Aislinn Hunter has eight different library cards in her wallet and could once be found rummaging through her library’s damaged books bin for treasures! She is now the author of the novel, The World Before Us.

world before us

“Before I started working on The World Before Us, I published two books of poetry. One of my most popular poems is called ‘Marginalia Found in Books at the Vancouver Public Library’. Many of the lines of marginalia quoted in it are taken from books I checked in and scanned for damage during my years as a library assistant.

I don’t know how other libraries do it, but when I worked at The Vancouver Public Library we had a huge wire cage in the basement where the books no longer fit for circulation were sent. It was against the rules but my friend Maia and I would sometimes go down on our lunch break and climb in; root around for something great in the rubble. I found my Collected Works of TS Eliot there and my treasured Roget’s Thesaurus. For a while I had a dictionary that was perfect except for the fact that it was missing a pile of pages in the mid–T’s.

I have always loved books: books to be read, blank books to be written in, books given or lent by friends with the hint of their having been there before me in the folded corner of a page or a sentence underlined in pen. I even loved the damaged and mangled books in the library basement’s bin. Working in The Vancouver Public Library was one of the great joys of my life, and the perfect job for an aspiring writer – and not just because of the books or the civic nature of the space but because the library community (staff and patrons alike) by their very presence in a library – by ordering and signing out and caring for books – are daily affirming the power of language and the potency of sharing stories and ideas.

The World Before Us is set in a museum but much of the research I did for the novel took place in libraries both in the UK and in Canada. When I needed permission to use the text of a letter from Tennyson at the start of the novel (this is a letter, written in 1877, that inspired much of the book) it was to a library (the wonderful Lilly Library in Indiana) that I turned. By my count I currently have eight different library cards in my wallet – from The British Library in London to the small neighborhood library six blocks away from my house.

I gave up crawling into the ruined books bin almost two decades ago but I will never stop being grateful for the privilege of the public library and for the work done by its custodians – from the librarians to the board members to the aspiring-writer clerks checking book after book for torn pages and soup stains and pencil marks – those traces of the reader who every once in a while picks up a pen and scribbles a line, as if to say I was here.”

Marginalia Found in Books at the Vancouver Public Library

  • In T.S. Eliot’s Collected, a handwritten dedication:

To all self-worshippers.”

  • Over the line in Lord Nelson’s letter to Lady Hamilton, where he confesses “I can neither Eat or Sleep for thinking of You my dearest love, I never touch even pudding…”

“AM loves JB,” looped letters in fat pencil.

  • In a cookbook, recipes corrected, an even hand that writes in blue pen,

“They’re wrong about the eggs.”

  • In Walter Benjamin’s essays: a question mark after the word “civilization.”
  • By the account of “An Albatross Shot on 1 October 1719,”

─the comment  “It could not have happened this way.”

  • “Only once, when I was young, did I write in a book not my own ––In the Collected Works of Emily Dickinson, with a black-ink pen from my father’s study I noted: “No, it’s death, dear Emily, with a small “d.”

From the Author's Desk: Aislinn Hunter on Libraries and her debut novel, The World Before Us

Category: MusingsStaff Picks

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