On my very first day at university as I found my way to the library on UCT’s labyrinthine upper campus, I spotted a poster stuck just outside the door. It read, simply, ‘The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened.’ Today, those words would spark the faculties of critical thinking I was to develop during my years at that institution and I would immediately think, ‘whose culture? What does ‘culture’ mean? Who are these doors opening to?’ but back then, they stopped me dead in my tracks and I distinctly remember tears of awe and gratitude filling my eyes.
Because I had been a terrible High School student, skipping classes as often as I could get away with, doing the bare minimum of work and not taking one damn thing my teachers said seriously. While in my final year I half-heartedly tried to make up for lost time and get a university pass, it was too little too late, and I’d pretty much messed up my chances of getting accepted. But, the universe works in mysterious ways, and somehow someone in UCT’s admissions office must have thought there was a glimmer of hope for me and I got the acceptance letter in the mail (I wish I still had it – it changed my life), and then I was there, walking through those hallowed doors of learning and culture which, by some miracle, had been opened to me.
I never took that privilege for granted. While other students partied and drank, I’d had my share of that, and I knew my time had come to show them what I could do. I worked hard and got firsts for everything. I couldn’t get enough of learning. I listened intently to what my lecturers said; I ate the wisdom they dished up to us, their hungry, hopeful students. I had found my place in the world, and it was within the grey corridors of the English department where daily I would pass the offices of J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Stephen Watson; writers and thinkers who, through words alone, changed the landscape of South Africa. Those were happy years for me. I was home.
Yesterday, as I stood in Sea Point library waiting to return some overdue books, I thought of UCT’s library where I spent so many happy hours poring over mind-bendingly beautiful combinations of words; hand-writing essays (we had no laptops in those days); studying for all I was worth. Libraries smell and feel the same wherever you are in the world. There is a church-like quality about them, even when they’re shabby and low on funding and most of the people visiting them look as worn as the newspapers they sit in a corner and read. When I go to my local library I see a segment of the population I wouldn’t normally, and when my favourite librarian is there – a softly-spoken, bespectacled man in his fifties – suddenly there is time in the day to talk about books and authors. In that musty-scented stillness the bustle of life comes to a halt.
On that day, an Irish woman in her sixties was ahead of me in the queue. She was happy because the book she’d been waiting for, Freddie Mercury’s biography, had finally arrived. It was three weeks late, and every day after work she would come by to see if it had been returned. She told me she was his biggest fan, and knew all of his lyrics by heart. I told her my husband used to work close to Freddie’s home in London, and when the news broke of his death he was one of the first people to put a rose outside the singer’s door. She smiled broadly at that story.
Then, the bubbly, young librarian who was working the evening shift reminded her that she had promised to sing a Freddie Mercury song the day her book arrived. ‘Oooh, that’s right,’ she said, in her lovely, lilting accent. ‘Hang on – I was just listening to it in the car – ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man/ Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?’ And then, quite spontaneously, an old guy standing nearby in a trench coat and I joined in with, ‘Thunderbolts and lightning/ very, very frightening – me!’
We chuckled, said goodbye and I headed out into the dusk to my house with lots of rooms and noisy children and cooked a butternut curry, and the Irish woman went home to her house with her book and probably read it while she ate supper and the old guy in the trench coat went off to his life somewhere else. People say print is dead and that soon there won’t be any more books. I hope they are wrong because that will mean no more libraries, and libraries are places of magic.