I was drawn to this story due to my current interest in verse novels, apparently some works of Pushkin have been seized by Russian police under suspicion that they may be pornographic. Yes, I find this hard to believe too but when I read the article I was even more stunned that:
The move has horrified the nation’s literati in a
country where serious literature is a serious business and popular with
the masses. Only last week, Moscow’s foreign ministry published a book
of poems by the nation’s diplomats.
The collected verse of Alexander Downer anyone? I thought not.
One of my favourite books is Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. It is about Germany and the burden of history. I say favourite not because it was a particularly easy or enjoyable book to read but because it was a book that resonated at the time I read it and continues to do so. It’s about history and forgiveness on a grand scale and a personal level. It’s about loving beyond forgiveness. It explores the inevitable fact that time moves along and at some stage we have to deal with what has passed but also conjure a way to live in the present, despite what has happened in the past.
I am thinking about this book now as it is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps and I have this evening watched the disturbing story of a Holocaust survivor on the 7.30 Report. Worth reading is Theodore Dalrymple’s story of Dresden today and the difficulty of living with the past. The Germans are perhaps unique in having to live in modern times with a history so repugnant to most people, even though this repugnance is brought about by only a relatively short period of the country’s history. As every day we hear reports, neither verifably true or false, of torture carried out by those supposed to be ‘on our side’ one realises that this kind of behaviour is not confined to a single time or place. One day we may live with a history blighted with an ugliness that refuses to allow us to live in the present. (Admittedly, we already do, but it could possibly get a lot worse).
It is no surprise to anyone who knows me or my family background to discover that libraries are among my favourite places. Some of my earliest memories are of pedalling my red Malvern Star down the street and around the corner to the Alstonville Public Library. I don’t think I was even old enough to go to school but my parents were confident enough to allow me to go to the library alone. Then again, in those days, in the country, we were allowed to do a lot of things from which kids today would be shielded. I still have the hardcover copy of John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat that I won in a painting competition in the library. And yes, I even have the painting, a kind of childish Fauvist cat.
Now I am spoiled by the extensive collection of Fisher Library at Sydney University. I love going into the stack, especially when most of the aisles are dark, and browsing without interruption. I find my mind is free to wander and I chase these wanderings across the Dewey system, usually ducking up and down between levels 7 and 8. I took my son into the stack for the first time recently. I bribed him with a banana in the hope that he would remain quiet and I chose a non-teaching period in the hope that the library would be close to empty. It was the first week of the new year and there were still people sitting in the grotty cubicles in the stack, even way up on level 8, quietly working away. It made me smile that things there went along as always, but with the welcome absence of undergraduates writing on desks.
This brings me to Tom Stoppards article on the library he loves, the London Library. Any library and/or book lover should read this article. He puts into words many things we feel but may not be able to express. He also gives a glimpse of the library before the internet, before borrowing even. I know it made me yearn for a time when I could sit, undisturbed, and read happy in the knowledge that whatever book I happened to want I would surely find.
A taster of Stoppard’s article:
Arthur Koestler, John said, had been commissioned to report the
Fischer-Spassky chess match for the world championship in Reykjavik. To
prepare, Koestler went to the London Library to borrow books on chess
and on Iceland. In the entrance hall he hesitated. Chess first or
Iceland first? Chess was nearer. On the Chess shelf the first book that
caught Koestler’s eye was Chess in Iceland.
Two of the possible reactions to this story are: a) "Er, is that it?"
and b) the bibliophiliac version of thrusting one fist in the air and
So, what’s your favourite library?