I just started reading a wonderful book this week. All about libraries. Those places, public or private, where books live. The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the selection for our book club this month, and I’d been putting off starting it. Now I wish I hadn’t, for I’ll have to rush through it to be finished in time, when I’d much rather savour it.
I think that all avid readers must love libraries. Just the thought of vast shelves full of books makes me shiver with anticipation. The shelves don’t even have to be vast. Just full of books. I have fond memories of visiting the little town library in Marysville, New Brunswick when I was a kid.
The Marysville post office and library were housed in the nineteenth century brick building on Mill Street, pictured below. At least I’m pretty sure that’s the right building. In my mind I see white painted shelves and the sun shining across big wooden library tables. Was it sunny every time I visited? Or does it just seem that way?
Just a word about Marysville before I move on. We lived in the little town of Marysville before my mum married my step-father and we moved to the farm. Marysville has been subsumed by the growing city of Fredericton, but it’s still very much the same town I remember. In 2016 my friends and I organized a small reunion for our junior high school class. The adults who attended were the kids with whom I started grade one at Marysville School. Oh my, I had such a wonderful time seeing all those kids.
We held the reunion in the town’s heritage centre, a brick building on the Nashwaak River, across the street from the huge, nineteenth century brick building which used to be the Marysville cotton mill. When I lived there, many of my classmates lived in the two-story brick duplexes which were originally built to house the mill workers. The street that ran up the hill past the mill was named Bridge Street, but everyone called it Brick Hill. Our school was brick, the post office was brick, the whole town was mostly brick. And now those same houses and buildings are a national historic site. The Marysville Historic District, a mostly untouched and lovingly preserved nineteenth century mill town. I think that is very cool. Back then it was just our town. Just where we lived, and went to school. And to the library.
I seem to be on a library theme this month. Besides Susan Orlean, I’ve been reading another new-to-me writer. Emilia Bernhard has two books so far in her Death in Paris series. And both revolve around libraries. The series features Rachel Levis, a poet and ex-pat American who lives and works in Paris. And her friend Magda, an on-line shopping entrepreneur. They are both inherently nosy, and aspire to be detectives.
Bernhard’s books are not literature by any means. But they’re a bit of a romp, in that they are fun to read, and sometimes funny. And for murder mystery fans kind of a vicarious thrill. I mean, who among us who reads mystery novels has not aspired at one time or other to be part of a good murder investigation? Or at least to solve a crime? Without any danger or messy gore or anything, of course. Rachel is a kind of grown up version of Nancy Drew. And Magda is her side-kick, like Nancy’s pal George, or maybe Bess. The books are set in Paris, of course. That’s another thing I love about them. Plus they are light enough to provide distraction in troubling times. I finished Death in Paris and am now half-way through the second book, The Books of the Dead.
It’s funny how many books feature libraries as an integral part of their setting or their plot. In Alan Bradley’s Buckshaw Chronicles, featuring Flavia de Luce, the library at Buckshaw seems almost as important a setting as Flavia’s laboratory. I’d love to be able to hunker down in a big old library like that, where so many ancient and fascinating books live. I loved Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books for a long time, then I grew tired of them. I haven’t read the last couple. But I still love the idea of Bradley’s character, the very precocious, motherless girl, Flavia. Her fondness for chemistry, and books, her bicycle, and Buckshaw, the down-at-heel estate where she lives. My interest in this series waned after a time, but it was good fun while it lasted.
I’ve barely started Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, but she drew me in right away with her detailed description of patrons waiting for the historic central library in Los Angeles to open. “Scholars, time-wasters, readers, school groups, business people, parents with strollers, the homeless” all lounging, leaning, pacing, sitting, chatting, waiting for the doors to open at ten o’clock. And when the doors did open they became “a rivering flow of humanity, a gush, and they were looking for baby-name guides, and biographies of Charles Parnell, and maps of Indiana, and suggestions from a librarian for a novel that was romantic but not corny; they were picking up tax information and getting tutored in English and checking out movies and tracing their family history.” Whew. Libraries are busy, lively, bustling, multi-faceted, wonderful places. They are integral to our communities. And Susan Orlean’s book reminds us how much this is so.
