Now I know this might seem sacrilegious coming from a writer, but I often don’t love libraries. I love the idea of libraries, sure, but not the way most of them are structured, not the imposing shhhhh that makes me feel too on-edge for any pleasure, not the shelves upon shelves of books someone decided are the most important of any given field. I feel small in those spaces devoid of whimsy, as if I can’t quite match up to the seriousness being asked of my presence there. In general, I am much more at home in used bookstores or pavement stalls or busy cafes with well thumbed bookshelves.
This week, though, I found at the Akademie Schloss Solitude a library I immediately fell head over heels in love with. This library is a small room on the top floor of the building in which I live, and all the residents have a key. In one corner there is a computer where you can look for particular titles, but the pleasure here is in browsing. You see, this library has been lovingly put together over nearly three decades by over 1300 minds: Each fellow who stays at the Akademie is asked to recommend two books the library must own, and the books are then categorised broadly and arranged alphabetically, a mix of languages and genres and the most eclectic tastes. Inside each book is a little card with the name of the fellow who recommended the book and the year in which they did so. That’s it, no authority deciding the most important books for one to read, just hundreds of artists over the years saying “ooh, I loved this one!” There are no elaborate systems for borrowing either; you simply fill out a card with the details of the book and your town details and leave it on the shelf where the book was. That way, if any other fellow is looking for it, they know know which door to come knocking at.
Earlier in the week, I picked up Susan Sontag’s early diaries, a book of poems, a gorgeous Palestinian novella called “touch” and a whimsical illustrated book called “Ants have sex in your beer.” I also browsed trough Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and a thick book on the history of rape, but I decided to keep the heavier reading for another day.
Over the last couple of days, I was struggling with feeling out of place amongst much of the artistic conversation here, feeling like I was back in graduate school in an all-white classroom, reading and writing within a cultural context that felt unfamiliar at best and overpowering at worst. Here, at the Academy, although fellows come from many different countries, the bent of the current cohort is certainly mostly European and very white. In the midst of the alienation that can create, Adiana Shilbi’s Touch created for me a deep sense of warmth and fellowship, an unspoken camaraderie not just because of the author’s nationality and concerns but also for the way that book itself so beautifully captures the experience of being alone while surrounded by people, of sounds and smells and touch, of a world that is so intimate and so far away at the same time.
As I head back to return this lovely little book to its place on the shelf today, I am reminded of the way books can give me that company, that window into the world I have come here seeking, just as much as my peers can… and how much more so for the books recommended by peers across the decades! In this small rooftop room with gorgeous windows and the silence of solitude rather than authority, I feel more at home with books than I have felt in a while.