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Sunday Times Books LIVE

Shelves of discovery: To celebrate National Library Week, book lovers share their treasured memories

By Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Song for SarahJonathan Jansen: author, columnist, fellow at Stanford University, his new book, Song For Sarah: Lessons from My Mother is out next month
The sand dunes separated our council house from the new library next to the swimming pool in Retreat. I could walk there and back blindfolded for that well-trodden path to the library meant one thing only – escape. Escape from the harsh living of the Cape Flats into the beautiful world of bright ideas, interesting characters, complex plots and faraway places. While others stayed cool in the pool next door, I thought it was cool to be in that other institution on Concert Boulevard, the library. I never could understand why the librarians looked so serious and why there were signs everywhere committing you to silence. Years later I went back to that Retreat library that instilled in me a lasting love of reading. The packed audience thought I was there to launch my book. Actually I was there to say ‘thank you.’

What About MeeraZP Dala: author, latest book is What About Meera?
The Tongaat Central Public Library in my home town was my babysitter and my aftercare facility and my homework club and my social club. Both my parents were teachers in the nearby school and when I would finish my day (from pre-school right up to my high school) my brother and I would walk to the public library to wait for our folks to fetch us. Here I would become immersed in the world of books and board games, occasionally sneaking in a little hand-holding with a boy I liked underneath the wooden tables. I meandered through every section, the librarians never confined us to the kids’ books only, although the Mills & Boon Section was out of bounds. At the age of 11, I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, a book that changed my life. And I often wound up engrossed in the non-fiction collections and atlases. There was no need to take books home, I read most of them sitting on the library floor. And even now, when I want to read, I head to a library and curl up somewhere. Every milestone of my growing up has the backdrop of the library in it – an old railway station converted into one of the most special buildings of my memory.

The God Who Made MistakesEkow Duker: author, latest book is The God Who Made Mistakes
Growing up in Ghana, it was somehow my misfortune to borrow books from the public library that had the words, “If you want to know my name, turn to…”. The words were scrawled in shaky letters across the page in pencil, or sometimes in blue ink. The instruction was repeated several times throughout the book and it was impossible not to do as it asked. I followed the trail like they were breadcrumbs on a forest path, anxiously turning the pages while knowing full well what awaited me. It was always the same, a torrent of foul mouthed abuse that spilled untidily over the margins of the last page and settled deep in my mind.

Pieter-Dirk Uys: from March 22, PDU will be at Pieter Torien’s Studio Theatre in Montecasino performing his memoir The Echo of a Noise
I was maybe 13. I would find my mother’s Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, steal one and smoke half of it behind the hibiscus-bush on the way to the Pinelands Library. There I would take out the Angelique books. They were in the grown-up section, but I managed to creep in and take it out of the shelf, hide it under my cardigan and then sign out my weekly Enid Blyton. I read them all eventually: Angelique; Angelique and the King; Angelique and the Sultan; Angelique in Love; and Angelique in Revolt. And I would puff at the other half of the ciggie behind the same bush on the way back. I think at home they more concerned about my reading Enid Blyton than smuggling in Angelique while smelling of Stuyvesant!

The Dream HouseCraig Higginson: author, latest book is The Dream House
At the age of 10, I went to boarding school. I remember the afternoon I discovered the library. The school was still frightening – with corridors and sharp corners and doors that would fly open. The library was detached from the school, with low chairs and afternoon sunlight. I sat down and opened a book and then another. Each time, it was like opening another window. I went there often in the afternoons. I was able to escape for a bit – and I always emerged feeling stronger, lighter, like I had a secret – access to magic windows to other worlds. I love the silence of libraries – the silence that lets the books begin to speak.

Kate Rogan: owner of Love Books, independent bookstore in Melville, Joburg
As children my mom would take all four of us (including my extremely unruly twin brothers) to the Rosebank library once a week. Mom would immediately escape to the adult section of the library. Somehow, they didn’t mind us there in the children’s corner – tearing through the shelves of Enid Blyton and whatever else they stocked in those days. I don’t remember the old lady librarians ever shouting at us (or the twins), though I think they were quite stern about putting books back. I remember the pine shelves, the sun streaming in through the windows and catching dust-mites in winter, the joy of unpacking book after book after book, before deciding what to take home. And oh the joy of the library card, and the stamp in the front of the book, with those old roller stamps, dipped in purple ink, carefully rolled to two weeks from today. And that tempting glue roller – golly I wanted one of those. I don’t really remember quiet, strangely – I remember talking to my sister, laughing about titles we misread or didn’t understand, jumping on dusty beanbags…

Bitter FruitAchmat Dangor: playwright, poet, novelist and political activist, his latest novel is Bitter Fruit, and his new novel Dikeledi will be released later this year
During Apartheid “non-White” schools endured severe restrictions, especially around what we could read. The system also drove us out of Fordsburg and I had to attend school in far away Roodepoort where a young man called Ahmed Timol taught. One of his responsibilities was “library watch” to ensure we conformed to the prescribed rules. His rebellious nature prevailed and he secretly introduced us to frowned upon works by “Third World” writers, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Sonyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo, RK Narayan, VS Naipul, Alex La Guma, etc. That’s how my love for non-conformist literature was inspired.

Invisible OthersKarina Szczurek: author, latest novel is Invisible Others (her new book The Fifth Mrs Brink will be released in June)
I was already 13 and at school in Warwick, NY, when a caring librarian helped me discover the joy of reading. The activity had no appeal to me up to that point. I knew how to read, but took no pleasure from it. Mrs Nellie Fahy, the librarian of Irish origins, found me drawing pictures on the library’s computer and recommended I read a book instead. I obliged; she’d been kind to me and I felt it would have been rude to refuse. The book she suggested hooked me for life. I owe my passion for literature – my life – to Mrs Fahy.

Griffin Shea: owner of Bridge Books, an independent bookstore in Johannesburg CBD
As a teenager I found my library card hidden in a drawer, untouched for years. I didn’t take it, because I wasn’t nearly bold enough to actually check out the book I wanted, if it even existed. But I went and flipped through the H’s where a single card was labelled “homosexuality”. Buried on a bottom shelf, the book was full of letters and stories from gay teenagers who were like me but braver and, it seemed, happier. For the first time I really understood that I wasn’t alone in the world. Whenever I needed reassurance, I would hide among the stacks, and think about leaving my town to find these other people like me.

History MattersBill Nasson: leading South African historian, author – latest book is History Matters
As a Cape Town schoolboy in the 1960s, I lapped up books by the American satirical writer, Richard Armour, the author who reminded us that libraries are places where you lower your voice and raise your mind. The local branch of the city’s public libraries had a fat selection of his wonderful parodies, including Twisted Tales from Shakespeare. Posing such zany questions as ‘who was the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespearean tragedy’ – answer: Macbeth, guilty of ‘murder most foul’, Twisted Tales became an absolute favourite, borrowed repeatedly to be re-read and memorised. While in Oxford in the early 1990s I became bored while working in the famous Bodleian Library and in a moment of curiosity wandered off to see if it contained the works of Richard Armour – it did, including a copy of Twisted Tales. This was honey to an ageing bee. I wandered off in my damp socks as my shoes had got soaked while walking to the Bodleian through heavy rain, and I had removed them and left them under my reading desk. When I returned, my sodden shoes had disappeared. Presumably some mischievous student had decided to teach me to be more careful with my personal belongings. My reporting of the loss to library staff was met with polite incredulity. Their indifference was understandable. After all, what libraries worry about losing are books, not shoes. An English library had brought back the enjoyment of Armour’s Lady Macbeth, ‘who rubbed her hands with glee (a Scottish soap)’, but at a humiliating price.

This One TimeAlex van Tonder: author, latest novel is This One Time (new novel expected later this year)
As a child who grew up before the Internet in a small town outside Durban with a yearning for knowledge and experiences yet very little money, I remember my school library as not only a sanctuary for me, but a gateway to the world. I was there almost every break time, and would hide there during phys-ed or sewing class – which I hated! My librarians were kind enough to write notes saying I had “duties to perform”. I have one fond memory of my high school librarian telling a sports teacher she “had no idea where I was”, while I listened from one of the reading rooms upstairs. Thank you Mrs Rosario! My relationship with these sacred spaces has continued well into adult life. I am always hiding in libraries, though I won’t say where.

To find out about special events in libraries around South Africa this week, go to www.liasa.org.za
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