Having fun isn’t hard

library checkout

I got a library card, y’all! Because, obviously, I don’t have sufficient access to books in every other area of my life.

That’s actually sort of true. It’s easy enough to get hold of new releases from publishers’ reps, and relatively easy (if you’re patient) to acquire titles that are a year to 18 months old (if you wait long enough, there will be a damaged copy somewhere along the line), but backlist stuff is impossible to request, and if the shop doesn’t stock it regularly, there’s not much point ordering one copy and hoping it gets bashed on the way in. So my only way of accessing books that are much older than a decade or so is either to order and purchase my own copy (which I haven’t got the spare income to do for every title that takes my fancy), or to rent them.

Plus, why not support my local library? They’re pretty great: late fines are 17p per book per day (seventeen pence!! Can you get anything in the world for seventeen pence these days?) You can rent a DVD overnight for £2 and a box set for a week for £1.50. They stock CDs (there’s a whole Proms-themed display), and – much to my delight – a totally separate area for kids’ books, a little secret lair for them away from the prying eyes of parents. And they’re a fifteen-minute walk from my flat.

I restrained myself on my first visit, although these titles are due back the day before I go on holiday and there’ll probably be a bit of a binge then. My choices were guided by two things: length (I wanted short books to start with), and the Guardian’s list of the top 1000 novels ever published (I love a list and have been idly crossing titles off this one for ages.)

  • The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark. I’ve already finished this. It’s under “comedy” on the Guardian list, which is an…interesting classification. Very brief, very twisted, rather marvelously constructed. Like much of Spark’s work, it leaves me a little cold; I have such a hard time subscribing to the artificiality of her world. Certainly a kick in the head, though.
  • A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine. Vine was one of Ruth Rendell’s pen names. She gets recommended a lot for fans of Tana French. Really excellent crime novels are worth their weight in gold.
  • Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. This’ll be my first Taylor (as indeed the above will be my first Vine), and the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who writes a romantic novel and baffles her publishers sounds, actually, vaguely Spark-ian.

This means I can start participating in Rebecca’s Library Checkout posts!


Do you use your local library? Were you, like me, initially resistant? How do you deal with wanting to read things that the branch has to order in specially? Patience is not my forte. Tips and tricks much appreciated.

32 thoughts on “Having fun isn’t hard

  1. I do not use libraries.

    As a child, I used to be a regular weekly (if not more!) visitor to our local library. But it wasn’t very large, and I quickly read out the tiny selection of SF&F (and probably much of the children’s section and the science section). We used inter-library loans sometimes, but they took forever*, and in any case I wasn’t a child who usually fixated on needing to read a particlar title, and I didn’t have anyone to recommend books to me anyway, so I didn’t know what to order. Once I discovered that there were bookshops up in London that actually stocked books, I just went there. And re-read the books I had constantly.

    These days, I suppose I could use libraries more. But I don’t read as many books as I should and I’m pretty frugal in other areas, so I don’t mind just buying things instead – it’s so much more convenient. Particularly because I don’t like being tied down to having to read a particular thing at a particular time – I’m the sort of person who knows they’ll only read two books on a holiday, but takes ten with them just in case, because who knows what I might want to read a couple of days from now.

    Plus there’s the social aspect. Not being an overly sociable person, I’ve never liked shopping – and going to the library is like shopping with more judgement and disapproval, and the shopkeeper still owns what you get and they have rules. I’ve never actually had an argument with a librarian, but it always feels like an uneasy experience… so I generally just buy things online. Which I know is a terrible thing to say to a bricks-and-mortar bookseller! I wish it weren’t so**, but unfortunately it’s a no-brainer – dedicate a day to finding and visiting an independent bookshop (there is one nearby but it’s the type of second-hand that’s way out of my price-bracket…), only to find it doesn’t have what I want, or that it’ll cost a fortune, or get what I want when I want it for usually a few pennies plus postage…

    *though they were still quicker than the local bookshop. One time I ordered a book, forgot about it, and had it finally arrive an entire year after I ordered it (and after I’d bought it in London already).

    **As a child, I had many happy memories of bookshops, from the tiny local independent bookshop (long since closed) to some second-hand place in Hay to the caverns of the basement of the old Forbidden Planet. But economics is a cruel god…

    • So I basically haven’t used a public library since I was…six? We went loads when I was small, but my dad bought me a book a week until I left home, and by the time I was a teenager I was just presenting him with a list of titles I wanted every couple of months. I have never felt like libraries were “my place” in the same way that bookshops have felt, for pretty much exactly the reasons you describe: there’s the time limit, when you might actually feel like reading something else or have a busy schedule, plus I just liked *owning* shit. But now public libraries have the potential to fill a gap in my reading life – things I’m fairly sure I want to read, but not totally sure I want to spend my own money on, and which I wouldn’t be able to get for free from a publisher.

