July 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Books on wheels

By Ceridwen Dovey
On the road with the librarians who deliver

Two librarians are plotting the most efficient route through North Sydney on a local council map that is two decades old and sticky-taped together. “It’s an old-fashioned map, but then the Home Library Service is a charmingly old-fashioned service,” Laurene says.

Laurene and her colleague Cathy have nine visits to make this morning, delivering specially selected books to patrons of Stanton Library who can no longer visit the branch due to infirmity or ill health. In the back of the library’s minivan, Laurene, who has been doing this for more than 20 years, tells me our first visit will be to a new member, Mrs Ranatunga, who has moved from Sri Lanka to live with her middle-aged daughter.

The daughter welcomes us into their flat, and insists on offering almonds and apricots. “You should eat seven almonds a day,” she says. “For brainpower.”

It’s immediately clear that Mrs Ranatunga, while elderly and suffering from macular degeneration, is a serious reader. She is halfway through Les Misérables and tells us she expects to finish it within a couple of days. “I read until four in the morning,” she says.

Cathy, also a long-time Home Library Service librarian, listens carefully to Mrs Ranatunga’s feedback on each of the previous books she’d selected for her.

“I didn’t like this one,” Mrs Ranatunga says, handing back The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “The prose isn’t very good.”

Cathy takes some notes. “Now, this time I chose books mostly from the list you told me about, the BBC’s 100 best books,” she says.

Mrs Ranatunga examines two large-print books that Cathy has brought for her. “Middlemarch – ah yes, excellent. And The Catcher in the Rye. Wonderful.”

Almost all of the public libraries in NSW have a Home Library Service, and many of them have been around for as long as Stanton’s (30 years and counting). Its 110 current members pay no fees, and the library doesn’t issue fines for overdue material, as it is understood that members might be hospitalised unexpectedly and unable to return books on time. The Stanton librarians do three delivery runs a week, spending up to half an hour with each member. They also manage the volunteers who visit members to have longer chats about books and help with bits of life admin, such as feeding a dog or figuring out how to send an email.

Cathy tells me she is often the only person a member sees in a day, or – worse – in a week. “There are a lot of lonely people out there. Mostly women, because they tend to live longer. We only have a handful of male members. But our next visit is to one of my favourites, Mr Trellis. He’s 95.”

In the lift on the way up to Mr Trellis’ flat, I take a look at Cathy’s notes on his reading interests: Non-fiction only. Ecology – climate change. Political science, political affairs – past prime ministers and Australian politicians.

Mr Trellis is partially deaf and unsteady on his feet, but he too is a voracious reader. “I’m interested in people,” he tells me. “Especially controversial ones.” He’s ready with feedback on Cathy’s previous selections. “This one by Laurie Oakes – some of these were very poorly written,” he says. “It’s a collection of his pieces in the paper. But sometimes too rushed.”

Cathy hands over one of her new selections, Rise of the Ruddbot by Annabel Crabb.

“I like Annabel Crabb,” Mr Trellis says enthusiastically. “She’s very good.”

“Yes, I remember you liked her Quarterly Essay on Malcolm Turnbull,” Cathy replies, “so I thought you should try this one. And also Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister.”

“He went to my university, you know,” Mr Trellis says. He embarks on a long story about working as a production engineer in England during the war, making shells and flamethrowers. I’m fascinated, even when he repeats it almost word for word. Cathy listens without any impatience, though she must have heard this summary of his life on every visit.

“This one by Laurie Oakes – some of these were very poorly written,” he says. “It’s a collection of his pieces in the paper. But sometimes too rushed."

She brings him gently back to the books at hand. “You’ll like this one, I think,” she said. “It’s a biography of Alfred Nobel.”

Mr Trellis takes the book eagerly. “Hmmm, yes,” he says. “I’m happy you’ve brought me one about someone who isn’t Australian.”

“Oh good, so you’re OK with international figures, too?” Cathy asks. “Biographies? Because a few months ago you said you wanted to focus on Australians.”

“Yes, yes,” he replies. “As long as they’re controversial.”

Next we visit the 90-year-old Miss Palmer, who opens the door in her pyjamas and a well-worn dressing gown. She doesn’t like to make small talk. Her delivery consists of classical music CDs and various works by Shakespeare, which is all she ever wants to read. Then we leave a bag of books in the courtyard for Mrs Turner, who is in her mid 50s and permanently in a wheelchair; she’s not home because she’s studying beauty therapy at TAFE.

“She’s an amazing person,” Laurene tells me. “A real go-getter. She’s hardly ever home. But the books are too heavy for her to lug home from the library without help.”

Down the road, Mrs Rawson welcomes us into her small but immaculate flat and tells us she’s making ham and split pea soup for lunch. Cathy had explained to me that Mrs Rawson was in hospital for a broken hip recently, but you’d never know it: she’s up and dressed in jeans and a funky waistcoat, and her auburn wig is beautifully coiffed. She is 92. She reads solely and obsessively about World War Two, having been a nurse at an RAAF base near Newcastle during the war.

She looks closely at the new books Cathy has selected for her. “A Doctor’s War by Rowley Richards,” she reads aloud. “I know Rowley! He’s a good bloke. Saved a lot of the POWs from coming back from Singapore sterile by telling them to eat hibiscus leaves.” She’s also happy with The Long Road to Changi.

“I hope I get time to read them before you come back,” Mrs Rawson says. “I’m so busy. I have all these overseas pen pals, and the problem is they always write straight back!”

We make a few more quick visits. One is to Mrs Polley, who has specifically requested historical fiction with no sex (Philippa Gregory is banned), and another is to Sister Warrie, a retired nun who spent most of her working life as a remedial teacher for inner-city kids.

“Have you got treasures for me? Goody!” she says with delight when she sees Laurene at the door. Sister Warrie loves musicals, so Laurene has packed DVDs of Hello, Dolly!, Guys and Dolls and High Society, along with audio versions of The Book Thief and the latest Hilary Mantel.

At a flat across the freeway, we meet Mrs Munro and her carer, Yok. Nobody can find Mrs Munro’s previous bag of books, though she swears she had them all ready to return. Laurene tactfully suggests collecting them next time, for Mrs Munro is becoming agitated. As we’re leaving, Mrs Munro’s face lights up. “Yok gave me something new for breakfast today,” she says.

“What did you have?” Laurene asks.

“A Krispy Kreme chocolate doughnut!”

By lunchtime, we’re back at the library. Cathy and Laurene have shifts to work at the main desk, and the next day’s deliveries to prepare. I sit alone in the sun, feeling emotional, hoping that if I make it through the decades into my 90s, somebody at my local library will one day care enough to bring me my favourite books and listen to what I have to say about them.

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.

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