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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.