Dunedin’s Lilliput Libraries are hand-crafted book-filled boxes set up on the fence line of a dedicated Lilliput Library guardian. Passers-by are encouraged to “take a book now, leave a book later”. John’s Lilliput Library needed a bit of a turn around; we needed some exercise. Thus the Swift bike and book tour was born. We decided that each tour member would take a book to John’s library and swap it with a book found therein. We would then cycle on to other Lilliput Libraries, exchanging our book whenever we found one we preferred. At any one time we would each carry only one book. We would then cycle back up to John’s with our single prized tome.
Pam the philosopher asked how I had planned out the route as there was an infinite number of ways of travelling between the Lilliput Libraries. Michael the Mathematician argued there was actually only a finite number of ways of travelling between a finite number of locations. Pam said that was only the case when considering straight lines. The argument continued. They were both already red in the face and puffing away, and we hadn’t even started cycling. I was beginning to think that if we ever did a second tour I wouldn’t invite either a philosopher or a mathematician. Eventually Hilary the Human Resources expert calmed the waters between them by getting the parties to agree that the number of possibilities was immense but it didn’t really matter all that much.
We all put our books into John’s library then in turn pondered what was on offer and took one out. It just so happened we each took out a book that one of us had just deposited so John’s library had exactly the same books as before.
We all admired Saul the Surgeon’s very expensive road bike. He was keen to tell us about the state-of-the-art electronic gear shifting, which had “not been cheap”. Saul had carried his initial book offering, The Art of War, in a tiny canvas bag on his handle bars but had exchanged it for a very large vegan cook book (clearly he was going through some kind of midlife change). As I was the only cyclist with panniers he asked if I could carry it for him. As Saul sped off at great speed I reminded myself not to invite a surgeon next time.
Having overheard me agree to carry Saul’s book, William the Whinger asked if I would carry his too, because he felt a bit off par. William had selected A Death in the Family, the first book in My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgård’s six part autobiographical series. This was the book I had dropped off, having bailed out at page 27.
Into the pannier went A Death in the Family, along with Saul’s cookbook and my own John le Carré novel.
Julie the jeweller was on her electric bike. Her competitive nature kicked in when she saw Saul the Surgeon speed off. She raced to catch up, and they sailed off into the distance. They waited for us at our next stop in Roslyn. The two of them seemed to be on good terms. Clive the Chef said didn’t I know that the whole point of middle aged cycling parties was the match-making exercise. I told Clive I hadn’t realised that at all. Tim the Teacher had stern words with Saul and Julie. He said they were letting the team down and breaking the ethos of the whole trip. He asked if they thought their parents would be proud of their behaviour. Saul and Julie just giggled in the way that middle aged cyclists often do.
The cycling went on, as it does in Dunedin, with slow long hot climbs followed by fleeting cool descents. We had a spell in the flatter university and polytechnic areas. Edward the English graduate had been unimpressed with the books on offer at every stage of our trip so far. Now he was disappointed with the campus Lilliput Library. He bemoaned the lack of modern day academic standards and asked why oh why were there no books by Hemingway, Joyce, Lessing, or even Will Self? Pam the Philosopher told him to stop being so pretentious. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Julie the Jeweller and Saul the Surgeon kept racing off together, out of view of Tim the Teacher. However Saul’s electronic shifting on his “very expensive bike” malfunctioned and he had to call his wife who came to the rescue in a very large Mercedes.
After that, Julie noticed a flashing light on her bike and had an attack of Battery Anxiety*. She needed to offload weight to extend the battery life, and asked if I, the one with the panniers, would help. Again everyone looked at me and it again seemed churlish not to agree.
We pedaled on. The Lilliput Libraries are beautiful installments, invariably tastefully decorated, often with a theme such as Harry Potter or the BFG. They are usually made from wood with a glass door, although one in North East Valley is a painted fridge freezer unit. We spent quite some time in the spring heat diligently perusing books. Unbelievably Wiliam the Whinger found a copy of all six books in Knausgård’s series. As we cycled up the final hill to John’s place, Knausgård’s struggle was rapidly becoming mine.
Later, though, we all agreed that a Lilliput Library bike tour is a great form of exercise, and you might even pick up a great book. My advice is to plan who you travel with very carefully and insist that everyone has panniers.
*Battery Anxiety: the worry experienced by electric bike riders and electric car drivers; fear of running out of power before the intended destination is reached.
Joe Baker is a Dunedin doctor.
Lilliput Libraries is a project initiated and convened by Dunedin poet Ruth Arnison, who edits the pamphlet series Poems in the Waiting Room. Read what Ruth has to say about Poems in the Waiting Room on Corpus here.