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The ‘Have-It-All’s and the Unique

8 minutes

Public Library and Other Stories

I was reading Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories. I had seen it lying about at Shakespeare&Company in Paris, and working in the little bookshop in Utrecht I saw the copy again. Smith combines short stories on books, words, and libraries with intermezzos of opinions on public libraries. It is a tough read. Like Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar you dip in and out of insanity; personal insanity, a fleeting condition, in which fact and fiction no longer matter. In fragmented fiction and facts, Smith crafts an ode to disappearing libraries.

The book is a time capsule of library nostalgia. Because today it no longer works.

I’m a book person. I own three library cards, one valid in public libraries in Paris, one valid in the libraries of Utrecht, one valid in the University libraries in Utrecht. I don’t go to libraries to find new books to read. Libraries provide me old and/or expensive sources I cannot order online. When I’m done studying, will I ever be in the library again?

University Library Utrecht

Personal Libraries and Its Story

Among my friends I hear book love everywhere. We all love books, but most of all we love the idea of having a properly filled book case. We want the Great Titles there, to show off. We unearthed that quote,

“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”

and we hang it on our walls. A young female student scores instant points by quoting some classics. Books are about flirting, about adornment, and, well, libraries are not part of that.

Like so many things, there are just too many books around to be well-read. With all our hours spent on social media and Netflix, reading has become one of the most time-consuming hobbies when done well. We read more about books than reading the books themselves. Instead, we read our possessions, our book piles: to read, will-read-one-day, present-from-so-and-so-must-read, and never-to-be-read-looks-nice. Whenever we finish a volume, we instantly recommend it.

“You should totally read this book,”

says the one who reads and can recommend, so that the copy lands on someone else’s pile of ‘probably-never-to-be-read’ books.

pile of books

We dream of books on a personal display, and the treasures accumulate from shelves to piles.

I need a new book case

… and the dream expands. A wall full of books. A house full of books. Living in a library.

The internet shares pictures of the most beautiful libraries of the world and we want it for ourselves. We go to libraries to take a picture without reading the books, because there are too many books and life is just too short – especially on holiday.

At home, we want to be surrounded by books because it means we know them. The aura of the books will shine on us. Our personality can be extracted from the books we display, the books we’ve actually read, and the books we’ll never read. We want to be read. We want someone to pick us from a shelf of countless books, to admire our dustjackets, our covers, to sniff the pages, and choose to read us from the beginning to the end.

We want a filled book case to become an interesting book ourselves.

Selling the Library

I’m a book seller now. I know a book on our shelves needs to be sold within a certain amount of time. There is nothing romantic about book selling – you can’t just fill the shop with your favourites and be with all the books you love indefinitely. A book needs to be on a shelf for a reason. You need to read the books and then the people. You want to find that perfect match. People like to hear “maybe this is what you’re looking for” and if it fits they feel unique and understood. A happy customer, a carefully wrapped book, and the romance is about to begin.

How different is the library, where you can expect to find all the classics, secondary sources, titles from your ‘to read’-pile in a public building. How different is the checkout, always followed by a second visit of return. The library urges you to finish the book and be done with it, so the next one can stumble upon it on the shelves. The library teaches you that your moment with the book is only one moment in the book’s life, that there are so many other readers. The bookshop gives you a book to live with, a book taking space on your shelf, telling you something about you.

Ali Smith was right with her title: the public library allows for ‘other stories’, while the personal library is only the story of an isolated self.

book case

Your S(h)elf

Most new students visit Ikea with their parents to find furniture for their new home. My parents took me to a book fair to find books to fill my book case with. I came home with Dickens and Brontë, Lessing and Steinbeck, and all the other titles that always told me “there is more, still more, to read”. New books arrived, for studying, and slowly, one by one, I created my harem of stories, neatly put away in that one, beautiful book case.

Then, one day, a friend of mine started to send me books in secret. Accumulating a wealth of books was no longer my personal choice. My colleagues at Shakespeare&Co recommended me books, saying “everything you read in your twenties has such a great impact on your life and personality”, so that I began reading madly. I started borrowing books, because I was reading so fast and living expensively in Paris. Paris gave me books: one day a drunk photographer gave me a book to practice my French vocabulary, another day the shop let me take a second-hand F. Scott Fitzgerald for free, then later people left books at my place because they were travelling so fast.

Now I stand before my book case and the rows have changed their names. My books are souvenirs, inheritance, reference books, to be lent and to be reread. The others, the books without destination, they go. Because the library is for books to share, and my book case is full of stories in itself.

What is the strangest way a book landed on your shelf? Do you have any fond memories of visiting the library when you were young? Leave a comment below!

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