While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On Libraries

I was in the Fountainbridge library last week. It's not as large as the central library on the George IV bridge, in fact, it's so small I look for books by inspecting every spine on the Fiction shelves. One of the books that stood out on this last visit was Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk. It stood out because:
A) it's quite new (Chuck was at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August to launch it) so I was surprised the library stocked it and it was not on loan.
B) because it's a shiny hardcover book that once withdrawn from the shelf features a bare breasted woman covered by what may be a sheet of plastic (the picture, left, is of a less explicit cover).
C) because I went through a Chuck Palahniuk phase. In fact, I have read all of his books except the two which preceded Snuff: Haunted and Rant... I am halfway through Snuff and feel a 'Why I Used To Like Chuck Palahniuk Novels But Don't Anymore' post coming on... Watch this space.

But what I want to talk about today is another aspect of why I picked up Snuff in the Fountainbridge library and why I risked sideways stares from the librarian when I checked out a book with boobs on the cover. My period of Palahniuk appreciation (I would not call it an obsession) dates from the ages of around 17-19. Like a lot of Palahniuk's audience, I first encountered his name in the credits of David Fincher's film version of Fight Club. The next time I visited the Palmerston North City Library (probably the following weekend) I searched for Palahniuk and discovered not only Fight Club but three more novels (Beautiful Creatures, Survivor and Choke) were stocked. I decided to proceed chronologically, but Beautiful Creatures dampened my enthusiasm. It was not until I was away in Wellington for University the next year that I got around to Survivor and Choke. The latter  (it's been made into a film starring Sam Rockwell) would not be bettered as I worked my way through to Diary, and at the lobster chapter in Survivor let me forgive any and all of the book's shortcomings. Despite the fact I was living in Wellington, I think I got both of these books from the Palmerston North library. That building, bemoaned by locals as expensive, ugly, impractical, was the locus of my learning as a late teen. A year or two before Palahniuk, I churned through Douglas Coupland. It was from the Palmerston North library that I read my first Vonnegut, DeLillo, Murakami (the first two were referred to on Coupland covers, I think). Just as I was coming into my own as a reader (and fostering my first literary ambitions) the Palmerston North Central Library was there for me.

Libraries allow people to read widely without sending them to the poor house. For a teenager living at home, you can get away with reading almost anything if its a library book, whereas if you went and bought a copy of Snuff from Whitcoulls or Mein Kampf from the internet, there may be parental strife. I like bookstores, but if you hang around there long enough, someone will come and ask you if you need help (i.e. are you going to buy something?). In a library, you can dither and drift as much as you want.

I love libraries, and I love the Palmerston North library above all others.

To think of Palahniuk now, I can't help think of that library. That feeling of being a late teen, with a world of choices only just opening up to me, being let loose in a world of books. Of reading about Norse mythology and Jungian psychology. Of consulting a book in the reference section to make sure I wasn't missing any major point in relation to sex and reproduction. Of borrowing CDs by Bob Dylan and Mudhoney and Fountains of Wayne (long before they wrote songs like 'Stacey's Mom').

When I returned to do my MA in Wellington in 2006 (an eight month breather from full-time work in Brisbane), my Palmerston North library card was still valid and proved invaluable in tracking down several books on my reading list that were either perpetually checked out or not stocked in Wellington libraries (Arc d'X by Steve Erickson, Vollmann's Europe Central, Coupland's jPod...).

It seems strange, in retrospect, to think of the books I studied as part of my BA (D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, The Vintner's Luck), while in the room at my hostel I had a Fight Club movie poster around the edges of which I stuck Tyler Durden quotations (from the book) handwritten on post-it notes. I was only just finding out how to appreciate a book like Howard's End: something which wasn't drenched in NOW, and didn't kneed that adolescent bruise. But wherever my reading tastes have gone in the last howevermany years, I can still trace it back to the general fiction shelves on the first floor of the PN Library, the large windows looking out over the quiet corner of the square. Whenever I feel excited by fiction, or the possibility of fiction, I feel as if I am re-enacting a scene from that same space.

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