of a piece of software code to figure out that I can happily flip from literary fiction to romance to crime to non-fiction. To be fair I’ve not yet been to my local Waterstones and maybe I need to try that but I’m still going to miss the library because, when it comes down to it, it’s got one major advantage over a bookshop which is that it’s free. I read a lot. Libraries are the reason I’m not (a) bankrupt and (b) can still move about in my house and am not trapped behind ever-expanding bookshelves.
I am the kind of reader who’ll ring up to make an appointment to visit the library; who’ll browse the catalogue online to find what I want but what about those who are less confident or don’t have or like using a computer? I know in the great scheme of things with the changes that coronavirus has made to our world these could be seen as minor but for me (and I suspect lots of people like me) access to books is never unimportant. I don’t want this to be the summer that I spend reading books about bookshops and libraries instead of visiting them. I guess there are other ways: we can share books with friends, create book exchanges, try book crossing. Maybe those will fill the gap until libraries can reopen more fully. I think maybe it’s time to create a book exchange where I live, to leave a book on a park bench and hope someone finds it. Who knows what I might discover?
Until I get going with the book crossing and book exchange ideas, I think I’ll be reading more books about book shops and libraries so if you’ve got any recommendations I’d love to hear them.
Thanks for reading,