Saturday, June 19, 2010

Changing your books

Coming across a reference to ‘changing your books,’ I am
intensely reminded that when I was growing up in
Masterton in the 1950s and early 1960s, we didn’t go to
the public library to borrow books or take out a book, we
went (every Friday night, as a rule) to change our books:
the unspoken understanding being that you would always
have one or two books on the go, there would never be a
time when you weren’t reading one, and that therefore
you would change them regularly (it may have been that
you were only allowed to have them for a week in those
days, I can’t remember). And Friday night, late shopping
night, a special, almost magical couple of hours each week
in the life of a provincial town in the sequestered 1950s,
was invariably when it happened—the changing of at least
one book for another (I'm fairly sure, actually, that there
was a limit of three allowed at a time—for kids anyway).

The public library wasn’t the only one in town, though.
The big department store, the WFCA (Wairarapa Farmers'
Cooperative Association), later Wright Stephenson, had a
small lending library in its basement. This would be
inconceivable now—though video shops are the modern
equivalent. The WFCA’s poky little library stocked mostly
thrillers, romances and crime fiction, and you paid for
what you took out, of course—possibly threepence or
sixpence a book. In my teens I must have borrowed
hundreds of detective novels, working my way through
writers like Anthony Gilbert, Miles Burton and Erle
Stanley Gardner, as well as virtually all of Agatha Christie
and most of the Saint books by Leslie Charteris. I even
read westerns. Hundreds of books a year, gobbling them
up with the indiscriminate appetite of the young. In a way,
I'm appalled—why wasn't I into Dostoyevsky at 14?—but
on the other hand it got all that stuff out of the road early
on, so that I've never felt the need to spend time on it
again. Yeah right. So how come I still haven't read Proust?
And didn't I, for the sheer nostalgic comfort of it, revisit a
Biggles book earlier this year? Some books never change.
Maybe some readers don't, either.

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