You know that sensation when you mistakenly walk into the other sex’s dressing room and there is that sudden fluster and flurry of clothing being pulled back up and stifled or not stifled squeals? Of course you do.
Well, for the purposes of description, entering a decent library can be the exact opposite, especially when you haven’t visited a particular, wonderful library in New Zealand (Glenfield Library) in more than two years due to being in an utterly foreign country. In my case, mainland China.
Robed or disrobed, rows and rows of zillions of books stare back at you thirsty, sore-eyed and most invitingly. They have almost all been read many times and therefore carry the hand-prints and stories of countless people’s lives. The weight and deepening of a book that is passed on from hand to hand: You are just the freshest guest to enter her story (even a book on philosophy or cookery has the author’s biography embedded in it) that is stained with so many readers’ stories, vibrant with them because they chose to enter this book – sometimes again and again – because the book meant so much to them. And here you are, prising her open to sniff her contents as well.
It was the odour and sheer presence of the library that opened its hands to me as the sliding doors swished open. The library rooms nodded, surprised, but not unduly so, by my return. These rooms have absorbed and preserved the voices, the “reading consciousness” and the tales of thousands of readers. I so wished to tell these solemn walls about China, but they have covered themselves with books and books, a susurrus you can only hear if you are still for a while…
* * *
Libraries are sacred places. Crowds of unheard voices whispering at the same time: each book with lips open in a half-kiss, whispering through the funnel of both hands for extra secrecy. They even talk to one another. It is just the unbelievable hush, the sound-deadening, peace-invoking hush that endless books on walls has on him and you, not unlike waking up from a long sleep (remote China) and creaking open the front door to see the afterglow and startlement of a snowfall that came secretly in the night: bushes now giant white wedding cakes, streets now hidden memories….
* * *
I love the hobbit-like trust of Kiwis. From an unattended library bookcase outside the building an enticing collection of short stories for sale had jumped into my hands: In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. All books were a mere fifty cents, proceeds to go to charity, and I bought In Cuba from the front desk. “The bar code may not have been deactivated,” the librarian smiled, nodding at the exit which has sensor bars, “so the bleep might go off”.
“Well, I hope it is not accompanied by gunfire, lunging security guards and handcuffs,” this South African brightly replied.
“Oh, don’t worry, maybe just a taser and a puff of tear gas,” she laughed as I walked away, entering deeper into the solace of this heaven.
Bookish people are not violent people. Oh, people who read ultimately only one book over and over have this potential for violence. Their repetitive reading of just one, usually incredibly limited paradigm is like some wild animal pacing and twitching back and forth from one end of the cage to the other while their simmering eyes, magnets, bolt themselves to you. This reading can lead to tall towers toppling in New York or dead school children or people charred inside burning tyres.
Not people who read and read for pleasure and growth, who make new friends with books or with other people who read those books. Even if it’s only at the subconscious level, readers enter the stories, the ur-story, of all those who have read or are right now reading copies of the same text before them.
* * *
… bushes now giant white bread rolls, the needles and branches of cedars snowed on, draped with the pre-communion expectation of table linen, and footprints trailing up that could have come from any path … Stories, stories! Their faces glimmer. They push their noses into us.
* * *
There was another bookshelf with books for sale inside the library. These were one dollar each. A copy of Seamus Heaney’s latest collection of poetry, Human Chain, sprang into my hand. Hard cover, mint condition, first edition. One dollar! Bookish people find it so difficult to resist. A new friendship! Why not?
“Now I’ve got two books,” I bragged to the same librarian as I handed over a dollar. “I really hope I don’t get a bleep.”
“Well, we will just tackle you to the ground,” she retorted, recognising my accent (very familiar to Kiwis), ” just like we did the last time you blokes were here”. Her body was clearly still energised by the recent Rugby World Cup festival and the Kiwis’ win: another massive community event (like the ongoing one of libraries) which brought the Kiwis even closer together.
* * *
Still feeling so “disassociated” because of his experiences in China, grateful for the fact that he is literate, unlike so many, he is looking forward to all the surprises of books, including the delights before reading, like a title on the spine gleaming up at him longingly. Oh, say: Where God Lives: The science of the paranormal and how our brains are linked to the universe, and how those words speak to his own story. Books in English, unfingered in years, crack open, a forbidden fruit or overgrown nut in his hands, releasing a letter soup of odours, recollections and tales before he even dips his nose into the narrative that the book, with the fervour of a priestess, offers up to him .
And begins to read. He feels, deep within the text, and emerging in him, those magical sounds known to all …
“Once upon a time…”