I’d walked for some time, along streets of 50s and 60s houses interspersed with the newer, bigger homes that are gradually replacing them. It was very quiet, the occasional car passing by, highways of ants crawling over driveways, an occasional empty fibro house with an overgrown garden and its days numbered.
I was walking along back streets from Mortdale station, as I’d detoured to go to the op shop. There I had waited for quite some time, behind a woman buying a phenomenal amount of Christmas decorations, to buy a $3 plastic brooch of a squirrel. The woman working behind the counter was forgetful and overwhelmed, a bad combination. Eventually me and the squirrel were out of there and on our way to the library.
The library is at the edge of a park, on Forest Road. As I waited to cross the road I watched the flag out the front whipping around in the wind. This was the first library where I’d noticed an Australian flag. When I was a child one of my many wonderings was why more people didn’t have flagpoles out the front of their houses. My next door neighbours had a flagpole, on which they displayed the Canadian flag. I liked the idea of raising and lowering the flag each day, and putting it at half mast to commemorate tragedies. But I was young then, and unaware of the implications of flag hoisting.
Out the front of the library, a man sorted out his library books on the bench, while staring at me suspiciously as I took a photo. When I’d taken the photo of the fibro house a few streets away, I’d felt invisible eyes upon me. Surely my appearance would suggest artist/blogger, rather than private investigator/debt collector/developer, but I was self conscious all the same. It’s in my upbringing to be suspicious of white vans parked in the street, people talking outside one’s house, and people with cameras.
In the foyer of the library was a table with books for sale and a wall of noticeboards. There were the usual community notices for knitting groups and yoga classes, and there was also a section of the board for things for sale. This is my favourite kind of noticeboard. People sell all sorts of stuff, and these are the kind of people who probably don’t use the internet, who instead glue photos to handwritten ads. Usually they are fairly standard sales of sofa beds, bikes, maybe a car, but sometimes there is something that contains a whole story within it:
Inside the library, I noticed that there were Christmas decorations hanging from the ceiling, big shiny baubles. There was also music playing softly, music which sounded suspiciously like Christmas music but could have been oldies radio. Christmas, of course, is the time in which libraries are shut, but just before Christmas must be a busy time for libraries, as people stock up with books to read over the holidays. There is nothing worse than embarking upon Christmas time without something substantial to read, and relying on Christmas gifts can be dangerous.
There were plenty of people browsing the shelves in the library, and I sat down in one of the two lounge chairs that were on either side of a small coffee table to observe them. A mother and her teenage daughter were looking over the DVDs, their posture mirroring each other, standing straight with their heads bent at an angle to read the spines. They had come in and returned some and were picking out more, I noticed a Kylie Kwong DVD on the top of the pile in the mother’s hand. Although I find cooking shows very boring, I liked thinking of the two of them watching Kylie Kwong together.
A lot of people were coming in and returning books, perhaps because it was Monday morning. The librarian greeted each one with “good morning” – Penshurst must be a happy place where people read a lot. I had never been to Penshurst before, though I’d sent letters here, as one of my correspondents back in the 90s zine days lived here. I enjoyed writing the postcode: 2222.
A woman came in with some DVDs and began to apologise for breaking one of the cases. She told the full story of how her and her husband didn’t realise that the case was still “locked” and they opened one but then her husband tried to open the other and it started to break. She felt terrible when she heard the case crack. The librarian listened sympathetically. The woman looked fairly young, and I decided she had only recently got married, as she mentioned her husband a lot more than was necessary. Every time the word “husband” left her lips I could feel that she was still settling into using that word, she said it with a mixture of pride and self consciousness. The librarian asked if she’ d like to re-borrow the one that they couldn’t get out of the case, and she said yes. “Are you going to borrow anything else?” the librarian asked.
“I’ll have a quick look,” the woman said, “My husband and I are really into history and everything else like that.”
She went off to browse in the non-fiction shelves, the history section perhaps. I tried to imagine the kinds of things she and her history-loving husband might do besides watch history DVDs. What does “I’m into history” really even mean?
