These cool spaces, always light and airy, retaining their silence through a fragile, communally agreed sense of order. The smell of paper, and plastic wrapping, which, for me, still remains an evocative association, almost painful in its intensity. My first library was a travelling yellow bus which stopped off every week in the village where I grew up. I remember being captivated by this incongruous vehicle, its chugging arrival outside our cottage, the books protected from falling by barriers on its shelves. I borrowed a science fiction book about Utopian rabbits from here: a weird parable about John Stewart Mill and the moral issues of the greater good for the greater number. I found it a very troubling book at the time, and it lingers even still, particularly because I have since failed to trace it. I think it was the first time I realised that truth about libraries: that they are portals from the most mundane settings, into imagination and dream, into history and the world.
The town in which I spent my adolescence had little in the way of culture. The cinema had closed in the sixties. My father still tells the story of a pub on the outskirts of town, which held debauched mediaeval banquets and kept a live bear in its cellar. I spent summers around an aquarium on the outskirts of town, or walking the woodland close to my family house. I had developed an early hunger for sources. School had been something of a joke for me, but my brain clicked with anything remotely outlandish or obscure. e.e cummings. Alex Cox’s Moviedrome. A copy of James Schuyler’s The Morning of the Poem left out in a cardboard box outside a charity shop: from the New York School to North Shropshire. Norman Mailer featured in a Lloyd Cole song, Jack Kerouac would be cited on a TV documentary. For a while, tracing down these leads, I gravitated to a second hand bookshop, run by two peevish old men, which contained a massive collection of film novelisations, and Guy N Smith books. I ate through the science fiction section, but, apart from a Paul Bowles novel, it would come to have little to offer. And so, I headed for the library.
I began to pester the staff at the information desk for loans from other libraries. Mostly, these requests were arranged with professional indifference, but one librarian took an interest in me. A woman in her mid-thirties. Soft blonde hair, pale skin, given to soft freckles around her cheeks. A sharp nose, bright grey eyes. Pale skirt, and a blouse with some kind of scarf at the throat. She didn’t have the look of a keeper of destiny, but then they never do, I guess. It’s always good to have someone to point a finger at. But for you…
One time, I came into the library and she waved me over. ‘I ordered a book in for you,’ she said. She retrieved a copy of Something Happened by Joseph Heller from the shelves behind the desk, a hardback edition with a bright orange cover. ‘You’ll like that. Didn’t you say that you’d read Catch 22?’ She told me that she had studied American fiction as a module for her degree. I remember her writing down the heading ‘American Cult Fiction’ on a scrap of paper, and underneath it, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, a few more names I can’t remember. ‘Start there,’ she said. ‘And then come back for more.’
Words © Daniel Bennett