In secondary school I started the habit of devouring a minimum of 2 books a week, so that by age 19 I could claim shamelessly, and somewhat incorrectly, that I had read at the very least 500 books.
I’ve recently spent some time thinking about the sources of said books, seeing as I could not (and still cannot, really) afford to so rapidly consume a new supply of them.
1. The library at my secondary school: a rag-tag collection of textbooks, sweet valley high novels and a list of books so random, they seemed to have been generated by some lazy algorithm, or more likely donated by/purchased from departing expats.
But there were gems. Alice Walker hid behind Goosebumps first-editions which had been thumbed to death. Mildred D. Taylor snuggled herself beneath the shelf that boasted old issues of People Magazine, their crossword pages terrorized by grammatical errors and secret notes to classmates. And somehow a novel, a glorious novel! whose name or author I cannot remember, found its way to my soft-palmed hands. A novel about SLUMS and sniffing glue and everything about reading that is difficult to stomach.
The library, with its neglected catalogue and a librarian visibly thankful for the job of watching books that do not move: had a marvelous atmosphere.
The perfect atmosphere for a library, can I say? It can only be found in a place of moderate reading habits, as a receptacle for the items too heavy to fly back to their overseas homes – one that lives in a world where books are a threat to nobody or anything.
This library, my library (where I was once banned for three painful weeks for misplacing the only copy of Jonathan Coe’s The Accidental Woman) – was brilliant because nobody cared. It released to you at age 12, a almost-in-perfect-condition copy of Possessing the Secret of Joy; a story of self-determination, female genital mutilation and the whimsical theories of slave-owners.
It released to you memoirs of boys snatched from life to be dropped into the middle of war, rifles pressed to their prepubescent chests like a “Prefect” badge might have been pressed to yours. It released with no fear Lolita, ” Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth,” as uncensored as the day Nabokov set his pen down.
Sometimes I want to say that the perfect atmosphere for a library is a librarian who punches you out, her attention fixed to the tabloid newspaper before her – questions of themes-too-heavy or ideas-too-difficult far from her mind. (But a librarian who is strict so that the books are returned!)
I experienced trauma in books that I picked myself. There is something about the last part of that sentence that makes the first one OK. And, I also figured out how to rescue myself: distract a mind ravaged by the terrors of adolescence, and fix it, dear Christ, on the business of living.