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 comradery with my mother, pregnant with a sister who will soon steal her attentions, 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, prophesising 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 DVD’s 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 read again.

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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