The first thing that I did when I finally settled down in the UK was joining a public library. As I was only in the country for a few months, I didn’t bring any books with me, and I thought: What kind of life can one live without books? Not one worth living for me. So, I walked into the public library, asked a very lovely young woman – who would later become my friend – if I could join, and she gladly gave me my card. It must be said here that I didn’t get a regular card though. As I was a visitor, I could only borrow 3 books at the same time, which is actually the number of books I can borrow from my public library in Spain, so it didn’t bother me.
And then the hectic borrow started. I finally had access to an unbelievable amount of books, some of them recently released. In English. By women authors. There was even a crime section! I couldn’t believe it. I think that during the first weeks I just borrowed books to take a look at them. For the simple pleasure of having them in my nightstand, knowing that I could read them at any time. The massive borrowing became unproductive at one point. I read Ali Smith’s How to be Both and then I decided to borrow 3 more of her books. But did I really want to read more Ali Smith when I could read Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff? Or Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman, which I had wanted to read since review copies started showing up on my Twitter feed? So, I made the decision to pace myself and just enjoy the book I was borrowing at the time. And just one at a time, please! OK, maybe two if they were different genres.
Thanks to the British Public Libraries I discovered that like many of you, I am a fan of Ali Smith’s work too. How to be Both was a profound reading, and it still haunts me weeks later. I also got the enjoy the latest in the Marnie Rome series, a personal favourite of mine, by Sarah Hilary. This one was extra special, as Sarah is a friend of Books & Reviews now, and the copy that I borrowed was a chunky and clearly very solicited hardback copy. I also discovered that I will always go for the hardback copy, until I realise that carrying my laptop, its charger, the phone, the mess of personal items that I usually need, my lunch, and a hardback copy was not the better ideas. I learned to find the beauty in battered paperbacks too.
But my British Public Library was not just a place to visit a few times a week. It also became my office. Thanks to hot-desking and the thousands of sockets available, I was able to spend my days reading and writing in a building that I now consider my second home. Public libraries in Spain are places were silent must be kept, and where eating and drinking is not compatible with reading and writing. Imagine my surprise when I found out not only that I could eat a few feet away from my laptop – we can discuss the benefits of getting some fresh air another day – but that there was also a cosy café where I could buy a hot cup of tea (milk and sugar, please).
As if it wasn’t enough, the Public Library that I visited also had a reading club that met weekly where we were provided with a short story and a poem that we read out loud and commented. The young woman who made my library card suggested I joined the group when I said I had just arrived to the city, I didn’t know anyone, and I needed some friends books to keep me company. There I met women all ages, some with very interesting backgrounds, and all of them with a love and a passion for reading that could rival my own. They made me feel at home by asking me questions about my favourite books, and they welcomed my sometimes inevitable gender and feminist criticism about the works we were reading.
I hope to see the women in my book club one last time before I leave, and I hope to spend as much time as I can at the Public Library. As I write this I only have one book with me, but I’m thinking whether I should borrow more in an effort to make the most of these last days(*) that also happen to be filled with friends and celebrations. But if I don’t, and if I only have time to finish reading my current book, this is my love letter to the British Public Libraries. This is also my plea to all you who live in the UK to visit your local public library today. Keep these wonderful havens open so that people of all races, genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and religions can visit them. Because change starts one book at a time.
(*) Barely two minutes after writing this post I borrowed 2 more books from the library that I won’ t probably finish reading in time to return them before I leave.