There’s a Stephen King story, which has buried in it, among his dark and disturbing imaginings, the excitement of receiving your first adult library card, a passport to adult fiction, a step towards adulthood. Lacking King’s memory or imagination, the actual age that I obtained my adult library card escapes me; maybe it coincided with being able to watch AA films, another rite of passage.
The local library was a one-storey building down a side road in the town, built in the 1920s. As you walked in, the desk was on the left, non-fiction directly ahead, reference books on a mezzanine level above. To the right, at the bottom of the steps to the mezzanine, was the doorway to the fiction section. I haven’t been back since I moved away; I expect it’s a bit noisier with computers, CDs and paperbacks, in those days you spoke in hush tones to the librarian and not at all to anybody else and there was a musky smell you don't get in libraries nowadays.
Through the doorway the children’s fiction was on low shelves in the middle of the room, this was the 1970s, there were no Harry Potter or Michael Morpurgo or toys on tables. The only book I remember borrowing from the children’s section was The Owl Service a spooky tale of a haunted dinner set. The adult fiction was arranged around the walls, floor to ceiling wooden shelves, alphabetical by author. The rules were simple, you were allowed to borrow three books for two weeks, if you wanted to renew you brought the book in and had it restamped, no phoning in, no internet.
At home I had graduated from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, and overdosed on Agatha’s murder mysteries, so much so that I’ve not picked up one since (James Bond, on the other hand, is a story for another day). Incidently, Enid Blyton was still alive when I started reading and lived only a mile down the road. The local library, and indeed my primary school, each only a ten-minute walk from her house banned her books as unsuitable.
From the school library, an all boys’ grammar school, I borrowed Graham Greene and science fiction, the Sci-Fi chosen for the illustrations on the cover, enormous space ships orbiting impossible coloured planets.
The local library was overwhelming and choosing wasn’t going to be easy, there were hundreds and hundreds of books and I could only borrow three. The bookcases were labelled, ABC; DEF; GHI; etc. I narrowed my search, in the first week I would borrow the three books from the ABC section, two weeks later from DEF and on and on until I’d worked my around the walls to start again at ABC. I chose books by title or spine colour or cover art or, in the case of Clockwork Orange, notoriety. I read George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Yukio Mishima (thanks to J J Burnell of The Stranglers), John Le Carré, H G Wells and a forest of books that have since disappeared into the murky past. A few years later Julie Walters was telling Michael Caine that she was reading the red books in the library, I imagined that Willy Russell had had the same problem and had come up with a similar solution.
Naturally, his system had its flaws, one book that still nags at the back of my mind is While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I found it in the ABC section but it was DEF week, therefore I didn't take it out, I haven't read or found it again, I don’t know who the author is, except that his surname begins with A or B or C, maybe one day I’ll find it in a second-hand bookshop, hopefully not on a James Bond day.