The library is pretty much the only place I entertain existential thoughts. Working or reading in a library for seven hours awakens in my mind the possibility that there is a very strong chance I don’t exist… at least not outside its four walls.
I was thinking this as I emerged, no doubt bleary-eyed, from a morning in Leeds City Library for my lunch break. I didn’t feel at one with the Saturday shoppers, but rather looked upon their seemingly hysterical shopping and socialising with a confused but benevolent eye. Still wrapped in my library cocoon, I viewed everyone curiously, wolfed down my horrible sandwich, and rushed back gratefully to the calm repressive order of la bibliothèque.
After all, that is the appeal of the library – the repression, the rules, the order that is imposed upon you, but which, in reality, you have willingly submitted to. It is for these reasons that it frees up your mind – you don’t feel resentful of the constraint, like you would if you were at school, yet observe the rules carefully and respectfully, and glean enjoyment from doing so.
My two favourite libraries are Leeds City Library and Hornsey Library in Crouch End, London. The former I can’t find out much about, but it is, I would guess, a mid-to-late Victorian civic building that appears subtle in its architecture due to its proximity to the heavy stone wedding cake of Leeds City Hall.
Inside, the most notable features are the beautiful mosaics that cover the main staircases and lower half of the stairwell walls. On the second floor, my favourite spot for working is a huge galleried room which holds a steady peace and offers glimpses out over the city. You hear voices echoing up the stairs and shoes occasionally squeaking down the corridors, sounds which never irritate, but rather comfort. I can happily be ensconced in there for many hours at a time.
Hornsey Library, by contrast, is a sixties north London dream of modernism for nice people. Built between 1963-5 by Ley & Jarvis, it is a flat roofed, concrete-bound, plate-glassed construction, open-plan, full of light, with a grand sweeping staircase as its centrepiece that floats half-elegantly above the fiction section. It’s not so good for working for very long hours, but there is something friendly and calm about the space and you often have good ideas there.
Both libraries have their resident oddballs. I don’t visit Hornsey so much nowadays, but when I went there a lot there was one guy who went round chuckling to himself and saying interesting phrases very loudly. My favourite being when he incanted for about ten minutes ‘Boxing champ; boxing, boxing champ.’ Then moved on to ‘Card sharp, card sharp’ for another ten. I used to write down what he said.
In Leeds there are often what I assume to be obsessive Bible readers on the second floor who pore over the good book and mumble. When I went there a lot there was one man in particular who was always in the same spot. He carried a lot of empty plastic bags around and used to sit hunched over his tome mumbling to himself and never looking up. But when I went over to see what he was reading when he left the room for a moment, it was a book about JRTolkein… so maybe they’re all Middle Earth obsessives?
There is also, without fail, someone slightly pervy in any library worth it’s, er salt. But somehow their perviness seems to take on a quaint charm amidst all of that soothing paper and print. I don’t know if they come in normal, and then the silence and the dust and all those musty pages lining the shelves making the tick of each second seem deliriously long turns them to it, but you often look up from reading your chosen tome to find one of them staring down your top with a conspiratorial yet strangely blank expression. (After all, they don’t want you to remember what they look like when you’re back in the real world.)
& there is something illicit about the library. Surrounded by the safety net of categorizing systems and methodical study or administrative tasks, everything seems to move on a different timescale, as if you have tricked normal life and escaped to a slow moving haven.
I was unaware that Jorge Luis Borges was of the librarian fraternity, but I like his comment, ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library’. To me, especially after eight hours in there, this comment equally suggests that Paradise, like the depiction of Heaven, can be a little too grindingly perfect at times and that after a full day of it you’re ready to talk to all the sinners on the outside again, that is if your mouth can remember how to form words… Or maybe it can help you get it together:
‘I’ve been drunk for about a week now and I thought it might sober me up to sit in the library.’– The Great Gatsby.
I also recommend you take a look at this youtube clip where the Islington librarian discusses Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s defacing of library books – the librarian’s tone is a completely brilliant mix of censure and admiration.
If anyone has particular recommendations for libraries, do comment and let us know where your favourite library is and why… Bit like our My Favourite Bookshop feature, perhaps…? Or good fiction references to libraries… Get in touch!
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s worth repeating: I really recommend a look at the ‘Literary Review’ pages of Private Eye. Always hilarious, plus these pages provide welcome relief from the acres of literary journalism you can wade through over the course of a week, and it usually hits the nail on the head in a critical sense, especially in its main feature review.
This issue [No.1246] it is Dan Brown who comes in for a friendly if complete drubbing. At one point the article asks: ‘But is the writing really so bad? Brown’s sentences rarely sing, but only a few actually scream in pain.’ And despite his reputation for writing action-driven page-turners, PE’s literary expert also points out that DB’s professor hero Robert Langdon ‘often takes […] two or three pages to walk across a foyer,’ and that ‘At one point, while the lunatic [the bad guy] is escaping across town, cackling evilly, Langdon and other characters stand around talking for several chapters.’ The article concludes cheerfully that the book’s, ‘… lack of sophistication is absolute: it can’t be faked’.
Other highlights include the ‘Books & Bookmen’ column where you can catch up with the publishing world’s latest news… Often very cutting and hilarious, the literary pages do admit when something’s good, and the satire can be absolutely spot on. PP recommends.