Binoy Kampmark writes: A public is aptly reflected in its libraries. The State Library in Melbourne was encouraged by the judicially severe character of Redmond Barry to soothe and iron out savage minds in colonial Australia.

Admission can either be free or through the provision of an annual fee. In the British Library in London, an enormous array of bookish sorts gather at neat desks to peruse the texts of civilization. The only noise one hears, apart from the sterile announcements about closing times and last requests for books, is the mechanical shuffling of papers, the hypnotic leafing through publications. Talk is inconceivable in such surrounds. Dissenting and contrary patrons are ejected swiftly as violators of a monkish code of learning.

In the San Francisco Public Library, the emphasis is reversed. Law, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is merely a memorandum. Towards that, the rules of the library against conversation are pieces of papers to be shredded. A memorandum, as a former US Secretary State explained, is written to protect the writer rather than explain anything. The writing on the wall informs us for what it does not say. The librarians know they must keep up appearances. That says little about the patrons, who breach the rules with breathtaking, and at times entertaining regularity. Books are mere props in a zoo of exaggerated behaviour.


A Korean is screaming on the ground floor, sounding vengeful and mouthing obscenities. A lady in a corner of the fourth floor receives a call on her mobile phone from an old friend talking about the passing of her father. “Jeez honey, shit happens.” A social worker is berated as condescending by a homeless Jamaican on the third floor for his insistence that he find better shelter. “I may not have a roof over me head, man, but I have a home.”

As the plan of the main library in San Francisco is open, with no full separation between floors, one gets the sense of a theatre where the confessional is aired. The atmosphere of this library is less meditation than a noisy appraisal, a true public display of human behaviour in its curious and colourful depravities. One thinks aloud in these spaces, as if to defy the awfulness of anonymity. People here are far from monkish – they are, in truth, warriors against silence. Signs urging silence are made redundant before they are put up on the walls.

A burly African-American, graying with red hat and rather garrulous, takes a seat on a regular basis amongst the most crowded areas of the library. Such creatures gravitate towards these areas like moths to light. Theatrical performance is their métier. The act of reading is less important than the sound of acting. He usually sports an enormous bag. He is constantly muttering, as the galactic and monstrous headphones begin to fall awkwardly down his face. He is, it seems, telling a grand narrative of suffering and redemption, even as he is rocking to the beats of his music.

“I am an FBI Agent.”
“I have killed. It is my job.”
“My dad was in Vietnam too.”
“I was in Vietnam and I killed.”

Another patron expresses his frustration at this monologue of myth and fancy.

“I am sorry. I am a writer. I have a deadline.” The patron evidently has his own views about Mr. FBI.

“If he is such an FBI agent he should know when to shut the fuck up.”

Then, another confession. “My dad was in Vietnam as well, and he knew when to shut up.”

Yet another patron adds his voice to the proceedings: “Please, no chatting in the library.”

The master of monologue is silenced by the librarian. A complaint has been made. The agitated writer could not take it anymore.

As Mr. FBI proceeds to find another section of the library to perch, his words drift through the wide spaces of the building like a brisk breeze.

“I shot her because I could not go through the steps.”

“No one wants to eat this Vietnamese shit.”

The monologue gets more contorted. A tangled mess gets even more knotted. The acting, as ever, continues.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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