      I have to say that your independent bookshop experiences sound terrible, but I also – in the interests of defending my profession – have to add that, particularly since the rise of the Evil Empire, many of us have realised that we have to up our customer service game. The shop where I work has been in business for 82 years and has always been customer-service-focused, but a lot of the others are cottoning on now, too. We can generally get a book within 48 hours, unless it’s a specialist text (and if it’s a specialist text, our advice is, don’t ask a general bookshop for it anyway; find a specialist or academic seller and go from there), and postage within the UK costs less than a meal and a coffee at Pret. (Perhaps, though, we have some advantage by being in London. It certainly seems to be a lot easier for indies to keep their foothold in larger metropolitan areas. Though, that said, places like Yorkshire and East Anglia seem to still have a fair number, too.)

      • Well, to be fair to the little place I grew up with, it was a bookshop that in its era was probably appropriate to the size (and educational level) of the town. But it couldn’t compete on either price or range even with the chains in the next town along, let alone with the internet. To be frank, there were probably just too many bookshops back then, and I suspect the internet was just the final wave that made the inevitable undeniable for a lot of them. The long ordering times (the year was an exception, but the other times I ordered things took from a couple of weeks to a couple of months) were because I was a fantasy fan and the books were only available in the US. [almost literally. Back then there were two bookshops in London that also stocked them, but everyone else]. I suspect the poor guy was having to write hand-written notes to the head of the company to please ship a couple of copies to the benighted lands of the UK… I suppose I should be grateful he made the effort at all!

        Yes, I’ve noticed that many independents seem to be responding to Amazon by, effectively, Amazonizing – huge off-site warehouses and online ordering. [I happened to notice something recently about Skoob moving their warehouse to an even bigger warehouse somewhere]. On the one hand, if i can order with the click of a mouse and have almost any book delivered to me, that makes it much, much easier. On the other hand, it also takes away much of the charm – it becomes like a more expensive Amazon. Your shop – which looks very pretty and elegant (I’m jealous – I’d visit but it’s evidently, as my father would put it, “not for the likes of us”) – is at least trying to provide a different sort of service, selling an experience rather than books – more like what I’d think of as an old “gentleman’s bookseller” than a bookshop, and that’s admirable. Though sadly it’s not a service for me – being interrogated on my reading tastes and then have someone else decide what books I’m buying seems like a lose-lose! – and in any case I’m not a millionaire.* But it’s an area that I’m sure will flourish in the future. Then again, you’re also going to face increasing competition from Amazon and big chains, because it’s only a matter of time before recommendation algorithms get seriously good… I suspect a big growth area will also be things like unique editions (or at least unique covers) – because ultimately it’s easier to sell a more expensive product than it is to sell the same product at a higher price…
        Sorry, thinking out loud. Of course you’ve already thought about all these issues much more than I have…

        [On location: it’s a balance of supply and demand. Certainly, cosmopolitan areas will be where independents thrive. On the other hand, there’s also more competition there. Areas of lower population won’t have as many unusual shops of any kind, but that adds up to a large total captive population to sustain one or two places.]

        *If you don’t mind a little curiosity, I would just note a point of oddity to me. I clicked out of curiosity on the link to a complete Tolkien edition from your shop, wondering why on earth that would be in the children’s section (the Hobbit is a children’s book; LOTR isn’t really, and The Silmarillion and the narn i hin hurin and beowulf and the like absolutely aren’t). Note of perplexity one: why advertise a ‘complete’ set that only covers two novels!? But more importantly (ascribing that one to the lax obedience to truth ubiquitous among marketers) note two: why no picture? This is particularly striking to me with a novel like The Lord of the Rings, which has been published in literally hundreds of editions, many of them stunningly beautiful. If you’re trying to sell a book to me at a relatively steep price (albeit trivial compared to a lot of Tolkien editions), effectively putting yourself in competition with a lot of sellers of rare, old, unusual and/or beautiful editions, why on earth wouldn’t you have a photograph of what I’m getting? I guess, of course, that I’m missing the point – I instinctively think of buying a book, as a physical item, rather than of buying the privilege of buying from an elegant shop, so I expect the book itself to be demonstrably worth its price, and get suspicious when the seller declines to tell me just what I’m getting until I’ve gotten it… [it seems telling that you (plual ‘you’, of course!) reassure me that you’ll use branded tissue paper and tell me what colour the paper bag will be, but you don’t tell me any details of the publisher, the edition, the cover artist, or indeed anything book-relevant at all…]

        Sorry, I’m just being grumpy and old-fashioned. (That wasn’t a serious query, btw, so don’t worry about finding an answer). I’m honestly a little jealous of your workplace, and I really hope the shop continues to thrive!

