I never feel that I have truly settled in a new place until I’ve found myself a library that I can call home. A local pub and a good library are the two most important things to sort out when you move, for stimulation of mind and body!
The library where I grew up in the UK is nothing special to look at – a nondescript shell wedged beside a busy doctors surgery and overlooking Sainsbury’s car park. But I probably spent more of my formative years in there than I did at school.
This undoubtedly sounds sad but every time I walk into a library I have a little flutter of excitement in my stomach. For me its anticipation that I could stumble across a book that changes my life. OK, maybe that’s a bit strong, but in the past I’ve walked out of a library with a book that, once read, I don’t know how I ever survived without.
My strongest feeling of this was when I was first getting into reading crime in my late teens. I had grown tired of horror novels and wanted a change of scenery. I was browsing one of the paperback carousels (you know, the ones that have that annoying but strangely comforting squeak when you turn them) and for no apparent reason I was drawn to a book called Sins of the Fathers. I had a look at the blurb, thought the book sounded reasonable and got it out. By chance, it happened to be the first in a series.
Within 24 hours I had devoured the book and a whole new world had opened up in front of me. If you don’t know, the author of the book is Lawrence Block, and Sins of the Fathers was the first in the Matt Scudder series of private detective novels. So there was the rest of the series to get through, which I did in about a year (15 books in total then, with 3 more published since). And it was an absolute joy from start to finish. I lived and breathed Matt Scudder for that whole time, walking the New York streets, hitting the bars, confronting the bad guys, all that. I realise now that the underlying sadness and pathos is what gives the series such strength and such a powerful narrative voice. Pure beauty.
Anyway, that pleasure all came from that random moment in the library all those years ago. And I liked the fact that sometimes the next book in the series was out on loan or had to be ordered from another library – it wasn’t frustrating, it was fun being on tenterhooks for a few days, wondering where Scudder was going to go next. Now you could just buy the book cheaply on Amazon but there was something about having to wait, like it was worth something extra by being patient.
So, once I moved here I hunted down the local library straightaway. And Fitzroy Library is a joy, housed at the rear of the beautiful Town Hall building. When I first joined up (always free of course, all that knowledge and excitement and it costs nothing) I struck up a conversation with the library assistant, who asked me about the state of libraries in the UK.
‘Good,’ I said,’but unfortunately whenever councils want to cut services to save money they always go after libraries.’
She nodded. ‘Yes, it’s similar here. But the local people won’t stand for it, so whenever we’re threatened with cutbacks, in the end nothing happens.’
Quite right too. Libraries are one of the great gifts of life and should be treasured. And I’m proud that I live somewhere that respects that. So hopefully others can experience those joyful moments that helped to shape my life.