John Lubbock really knew what he was on about. Isn’t this a great quote? I love it. I want it tattooed on the wall of my next house, in the room that will be my very own private library.
I was a wee little thing when I visited my first library. I remember it well. It was in the hallowed halls of St Joseph’s primary school in O’Connor in Canberra, Australia. It was the late 1970s, so the children’s reading corner was very traditional – lots of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Herge’s Tin Tin, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix, Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley – and featured an enormous tube cushion in the shape of a giant snake. I loved that library, and I remember the competition was fierce for the good books, particularly the ones featuring Julian, Dick, Anne and George (and Timmy the dog!). The boys in particular were quick to swoop on any Tin-Tin and Asterix books. For my money, mysteries were the way to go. I was green with envy over my friend Jo’s collection of original hardcover Famous Five books, which she had inherited from her mother. It was hard going trying to find all of the books and read them in order through the library, and yet the library offered me something I’d never had before: reading choices.
My next most memorable library was on the other side of the world at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston, Virginia, USA. You wouldn’t get a more different collection of children’s books, which isn’t surprising given how culturally different the two countries were in the 1980s, a time when you couldn’t even watch American ads on Australian TV. It was here I discovered the likes of Joan Aitken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, and Louise Fitzhugh’s charming Harriet the Spy (which inspired me to carry around a similar notebook of frank and fearless observations for a while – to my detriment).
I also discovered Judy Blume, a then (and probably still) controversial author. She was your go-to girl for all the gory details about periods, first bras and kissing boys. Reading ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret’ was a rite of passage.
When I wasn’t at school, I begged my father to take me to the Reston Regional Library, where I would walk out with armfuls of books. The school holidays were heavenly. A keen reader, I’d churn through most of them in a week and insist on another trip. It was cheap entertainment, considering a few years earlier I’d been badgering my father to buy me endless copies of Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden books at around $6 a pop (big money then, and when you read them as quickly as I did).
There have been other libraries since then. Other books. Many other books. But those three libraries and their contents shine in my memory as havens for the young me, a bookish child, and opened up a world of joy, adventure and knowledge.
These days I tend to buy my books instead of borrow them. Some books I read straight away, others I shelf for a rainy day. I buy new, I buy old. I buy mass market books, and I hunt down rare and unusual tomes. I buy locally, interstate and internationally. I buy in shops and I buy online.
I almost never give away books and, after a few bad experiences, I absolutely never lend them. My collection gives me great joy. I still have books that I owned as a child – adventure stories, fairytales and compendiums of myths and legends – precious touchstones that still evoke feelings of delight and wonder. Books have proven to be constant friends to me, and even in my darkest hours (and I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had too many of those) they have been my crutch, my confidante. To live without books in my life would be akin to giving up food or water.
My fondest wish as a child was to have my own library. My very own shelfed sanctuary heaving with every kind of topic or genre that has ever grabbed my fancy, well kept and respected tomes, gently loved and, post-read, occasionally caressed. The air thick with the scent of ageing pages. I have that now – a few thousand books that line the walls of my old 1940s cottage, roughly ordered by subject, spines rebelling against anyone’s attempts to colour coordinate to any interior decor whim. This isn’t a show-pony library, it’s a reader’s library.
Books taught me about the importance of storytelling. It’s a love affair that has defined my career choices and hobbies – first as reader, then as journalist, book reviewer, editor, and writer – so it’s little wonder that I share my house with so many stories. I’m not a hoarder, and I’m not a collector. I’m merely in tune with my true nature (and yours), the primal need we all have for sharing and finding meaning in the human experience.
For telling stories.
Reynolds Price said: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.”
‘Hey lady!’ I hear you say, ‘haven’t you heard of ebooks?’
Well yes, yes I have. But if someone pulls the plug on the Internet tomorrow or Amazon.com crashes, or your e-reader runs out of juice, your ebooks will be floating in the ether. My books will be on the shelf, ready to read.
In my library.