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Category: Reflections Date: 11 Feb 96


I once lived in a library for three days and nights. It was winter. Bare trees were carved with icicles which reflected moonlight and the neon street lamps of campus. A thicket of stars lit up the sky, the rivers were frozen - gleaming sheets of ice. You could see all this from the glass frame of the library which stretched three floors.

 

The Canadians are big on comfort. Even if it was minus 30 outside, inside was toasty warm. And if you got the couch near the window with the view of the river and the pale winter sun warmed your face then it was a crime not to enjoy the moment. It was donated by Mr Bata, the shoe man. Most students rather uncharitably thought he did it to assuage his guilt for making so much money.

 

It was either move into Bata’s Library and write 3,000 word essays or fail the year. For Canadian students there’s always another term, another summer course. For us foreign students there’s only one chance. The fees, the fees, eked out by sacrificing parents! So with filial guilt burning in my heart I packed my kettle, and Nescafe, chocolate chip cookies, a change of clothes, and a bag of books, and lugged it on the bus. In the library, I just ducked behind a desk while the last Librarian person switched off the lights and locked up and I was alone.

 

I sat on the floor, spread a ripple of papers and books around me and worked. Around four in the morning I stretched and admired the stars. At six I made coffee and watched the gray dawn. At seven gave myself half an hour to dart into the gym for a shower and was back again. During the day I resented other people walking on my floor but then I went back into my routine that night. This time I was joined by four friends. By four in the morning we were quivering with coffee and fatigue - and giggled uncontrollably, collapsing on our books.

 

Another day and night passed - the only reality was the library, the books and my aching hand. This night there was no luxury of coffee breaks or admiring the dawn. I only noticed it was day when the glare hit my tired eyes. But by then I had finished - stapled the papers together with shaking hands and pushed them under the doors or my professors.

 

The first few hours were tedious. As I made progress those rows of books became alive. They humbled you. You realised how much there is to know, how little you know. They opened up layers of thought, civilisations, the inner workings of a human mind, worlds within worlds. My abiding love for them - the feel of their spines, covers, pages rough and smooth the hurt over a lost or new returned book is no accident. It began with those nursery rhymes (so violent!) Archie comics, Biggles, Mills & Boons... a lot of rubbish, but I was hooked. I take a book to the doctors office, read while waiting for the lights to change, was even clutching a book when I met my husband who thought me pretentious. Pretentious? But it’s the most natural thing in the world to read. It’s my cozy blanket, a buffer against the world, an effective drug which blocks out the world when it gets nasty.

 

Old dark libraries are my favourite - centuries of book lovers lingered here. Stained glass windows let in shafts of old-gold dust among the yellowed books. Ancient scripts rustle in the hands of some absorbed reader. Others are downright disappointing. They are too clean, unused, too many spaces between the books. These are not places in which people are at home. There’s the example of my friend X who saw a notice in the new library in Tobago. It was for a competition for the best review of Naipaul’s books A House for Mr Biswas. X is really hooked on history but decided to give this competition a shot. He wrote his review, filled in a form and handed it in.

 

Some months passed and the result was not announced. He eventually asked the librarian, “Who won the first prize?” She replied “You”. “Oh” said X, very pleased. “My entry was the best. Who won the second prize?” She said without blinking. “There was no second prize. There was no second entry”. She held out his prize - a fountain pen. And as I said, X is interested in history, also biographies. He showed me some of the books he borrowed from the Central Library - moved from Knox Street to Duke Street - Here’s Tide of Fortune by Stefan Zweg, Dante’s Divine Comedy last issued 20-30, years ago. No one reads them. X is aggrieved. The most precious books, says X, are not catalogued. He’s had to buy his own set of Britannia Encyclopaedia. One good thing - except for students who wait for their parents after 2.30, he is generally alone. He had never met anyone he knows - no eminent economists, analysts, politicians, and businessmen, commentators - for the last 15 years. He would recognise writers. But he’s never seen any of them there... A multi million library complex, huge and airy filled with cargoes of classics, hundreds of sections carefully tended, enclaves for national archives, reference books may thrill X. But it may come to resemble a mausoleum instead. The demand today is not for books but for slabs of concrete.

 

So create the demand. Beef up school libraries with local reference books. One internet machine in each school will give teachers and students access to three million sources of information worldwide. Don’t get tied up with concrete. That’s a long time thing. The bottom line is access. A small building in Maloney (just on the corner so that when you get a maxi its on the way), Curepe a start - kids can stop off to and from school and borrow books. Pack it with Mills & Boons and comics, violent thrillers. Hook them. Then slip in a classic or two and see what happens. Rent library space in Valpark, Trincity near the computer games. Get COTT to set up a music library section put in Bach and Dub and Ravi Shankar in the same section. Park up the children there while you shop and let their brains tumble about. Make books a fun thing to do.

 

When Naipaul wants information on Trinidad 200 years ago he gets it from Spain and England. The BBC has on tape every live broadcast on Eric Williams, the Butler riots, pre-and post independent Trinidad and Tobago. A producer for the BBC Caribbean Service once told me that for a million dollars they could be ours. Buy it, UWI will take care of it for us, and give access in return. But until we start to love books, grow up surrounded by them, feel awed, excited, comforted and mystified by them, addicted to them; until we make them a part of our lives, you may as well keep the lot in cold storage as far as I’m concerned.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur