The Windhoek Public Library—an excellent setting for tragedy and comedy—features in some of my writings. In The DK Army, a review of a favourite Dorling Kindersley book, the library was where those of us who could not afford Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopaedia went to conduct research for school assignments. Despite the embarrassing reasons for the library’s numerous shutdowns—at one point there was a bee infestation (fair enough) and then there were complaints teenage patrons were fornicating in the bathrooms (Come on, if you wanted to get between someone’s covers where would you go?)—it remains open today. It is much older, more neglected. The shelves are in need of desperate restocking—there is contemporary continental literature which needs to refresh the shelves with new understanding and representative experiences; a fresh burst of energy is needed to curate books and make the whole space an attractive place to read and study like it once wars. That the public library’s importance in nurturing a literary culture is not recognised and protected does not bode well for reading or writing in the country. Much is made about the need for bookshops—necessary literary citizens, of course—but if ever there was an equalising space which made information freely available to the public, a place which could serve as the meeting hub for readers and writers of stories, the humble library would be it.
In Let Me School You Cats On How To Read Comic Books When You’re Poor And Live In A Small Town, a recollection about the lengths I was prepared to go to in order to read comic books, the public library made a fleeting appearance. It was a safe place for my parents to leave my siblings and I after school and on Saturday mornings while they went about providing for our young lives. The librarians knew each of us by name, they looked out for us, put aside some of our favourite titles on hold for us, and kept a wary eye on everyone who entered and left the premises. The library was a sort of daycare for us, and even when we grew older my parents would never deny us an outing to the library even if other rights were suspended and certain privileges were curtailed.
In The Sage Of The Six Nigga Paths (Or, The Life And Times Of The Five Os), a short story about friendship, identity, loss, grief, and partial redemption set in Windhoek, the library provides shelter for the story’s protagonist: it is welcoming without reservation, a place where things happen (and do not happen), a place where curiosities of all kinds are satisfied and a strange version of freedom is enjoyed. I have always been fascinated by books and the places in which they are found, and libraries being the natural habitat for all things literary are special places for me and the characters that I create, first for Séraphin in The Eternal Audience Of One and for the unnamed protagonist in The Sage Of The Six Nigga Paths, my collection of short stories currently being perused by a trusted group of first readers and responders (because that manuscript is the scene of a disastrous accident).
There are many things to learn from being a library member. For example, the phrasing of a question necessarily determines the answer. Whether you want stories about children or for children will decide which aisles you wander (and what awkward recommendations your librarian will make). You will learn, quite quickly, there are never enough children’s books when it comes to diversity and all of Einstein’s work cannot explain why the fuck all the Asterix and Obelix comics, the Discworld series, and The Wheel of Time books are always checked out. It takes a while but eventually you realise your youngest brother will never grow up fast enough to qualify for a senior library card so you can borrow more books (parents need to plan their families better because three years is a long ass time to wait).
While the wonders of the Dewey Decimal Classification system—the eleventh and most important commandment—are revelled in, perhaps one of the most important discoveries is this: what you are not allowed to watch on television because of age restrictions you can always read without supervision at the library because, hey, it is in a book and people intrinsically trust books without reservation. You can read about throbbing members and heaving bosoms to your teenage heart’s delight without shame or secrecy until the library’s closing time (and, depending on which librarian is on duty, you can even take some home). Everything that is blurred in music videos, blocked out in films, or impounded by parental controls and early bedtime hours is unsupervised in library aisles. Plain sight has always been the best place to hide. Readers know this.
Of all the lessons I learned by being a member of the Windhoek Public Library the one I cherish the most is learning how to treat res publicae—public things which are owned collectively for the individual’s pleasure and for the community’s benefit. This is a social skill that cannot be taught with lesson plans and graded assignments. Rather, it is experienced through enjoyment and deprivation, by being allowed to use something freely and being wounded by having that thing abused or destroyed. Simply put, what I learned is this: what is not yours is not yours.
In a library, many things do not belong to you.
This chair is not yours. It belongs to everyone. Before you sit in it, it is polite to ask if it is taken. Do not put your bag on it—there is no saving seats. The certainty of a present bum trumps the hypothetical arrival of a friend who has been on their way for an hour. Then there is also this rarely acknowledged truth: there are always enough seats.
This table is not yours. Anyone can share it with you. Do not be a table hog. (And before you even ask, libraries had social distancing and crowd control down to an art long before the coronavirus came around and told people not to breathe on each other.) Keep your elbows to yourself. Do not let your feet go wandering under the table—save the footsie for the one you love.
This space is not yours. Everyone has a right to it. You will learn to share it with strangers of all kinds. If you cannot share, then it is best not to bring your selfishness past the door. But if you can enter a public space made for everyone—young, old, rich, poor, researcher, reader, curious, loiterer, homeless and otherwise—respect everyone’s right to be strange. Thou shalt not judge the readers of Mills and Boons romances, nor unnecessarily exalt the Chaucer acolytes—the twelfth commandment. There is no VIP lounge. There is no private room. There is no cover charge—this club admits all. The only dress code is clothes.
This silence is not yours. It has been kept aside for anyone who wishes to join it. There is a peculiar magic in communal silence which allows for individual reflection, and because silence often signals a stepping away from the world into the self it is often reserved for places such as temples and libraries. Silence is searching. Silence is discovery. Silence is sacred. More so when it is observed as a group. To disturb public silence with private noise is supreme arrogance. Where silence is found it is best left undisturbed; it takes a long time for rippled waters to become still again—sometimes the status quo ante never returns. Silence is a rare and valuable thing; its value is realised only by those in it. Once you learn the pleasure of quiet enjoyment, you realise there are many places where silence enhances the pleasures of art: museums, theaters, and even (dare I say it) in cinemas.
This book is not yours. It is res publica—it is everyone’s book. If you borrow it, you have to return it. If you do not then someone else cannot learn from it or enjoy it. Even the book that has not been borrowed in thirty years needs to be returned—someone might need it tomorrow, or the day after, or five years from now. Do not write in it; do not keep it face down; do not bend the pages; do not let it near wet surfaces. If it is everyone’s, then everyone has a right to use and enjoy it in the best condition available. Since everyone has not yet had that pleasure, it is best to keep it in such a condition until that day arrives.
With numerous res publicae—parks, beaches, pavements, squares, and libraries amongst others—temporarily out of use due global lockdowns to prevent the Coronavirus’s spread, it is my sincere hope that their importance in creating, connecting, and nurturing communities is realised, that their maintenance is thought of, and that the fair use of such things remains a basic aspect of general human conduct (along with the usual washing of hands and not hugging people who do not want to be hugged). Public things, by their nature, end their useful lives when everyone has benefited from their utility. Only then can they be discarded. Because it is impossible for this threshold to be reached—to use the thing is to derive repeated need and pleasure from it—res publicae are always on generous loan. This is the most enduring lesson from my younger years as a Windhoek Public Library member. I hope when we are all allowed out of our temporary confinements that week keep this in mind when we start using common things and spaces again.
What is not yours is not yours.