A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Eagle-eyed readers will note that this post is a change to the billed one on Tana French’s latest thriller. This is due to mix-up entirely of my own doing, and that post will follow at a later date.
“For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer.” – Caitlin Moran
One of my earliest memories of moving to a new town a couple of months before my 5th birthday is the day that my mother and I headed out along the Main Street to find the library. My dad’s cousin, who knew the town, had given my mum rough directions, but we couldn’t find it and headed home. If memory serves, we were both disappointed. I know I was. The library was an essential landmark, it was an Important Place to Find, like the doctor’s surgery and the dentist. Not knowing where it was induced, I believe, a mild sense of panic. I remember my mum phoning dad’s cousin again, this time getting clearer instructions, and we headed straight back out again. We found it. There was a sigh of relief.
The Library Book is a collection of essays by (mainly) writers about the value of libraries, especially the wake of recent government cuts and library closures. Stephen Fry is in there, as is Susan Hill, Ann Cleeves, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Val McDermid, Seth Godin, Kate Mosse, Hardeep Singh Kohli, Lionel Shriver, and – as the cliche goes – many, many more. Like any collection, there are highs and lows. Godin, for instance, provides his vision of libraries in 2020, and while his prediction of the library becoming “the local nerve centre for [electronic] information… the insight and leverage is going come from being smart and fast with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks” might well be accurate, I felt a pang for my memories of the library I grew up going to (or in some ways, grew up in). Online resources are brilliant for education and learning, no argument from me there, but what of novels and poetry and the emotional education that can be found within them? If it hadn’t have been for copious coming-of-age novels read in my teenage years I suspect I would genuinely have struggled in some ways. I credit novels with my sanity after some difficult years.
“Those books are almost a form of medication; I reckon we save the NHS a fortune in anti-depressants.” – Ann Cleeves
I hear ya, Ann. I really do.
So libraries as a place for learning, yes, I understand that, and that is an essential purpose of them. But what I am more interested in is the other journeys of discovery the library can lead you on. For me, an abridged, children’s version of Jane Eyre borrowed from the library when I was nine or ten is where my love of the Brontes, and then more widely, Victorian novels came from. The Nancy Drew stories were most likely the start of my love of crime fiction. The Point Horror books had me terrified, and Judy Blume… well, she’s Judy Blume. She’s amazing. I went to the library at least once a week; every day during the school holidays. I read and I read and I read. We could never have afforded to buy the number of books I went through thanks to the library, and that is a crucial point. Libraries are havens for readers without the disposable income to buy everything they fancy reading. These need to be local, just as Caitlin Moran says in the quote up the top. If you’ve just got once big fancypants super-library in your nearest city, you’re not going to make the weekly (daily) pilgrimage unless you cross its path. And so fewer books get to fewer people.
Val McDermid’s contribution was one of my favourites. In it she described how she had more or less devoured everything from the children’s section, but the adult library was on the other side of a barrier that required an adult library ticket. And so, she concocted a scheme whereby she snuck her mother’s library card from the house then presented herself at the library claiming that her mother was ill and bedridden, and had sent her daughter to pick up a book or two on her behalf. She was in, and a new world opened. The library, McDermid says, was the cornerstone of her development into a writer:
“Being a reader turned me into a writer. It fed my imagination, and revealed worlds far beyond my own experience. When I took the mighty leap into the dark to abandon my well-paid and secure job and attempt to make a living as a writer, I was too poor to afford books or music, and again it was the library that saved me. When I was starting to make my way as a writer, it was the support of libraries that helped me gain a readership.”
Contributing to a book blog may well mean that I am preaching to the converted here. But if anyone needs a reminder as to the value of your local library, then this book, surely, is it.
All proceeds from sales of this book go to The Reading Agency and their work to support libraries.
The Library Book (London: Profile Books, 2012). ISBN 1781250057, hardback, RRP £9.99