I ’m charging my phone at a study carrel in the local library, part of the Wellesley Community Centre. I’m lucky to have found a space free—the library is packed, even in the afternoon on this sunny October day. The reading room hums like a hive.
The centre serves St James Town, an enclave of three-pronged high rise apartment buildings from the early 1970’s. These were the bachelor pads of that era, the swingin’ place to live, where you could see the dramatic view from your balcony and swim in the pool on the penthouse floor; where on Saturday night you could dance the frug with some groovy mini-skirted chicks with Sassoon hairstyles and pink-frosted lips. Now the buildings are a little decrepit, but feisty—like me, another relic of that era—and they house one of the most diverse populations in this most diverse of cities.
In the colorful, chaotic precincts of St James Town you’ll see mothers and grandmothers in traditional Indian dress, bearded Pakistani men in white pants and tunics, some women in full-length black wearing the niqab (and talking on cellphones); men and women from francophone Africa speaking a seductive demotic French that lilts with an unhurried, more earthy music, walks with a broader, more languid sway of the hips than the French you hear in Paris or Montréal. And of course, kids to correspond. Kids by the cartload! It’s a family enclave of the world family.
This afternoon many of those kids are at the community centre, playing basketball, or right here, in the library, studying and doing homework and, as always, finding ways to subvert the unspoken law of silence! It’s good to see them, good like graduation pictures and home-cooked dinners and rough-and-tumble fights that collapse into laughter, good like getting to bed early.
It reminds me that I haven’t been in a library for what feels like a demi-lifetime, and I think the overdue police may still be after me since 1990, which is when I dropped off some books that were a year past their due date at the College Street branch, whose entrance is guarded by two huge statues of mythical Asian beasts. I walked up to the book drop, which is a bit like a literary coal scuttle, pulled down on the handle and laid my hostages in the metal cradle. Once I’d heard the books thunking and clunking into the basket on the other side and was satisfied that they’d made it home, I scurried off.
I never received a bill for the charges. Maybe the switch-over to the digital age wiped out my shame.
When I was seventeen we lived in a duplex on St Clair Avenue, mid-town, and by walking a few blocks west I would arrive at the charming, one-storey St Clair Music Library, which was set in its own modest garden like a suburban bungalow but with better bones and Doric columns. From here I borrowed music scores—I was training to be a concert pianist—and, I’m astonished to recall, long-playing records of classical music. (Remember LPs?) Thanks to the St Clair Music Library, now an embassy, I first heard the astonishing and almost unplayable (except by Yvonne Loriod, the composer’s wife) “Vingts regards sur l’enfant Jesus” of Olivier Messiaen, and because I’d checked out the piano score as well, I could follow along and untangle every retrograde canon, every twittering bird song, every uncountable raga.
Music library. Is there even such a beast, now? I suppose there’s no longer any need for one, now that cultural memory is gone, or perhaps the kids are all listening to Messiaen on Spotify.
My home town, Whitby, Ontario, had its own Carnegie Library, built by the tycoon who tried as hard as he could to give away his fortune. He knew that his accident of birth and his financial success meant he was beholden to the community and that a dollar spent for the public good created a great deal more than a dollar’s worth of value.
His wealth was new money, and he was not a member of any nobility, but he still understood noblesse oblige—understood that your success came with obligations, that selfishness and venality were moral dangers, that one’s success was not a solitary achievement.
I remember the thrill of reaching age twelve and being entitled by virtue of being 12—was that the real criterion? I’ll pretend it is— to take out six books. What a little budding intellectual I must have looked like, walking home with them!
Carnegie knew that countries, especially vast countries, needed to find some common ground for its people, so they could speak to each other, understand each other as fellow citizens. Engaged citizens, most of them middle class, some of them definitely poor, needed to understand civics, absorb the concepts behind democracy and civility; needed to order their ideas logically, and express them coherently.
How else in that era would so many disparate types of citizen in such a vast country become literate or share a common culture except through reading the classics, reading English literature, verified as wholesome and freely available to all?
The Public Library was a source of civic pride, proof you’d arrived, proof of decency and equality and right aspirations. The achievements of humankind were glorious and inspiring; the reach of the collective mind infinite; and everyone wanted to hitch a ride on the tail of the comet.
Libraries are old-fashioned, in the best way: They recall a time when reading was the prime entertainment for kids — and what a sense of accomplishment it gave me, when I was little, to borrow a book, to think that the library had lent this to me, trusted me, and that I was responsible for it.
How many lessons, how much growing up there is already in just borrowing that book; so much learning about civility and belonging and being entrusted with something of value.
And then sitting with it, sometimes with a parent or sometimes on your own, and finally to make sense of it, to have everything fall into place, to understand how an argument works, and logic, also magic; to take pleasure in the choice of words, to discover that some words are funny and some are serious, or sad, or beautiful; to discover that a sentence can scare you or thrill you or make you laugh, or cry— is there any astonishment in adult life to equal that giant leap forward into independence, that click of understanding?
Libraries are old-fashioned because they recall a time of community and shared values: A time when every person, wherever they were from, and whatever their background, aspired to read and to learn, and it was a cause for shame to be illiterate. To be illiterate was to be shut out.
Reading was how you looked under the hood, deconstructed the engine of your own language — how it worked, what was formal and informal; what you could say in front of Aunt Milly (Ladies’ Home Journal) and how you might want to sound as class valedictorian (Emerson) and what should only be said to the girls and the boys in the locker room (Mailer/ Anaïs Nin). Words meant something, they had lives and personalities and relationships with each other; they had connotation and context. You absorbed the right use of your language.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was a child, you read and learned without being sneered at as “elite.” There was no one to call you “elite” because they wanted to read and learn, too.
(“You’ve actually read all of those books?” some people say to me when they see my two modestly-packed IKEA bookcases; they say it as though I’ve done something impressive but slightly distasteful when they weren’t looking, pulled something over on them; and the unspoken question is clearly: “… and why would you — or anyone — want to?”)
Libraries are a common resource that reminds us of when we still thought without shame in terms of common resources, when our priorities about what is essential included learning and reading; when it wasn’t “socialist” to think that essentials both tangible and intangible must be available for all. Public libraries were a product of our belief that literature and book-knowledge were riches, and that riches of all kinds, whether books in the library or clean water from the tap, could and should be shared.
Big glitzy bookstores, the Barnes & Noble’s and their ilk, must believe they have their hearts in something approximating the right place — and true, they’re selling books, not manufacturing nerve gas, which is a start — but they have no obligation to the community, only to their bottom lines.
They’re upscale, not for everyone; they say, “reading is a lifestyle choice, not an essential; it’s a paying proposition for — yes! — the elites; it takes place on private property, for customers, not citizens, so you can’t hang around here too long, and if you don’t like reading, no problem—how about a cashmere scarf or these apple-cinnamon scented candles after you finish your coffee?”
Barnes & Noble might close down one day, it never belonged to us. It’s the book as object that you buy; your special book that’s yours alone (guilty as charged, q.v. my bookcases). Sure, you could spend your money on far worse things, and reading is always good.
I think libraries, though, unlike bookstores, are humble, and humbling and, almost as much as for the books they make available, that is why we need them, especially now.
They put you in your place, that’s to say, your place; tell you you’re a useful part of something bigger than just you;
that you’re a trusted citizen, engaged and aspiring not just for yourself but for that common good without which an individual cannot realize her aspirations;