      • Look again: we’re a physical bookshop, not just a subscription service, so you can absolutely come in and browse and buy and order! The new books are priced the same as they would be in Waterstones. We’re for the likes of anyone who likes to read. (We do have an antiquarian section too, which contains some spendy items. Luckily I only work with the new books.) Fair enough re the subscription service not being your thing; for some people it wouldn’t work at all. The point of it really is to help people find things that they’ll like, which means it often works better (perversely) for people who don’t read loads and loads; those who do read a lot are often much happier to do their own choosing.

        My answer to your question re the Tolkien listing is going to be rather short: it’s out of date! We need to take it down, really, as we do several things on the website that are no longer being offered or have been updated. You make an excellent point about it lacking a picture, too; our more recent book box offerings do have photographs, thanks to our brilliant marketing manager. The website is in constant flux, really. I’ll mention the Tolkien listing when next I see her. (And you’re of course right that we shouldn’t be calling it The Complete Tolkien OR listing it in the children’s section – it happened before I joined or I’d have put a stop to it. I have always maintained that he’s not a children’s writer. And also that LOTR isn’t a novel, though that’s a different conversation.)

  2. I love my local library though I probably don’t use it as much as I should when I veer off into obscure books. But they got in a load of British Library Crime classics at my suggestion in the early days of the books! I used to visit the library with my dad when I was young and I can still recall the excitement of bringing home a new book to read (we were a bit skint). Libraries are great and crucial.

    • It makes me especially happy to go because of all the publicized spending cuts; they need custom now more than ever to convince the effing Tories not to knock them all down…

  3. I’ve just started using our library again – mainly because we are the twins every two weeks so I might as well check out the books for me, right?! The Driver’s Seat is my favourite Spark but I wouldn’t classify it as a comedy!

  4. I’ve always been a dedicated library user. At one time, I couldn’t afford to buy all the books I wanted to read, and the city where I lived didn’t have good bookshops. The libraries had a much better selection. And now I can afford to buy what I want but I don’t have the space. So the library is perfect. I’ve gotten used to waiting if a book has a hold list or isn’t at my local branch. There are usually plenty of other things to read. And I have a pretty long list of holds that I sometimes forget about, so it’s a happy surprise when they arrive!

    I hope you enjoy Barbara Vine! She’s one of my favorites. It’s been years and years since I read A Dark-Adapted Eye. It may have been my first of her books. It’s one I keep thinking I should reread because my vague recollection is of loving it.

    • That’s pretty much where I’m at: I can afford to buy some, but not all, of what I want to read, and we have expanding, but not infinite, bookshelf space. So libraries are a good addition to my reading life right now.

      I LOVE A Dark-Adapted Eye so far. I started it on the bus this morning and it’s SO twisted and English. Also, given that it’s from the late ’80s, a lot of its psychology feels really contemporary, especially Vera’s: that weird projection/gaslighting that she subjects Faith to as a child.

  5. I’m a heavy library user. A fair amount of my reading is structured around when holds come in and when things are due, which can feel limiting, but also forces a bit of commitment – i put all those books on hold, after all. Of course i do end up return some without even cracking them! I love that the library is space not tied to spending.

    • I seem to recall reading – maybe in a Zadie Smith essay? – a definition of a library as the only remaining truly public indoor space (whoever wrote the piece was using that definition to explain why they tend to contain a lot of homeless and vulnerable people). I’ve never forgotten that.

  6. I’m a big fan of libraries. My local library is volunteer-run now and it’s actually the best local library I’ve ever had (obviously I think the state should fund libraries properly, but have been a bit annoyed with recent comments about the quality of volunteer-run libraries on Twitter!). Their stock is small but they obviously have somebody very sensible (read: shares my taste in fiction) buying it – I just checked out Lauren Groff’s Florida and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and on their list of new books for July I can see that they’ve purchased Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage and Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift.

    I use Newcastle Central Library to reserve and request books, but they are otherwise a bit useless – it’s sad as you can really see the difference in funding compared to the public libraries I used to use in Oxford and Cambridge.

    Also, I really need to try Barbara Vine and her books are always in libraries.

    • The folks at my local branch were brilliant, too, when I turned up; really welcoming, explained all of the procedures and systems and little perks to me (there’s a loyalty card). I wasn’t sure if they worked for the council or were volunteers, but if the latter, it’s even more impressive. I hugely approve of your library buying Lissa Evans and Sally Magnusson, of course – and doubly so because they’re still in hardback, which my library seems to eschew for the most part. (That said, I’ve only taken a very quick spin round it; perhaps they’re lurking somewhere I didn’t see.)

