Alex Leslie / The Library and its Uses

Alex Leslie

I’m a book pusher. I like to read books, lend books, borrow books and recommend books. I would like it if you suggested that we exchange our books rather than ask me where you can buy mine (I am a failure at capitalism). I like it when you have written in your books that you lend me. A friend once told me they read a book I lent her as two books: the book and all my comments on the book. You could probably get a more honest depiction of how I feel about literature from my marginalia rather than what I would tell you in person. I am a frequent library user and I appreciate the vandals who underline, annotate and otherwise deface the books I borrow from the Vancouver Public Library system. Recently I read a book in which a recent reader had responded to a character’s actions in the margins. Beside a character’s particularly shitty decision the reader had written NO! Yes, I thought, this is what libraries are for. So we can enter into a disorganized, mutually supportive and frequently annoying system of imperfect exchange, AKA a community. I have never belonged to a book club. You probably wouldn’t want me in your book club, because my tastes are very inconsistent and also I can be grumpy in groups. But I do consider myself a member of the library community. This week I took out Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel Lark And Termite (have you read Phillips? she’s amazing, you should totally read her…see? book pusher) and tucked into the back of the book I found a reminder for an annual mammogram addressed to a woman who lives in Maple Ridge. As a woman with two grandmothers who have had breast cancer, this gave me pause. I felt that I was receiving a reminder about mammograms. You should really think about mammograms, the huge complex universe of people and their books and letters and government documents and bus tickets used as bookmarks was telling me. I don’t really believe in signs, but I do believe in looking for them.

They asked me to write about this issue of The Capilano Review because I have a couple prose poems in it. The issue is full of excellent writers — Bhanu Kapil (have you read Humanimal? you should totally read it), Gail Scott (have you read The Obituary? You should totally read it), Sina Queyras (have you read Lemon Hound? you should totally read it….the book not the blog) and on and on…Michael Turner, Meredith Quartermain, Nicole Markotic. The issue focuses on narrative, something that interests me because I publish fiction, poetry and things in between. There are also visual pieces, including a series of Kyla Mallett’s lightjet prints centering around different aspects of the library/archiving/writing —library sign-out cards (now supplanted by digital accounts and receipts), handwritten notes on folded pieces of paper, yellowed library labels, organizational diagrams for human behaviour in libraries presumably drawn from a book entitled The Assertive Librarian. The pieces evoke fragmentation, the uncontrollable accumulation of scraps of information, the impossibility of summing up the library. The cover of a book by Borges makes a significant appearance. Mallett’s work plays with the discontinuity of reading, its physical traces and mutations.

Because I mostly rely on the library system for my reading (which is inseparable from my writing — what is influencing my writing and where I am moving in my interests) Mallett’s prints spoke to me in terms of my writing process, how an idea develops into a piece, how hearing an unfamiliar writer’s name can lead to “solving” a story that has been a problem-in-process for a long time. Reading and writing aren’t linear processes for me; they start and stop, they get tangled up in each other. When I’m reading a lot, I’m writing a lot; when I stop finding interesting things to read, my writing suffers and I start downloading entire seasons of shows with BitTorrent. It’s an ugly cycle. I’m not a steady consumer/producer and the library system allows me to be flexible. My reading can expand and contract like the size of an audience in a large room. It can be inconsistent and changeable. It can be partial and erratic. As in Mallett’s folded pieces of yellow lined paper (the kind I often write on) notes start and stop, not where the thought stop but where the folds happens to fall on the page. I moved on; my own process took over from the book I was reading; I got cut off by the many demands of my life (my dog is very emotionally demanding and doesn’t read enough). Because there is no money involved (therefore, guilt) and no grades involved (therefore, fear and approbration) I comfortably leave things unfinished, am quicker to back away from something I find slow/obvious, am more prone to cherry-pick and pillage for whatever I happen to be into that day/story. I always have several books open at once. I forget half of what I’ve read and combine plots.

The way other people are serial monogamists, I am a serial renewer. I will renew a book until someone else requests it and I get the email, saying GIVE IT BACK. Otherwise I would probably keep it forever. Because what if that book happened to be the book a few weeks from now? What if I really needed that book or a certain page of it and it were gone? I think this is a final vestige of intellectual romanticism in my daily life: I believe in the serendipity of the right book at the right moment.

Which is why it takes very little for me to place a hold on a book from the library. An interesting review, a work acquaintance’s mention, a reference in an interview by a writer I admire, a quote, a fellow writer telling me the book is a horrible waste of time.

Courtesy of the Vancouver Public Library app on my iPhone here is my current list of Holds with the reason why I originally placed the Hold:

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
–two women at the monthly women’s writers dinner group I belong to recommended this book (simultaneously, on the same night). I was convinced because one of them said the book is great at depicting female friendship and I want to read more of that.

