As both a writer and a reader, I love libraries. I learned to read at a very early age, thanks to my retired-teacher grandmother, who lived with us. Money was scarce and there was no bookstore in our tiny little town, but there was a library, remarkably well-supplied for rural Ontario. I read my way through the children’s section, and at about eleven, switched to the adult books. This wasn’t allowed – I was far too young – but my mother fought for my right to read what I wanted, and won.
In high school we swapped books around in a small group of geeky science fiction and fantasy fans, and I read Verne and Lovecraft and Eddison as well as Tolkien and Dunsany and Lewis. Somewhere in my late teens I learned libraries would order books for you, if they didn’t have them, and this opened up another source of new worlds and new thoughts. I read the Beat poets and writers, and Kesey and Tom Wolfe, and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker – new voices for me. Then I went to university – on student loans and summer wages – and discovered used bookstores, where I spent far too much money.
Meanwhile I continued to use local libraries, reading four or five books a week, fairly indiscriminately. I’d stopped using the hold or request functions, though, because if I really wanted a book and it wasn’t available, or, I saw one and liked the cover and the blurb, I just bought it. Bookstores were a destination most weekends, and I rarely came away without at least one book, and as we moved from undergrad to grad school, and then to working, and disposable income increased steadily – I (we, actually) bought more and more books.
During this time, I also came to appreciate the library – in this case the university library – as a place of calm and quiet, a place where I could write. First my M.Sc. thesis, written on the exceptionally quiet fifth floor, and then, over the years but in the same place, other works – poetry, short stories, and quite a bit of my first novel. It’s also the same floor and the same study carrel where I’m writing this blog right now, and where frequently I’m working on Empire’s Hostage, the sequel to Empire’s Daughter. It’s a space both low on distractions – no cats wanting attention, no husband commenting on the game he’s watching, no house or garden chores nagging at me – and high on acquired discipline. When you’ve been writing in one place for thirty years, habits of productivity are reinforced by the environment.
While I was working, I only used the university library on weekends. What little bit of writing I did do during the working week was done at home in my study/library, but in comparison with the university setting I found it hard to work there, even when I was alone in the house. Gradually I came to realize that the visual distractions in my study – mostly the overflowing shelves of books and the piles of papers on the desk – were in complete counterpoint to the spare and organized university space. All those books were working against me, love them as I did. So we culled, donating to book sales, and I moved papers into files on the shelf space freed up. Suddenly I had a home environment much more conducive to work. (If you are interested in my writer’s blog, please visit it at https://marianlthorpe.wordpress.com/).
But I need new books, for research, for pleasure, for contemplation. Slowly the shelves began to fill up again….and then we retired early, and our income fell by sixty percent. I looked at what we spent on books each year, and blanched.
These are our book buying parameters now: first, see if it’s available from the library, including interlibrary loans and purchase requests. This works about 80% of the time, although there is often a considerable wait. I once hated waiting for books; now I appreciate the anticipation, the pleasure or learning I know is going to come. If the library doesn’t have it and can’t get it, look for used, especially on-line when it’s a book I need for research. Again, waiting a few months often yields the book from these sources. But if all else fails, and either of us are absolutely certain the book is needed for research OR that it will be read multiple times, as I do with books I buy for contemplation – then it is bought.
And the books I used to buy on impulse, because I liked the cover? Now I pick those up from the new book shelves at the library.