      You’d like Barbara Vine. She’s not exactly like Tana French in terms of the style, but the sheer quality of the prose is definitely comparable, as is the strong focus on psychology and motivation (and, by extension, characterisation).

      • My library seems to have mostly hardbacks, which is very unusual. I wonder if it’s a mix of inheriting unwanted older stock from other branch libraries and having a (very welcome) policy of buying new novels in hardback!

        Right, Vine is definitely on the list.

  7. Enjoy the Taylor!

    I use my library regularly but rarely go. Let me explain! I borrow audiobooks through my library but via an app. When I borrow books, I make all my reservations online and then pop in when the books have arrived. As a result, I rarely browse.

    • Ah, clever! I may start doing the online reservations thing; it just depends on time. So far it’s been nice having a little walk to the library on a Saturday morning.

  8. I have always been a dedicated library user simply because I couldn’t possibly afford to buy the dozen or so books that I read each month. Now that I have moved this has to be even more the case because I have no more room for new books. Where those that I own are concerned it has to be a one book in, one book out policy. In my previous three bedroom house I had a whole room and the garage dedicated to books. A one bedroom flat with shared parking spaces doesn’t allow the luxury.

    Personally, I think Rendell was better writing as Vine than in her own name. If you enjoy your current selection, try The Minotaur, which is excellent.

    • Yeah, I’m currently sharing a two-bedroom top-floor flat. I’ve got a spinny shelf and a mantelpiece in my bedroom which I use as a bookshelf, a large three-shelf bookcase in the sitting room, a tall thin shelf originally for storing DVDs which I put books in, plus an ugly tempered-glass TV table with lower shelves which I also stick books in, and we’ve just acquired a new tall four-shelf bookcase. With that I think we’ve nearly hit capacity.

      I’m LOVING A Dark-Adapted Eye. It’s a slow burn initially but I’m now 80 pages from the end and I’m DESPERATE to finish. Haven’t heard of The Minotaur but I’ll certainly seek that out; the others I’m keen on are King Solomon’s Carpet and A Fatal Inversion.

  9. I only just started using my local library as well. Before I didn’t think they had so many English-language selections of novels, but it turns out they have hundreds, and I just love the atmosphere of the coldness and brightness in the library, with sounds of paper rustling and the smell of books. I’ve only borrowed (and returned) three books from them, but I’m sure I’ll be using it to the full extent 🙂

    • Mine’s bright on the inside (although not cold…there doesn’t seem to be any air conditioning), but it’s located in a rather grubby underpass-type area next to a Tube station: classically depressing English urban design from the ’70s, I think. On the upside, I suppose, there are lots of kebab shops nearby in case I ever get hungry after browsing…

  10. I haven’t been to the library in years. From childhood up to finishing uni – I lived in libraries, and worked in one at the weekend for several years. Then I could afford to buy whatever I wanted to read whenever and stopped going, except when my daughter was little – but we only went for her then. Good for you!

  11. I forgot to comment on this! And look at all the lovely replies you’ve got 🙂 I’m so pleased you’ve gotten back into using your public library. Use it or lose it, as they say. Mine is the flagship branch in the county so still has proper staff, but all the satellite branches are volunteer-run. Apparently our MP was bragging about these on Twitter recently…but what about all the people who lost their jobs??

    I’ve been a dedicated library borrower everywhere I’ve lived, in England and America. Even if I only live somewhere 6 months (Kent), I get a library card within my first two weeks. The services I’ve found have varied drastically in the UK, with Surrey (rich and posh!) being the worst. I pretty much refuse to pay for reservations, so that has sometimes limited my access to new and interesting books. But there will always be something I want to borrow. I am often at my borrowing limit, and even if I end up not finding the time for the books I consider myself as supporting the library.

    It had never really occurred to me that people would think a library wasn’t for them. I’m considering volunteering at a GET (Global Educational Trust) free bookshop opening up in my town soon, and in their promotional literature they talk about the value of owning books, especially for people who can’t generally afford to (fair enough), and how some people are reluctant to use the library. That’s a completely foreign idea to me. So it’s interesting to see the comments from Vacuous Wastrel et al. above.

    I think of it like Cafe Society: if I paid full price for each of the 300+ books I read each year, I expect I’d be broke (though that’s probably not literally true). Luckily, I get most free from the library, publishers, or as gifts, and then treat myself to secondhand copies of others. I am aware that some would say I’m not supporting authors…

    Do join Library Checkout when you can and want to 🙂

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