Guide To Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
–I read the review by Helen Oyeyemi (whose book The Icarus Girl I really loved—you should take it out of the library, haha) in the New York Times book supplement and especially loved the idea of the story about the people who grow extra hands every time they fall in love.

Nostalgia, My Enemy: Poems by Saadi Youssef

–I came across his poem Red Night ( and used it to teach high school students how to use refrain, so then I wanted to read everything else. Also it is constantly frustrating to me that I don't know where to start in readings books in translation, so when I find something I like I usually run with it — usually in the form of Library Holds.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagaia
–Read a review and was also struck by how often tsunamis are coming up in books these days. Also planning on reading Ruth Ozeki’s new book, which centres on tsunami debris as a storytelling device.

Hollyhock: Garden To Table by Moreka Jolar
–I am also obsessed with cooking, you don’t need to hear about that.

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley
–Read a review of this and wanted to read it because it centres on women who escape from a religious cult and I live not far from Bountiful, BC, another religious cult which dominated the news for a long time (or at least dominated my news). See? Makes no legitimate sense. This is what libraries are for. (New advertising concept: Do you live near a CULT? You should read Amity & Sorrow!)

Red Doc> by Anne Carson
–I have to read this because I loved Autobiography of Red.

The Gifts of Imperfection by C. Brene Brown–Inkeeping with the themes of this book I am really not very happy that I forgot this book was here when I started revealing this list. I watched this woman’s TED Talk about vulnerability and courage and this is her book. Obviously, I am 5000th in row.

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

–a counselor who came and spoke to my Social Work course recommended this book as it related to his interests (and my interests) in epigenetics—that is, patterns of inherited behaviour across generations

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

–I saw her amazing reading in the basement of the Vancouver Public Library.


Library books I have now:

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra

–I just finished reading his third book Ways Of Going Home after reading the review in the NY Times and it was completely amazing. Cryptic, odd and disturbing. Zambra is a Chilean writer who only writes very short novels. Bonsai is wonderful so far.

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

–Her book of stories Black Tickets is one of my favourite books (also read Fast Lanes) and I finally realized after several years that I should check out her novels.

The Complete Works of Isaac Babel by Isaac Babel

–This was a Passover project. Part of my family is from Odessa and came to Canada due to tragic circumstances involving the Pogroms so I decided I would read Babel’s book of Odessa stories and process cultural loss. Because I like a nice fun project on the side!

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittinger

–Mentioned in an article about genderqueer and trans youth. It’s a young adult novel about transitioning from female to male.

This Connection of Everyone With Lungs by Juliana Spahr

–I planned to go to her reading in Vancouver recently so I took this out to read beforehand but instead that night I went to drop-in yoga and then bought myself pho. It had been a long week.


For several years I’ve taught for a program that runs writing workshops in social housing facilities, detox facilities and drop-in centres in Vancouver’s downtown core and Downtown Eastside (a neighbourhood often stereotyped in the news as “the poorest postal code in Canada”). I’ve run a weekly workshop for quite a while in a library in a City-run centre that’s accessed by a lot of low-income people, homeless people and people living in nearby SROs on the Granville strip. The library imposes no due dates. When I was first told this I felt a surge of jealousy. No due dates? Everybody should be told about this library! Then I learned that a significant amount of the library’s stock is stolen every year. Or rather, to take a Borgesian perspective, it is reshuffled into the city’s collective library. There is no point meting out fines to people who live in unstable and often unsafe circumstances.

One of my sporadic longterm participants, M, is in his late teens (a brilliant poet, by the way) and likes to greet me by pretending to pickpocket me (haha!?!?). He ran into me at a different community centre one day and told me he’d been banned from the library where I ran my workshop. I asked him why. He said he’d stolen books. I said, but they don’t have deadlines, how can you steal something that has an infinite borrowing period? He told me that he’d taken the books without checking them out to make a political point. At this point my eyes started to glaze over. What point? The books in question, he said, were by Zizek and the entire series of Zizek books had been sitting in the librarian’s office for a long time — clearly, he argued, she was keeping the Zizek for herself before putting them into circulation. That was probably not true, I told him. No, he insisted, it was true.

So he’d gone into her office and stolen the Zizek books. He’d taken the library system into his own hands, ascribing to his own principles of free distribution. I asked him where the books were now. Because M doesn’t trust shelters or institutions he has his belongings hidden in caches around downtown Vancouver. I love knowing that somewhere M has his collection of Zizek, in an alley or in a park or in the many cubbyholes and rooftops he’s found in the city.

That is his library.

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