Maybe not just yet, not when the libraries look so tempting…
As we start to retreat into our cocoons, here are some rooms where all our bookish goodness (and greed) can come to the fore.
Some public libraries make your jaw drop… and others just make you want to drop your bags, sit down for a couple of hours and enjoy all that they have to offer. Libraries have always been one of my favourite places on earth – where I felt safe and quiet, excited and adventurous all at once.
Libraries and bookshops are my downfall. Despite the numerous ARCs I receive for review, I cannot resist adding to my TBR pile every time I enter one or the other building containing books. While it’s understandable that I try to save my already quite depleted wallet by going less frequently to bookshops (I’ve managed to reduce it to no more than 1-2 times a week!), I’ve recently changed my policy about library loans. I was trying to be realistic and not borrow more than I could consume in three weeks, but my local librarian told me that if a book hasn’t been on loan for a year, it gets sent down to the basement of gloom known as ‘Reserve Stacks’. After a few years of gathering mould there, they are killed off. [I’m not sure if they get given to charity shops or pulped, everyone seems coy about that.] Besides, PLR are a source of author revenue. So I now borrow books merrily, try to renew them when I can, or return them unread and borrow them later again.
What have I acquired this week?
I bought Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a long essay about the art of translation, with many revelatory examples. All of the readers of translated literature in my timeline have been raving about this book, and as an occasional dabbler in translation myself, I had to have a personal copy, so I could underline passages of interest.
I finally acquired Sebald’s The Emigrants (transl. Michael Hulse), which (it won’t surprise those long-term readers of my blog to hear) is one of my favourite books. Exile and loss, displacement and nostalgia – yes, please! I should have got it in German of course (yes, I’m still snobbish about preferring to read books in the original where I possibly can), and I probably will at some point when I am next in Germany. The last book I got is not a translation from German but written by a German who emigrated to England. It was an impulse buy: Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. I’d vaguely heard of Uhlman, but have never read anything by him and I am always, always fascinated by stories about the personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s.
At my local library, I was pleased to find Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which I have already devoured. The sentences and the landscape and atmosphere are so perfect, I found myself seething with envy on every page. I also picked up Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy, for a comedic change of pace. I’ve read one or two of her novels in the past and enjoyed the voice of the outsider gently mocking life in England. Last but not least, I got A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, because American dysfunctional families are so much weirder and deadlier and more fun to read about than European ones.
However, I’ve had to abandon one of the books I recently borrowed from the Senate House Library. I am patient and usually give books a good 50-100 page chance before reluctantly putting it aside, and normally the setting of an international conference would appeal to me. But alas, Brian Aldiss starts off his novel Life in the West far too slowly, with details which not only seem irrelevant, but also of horizontally reclining platitude. For example:
By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him… He opened his folder. In it was a ballpoint pen, clipped to a timetable of the sessions of the conference with a list of speakers. Tucked into the pocket of the folder were some foilwrapped perfumed tissues for refreshing the face and hands, and a map of the city of Ermalpa and surroundings, presented by courtesy of the local tourist board.
As a former conference convenor, this feels to me more like a checklist for event organisers. Would you read any further? This was a serendipitous pick from the library, but hey ho, you can’t win them all.
There is something aspirational (and yet something that feels so right and natural) about staircases in libraries. Why would you ever not have a spiral staircase or a ladder if you have a large home library?
Ah, maybe because the ceilings are too low? In the house in England, where my younger son’s bunk bed might be too tall to fit, I think I can safely reach even the highest shelf without a stepladder.
Home libraries are all very fine and dandy, but nothing beats the variety and serendipity of a well-stocked public library. Even better when the library is in a hard-to-reach place or else a magnificent architectural feat. Here are some of my recent favourites.
Just another day of holidays, but with coughs and flu looming, we didn’t go skiing. Instead, my sons and I (all of us great readers) had to return some books to the library and passed by the only two bookshops in the area. The first one is a standard bookshop, which is a resurrected version of the previous bookshop which had gone bankrupt and was rescued by an association of book lovers. We stopped there to collect a book we had ordered, one that my older son needed for his French classes: a junior edition of the medieval collection of animal stories/fables ‘Le roman de renart’ (roughly translated as: The Novel of the Fox).
Then we passed by the other bookshop, which specialises in BD (bandes dessinées – graphic novels and comic books), where I had acquired my original Max Cabanes adaptation of Manchette’s novel Fatale. I had chatted with Cabanes in Lyon and he told me he was redoing and continuing another Manchette adaptation, so I couldn’t resist asking if they had his latest. They did, so I acquired that – it’s a visual delight, as well as being based upon one of my favourite French noir authors.
While Younger Son was reading another BD cover to cover, Older Son asked me to buy the latest in the series ‘Seuls’, a Franco-Belgian children’s fantasy thriller about children having to cope alone in a world without adults. (Later on we discover the children are all dead.) Twice a winner in the youth category at Angouleme Festival, and winner of the Grand Prize of the Mickey Mouse Journal. The well-intentioned bookseller advised me to read these comic books with my boys, to make sure that they wouldn’t get scared. Then, when my eldest scoffed, claiming proudly that he was a teenager now and not easily scared, we received a zombie poster for him to put up on his wall, as well as a magazine with extracts from all the latest releases.
And that is why we love going into real bookshops: we spent a happy morning browsing, discovering new things, making mental notes about what to buy next time, and feeling the love of books and the personalised service of the booksellers. We never leave empty-handed.
The library run also ended with 6 books: 4 BD for the boys (fun holiday reading, as they also have a bit of a TBR pile at home) and 2 books I wasn’t intending to get… secret TBR Triple Dog Dare and all that… Fred Vargas’ Temps Glaciaires (the latest Adamsberg mystery, published in 2015) and Emmanuel Carrere’s D’autres vies que la mienne (Lives Other Than My Own) – which is a story about grief and loss, but also a kind of memoir of how a narcissist became a more empathetic human being.