In order to improve my general quality of life and the fatness of my bank balance, I set out last weekend to register for not one, but two libraries. The kind folks at the City Library puzzled their way through my non-existent Czech to confirm that I actually need a real, live Czech person to act as a referee. And pay a substantial deposit. So will be back next weekend after the blackmail kicks in.
To be fair, for the privilage I get to borrow from their extensive English-language selection, kindly donated by the British Council some years back. Although perhaps not all 8000 books at once. They also have a giant sculpture in their entrance hall in which thousands of books are bricked up to make a giant hollow tube. Through a split in the side, you can look in and get mild headrush from the mirrors placed at the top and bottom. I panicked, checked to see most of the books were in Czech and breathed a sigh of relief.
Then I popped across the square to sign on at the National Library. After a fairly extensive inquisition and some complicated manoeuvres with a black felt-tip pen and the coat-check lady I managed to acquire not one, but two identical cards. I think one must be a spare. Sadly, neither of them can be used to borrow books, but I do get to use the reading room and flit through the stacks like a giant-stack-flitting animal in a coat and glasses.
To make the place even better, the whole library has that wonderful shabbiness caused by endless rows of handwritten card catalogues, large potted plants with big dusty leaves and antiquated computers and those huge microfilm readers bought in a fit of wide-eyed technological enthusiasm back when a very different bunch were exporting technology to this corner of the world. Haha! Yes, meeztress perille... Ve haff ze mikrofeelm! And a way to read it... Now crank zat hendle harder! Harder I tell you! haha!
But the reading room is the best of all. Huge and high-ceilinged, with desks that creak and snap as the unwary brush past, brass-shaded lamps connected by electric flex covered in brown cloth, floorboards that groan under hard wooden chairs, and strange chilly drafts of undetectable origin.
At the far end, the wall above the main entrance is covered by an enormous mural in shades of grey. Doubtless its subject matter is meant to elevate and improve the moral and intellectual fibre of the hundreds of thousands of students who use it to practise critical eye-focussing exercises in those all-important and infrequent mental breaks.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to be distracted by the 30-foot, black iron, eighteenth-century roccoco stove that looms up against this same wall blocking half the mural, and thereby reducing the edification factor by as much again. Enormous, big enough in the belly to cook thirty skinny students and presumably once used to heat the vast room during the sort of freezing winter that passed us by this year. It is my new favorite thing.