It’s a sunny, unseasonably warm day so what could make more sense than a visit to the local library? I must admit that by ‘local’ I refer to that service which belongs to the ritzier, more obviously gentrified municipality adjacent to my own, to which my suburb does not belong. I like to conduct as much business as possible in this better locale, with its obvious neutral atmosphere, leafy main street and limited opening hours. The library, for instance, usually opens at 1pm.
I observed with pleasure a young woman face down in the grass in the park that is across the street from the library. Next to her sleeping blonde head was a pile of belongings. In order, they were from the ground up: a closed hard-cover book, an open hard-cover book, a package of tailor-made cigarettes and a red lighter. Nearby were a black handbag and a discarded red cardigan. I looked at her black stockings and thought of how they would absorb the afternoon’s sun. Around the park other young women followed suit, dreaming through a day of purported intellectual labour. I was once one of them, only I preferred to do it by the local pool (which belonged in fact to another municipality again, but that is of no consequence now).
All these people are not writing their books, I smiled to myself. But why did I assume this, and why did I smile?
The library itself was even more idle, though the atmosphere was relatively sunless compared to the park, and the lack of activity signified something other than the gestational delight of half-made thoughts I’d just witnessed. I’m always surprised and reassured, however, by the opportunity to see what others use the library’s services for. When I see middle-aged men frowning into prosy laptops (at desks that happen to be in the children’s section), I am reminded that others have problems with solitude and self-control (most especially in the service of writing); the more I see of them, the better I feel about my own tendency to malinger. Even better are the steroid-abusers I often see booking the library’s computer terminals for half an hour, seemingly only to watch the music videos of Slipknot. I’m mystified and yet somehow charmed by the profound innocence of the scene, which is charged in part by the viewer’s lack of privacy.
These recurring figures notwithstanding I saw far, far more women than men in the library, and in the park, and in the main street today. Many of them were only slightly younger than me, and perhaps they were students loading for exams or dissertations. The most striking pose I saw by far was cut by an older Chinese woman, who had boldly propped up her laptop on a pile of junior fiction, commandeered one of the rare, low ‘reading chairs’ to face the screen she’d improvised, and proceeded to watch soap operas for god knows how long, hands behind her head and knees apart.
At home I now question my assumption that each person I saw was a loafer, that each represented an unfinished book, and I question this not only because my solipsism is repellent but because on the drive home, AM radio finally came through with a song that was optimistic and stupid (instead of weak and romantic, which has been a blight of the dial this week):
We’re just tryin’ to be friendly,
Come and watch us sing and play,
We’re the young generation,
And we’ve got something to say.
What makes the theme of the Monkees so durable is that they in fact had nothing to say. And what makes the blatant idleness of those I saw today in Carlton North so charming is a likewise lack of assertion, which nevertheless demands a public forum: come and watch us sing and play. Viewing public examples of relaxation can be more entertaining than a trip to the zoo; or at least, they are good reminders of what sleepy, distractible animals we are when left to our devices.
But for all these words, I hope one of the people I saw today finished their bloody book.