When it comes to books, I'm usually with Erasmus who is reputed to have said 'When I get a little money, I buy books and if there is any left I spend it on food'. However, there comes a time when even the most dedicated booklover finds themselves staring, aghast, at bundles of receipts, bank statements and full-up loyalty cards and mentally comparing them with the Amazonian rainforests of books they suddenly call to mind. Has anyone else ever considered how much they spend on books in a year, relative to how many of those books they've actually read? Do so, and then work out an average cost per page; pretty sobering stuff.
I have imposed a (half-hearted and poorly enforced) book buying ban on myself this year; every book bought, read and placed lovingly on my bookshelf-slash-wardrobe (there was some economising at Ikea when I arrived) just has to be either shipped home at vast expense or given to the op shops. And given that some of the books I might conceivably buy are imported to Australia from the UK, it wouldn't do much for my Carbon Footprint to send them on a round trip of 20, 000 miles. The exceptions to my rule are Australian books not released overseas and 'ones I just can't live without'. How strict that latter definition is depends very much on how close to payday it is. A book with a title like 'Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea' probably wouldn't make the cut on an average Tuesday (though great title, isn't it?) but it did hit the spot last week when I urgently needed something to read on the tram.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to read on the cheap and to aid me in my quest, I have joined no fewer than three of Melbourne's libraries. Now, I'm no stranger to the pleasure of a library - the papery smell, the vertiginous sense of promise as you survey the shelves, the ease of being admitted to the club. 'You mean...just hand over this gas bill and these beautiful things can all be mine?'
However, I'm also very acquisitive by nature and if I like a book enough to want to read it, I probably want to own it too. Bookselling intensifies this drive, it makes it too easy. You find yourself looking at something like 'The European Tragedy of Troilus' and thinking 'Collected essays on the figure of Troilus in medieval Europe? Only £75? Oh, be mine!' And my library visits of my uni years, while extremely frequent, were usually driven by necessity and vague but constant feelings of resentment (do they have it? where is it? how long will it take me to read it? Are there any KitKats left in the vending machine?).
So it was with great delight that last Saturday I visited Camberwell district library, a homey little building that was indeed once someone's house, with no list, no pre-formed idea of what I wanted, no internet reservations. I rummaged, I rifled, I wandered round and round the aisles with no sense of purpose. Now that I think about it, it may have looked to the staff like I was casing the place and planning to pop a Danielle Steele down my trousers, a la Dylan Moran in Notting Hill. That notwithstanding, it was a deeply pleasurably experience and one that reminded me intensely of childhood Saturday mornings, almost all of which until early teens were spent en famille at the supermarket (rubbish) followed by the library (amazing). I'd fill up my child reader's card and come home with a real stack - let's ignore the fact that it was almost always comprised of Sweet Valley Highs - which I'd devour with my Saturday penny chews. That sounds very idealised but is in fact accurate, my parents managed to provide some idyllic and treasured experiences along with the dysfunction common to all families.
My experience of Australian public libraries so far is that they are much like British ones; full of Danielle Steele and Catherine Cookson hardbacks but pretty light on new releases - the ones that do sneak in are then lost forever in a mire of waiting lists and reservation queues (currently a 4 month wait to get so much of a sniff of a dragon tattoo in my local just now for example). But if your branch is otherwise quite well stocked, then it provides a great excuse to get stuck into those books you've been meaning to read but never quite got round too. I came home with March by Geraldine Brooks, Restoration by Rose Tremain and a later Muriel Spark, Symposium. I loved them all. I also took Victoria Hislop's The Return and hated it. But that's the beauty - it didn't matter. It hadn't cost me anything other than a couple of tram journey's worth of time.
A visit yesterday yielded Margo Lanagan, Peter Goldsworthy and Robert Dessaix - all respected Australian writers, none of whom I've read. I hope to post about my experience of local writing and if it's possible to define a national literature soon. Just give me another few trips to the library.