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The Library: Too Corporeal for Comfort

November 16, 2009

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I moved into my apartment about five winters ago, perhaps four. I used to be good about measuring time against things like age (I was, say, twenty-one when I came back to Ontario after a couple years away), context (I knew Brenda when I was six, so if I remembered her being there, it must’ve been 1979), or place (a particular thing occurred in Cuba, so that was the year I was dating D., which means it was 2005), but recently, such anchors have drifted, and the length of time I’ve lived where I live is something I can only estimate.

I was excited about the neighbourhood, its excellent weekly market, rep cinema, and the public library housed in a boxy bank-like structure, and while I unpacked, I imagined winter afternoons lounging in the stacks and last-minute movies a five-minute walk from door to door. The market was (and still is) pretty great, but the movie theatre closed within the year, and the library…ohhhh the library…

Painted institutional green, fluorescent lights buzzing like a hangar, the place reeked of pee and was hardly a place to linger never mind lounge. Checkout line-ups were tug-o-wars that pitted clueless patrons (“uh, like…it might be called Kafka? Or, maybe that’s the writer? I need it for class? My teacher said go get it here?”) against underskilled librarians (“Kafka? Can you spell that for me?”). The place made me crazy, wiping out my respect for a system that provides free access to endless resources, and making me feel like a snooty intellectual elitist, scornful of the morons I imagined were surrounding me. I felt like a snob and a jerk, but gave the library a pass, and wasn’t sorry when they tore the place down.

Now, it’s reopened after years of snailpaced renovations, twice its original size, clean, pee-free, and airy, with lovely windows open three storeys and an automated checkout system that allows patrons to bypass lineups altogether, although, it’s kind of sad to take out books without having to interact with a librarian. I suppose this is an evolutionary step, like ATMs removing tellers from banking equations, and what I really long for are rubber stamped due-date cards and sternly crooked eyebrows above pointy eyeglasses. Old-school librarians scolding, “This is the due date. If you do not return the book in advance of that date, a fine will be placed against your card, and your lending privileges will be suspended until the material is returned and the fee is settled!”

Saturday morning I got a phonecall – my holds were ready  for pick-up! – and cycled to the library with my empty book bag, all la-la-la in the weekend sunshine. After retrieving my books from the holds shelf, I browsed the cookbook section then headed for the children’s department, where my reverie was dismantled. What is it about access to endless books and free sitting space, that draws out the weirdos? Someone was clipping fingernails in a reading nook, while a man in an armchair absentmindedly massaged his shoeless, sock-clad foot then used the same hand to flip pages in an atlas. A large poster tacked to entrance to the children’s reading corner warned that adults “caught” browsing unaccompanied by a child may be subject to removal. Another sign posted near the restrooms declared that no reading materials may be taken into the toilets.

All this inappropriate bodily stuff! Personal grooming, massaging, sweat and footy nastiness, the spectre of molestation and kidnapping, dropping by the library toilets for a good read and a number two. Come on! Yuck!

And, this is to say nothing of the matter fused to the pages of the books I checked out. Back home, settled on my sofa, kitten snoozing in my lap, I was grossed out by various crusts and mildews, spills and stains, fingerprints and loose (dark, black, long, clearly not my own) hairs trapped between pages and set free to drift, whoosh whoosh whoosh, like autumn leaves coming to rest on my pants.

I’m no prude, nor am I obsessively clean. Now and then I do disgusting things like lick potato chip salt from a fingertip, realising in that moment that I’ve touched all sorts of subway railings and public transit tokens, doorknobs, push-bars and shop turnstiles, and forgotten to wash before eating. But library books and libraries and library bathrooms and study stations, quiet corners and crannies…why, why, why? Why are these things crammed with so many bodily transgressions?!

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