The Day My Mum Lost A Library Book And Her World Became A Smaller Place

Posted on 20th August, 2015

A few days ago, I read Paula Reid Nancarrow's latest blog, a compilation of quotes by authors about reading. Paula dedicated the post to her mother, who has always loved books and reading, and who now suffers from Altzheimer's Disease, which, of course, means that she and her family live within what Paula calls a "shifting reality."


Paula's blog made me think of my own mother - a dedicated reader, whose final years embraced the same shifting reality. I'd like to tell you about her lifelong relationship with reading... and with the public library.


It's impossible to think of Mum's books without also picturing our local library. She was a lifelong reader, as was my father, and they brought up a family of lifelong readers. My parents weren't well off when their children were young, but books were always worth spending money on. There were books for birthdays and Christmas and extra books in our Christmas stockings; and the day before going on holiday was always special, because we were given our holiday reading. There were always reference books in the house, too, in case they were needed for homework.


But I can remember only one occasion when Mum bought a book for herself. Even when things became financially easier, she didn't buy herself books. And no matter how much she loved reading, it was a waste of money to buy her a book as a present, because all she ever did with them was put them on a shelf to keep "in case I'm ever housebound." (She also had a cupboard crammed with tinned goods "in case we're ever snowed in." We never were.)


All my mum's reading came from the library. She was born long before the days of babies joining the library. In those days, you had to be 8 years old before you could join; but she was so desperate for reading matter than her father - who was a stickler for correct behaviour and the last person in world to break a rule and the first to be outraged at anyone else who did - lied about her age in order to get her enrolled.


She visited the library twice a week until almost the end of her life, always choosing fiction written by women or at least by authors using women's names. I never did tell her that Emma Blair and Jessica Stirling were really men. She loved family sagas. In her later years, she read contemporary novels as well as historicals, but before that she preferred books set in the past - but only stories that were set after the building of the railways. If ever I went to the library on her behalf, that was the instruction I was given - "They must be set after the building of the railways." To this day, whenever I pick up an historical novel, I immediately categorise it as a Mum-book or a not-Mum-book.


Then Altzheimer's Disease began to creep up on her. To begin with, reading was a great support and solace to her, as other areas of her life began to drift away. But then her memory problems started to reach into her reading life and when she picked up a book, she could no longer remember the story so far. You can imagine how frustrating this was. It was also frightening, because it was a quantifiable indication of her problems.


Did she stop reading? No, she didn't. The way she saw it, she had two choices. She could start again at the beginning every time she picked up a book - and she didn't want to do that, because that was what her own mother had been reduced to years previously. Or she could press on regardless and try to pick up what was happening, knowing that any understanding of the plot and any pleasure she derived would vanish the instant she put the book down - and that was what she chose to do, because she was a lifelong reader and she wanted to read.


Then came the day when she lost a library book. She was mortified. The library staff couldn't have been kinder or more supportive. They encouraged her to carry on borrowing books, but she wouldn't. I did my best to persuade her, but she wouldn't budge. Aware of her failing memory, she insisted she could no longer be trusted to look after library books ("the Corporation's property") and therefore she mustn't borrow any more.


And so ended her relationship with the public library service - a relationship that had lasted through seven decades. She never visited the library again.


Her condition worsened as a result. Going to the library - physically walking there twice a week - was one of the things that had provided scaffolding in her life. Removing it took away an important routine - it was only when it was too late and her life had shrunk and become geographically smaller that we realised how important it had been. Moreover, without that determination to read and engage even on a limited level with the fictional world that had always meant so much to her, Mum's mental capacity diminished, too.


Losing that library book and deciding not to use the library again was one of the defining moments of Mum's illness. But what I try to think of when I remember Mum and her reading, is the great pleasure it brought her and also the comfort and much-needed escape it provided for her when we lost my dad. Most of all, I am grateful to have had parents to whom reading was so important. They made me what I am - a lifelong reader and library user.



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Comments (11)

How lovely that you are not just sharing books but also sharing public library visits with your little ones, Wendy. It's something special that they will always remember about staying with you. Thanks for your comments.
As a child. I visited the library ever week with my mother. As an adult, with more money and an ever growing choice of books to buy in shops and online, I'm afraid I stopped visiting as regularly. Since having grandchildren, though, everything has reversed. When they stay, part of our ritual is the visit to the library at the end of the road. We choose books for me to read to the little two while my eldest grandson feasts himself on the non-fiction books. Then I'll slip away and find a couple of books for myself.
Thanks for your supportive words, Jan. It is hard to watch dementia claim a family member and to see the person gradually losing their real self. I think it is important to focus on the good memories - I know my mum would want to be remembered as the robust woman she was in her prime.
A very poignant post, Sue, full of the love you had for your mum. Alzheimer's is, as others have said, such a cruel disease and it's so sad that it robbed your mum of her library visits in the end. You're right to focus on the legacy she left you of being a life-long reader and that love of reading.
Thanks for your comments, Jessica and Jen. So good to hear from you both.

You're right to call dementia cruel, Jessica, and Jen has summed it up perfectly by saying that it robs us, both patients and family members, of so much. Reading was of such importance to my mother and it was hard to see her lose something that had been an essential element of her well-being and her personality throughout her whole life.

I'm glad you have joined your local library, Jen. The public library system is one of the true wonders of the world - long may it last!
This is a very special post, Susanna. Thank you for sharing your memories of your mum and her influence in your life. I'm sorry your family has been impacted by Alzheimer's. Such a terrible disease which robs both patient and family members of so much that is precious.

My love of books came from my parents, as well as my grandmother, and one of the first things I did when I moved to my new home was to join the local library. To me, the library is at the heart of any community, and when I'm in a library, I feel at 'home.'
What a lovely post, Susanna. I'm so sorry about your mum. It's such a cruel illness, but what a wonderful legacy she left to have created a lifelong reader (and a writer) in you xx
I'm sorry to hear that your mum experienced similar difficulties to those my mum went through. It's a shame, too, that your mum didn't live to see you published. I'm sure she would have been enormously proud of your success, but there will always be a little part of you that wishes she could have known. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I can really identify with this, Susanna. It was a sad day for me too when I realised my mum could no longer read through a book. Like your mum, mine had been a reader and library-goer all her life till then. She died the year before my first MS was accepted, without having read any of my books. I'm glad - and happy - my kids have read them, though!
What a lovely way for your mum to share her love of books with you, Wendy. I'm glad my blog made you remember it. Parents have such an important role to play in turning children into readers.
What a sad and poignant story, Susanna. Like you, my love of books stemmed from my mum, as I'm sure is the same for many of us. She would often tell my sister and I when we were young about what she was reading (usually a library book, of course!) not by reading from the novel (being an adult book it wouldn't have worked) but by retelling the story. Then she'd say, "That's as far as I've got for now, so you'll have to wait until I've read a bit more to find out what happens next." Thinking back, it was a lovely way for her to share her love of books with us in a different way from reading our books to us. A very special memory! Thanks for prompting me to recall it. :-)