am a bibliophile. It probably says my name next to the entry in the dictionary. It will be written on my gravestone. I love books.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not sentimental about the physical objects. Put them on paper, put them on a screen, write them on a banana skin if the mood takes you, it’s the words that matter. It’s the words that enter your head and change the way you think, the words and the order that they come in that are priceless. I’m shockingly cavalier with my books — I fold down the corners of pages, crack the spines, leave a coffee stain or two. As long as I can read the words, in my eyes they remain perfect. I feel no desire to collect them, no yearning to keep them pristine and unspoiled on the shelves gathering dust. To me, the idea that one can own a book is as incomprehensible as the idea that one can own a person. You do not possess a book, it possesses you.
I inherited this madness from my mother, along with plump cheeks, a small nose and hopefully her best china. It began as a tiny infant, when she took me down to the library before she took me for my first weighing at the doctors. (Probably because she had nothing to read herself.) She continued to nurture that special relationship: spending hours at mum-and-baby reading circles, accompanying me to change my books every Saturday, and giving me her card when I had devoured everything in the children’s section.
I came to see the library as a kind of gateway into other worlds; an airport, if you will, to any kind of marvelous destination the farthest reaches of the imagination could dream up. Although we couldn’t agree on what frilly dress to wear to parties, my mother and I were complicit in our understanding that this palace of learning with its neat shelves, comfortable chairs and reverent hush was The Best Place In The World.
Although I ditched some of her values when I left home (I completely rejected ironing) I took a piece of my mother with me in the form of my library card. Every time I found myself a dingy new flat, I found myself a new library. And each time I bounded up to the desk to register, itching to discover what delights this particular magical portal held, I couldn’t help but congratulate myself on my good fortune — all this and so much more, mine!
So when I moved to Rome to be an au pair, I was concerned that I was going to have to undergo a brutal separation from my happy place. I can only just hold a conversation with a waiter, let alone enjoy the poetry of Dante or the lively wit of Pirandello, so an Italian library would be as useful to me as a chocolate teapot.
But a quick Google search soothed my soul — because guess what there is in the Eternal City? Of course — a library. Filled to the rafters with books. English ones! I was sold. I became a member of one of the most charming and underrated libraries I have ever had the good fortune to come across, Santa Susanna.
Housed next door to the Chiesa di Santa Susanna on the corner of Via XX Settembre and Via VE Orlando, it’s the best-kept secret in Rome. Entering the door to the left of the church, you climb some marble stairs and peer into the room you’ll find at the top. (That is, if it’s open. The library’s one concession to La Bella Italia is its somewhat bizarre opening hours.)
There, you will find a small but perfectly formed with a good range of non-fiction titles, a healthy panorama of the classics and a fascinating selection of fiction. The whole set up is what one might call “vintage” — but not from affectation. Not an Apple or a Blackberry or a mango in sight, just the time-honored stamps and cards, and everything held together with a simple filing system. It is not free, but even I, a penny-pinching casualty of the global recession, can cover the cost of membership. It is staffed by volunteers, helpful kindly souls who give up their time to ensure that the likes of me can get their fix of words. A tranquil haven, an oasis of words I understand in a desert of hieroglyphics whose nuances remain frustratingly out of my grasp, the fact that it exists at all is miraculous. Thinking about it almost makes me weep.
Unfortunately, we are fast approaching a world in which the free public library is deader than the dodo. Many of you will know about the tragic closing of libraries across Britain, and many of you might even lament it as I do. While I’m reluctant to jump on any political high horse, nobody can say that denying people access to books is the stuff that civilization is supposed to be built of, whatever their electoral persuasion. It’s not quite as bad as burning them; but it might, in generations to come, have the same effect. It may be that some years from now, only people with the best part of a tenner to throw down every single time they want to read a paperback will be able to read as much as they like, and books will be a luxury. Clearly, our society will be unimaginably poorer for it. For someone like me, who consumes books like a crack addict (14 a week in my wild teenage years), imagining this dystopia fills me with dread.
Although the specter of closure is not, to the best of my knowledge, hanging over Santa Susanna at the moment, I feel that the best way to prevent that from happening is to make sure everyone knows about this fantastic resource and makes use of it. There’s nothing much I can do about the slaughter of the ideals I hold dear at home, but I can shout loud and proud about the libraries that aren’t going anywhere for the moment, and make sure they don’t. The secret’s out — Santa Susanna’s the best place about.
— Santa Susanna English-Language Lending Library. Via Venti Settembre, 15, Second Floor, 00187, Rome. Tel: 06.482.7510.