Unchained Melody: For the love of libraries

By Melody Thomas

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No barrier to entry, access to entire universes without spending a dime – libraries are one of the world’s greatest gifts.

I’m not sure I understood how much libraries meant to me until earlier this year, when I burst into tears in one. It was the State Library Victoria in Melbourne, a grand building first opened in 1856, which has since grown to take over a full city block. Images online of the La Trobe Reading Room brought me here, and the tears began the moment I crossed the threshold into the room. Was it the shelves of books, stacked from floor to towering ceiling? The stunning little balconies and alcoves? The extraordinary domed roof? Or was it all of those sweet little lamps, casting their magic halos of absinthe-green light on the desks below them?

I’ll admit I am prone to crying in the face of beauty. In fact I enjoy it so much I will sometimes do it on purpose, taking to the coast with a playlist of orchestral instrumentals, quietly weeping as I watchbirds freewheel above me (if ever you want to feel like the protagonist in a beautiful art film I suggest you try it. (Here’s a link to my playlist to get you started). I’ve wept over a rose, the sky, a perfect leaf, so it’s really no surprise that I crumbled in a magnificent and stately room of books. But more than its beauty, I think what moved me to tears was gratitude.

Are there any other spaces that offer what a library does, where money isn’t a requirement for access? [Where quiet and rest are so effectively encouraged? Libraries are like a town square that’s taken a valium and gone to have a lie down. Anyone can enter and seek refuge: students, parents, children, the elderly, rough sleepers, people from all different cultures and backgrounds and financial situations. All these people, gathered in one place, with no barriers to interaction besides their own willingness. (Side note: There are churches, and the occasional free museum or gallery, but I’d hazard a guess that more people feel excluded from them.)

Plus, libraries have books! Even the most modest of home libraries contains whole worlds waiting to be explored.

The first library that ever stole my heart was a known heart stealer: the one gifted to Belle by the Beast. The twin spiral staircases. The lofty shelves stacked with titles you just know are going to be beautifully bound and stamped in gold leaf. The open, roaring fire inviting you to curl up in front of it and disappear into the page. What a gift! I would never leave (to be fair, I already had a crush on Belle’s library in the little village, where she’d read every book twice. It had a moving ladder and a sweet little librarian.)

My friend the poet Ruby Solly once called reading the only socially acceptable escapism for adults. It is true that, while the same demons may drive you to both, devouring 50 books and devouring 50 sandwiches or gin and tonics will not be met with the same response. This is what books are made for: to offer an escape hatch from our fraught and anxiety-provoking “real” lives. To make us feel something different, imagine something else. Even when books challenge or frighten us, or cause us to despair, we can always close the pages to take a breath. Real life offers no such respite (except, as I’ve mentioned, in the form of reading).

When I was 11, I attempted a year of vegetarianism, helped along by a book called Healthy Eating for Young Vegetarians. On the day it was due back, I scoured the whole house, but it could not be found. I watched with despair as my fines began to collect, and when they hit $120 I clocked out. The grand doors of the city library closed to me, and I didn’t return until my 20s. This is why I was so happy when Wellington City Libraries (and many others around the motu) announced an end to library fines. Yes, I should have kept better track of that book. But fines are only punishment for those who can’t afford to pay them. Removing this financial barrier reinforces the idea that libraries are a place for everyone. That everyone deserves knowledge, entertainment, rest and adventure (P.S. One year on from abolishing fines, Wellington City Libraries are thriving).

If you’re not already a library user, this is a reminder that they are there waiting for you. Whether you’re a parent who wants to lie half-conscious on a couch while your toddler claps and sings, or an avid audiobook consumer who just can’t stomach the cost of an Audible subscription (for borrowing them you’ll want to download Libby). If a book isn’t available near you, you can use the website to get it sent to your local library for free. Personally, I own a Kobo e-reader, which allows me to add any book I see mentioned or recommended to a list of holds, which then appear like magic when they’re ready (beware: you can’t do this with Kindle).

Don’t worry if you haven’t been to the library in a while, it won’t notice. A library will wait for as long as you need it to, and when you’re ready it will be there, cosy, quiet, and open-armed. A portal to peace, adventure and understanding right in your own backyard.

What I’m reading

The Priory of the Orange Tree (and its prequel A Day of Fallen Night, released March 2023) by Samantha Shannon

You know a book is great when you’ve read 800+ pages and you never want it to end. I’ve always been a sucker for fantasy. As a pre-teen I devoured The Hobbit, then the Swords of Shannara series, then The Lord of The Rings in quick succession. But as an adult the appeal started to wane. Until I read The Priory of the Orange Tree. You know what’s better than a fantasy epic packed with dragons, dragon riders, warriors and queens? When that same fantasy epic is both feminist and queer as hell!
Somehow I missed the memo in March that a prequel to this incredible story had been released, but I now have it in my possession, and it’s staring me down from my bedside table (I don’t want to start it just yet because then I know I’ll devour it and it’ll be over! I’m savouring the anticipation).

I’m not going to tell you any more except to say:

  1. Read this book. Read them both. You can read them in either order, though apparently there are a couple of Priory spoilers in Fallen Night… so keep that in mind. Both are available through Wellington City Libraries, though you may need to place a reserve.
  2. If you’re a writer who’s intimated by prolific writers do NOT google the author of this book – you don’t want to know how old she is and what she’s accomplished.
  3. Please somebody, make the TV series!

I’ll finish with the words of GoodReads reviewer Kai Spellmeier: “Hit me with those 800 pages of high fantasy cause that’s the only acceptable way to murder me fyi”.

What I’m watching

Triangle of Sadness, on Apple TV

I’ve been hanging out to see this film since missing out on tickets at last year’s International Film Festival, and it did not disappoint. Ruben Östlund’s black comedy Triangle of Sadness had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where it received an eight-minute standing ovation and won the Palme d’Or. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards. If you’ve seen his previous films, 2017’s The Square or 2014’s Force Majeure you’ll have some idea what to expect: wry societal observations, dark humour and characters whose suffering is deserved, and so quite satisfying to witness. Where Force Majeure examined family dynamics and gender roles in the face of a disaster, and The Square skewered the art world, Triangle of Sadness takes aim at the fashion industry, influencers and the uber-wealthy. Of the film, Östlund said “We wanted to create a rollercoaster for adults… When you leave the cinema afterwards, you should be like, ‘What has happened?’ And you have something to talk about.”

I enjoyed The Square and adore Force Majeure, but Triangle of Sadness might just be my favourite. Watch it while you can. (Content warning for those who get queasy at vomiting scenes, rough seas and seeing the mega-rich punished for their crimes).


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