A lost book found, and the need for libraries Hamilton’s libraries help make our shared experience — our collective story — real
I recently became unexpectedly “Internet famous” overnight, when an extraordinary thing happened to me and one of my bestloved books and the story went viral. Basically, I decided to finally replace a book I’d lent out years ago and never got back, ordering a used replacement copy on Amazon, and the book that arrived in the mail was the very one I’d lost, my name inscribed on the cover page, my marginalia scrawled on the pages.
People loved the story because it seemed like such an unlikely event, but also, I believe, because people feel close to books — close enough for such a reunion to feel “magical,” as someone put it on Twitter. Not everyone (I’ve learned) writes their name and the date of purchase inside the books they buy, but many, many people imagine being reunited with a lost book as a kind of family homecoming. We devote our time and our attention to favourite books; we hold them close and with our gaze. They are “loved ones.”
I gave a bunch of interviews and nearly every one asked: Will you continue to lend out your books, after nearly losing this one forever? And my answer has been unequivocal: Yes. Yes, of course. Yes, now more than ever. Because one of the reasons books become bound to us by love is because books, and acts of reading more generally — of a newspaper op-ed, of a tweet — are things we share with other people. We become attached to our books because our books bind us to one another.
For me, this story is less about the joys of book ownership and more profoundly about the wonder of a book’s circulation. Our collective captivation with this book’s incredible journey is, for me, strong evidence of the importance of public libraries, institutions that organize and facilitate these miraculous passages of texts, music, movies, and information through countless hands. The public circulating library oversees these wondrous patterns of release and return on a daily basis. It allows every member of the community to be a part of the book’s journey.
In a recent city council budget discussion, Ward 7 Coun. Donna Skelly questioned a would-be $518,000 budget hike for the library and expressed “concern” over how much of the city’s budget is devoted to it. In answer to this question: I can’t imagine a public institution more vital to the city than its public library.
In fact, Hamilton’s Central Library is one of the city’s greatest accomplishments and sites of community promise.
The HPL’s Central Library is a beautiful example of how a city can design public spaces that allow all residents — of different ages and demographics, of varying levels of privilege, pursuing different projects, living distinct lives — to be with one another, literally. In the same room. A microcosm of the city itself, our Central Library does a magnificent job of hosting our city’s diversity. It models a vision of shared resources and peaceful coexistence that doesn’t depend on a single agenda or set of needs or interests or ability to pay money. We may not even speak the same language, but we can sit in a room together and read, or not read. We are bound as a community by breathing the same air, being sheltered by the same walls, and sharing this space for reflection, play, learning, and rest.
One definition of a community is a group of people living within the same story. We don’t all follow the same plots but we occupy the same world, whether we realize it or not. The Central Library is a vital institution because it gives us a material space to live our story together and it makes this story readable. Here we all are, because this is where we go when we need to read a newspaper, use a computer, find a book, meet a friend, copy something, apply for something, occupy the kids, sit down for a bit. From moment to moment in our separate lives we don’t know how much we share, but our library makes our shared existence palpable. You and I, we’ve never met but we may have held the same book in our hands, for hours. It belonged to both of us just as we belong to each other. The library knows this.
Eugenia Zuroski is an associate professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.
The Central Library is a vital institution because it gives us a material space to live our story together and it makes this story readable.
A library patron browses in the Hamilton Public Library’s central branch in this 1997 file photo. There is no public institution more vital to the city than the library, writes Eugenia Zuroski.