This is where my library habit began. When I started borrowing books in this local library, it was exactly like this, although the tulips must have been put there specially for these photos which were taken to publicise the opening in the mid-1950s. It was always warm and quiet, very sealed and hushed, a little bookish world of its own. There was a children's library upstairs which I worked my way round, and I can remember clearly when I was allowed to start using the adult library downstairs ahead of the usual age (12, maybe) and the immense delight and excitement I felt at being given the larger number library tickets in the grown-up colour of card, and doing my best not to attract attention downstairs in case I was sent back upstairs. My best friend Janet would walk home from junior school with me via the library and she would wait outside while I changed my books; as soon as I went inside, I felt like a different person, and even today when I go into a library I like (the British Library and Senate House Library especially), I get the same feeling.
[the day of the opening]
But much as I loved the library, when I got to 13, I wanted to own the books I really liked, the books that were important to me, the ones I knew I'd go back to time after time. I wanted a library of my own, so I saved up pocket money and birthday money, worked in a hairdresser's then a fish and chip shop, and started buying books. I had a small bookcase in my bedroom and kept my books on one shelf, lining them up at either end and it was a very exciting day when they met in the middle and I had a whole shelf of books.
As I got older, I spent a great deal of time in second-hand bookshops which is where I bought all my orange Penguin Classics (it was only on high days and holidays that I got new books - receiving brand new copies of Thomas Hardy novels when I was 15 felt very extravagant). I still have all these Waughs, Lawrences, Orwells, Steinbecks, Hemingways, Drabbles etc, and they make perfectly good reading copies; just a couple of weeks ago I re-read Brideshead Revisited in a very old edition, the same one I'd read as a teenager. (I was shocked by how miserable and cynical it was, how at odds with popular perception, how dismal Sebastian's life became as he was ravaged by alchohol and guilt, how unpleasant everyone is, how cruel Waugh could be.)
These days, I don't go to local libraries so much (the nearest is far too noisy - nothing like the wonderfully peaceful library above, or the two libraries at school that I also haunted for seven years), but I am still filling shelves with books, still deriving enormous pleasure from my own library, still seeing owning books as a mix of luxury and necessity. I've been reading a lot more recently than I have for quite a while, and I've been grateful once again that I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by books.