Sometimes, people express opinions on the internet that make me quite cross. (Quelle surprise!) Usually, I shut the browser window and back away, taking deep breaths to cleanse my brain of the muddy rage-cloud spewing from my limbic system. Usually, I remember to check myself to before I wreck myself with an ill-advised scroll-down to the comments section, because I don’t enjoy the sensation of wanting to mash my forehead against the keyboard repeatedly.
However, today I read two spectacularly arrogant pieces that were purportedly about “how” the authors read – the subtext being that theirs was a superior and “correct” way to read.
Both pieces disdained obtaining books from a library. Far better to steal a book, one proclaimed, than deign to borrow one from a public library. Because heaven forbid they not be able to write scholarly notes in the margins and indulge in consultative re-reading at their convenience and leisure. (Here I am imagining them quaffing cognac while wearing artfully dishevelled scarfs – no, wait! Neckerchiefs! with ironic t-shirts and listening to obscure b-sides of bands you’ve never heard of. [You philistine].) Not owning the book means you cannot possibly be reading it properly, was the upshot. You might even – GASP! – be reading for fun!
I will not link to either piece, because I care for my readers and don’t wish to ruin your day.
But I just CANNOT with the amount of privilege and conceit that seeps from the text of those two articles. Even engaging in a vehement twitter conversation with two of my reader friends (Hi, Clear Eyes Full Shelves!) could not soothe my unbridled crankiness.
So instead, I’m going to tell the maligned and unfairly dismissed libraries why I love them; why borrowing books is awesome; and why you should read however the heck you want to. It will be balm to my indignant soul. (Hopefully).
Dear Libraries (and the librarians, volunteers and communities that support them),
This is a thank you letter.
Without you, I would not be the reader I am today. My burgeoning love of books, my reading habits still in the forming, were nurtured within your walls. I can still remember the feeling of walking into the children’s section of the town library: gluttonous and eager. There were so many books. Books I could take home. Books I could disappear into. Then I could come back and choose more. I almost couldn’t believe how such a thing was possible.
There was no extra money, growing up. Ends met, but barely. Economy was not a goal, it was a necessity and as such, we were not book-buyers. We were book-borrowers. I’m not trying to be all woe-is-me here; I’m aware that my circumstances were not extraordinary or, comparatively, even that dire. But I want you to understand the role you played in my life. That without you, there wouldn’t have been books.
Going to the library was a weekly highlight, part of the household routine along with grocery shopping and paying bills on the main street of town. I’d walk in, toting my hand-me-down library bag and laminated library card, and lose myself in the stacks. I don’t know how long it was, it felt like hours but in reality I doubt it was. Sometimes I’d check out the same books, over and over again. “Haven’t you already read that one?” my Mum would ask. “Yes,” I’d say, lovingly securing it back in the bag to take home. There was nothing unusual about that; I think I did more re-reading than reading back then.
If someone tried to tell me now that I didn’t “interact” with those books as much as I would have with books that I owned, I’d laugh in their face.
At school, one day a week we’d have a library lesson. The class would walk the covered footpaths, two by two, to the library where we learned the Dewey decimal system and how to use the card catalogue. I spent big lunch (if you’re Australian you know what I mean) there sometimes, curled into a book next to the shelves, or playing battleships with my best friend, or booking the library courtyard so we could make up dance routines we never actually performed for anyone but ourselves. (Inevitably a teacher or year seven library assistant would stick their heads out the door to shush us, even though our library was never that quiet anyway).
This is how I learned to love libraries: exploring them, relishing them, taking refuge in them. Getting lectured about overdue books and running my fingers over familiar spines. Watching movies on an ancient TV, apparently permanently attached to one of those stands-on-wheels that every school had. Learning how to research. Knowing exactly where each of my favourite books could be found. Growing out of the tiny green chairs and parallelogram tables in the junior section and graduating to the big brown seats on the non-fiction side. Looking guilty when some girl in another class asked loudly: “Did you just sniff that book?”
These days, I buy a lot of books, it’s true. I won’t deny that I like to own books. Possess them. I like the familiar texture of their pages and the marks where I have turned them. I like the creased spines of my second-hand finds and childhood relics. I like the glossiness of the hardbacks I’ve pre-ordered and waited for. I like the stains on the out of print book I’ve obsessively hunted down on the internet. I like the way they begin to smell like home.
But I still have a library card. I still scour the catalogue, although it’s online now. I might have the means to purchase a book if I wish to do so, but I like to think I appreciate the value and importance of libraries and their services.
This is about more than reading books and how we procure them. This about providing access to information, including people who might not otherwise have a means to obtain it. Outside of affluent little bubbles, not everyone has an internet connection at home, not everyone has the disposable income to buy books, not everyone has ready access to books, films or other media in their own language or desired format. Libraries are a point of connection, community, and opportunity.
I can readily say that I am only the reader I am now because libraries played such a significant role in my ability to access books, so thank you for that.
At the end of the day, if you are the kind of person who laments the difficulty of “conversing” with library books, the inconvenience of having to check out a book in order to read it (rather than plucking it from your own mahogany shelves, I guess), or questions the validity and value of a reading experience if not transcribing pithy, intellectual thoughts into the margins: I am not interested in anything you have to say about reading.
Read for knowledge, read for fun, read whatever books you want. Buy books, borrow them, donate them. (Just don’t steal them, please).
Your reading experience is not less rich because of what and how you choose to read, or what self-important dross someone decides to barf onto the internet one day in a fit of uncontrollable condescension.
It’s yours. Enjoy it.
 Also, you’re a jerk