I was distracted from this train of thought by another woman coming into the library. She had the same brown handbag as the history woman, the kind that might be a designer bag, or might not be. Handbags have, like a lot of the objects women are told they should be interested in, little appeal to me. Recently I’d been waiting for something at the cafe at my work and looked over the shoulder of one of my students, who was browsing handbags on the internet. It was the busy mid-morning time of day so I watched her looking up handbags for quite some time. It was interesting, trying to guess what the particular aesthetic strengths of one bag were over another, when they all looked much the same to me.
The woman who had just entered the library was peering in at the display case, which had photographs of old local Rugby League teams. I’d glanced at it quickly when I came in too. Photographs of sports teams, like class photos, look dated to me no matter how old the photo is. She was really staring into the photos, as if she was looking for someone in particular. I liked to think it was a lost love, whom she had no photos of. Do such circumstances exist in these Facebook times? The lost love would perhaps need to have died before people started to live their lives on the internet.
Sometimes I feel as if I am in a story of someone else’s creation myself. The next people who came into the library were a couple in matching hats. They were broad brimmed straw hats, with coloured bands around them. The man’s had a red band, and his wife’s a yellow band, but both were from the “Outback Australia Experience”. Whether this was something that actually took place in the outback I don’t know, as “experience” suggests to me that it could be some kind of simulation arrangement.
They returned some books at the counter then went their separate ways. The man had eyes only for the newspaper, which was on the table in front of me. He sat down in the other lounge chair and pulled the paper out from under my notepad and the book I’d picked out from the book sale “A Far Cry from Kensington” by Muriel Spark. I leaned forward to move them off but he already had the paper by this stage and was scanning the headlines on the front page. I sat reading the headlines over his shoulder; the paper always seems more interesting this way. One particular headline caught my attention: “Soy Lattes are one thing, dirty lavatories are another”. Later, once the man had finished the paper I came back to look at what this was about: workers in Starbucks in New York have protested having to clean the toilets, which are used as public toilets rather than cafe toilets. There were some quotes that would make be quite satisfying to see in print, had they been yours: “I have personally cleaned up almost every human fluid and plenty that didn’t seem human”, for example.
I went to look at the bookshelves, all of which were yellow. This had quite a positive effect on me. The bookends were yellow as well, and I found that I had picked out a few yellow books for further investigation, one about the carbon footprint of “everything” and another about the “midnight confessions” of rock, rap and pop stars. Yellow is not a particularly popular colour for book spines, there would only be a few every shelf. I noted some of them to see if there was any pattern: Joan Miro, Aboriginality, Tennis Superstars, Shakespeare, The Women’s Joke Book, Henry Lawson, Facebook Marketing for Dummies.
I sat down at the study desk, a pleasingly smooth fake wood table with six chairs at it, to investigate my books. The top one on the pile was Love, Life Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World, by John Armstrong. This was in the self help section, and is a kind of How Proust Can Change Your Life type of book, although less immediately engaging. The book is divided up into various sections of different ideals, and in the “Peace” section I found myself reading the incident of “Beethoven’s Hat”.
What implications this has for the reader, however, were not clear. Should we keep our hats on, like Beethoven? Would you be a Beethoven or a Goethe in this situation?
Having failed to discover the secret to happiness in Goethe I moved on to the next book in the pile, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee (a different Berners-Lee to the one who invented the world wide web). As I opened it I heard the voice of the man who had been reading the paper, calling out to his wife. “There’s one here, Mary! Got one!” I wondered what he had managed to find, and did something that I have seen others do but never done myself, which is leave all my books and notepad and pens on the desk. I left them there and went to investigate. As far as I could tell, the book he had found was a Nora Roberts book, perhaps one from a particular series. Having read the paper he had picked up some books, a John Grisham was on the top of his pile. Both he and his wife wore grim expressions, which I wonder if they had the whole time they were on the Outback Experience.
My curiousity sated, I returned to the desk. No one had tampered with my papers – and why would they have – and I opened the book about carbon footprint, expecting to close it again soon after, as often such books are boring, or make you feel bad for using electricity. This one was actually rather good, especially if you are the kind of person to enjoy bar graphs and comparisons such as “A bowl of traditional Scottish porridge is equivalent to a 90 second mobile to mobile phone call.” I was particularly interested in the page about tea and coffee, and how you reduce the carbon footprint if you only boil as much water as you need. Now I never boil only enough water for one cup of tea, does anyone? Other suggestions in the tea and coffee realm are to forego milk, which has a big footprint, and to buy sturdy mugs that you need only wash once a day. As you can see by the graph below, lattes are by far the worst, which is perhaps why they are often used as scapegoats in news headlines.
