An Irishman’s Diary on exponential library fines, calculus and paying your dues
“Fines were seldom accrued: they enforced a functional form of justice and I returned my loans promptly to get reading anew” Photograph: iStock
A durable mesh coated the library cards. They had pockets to accommodate any book’s identifying ticket. The cards themselves slotted together into a satisfying, sturdy oblong. I recall them as grass-green, as inky-blue. An early juvenile currency, they lived in a latent circulation – apart from small-handed excursions up the stairs and along the miles of Meccano shelving, they resided in Rathmines public library. They were ransomed tokens of exchange around which hefty fines loomed, swapped for books about delinquents hanging around Formula One racetracks with uncles who were dream-crashed mechanics who had once yearned for Grand Prix stardom. Books about runaways who slept in disused warehouses and slunk along by industrial canals and railway tracks, wary of others like them but drawn into survivalist gangs whose microcosmic sociology contained at least one prepubescent psychopath. Mongrel dogs roamed these pages. The library cards got me books about escapes by hot air balloon, about watery descent in bathyscopes and treks under the sea, about voyages to the centre of the Earth.
Fines were seldom accrued – they enforced a functional form of justice and I returned my loans promptly to get reading anew. The system worked: the library cards were low-level literary devices, skeleton keys to a world of yarns. For a while, I was mistakenly impressed at how the library and its Dewey system appeared to cherish my initials – it lent me a pre-teen pride akin to having personalised car registration plates. But I was still delighted when JF turned out to stand for Junior Fiction.
The hardback books in thick plastic sleeves passed through this library system. Fines were its police force. Often stamped at clumsy angles, flyleaf pages stored forensic records of 1970s due-back dates and the footprints of borrowers. And what were those jagged Braille-like trails that scorched across protective covers? There was joy in inflicting such scars with my own fingernail to create a small map of a zig-zag itinerary; a signature mimic of stones skimmed across the surface of watery plastic and an early destructive voyage of the imagination.
I started to go less often. Letters began to notify of overdue books and piffling fines accrued. There was a shame in the laziness of late return. But music had engaged me in the form of The Prongs (not real name). The Prongs used words in angry, articulate ways. Their records were thinner than books but the covers bigger. The records came in the same type of protective plastic sleeves, and their spiral grooves swirled around and mesmerised. The Prongs staged a literate social attack: they sneered and seemed better than books. You wanted to be in The Prongs. But I read on and also wanted to be Harold Pinter. Or the young John Osbourne. Like I’d wanted to be Alfred Hitchcock or one of the Three Investigators. Or William or any of the Outlaws.
The Prongs kept me away from the library as I drew their music down from the ether with a wand of co-axial cable, recording their tunes on low-grade C60 cassettes. Sizzling year-round tinsel hissed on these MW and VHF recordings, a ghostly whistle reserving itself for each time I pressed the buttons marked “play” and “record”. The Prongs evolved, their words slogans for an enriched, cogent freedom of which books were still a part.
Bearded oracles on the Open University chalked equations on blackboards. The cameras zoomed in. They sketched a world of alternating current and capacitors and radio waves. These scientific hippy eccentrics gave mid-week morning presentations on BBC TV as part of distance-learning modules. You literally had to be sick to watch them. Their hieroglyphics and dour delivery were scruff portals to yet another world of infinite knowledge. This was a laboratory of unlikely glamour, of land-speed records, of aerodynamics. It somehow explained the ghostly radio whistle around The Prongs. I was reading Evelyn Waugh and his hilarious world of people being sent down from Oxford. Years later, I joked about being sent down from the Open University. But it all got swallowed by Leaving Cert sludge.
Unstuck in maths, I spurned the prescribed texts. Returning to Rathmines library, I took out a dense book on calculus, certain my off-piste exploration would instil exponential mastery in a more magical way. The first page or two reassured with symbols I recognised. I never read beyond page two. Leaving Cert finished, one day when listening to The Prongs, I received a request to pay for the replacement of the missing book. The worst book I ever borrowed. But now that fines are being abolished, I am glad I paid my dues.