This Side of the Pond – Jan. 18

By Sarah Pridgeon

You’d have thought that someone who spends most of her waking hours either reading or writing would have achieved this much earlier in her foreign foray, but last week I reached a milestone: I joined the library. I feel now as though my life in Crook County is complete.

And what a pleasure it was, too – a return to the comforts of tradition. It’s been the better part of a decade since I last held a library card in my hand and I was concerned that the flashy intrusions of technology would have ruined the experience.

I was relieved to find that this was not the case. Not only will my card be hand written and laminated, it can be stored in the drawer behind the counter to avoid the inevitable outcome of my losing it.

And there they were behind me as I signed my name: all those printed pages bound in illustrated covers, all those tiny independent worlds contained inside. Hundreds upon hundreds of possibilities, all now open to my greedy eyes.

The only interference of technology, in fact, was a welcome one: the advent of electronic pages. The debate among readers has raged for a decade as to whether ebooks are superior to the real thing or just a shadow of the real joy of reading. I find myself unable to pick a side as I’m a firm believer that you can never have too many options when it comes to absorbing sentences.

You’ll still find that old library card in my wallet, incidentally. If I felt so inclined, I could remove a total of seven books from a large building near the railway station in East Sheen, south west London, and retain them upon my person for the next three weeks. Sadly, what with the lengthy commute, purchasing those books would more convenient.

Which brings me to another advantage of ebooks: they help me bypass my own failings as both a library member and human being. That building in East Sheen was only a ten minute trot from my front door, but closing time was five minutes after I usually arrived home from work.

Sometimes I was lucky enough with the bus route to make it before the doors closed, but not often. Rather than rely on the whims of public transport, I became a Saturday visitor instead.

Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory. I couldn’t possibly count the number of times I looked at the clock at 12:10 p.m. on a Saturday and realized I’d missed the drop-off deadline yet again.

Some of those books were renewed to within an inch of their lives and the library staff took to gently raising one eyebrow when I finally walked through the door, peering apologetically over the top of the stack.

Things were so much easier when I was a child, when library visits were scheduled on my behalf by two adults who are more organized than I will ever be. Many contented hours were spent on the beanbag chairs choosing Asterix graphic novels and leafing through the Goosebumps series of spooks and scares.

The school library was less fun because it was haunted by the scariest of all my teachers. With her shock of white hair, Victorian dresses and eyes that didn’t always look in the same direction, she was frighteningly strict and, worse, always seemed to be lurking around the next corner.

A rumor went around the school that she once entered a tv quiz show called “Mastermind”, an extreme test of knowledge on a specialist subject. We whispered among ourselves that she got the highest ever score on the entry round, but never made it onto the actual show because she stood up too quickly on a bus and cracked her head open, which was also when her eyes were knocked out of alignment.

Honestly, the things kids say. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I can remember her history lessons and I’ve come to realize she was actually both hilarious and phenomenally intelligent – what I shame I wasn’t brave enough to ask her for a book recommendation.

University was disappointing for the story-lover side of me, too. The campus library was full of non-fiction with a photocopier in the middle. It was so extortionately priced that I believe it to have been responsible for collecting 90 percent of the school budget.

I can’t explain what took me so long to re-enter the world of libraries after my move across the pond, aside from having my husband’s entire bookcase to read through first, but here I am today, already nearing the end of my second ebook borrowing and feeling a sense of relief at this “coming home”.

If you, like me, have waited this long to get your library card, I can only encourage you to give it a go and experience for yourself the whispers from those stories, tempting you towards them from their places on the shelves, promising you untold wonders within their pages. On the other hand, if our library is a familiar place for you already, perhaps you have a book recommendation for me or two?