The Heart is a Library Hunter

My first memories belong to the surreal landscape of childhood. Cushioned in tenderness, they flicker a blurred reel of mango trees, mud pies and mosquito screens.

Occasionally, through the fuzz, concrete moments come into focus. For me, the first of those is the imprint of a rainy afternoon in a library.

Inside this memory, I see aisle upon aisle of books, each one filled with words I can’t yet read. I feel the air-conditioning purring blue, spinning a silken cocoon.

I’m excited, not just for the snug rainy-day with my mother, pregnant with a sister who will soon steal her attention, but for the show that is about to commence.

For that is what my mother and I are there to enjoy; a puppet show. In the memory, I am enraptured, sitting on the floor, following the puppeteer’s movements and grafting to this place like a passionfruit vine, tender and green.

At primary school, the library is a haven. I retreat there during yellow-hot lunchtimes, retrieving copies of The Fabulous Five and burrowing into crooks where it is almost too dark to read.

I enter a coin-raffle and win a copy of Snuggle-Pot and Cuddle-Pie. It becomes my prized procession, and for the first time, I experience the euphoria of acquiring books for myself.

At high school, the library is an escape. Outside, there are cigarettes and mean girls. Inside, there are books. I find art history and biography, memoir and magazines. I become obsessed with the crisp order of hand-written catalogues, sifting through the cards for hidden treasure.

The high school library is also where career interviews are held. I spend mornings predicting who I will be. I nod earnestly at the teacher, prophesying that one day my words will be on the shelves of a collection like this.

The city library is across the road. When the bell rings, I rush there and construct a fortress made of beanbags. I discover banned books and sexy books, forgotten books and forbidden books. I pull out slinky steel-grey map drawers and plan for adventure.

At university, the library is the whole world. I devour its seriousness. I spend hours cloistered at fluorescent-lit desks. I cherish evenings spent huddled in silence and leave only when the evening is blue-black, and the last bus is beckoning.

In Glasgow, I am cold, broke and alone, and I join the library. There are computers and DVDs and sofas. They are free. I find a book on the West Highland Way. I recline on a fabric chair, its feather cushions depleted and plan a hike into the highlands.

In Turkey, I am twenty-four and galloping at life when I come upon the ruins of the Library of Celsus. I stand in what is lost. I sit on what is left. I imagine papyrus scrolls and Cleopatra. I envision kohl-lined lids skimming over what can’t be reread.

In Rome, I am no longer stumbling upon libraries. I am hunting them. I find Biblioteca Angelica, the oldest public library in Europe, and I become a member. I stare at the card with my name on it, occasionally glancing at the head librarian. I am shushed. I am humbled.

In America, I seek out the holy grail. I spend a day in the New York Public Library, and ideas come at me like bats frightened by the light. I am awed by the walls of books. I am empowered by the list of those who have come before me.

In Hong Kong I am a resident of The Helena May. There is a library in the basement. After devouring fried eggs in the morning I descend and find a seat facing the Peak Tram. I watch it rise into the jungle mist and I read the day away.

Today I am forty-something. I look upon a life spent in libraries, and I know that they are more than just buildings with books. They are soft chairs and quiet corners, puppet shows and atlas drawers. They are free retreats and fantasy, antiquity and the future.

They are the places I go to escape and where I am found.

They are my heart.

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