The book is structured from least to most carbon footprint, with the greatest footprint being created by having children: “Unless you will ever contemplate lighting a bushfire, the decision to reproduce is probably the biggest carbon choice you will ever make,” he writes. A high impact offspring is responsible for 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, while a “carbon conscious” child is responsible for 100 tonnes. That’s 4651 lattes worth for a high impact child (which most in our society are, I would imagine) – or buying a latte every day for 12 years and 8 months. There is something seductive about comparing everything to everything else.
Walking through a door has a zero carbon footprint. But walking through an automatic door, like the ones in the library, is a different story.
A typical year of email is the equivalent of a 200 mile drive in a car. A bag of carrots has the same as a 2 mile train ride. What if you take the train ride to buy a bag of carrots?
Clearly, this book should have been taken away from me before complete insanity could set in.
With a great effort I shut the book with its bar graphs and tantalising equivalents, and looked around me. A girl was sitting at one of the desks, reading fashion magazines. An elderly woman passed me, holding a Nora Roberts book. Another woman with a Nora Roberts book: up until today I had not known of Nora’s existence, but now she seemed to be everywhere. I went over to the large print section to have a look at her novels. The first one I pulled out from the shelf had an intriguing “seal” on the front cover:
Is a guarantee of this sort really needed? Nora Roberts has written hundreds of books, so perhaps they start to blend into each other in the readers’ mind. It’s not a seal of authenticity, which would be more expected. The Nora Roberts books in the library had no information about her in them, so I looked her up on Wikipedia when I got home. There were a number of interesting facts mentioned:
* she met her husband when he came to install bookshelves in her home.
* she writes eight hours a day, even when on holidays.
* another romance writer repeatedly plagiarised her work in the 90s. Roberts described this as “mind rape” and sued the writer. Perhaps this is the reason for the seal.
Having explored the Nora Roberts book, I went back to my place at the table to look at the final book, Yackety Yack, the Midnight Confessions and Revelations of 36 Rock Stars and Legends, by Scott Cohen. I’d picked this book up not expecting much but, like its fellow yellow-spined book about carbon footprints, it was surprisingly interesting. I like the idea of “Midnight confessions” but there was no information in the book about how the interviews had taken place. I’d hoped they all really did take place at midnight. I think I’d answer questions differently at midnight than in the day, if anyone wanted to ask me how to cure the Blahs. But no one has, so you will just have to read Iggy Pop’s response:
Can you imagine Iggy Pop vacuuming? At first I couldn’t, but then an image started to form, and then it seemed quite natural. He would do it with his shirt off, of course, but then it’s hard to imagine Iggy Pop with his shirt on at any time.
I like interviews with music celebrities where they talk about doing domestic chores. I would read a whole book about music celebrities and their favourite household chores. I am sure some are so famous that they don’t actually do them, but don’t worry about that, think: Keith Richards, changing a lightbulb. PJ Harvey, removing mouldy leftovers from the fridge. Patti Smith, dusting. Ice-T, feeding his fish:
This book, too, made my thoughts spiral; it was time to leave. My last act before leaving was to admire the footstool that was pushed into the corner in between the desk and the photocopier, under the notice not to put your own transparency paper through the copier, or else the copier will require expensive repairs. While I am not one to covet expensive handbags, I would rather like a library footstool.
Upon examining this one closely, I saw it was made in Germany. I like how they move along, on wheels not visible, and the noise the wheels make. Library footstools rather remind me of Daleks, if Daleks were peaceful and friendly.
I did one last circuit of the library, noting the plaque above the staff only desk, telling me the library had been here since 1972. It was a cosy library and I’d enjoyed my time there. I bought my Muriel Spark book for $2 from one of the librarians and set out again, into the heat and sun, reading the first paragraph of the book as I waited for the lights to change:
So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented, filled with soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, though, memory, sweet anticipations. I heard the silence. It was in those days of the early fifties of this century that I formed the habit of insomnia. Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? – Yes you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time.