I sit here on yet another awesome Saturday morning of writing, with my dear friend Amanda. Only this time, our writing venue is itself an item on The List. We’re in a building built in 1935, holding three floors of treasures, both old and new, being both a place of refuge and a place of learning, a place of pleasure for adults and children alike, and a place where a very specific musty smell permeates every breath – the Johannesburg City Library – a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years now.
Being my partner in crime for writing and seeking out unusual places to write about (and, in Amanda’s case, photograph), she blessed me with an exceptionally special birthday present for my 40th – in addition to a sentimental bottle of bubbles (a story for another occasion), I received a personal “voucher” for a trip to the Johannesburg Library, with Mands, for a writing morning. What could be better – being in a place I love, with a friend I love, doing something I love, surrounded by things I love.
I’ve been fascinated with books for as long as I can remember – one of the very first gifts I ever remember getting was a book. I must have been about three years old – Craig and I each received a book as a gift from a lovely lady who was friends with my folks and who had recently returned from some travels abroad. The fact that I can’t remember her name, but I can clearly remember the names of the books and can still see those pictures in my mind (I received The Gingerbread Man and Craig was given Rumpelstiltskin) is probably an indication of the prominence that books would play in my life.
As you probably know, Craig is just more than a year older than me and so naturally he went to school a year before me. (In that time, we didn’t have things like grade R or RR, you either went to nursery school, or “big” school, which you started in Sub A (which is Grade 1 for those of you that are too young to remember Sub A and Sub B)). I remember Mom and Craig sitting on the edge of Craig’s bed when Craig was in Sub A, doing his reading homework, and me – not one to be left out when a book was involved – sitting on the other side of Mom following where Craig was reading to her. I’m pretty sure they thought I was just looking at the pictures – but in reality, Mom or Craig (or more likely both, were actually teaching me to read. They may have taught me unknowingly, but those reading homework sessions of Craig’s became priceless to me, and opened the world of books on a whole different level. (Of course, when I did start Sub A the following year, my teacher couldn’t believe that I could already read – I can honestly say though that this was one occasion where I wasn’t trying to be an over-achiever just to prove that I was “enough” in some way, and that it was purely because of my love of books).
The memories I have around books and reading are endless and varied. Some of the memories that remain particularly vivid in my mind centre around special times that I spent with my Dad on Saturday mornings when I was growing up. Every second or third week, Dad and I would go on our regular Saturday morning outing. (Craig came with sometimes, but seemed happier not to have to participate in what were probably considered mundane tasks for a Saturday morning). Those Saturday mornings played out almost according to an unwritten formula – starting off at the building society to deposit some money, moving on to the butcher for some biltong and meat for the braai the following day, then the bottlestore for some beers for Dad, then on to town for the highlight of the morning, going to the public library.
Entering the library with our plastic packet carrying the books that we had previously lent, we inevitably also had a handful of coins at the ready, because we were often late in returning the books, and so would get fined. (The fines now seem laughable, but it was a fairly big deal to have to pay 50c or a Rand for being late!) Those times were special – we’d spend a good half hour or more browsing through the rows and rows of books, overflowing with possibilities of new adventures and worlds to be found within the pages and, with new books under our arms, we’d then go visit Mom in the mall just down the road from the library where she worked most Saturdays. If I was lucky, after saying hi to Mom, we’d go and get an ice cream cone before heading home again with our new books. So yes, it may well sound somewhat mundane to some – but isn’t that what life is actually made up of? A bunch of small moments that, when you look back on them, you realise are actually big and meaningful moments. So it is with my Saturday morning library outings with Dad!
I wouldn’t be able to write about books and their associated treasures without spending a few moments thinking about my high school English teacher, Mrs Ploos van Amstel (Hee hee, I know, not the most English-sounding surname for an English teacher :)) Mrs Ploos (as we affectionately called her) single-handedly cultivated in me a deep love for Shakespeare. She introduced and discussed Shakespeare’s works with us in a manner that made them so real, so meaningful and enthralling. And while some some of you may be rolling your eyes right now at the words ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘enthralling’ being used in the same sentence, I really did fall in love with Shakespeare’s works – a love that has remained with me and which is borne out by the fact that the most special books in my library are a set of Shakespeare plays that were published in the 1890s. I can take any one volume of that set off the shelf, open it at any page, just smell that “old book” smell, skim any words randomly, close my eyes and experience a moment of pure contentment. I’m still in touch with Mrs Ploos – the only difference is that she now insists I call her by her first name, Es. (Do you know how difficult it is to call your high school teacher by their first name?) I can never repay her for the love of Shakespeare (and much other literature) that she developed in me. Es – thank you! You will never fully know how much I appreciate your guidance and mentoring in my life. I love you!
When I moved into my home in January 2013, it was super exciting for me to have a garden and some more space, having previously lived in an apartment (which, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved!) The first time I viewed what was soon to become my home, my folks came with me to have a look and I remember my Dad saying that it wasn’t even an option for me, because it had three bedrooms and what would I do with all that space?! Little did he know that it didn’t actually have three bedrooms – no, it had two bedrooms and a library 🙂 Since I was a little girl, I have always dreamed of having a library in my home one day. And although I had pictured it countless times in my mind, to the extent that it was virtually tangible to me, I never thought it would ever be possible. But clearly we should never give up on our dreams. Today my library is my escape, my haven, and my absolute favourite room in my home. A big couch (with enough space for both Chuckles and I to curl up on) with richly coloured throws and cushions, beautiful dark wooden floors and shelves and then, most importantly, my growing selection of precious worlds between pages – all of this accompanied, of course, by the old book smell that only a library can have (yes, even a private home library has that smell 🙂 )
I could spend the next fifty blogposts writing about my love of books, reading and all things related, and I still wouldn’t tire of it or run out of things to say. For me, every book yields new adventures, different ideas, challenging insights…every book I have ever read has contributed to forming the person I am today. Books are powerful! And one day, I hope that the books I ultimately dream of writing will make an impact, even if it’s just on one person – that I may draw some readers into the worlds I create and leave them feeling just that little bit richer, and their hearts just that little bit fuller, for having read my musings.