Living a library

My friend Bruno was on the phone the other day, describing his days and life and lamenting the end of the season. It had been the end of the warm season for a few weeks and it was certain now, although the heat was still strong. It was late September, and it was that moment for smiling regretfully, for opening your palms and admitting that it was gone and would only be back beyond the wall of winter. The riverside bar that K and I liked also closed last night for a final time. They held a jazz jam session and it carried on a little past closing time. I had seen Joy there, he was doodling on his guitar on a busy stage with his funny faces. The arm’s chill on the ride back home through the Via delle Sentinelle also reminded me of autumn, and turned the key once more in the lock. Bruno laughed, and confirmed it.

He was telling me about his new job, working in the library in Madrid. His dream job, he said. He sat and read and watched people come in and out. It was a good number of hours and a good pay. He sounded happy. I was seeing him sitting behind the desk, talking in a low voice for the quiet space, talking a bit too much maybe and watching for girls. It made me smile to see him there, in the midst of wood and echo, and the smell. Not the stale smell of the old books, but actually the smell of the space in between you and the books, between the desks and the shelves. It was a sort of scent to the second degree that you find in libraries and schools. Maybe the smell of learning, the smell of the brain sweating.

I was going to different libraries every day to work. The institute library was strong and serious, with real doctors typing away that gave me dark looks when my music leaked too much through my ear-phones. The books are very good there but the people smug, and the food bad. Today I sat in the biblioteca nazionale, a monumental space with lockers and rules. The desks are of beautiful wood and slanted down for angled reading. I used to be frustrated with the half-moon of the chair-backs, but then I learned to relish in their shape. They curved my spine and my shoulders and indeed my thoughts, focusing them onto the pages in the way that a magnifying glass burns sunlight onto tortured ants. The torture I was reading about was that of poor Algerian nationalists, and decidedly less fun than the magical science of burning. I liked the biblioteca nazionale. It was now a longtime graduation from the Oblate library. The Oblate had been the first that I went to, with Albert and Lou, in our first real library time for our end of school exams. We would go in the morning and then try a different sandwich shop every lunchtime. Un-stimulated by schoolwork, I guess we found some kind of flare in this endeavor, arguing over and rating the quality of the bread and the place. It was great fun. The coffee and the view were wonderful at the Oblate but the crowds and the toilets were not.

Libraries are this wonderful institution that I had forgotten to love. I began to associate them with university and fear perhaps, and those spaces of the everyday with heavy academic reading and racing. Racing with friends and against friends and refilling water bottles and fatigue. But then you sometimes stepped into the small public libraries, and you saw more children and older people and the freedom of public learning. I had been to Kentish Town, and then Stamford Hill, and Bethnal Green and Hackney. Most recently to Hornsey Library, in Crouch End, where I sat on the upper level in an uncomfortable seat and at a small desk but I admired the resources. There was a loud old French gentleman reading the newspaper, and when he received a phone call he also received complaints for speaking too loud. Before being told off by the blond librarian with thin eye-frames I overheard him saying that he was perfectly content to sit in the library all day. I guessed that he was talking to his child, who was working all day and couldn’t entertain their parent who was in town to visit them. A silly French parent or even grandparent in Hornsey and the little librarian who probably told off old people and children in similar measure. It was a warm place, real and quiet with teenagers next to me practicing exercises in maths. They were struggling because mathematics is difficult. I don’t do mathematics anymore, but Hornsey reminded me that it is indeed difficult.

So, then, these large buildings in our neighborhoods with free books and seats and warmth and Internet. They are truly amazing, even when they are ugly and have grey carpet floors. It is difficult to be bored in them. Albert and I often quote our favourite film, where Will Hunting ridicules a Harvard student for “dropping 150 grand on an education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library”. That is assuming that ugly Mr. ponytailed Clarke man would have returned his books late at all! Otherwise it would have been free, although yes, Clarke, just as any good man, just as myself, would likely return the books late. One can’t think of everything.

Who assembles these towers of paperbacks and bound beauties? Who houses these little and big children of old Guthenberg? Well, I suppose many different enterprising individuals and institutions of public and private nature. Friends to all, in any case. No one hates a library, at least not fundamentally. I loved the small green lamination I received as a small boy in Bloemendaal, the little library a kilometer from our house that seemed to be an odyssey at that age. It was the first real piece of independence. Independence in at least two senses. First, it was the receiving of a first personal I.D., or the first interaction with administration. I actually do recall looking up at the library desk, and I felt big and smart and alone, although my mother or my father had probably been next to me. I saw my name on the green lamination, or, in Sligo, it had been a case of writing it out on the back of the electronic card. The culture of the signature! Introduced thus, through the library, to the confused child. How do you explain to a 6 or 7 year old that the whole point of the signature is originality, when that 6 or 7 year old only knows one way of writing their name, their way, and in fact it does not seem original to them at all. It was a sea of lessons. And, of course, the second sense of independence, which was that big Looking around, the search for a book or a comic, and flipping through shelves alone and sitting down alone. Sitting at the tables on one’s own and entering the book, and thereby your mind, in a new and labyrinthine way. It was wonderful and very much memorable.

And what knowledge and intelligence at the ends of our fingers, resting on the soft blades of grass in the palms of our hand! I sat today in the colossus of the biblioteca nazionale, but yesterday I discovered the French institute, where I could just walk in and was surrounded by two rooms walled with books that I could pick up and read, and might enjoy and learn from. It is not so taken for granted. The lady there was excitable and a little too helpful; even 16 years after my first taste of independence it remains a central part of the experience. She was blonde and had beautiful eyes of a light blue, but I did not like her voice. She pulled several books out of the shelves and threw them on to the desk, and told me about the discontinued archive of journals available in their partner library in Prato. I thought, wow, Prato! Here I am in poor Florence, many walks away from the resource-goldmines of UCL or Sciences Po, and yet Les Temps Modernes is available in all its issues since 1950 in the neighbouring town. Prato (!), the city where I eat Chinese with Luca and his son Bobby. Even Prato has its libraries, with French archives and space for knowledge and the furthering of the mind.

In the evening I told K how lucky it was that these journals were available as near as Prato. She said “che culo!” ironically, Lucky Me, that I would have to leave our Ithaca behind to venture that far. I didn’t see it as that far, but maybe I was naïve. Maybe I needed to continue to learn about the libraries, and understand enough to be less bewildered by their wonder. If I sit down, against half-moon or nay, and think about it, I am truly astonished, but perhaps I should take them for granted more. They are everywhere, and everywhere broadly the same. I should be used to them, to the little librarian mice with their glasses and their no-sun-skins and the silent soundscapes of concentration.

In the meantime, I will venture to Prato, and otherwise continue to enjoy and admire. Bruno and his dream-job remind me of the Sicilian girl in La Meglio Gioventù, who meets the handsome protagonist in Sicily and he tells her about a wonderful library in Rome. The Sicilian girl is a photographer and she takes his picture. The next time they meet, it is in that library, where he is coming in as a visitor and she now has a job there. The place must have enchanted her, as libraries can often do. Bookshops are nice too, and I suppose the owning of the book is attractive, culturally. Maybe that is why I had forgotten. I felt a strong nostalgia in this new love for the library, but nostalgia of a different kind. It is among the greatest pleasures to find something that tastes of a rich nostalgia, but can be equally enjoyed in the present.

So I sign the paper, swiftly, and wait for the sharp beep of a barcode, when the light comes in and all is well and warm in the tunnels of my mind.

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