Sunday, June 24, 2012

The freedom of a public library

My current haul*
Joining the public library was, for me, a matter of financial constraints.  I really wanted to read the kind of books I cannot afford and cannot find in my university’s libraries.  So I trundled off with Zam that rainy Friday, and as I have detailed, it has been a real adventure (or a peri-urban adventure at any rate). 
But aside from the new experiences it has brought me before I even walked through its doors, the library itself has been a revelation.  For all the fun it is to browse in the university library, a book shop or on my kindle, I have to prioritise and decide to take only what is immediately relevant to what I study and do.  Every book I buy (or take out) must be strictly accounted for because every one is an investment of sorts that must give me finite returns in knowledge.  In addition, each of them has their drawbacks.

A book shop can only stock what it knows it is most likely to sell.  This means that certain popular series, new books and a limited selection of classics and older books that continue to sell well can be stocked.  A University library can only buy what it thinks will be relevant to serious study.  Sometimes that includes some popular fiction or science, but not often.  Searching for books on a kindle, like searching for information on the internet, is one of the most narrow and restrictive book-selecting devices.  When you search for a book, it will bring up that book, and a few recommendations that relate to that author, series or topic.  You cannot be distracted by something else from a different field of interest altogether as you can when wandering in a book store or library.  Anyway, I like to think I do not have generic buying habits, even within a genre, which is what you must ape if you browse books by category in Amazon. 

A public library, by contrast, is the accumulation of decades of government spending and the tastes of individual librarians that have been bought to cater to the many members of the public.  I only have the books for two weeks and I can return what I don’t like, savour what I do and return them.  Being able to dabble and browse without financial or category constraints is a really liberating sensation.  I feel like I have burnt my intellectual bra.

Knowing that I am one in a long line of people who will take it out a book is another benefit of reading a library book.  I have recently read editions of books that were brought out very soon after the original publication date.  The older is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a post-feminist USA where everyone lives according to someone’s twisted version of Genesis.  This fascinating and disturbing tale was published in 1985.  When I paged to the back and looked at all the old date stamps, I could not help wondering what the citizens of Pretoria made of this futuristic, puritanical state that enforces serious censorship rules when they read it during the dying, violent years of apartheid.

The other book contained Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy.  This is what is now called a “young adult” fantasy, but it is written in such wise, philosophical prose that I don’t know if I would have been able to appreciate it fully had I read it as a teenager.  I loved it even more for that reason: she assumes that her teenage readership wants to be challenged.  The edition I had read had been rebound in hardcover from so many readings, and it had a slightly unsettling, brightly coloured picture of the wizard hero, Sparrowhawk on the cover.  The pages were yellowy-orange in colour and the texture was slightly grainy from age.  Knowing that many teenagers and older people like myself have read this book gives me more faith in the human race.  I have for years been an avid fan of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy as it is also intelligent, wildly imaginative and thought-provoking, and I am also a recent fan of Neil Gaiman.  This trilogy is still streets ahead.  These books are also older, however, and while good books stores will still stock Neil Gaiman and the Dark Materials trilogy, they seldom stock Ursula Le Guin.  It is up to the libraries to continue the tradition.

So go forth and have an adventure at (or near) your nearest public library.  They lurk everywhere there...

*From left to right: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Gaston LeRoux's Phantom of the Opera, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Ondaatjie's Handwriting and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.

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