The book lover’s fallback

THE FIFTH COLUMN

I joined the library. I passed through the turnstiles, inhaled the distinct odour of aging books and presented my proof of address. A form was filled in and a card gained. I now have access to a medium-sized catalogue and four full rows of DVDs and CDs. I can check my email and read the latest magazines. There is even a couch.

Perhaps the best thing about joining the library is the deadline for finishing a book. It’s still two weeks and I’m not sure what punishment will be meted out should I fail to return it on time. Unlike in other spheres of life, at the library it’s okay to miss the deadline — to take the book back, walk up to the counter and say out loud: “Repeat.”

But I don’t have the courage for that. To proclaim my reading speed falling short of the standard, and doing so in a room filled with pros. (“Three whole weeks he spent on a novella. Can you imagine?”)

I haven’t yet found the reference cabinet in my new library, and so strike out on my own. The snaking flow of the alphabet is clearly indicated on signs: A with an arrow going this way, B with its arrow coming back and so on. I enjoy having to re-acquaint myself with the order of things sometimes having to stretch myself three letters deep (J… JA …JD … JO … JOH … JOV … ah! … JOY … JOYCE).

It surprises me that it’s taken me this long to (re)join the library. Was it pride that kept me away from the turnstiles (the poor man’s bookshop)? Distrust that they might not have what I’m looking for?


A definite contributing factor is the row of books on my bookshelf that’s stopped growing for now. As with feeling the pages of a book slide against your fingers, something is to be said for looking at a bookshelf packed to the brim.

I’ve heard it said that books on display, like an aquarium in a waiting room, tends to put people in therapy at ease. Rich people dedicate entire rooms in their mansions to books, going so far as to call it their library.

Circumstance unfortunately require that I live on take-outs at the moment and, truth be told, it’s not all that bad. I’m still left with the experience of having read a book and the joy of carrying it around the house for a fortnight.

I’m a book surrogate, reading and abandoning books at the speed others go through a cupboard of clothes. Some books bore me and I take them back prematurely.

There are no hard feelings — it simply wasn’t a good fit. We part ways amicably, avoiding the discomfort of having to see each other in passing in the hall or bump into each other in the garage.

The split is complete (and no money is lost conducting “business” with a secondhand bookshop either).

To the books I love, it’s harder to say goodbye. They never really fitted in, covered in plastic thick as tarp; their spines covered in stickers and ink, but they were a part of the clan when they were here and they are missed.

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Hans Mackenzie Main
Hans Mackenzie Main
Writer/Columnist at Mail & Guardian

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