I love the memoir aspect of Orlean’s book. She talks eloquently of her early love of libraries, how she grew away from them, and then found her way back.
The same happened for me. At least with respect to public libraries. I somehow stopped using them after we moved to the farm. Instead I’d visit my grandmother Sullivan’s upstairs closet, and spend happy hours hauling box after box of books out into the upstairs hallway, ferret around in them, then replace the box with another. Eventually amassing a pile of books to take home with me. And I began to covet owning books instead of just borrowing them. I’m still a bit like that.
But a book has to have special meaning now, for me to want to possess it. It has to fit into my collection of favourite authors. I try to buy, and then keep, the latest Margaret Atwood or Margaret Drabble. I like to have my own copies of Penelope Lively or Nancy Mitford or Alice Munro books. Or a book has to have a personal meaning for me. I cherish old books. Especially ones that have names written in them of people I love. I even rescued a few old books with my own name in them when I packed up the book cupboard the summer Mum moved out of the farmhouse.
When I first moved to Ottawa, I started using the library a lot once again. The historic, little red brick library on Rideau Street was a favourite stop for my roommate and me, on the way home from work. And I read my way through the fiction stacks at the Manotick Public Library when I first moved in with Hubby.
But then greater responsibility and busier schedules at work meant my library patronage lapsed for a few years. I had less and less time to finish books on schedule; I began to accrue fines because I did not have time to go to the library to renew books. And I found myself sometimes returning books unread. I hadn’t stopped reading, far from it, but the library borrowing schedule wasn’t working for me anymore. I read in spurts at Christmas or in the summer, mostly. Instead of visiting the library, I haunted book stores, used and new. And the books we owned began to pile up. And up. Ha. Our own library was getting a bit out of hand.
When I retired I returned to the public library with gusto. Now, using our library’s excellent website, I manage a plethora of library book orders, hold schedules, and “due date” timelines for both Hubby and me. I am in charge of what we read in our house. Hubby will be reading at night and he’ll call out, “I’m two days from finishing my book, Suz. What should I read next?”
We’ve both adapted to e-books completely. We still read hard copy books, of course. But I can order a Kindle book in the middle of the night and have it on my i-pad immediately. Or I can peruse the e-book selection at the Ottawa Public Library and do the same when I find a book that is available. We never have to be without a new book to read.
Having books to read has long been my balm of choice during stressful times. And these are indeed stressful times for us all. Everywhere. Public libraries are closed here in Ottawa for the next while, as they are in many places. Which makes their electronic catalogue all the more valuable for those of us fortunate enough to be able to access it.
As you probably know, I come from a long line of avid readers. My grandmother, my great aunts, my aunts, my mum… all readers. My sister Connie says that Mum didn’t read much for a time when we were growing up. Mum told Connie that when we were young and she was a single parent with four kids, she was too worried she’d get lost in a book and lose track of us kids. That story makes me smile in so many ways. Because it makes me think of mum as an earnest young mother giving up something she loved for us. And because I remember Mum telling me, when I was a dreamy teenager with my nose always stuck in a book, that if I ever had kids I’d probably get so lost in a book I’d forget where I put the baby. Now, that bit makes me laugh. Sounds like someone takes after their mother, doesn’t it?
My sister Connie is a great reader too. I called her when I was writing this post to see if she remembered the town library in Marysville. She said only vaguely. What she remembers most is the small library at Marysville school, and working there helping the librarian on her lunch hours when she was in grade six. And reading the entire Jalna series by Mazo de le Roche that year. All sixteen books.
Have a look at this clip from the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. Remember the scene where Margaret hides in the library, with her beloved atlas? I love that movie.
Ah, libraries. The public ones. The private ones. Big and grand, or small and select but still prized. They are where books live. And what would we do without books? I mean, what would we do without books at any time? But most of all, what would we do when we really need them? Like now.
You know, I just realized that given the social distancing situation, I’ll probably have more time than I thought to savour Susan Orlean’s book. That’s a bit of a silver lining, eh?
Now it’s your turn. What are your library memories, my friends? Please tell us. And please let us know how you are keeping these days. These very strange and surreal days, when the libraries are all closed. I’d very much like to know. I think we all would.
P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a commission.