The first of February, 2011: wishful thinking and aspic

Please read this: a superb piece of rhetoric by Philip Pullman (some background, if you need it, here).

It’s clearly the voice of a writer for children, which only makes you wonder what right he’s got to be so damn eloquent. The bit about books and bookselling nearly made me a bit weepy.

He’s right, too. Local libraries have taken a wrong turn in recent years, it’s true – too many coffee mornings and toddler groups, too little quiet, too few books – but further decline isn’t going to help anyone.

I could chip in, seeing as everyone else is, with my own reminiscences – the prickly orange carpet tiles, the heavy IN and OUT doors, the endless renewals of Wildlife On Your Doorstep and Behind The Scenes At The Zoo and, later, The Catcher In The Rye and The Grapes Of Wrath – but I don’t want to be tiresome, and anyway Pullman did it better than I could.

And now this is happening. I think I’m all for it – but I’m not much in favour of mass protests, and can’t escape the nagging feeling that this is all our own fault. I don’t have any library-user demographic figures to hand, but I’m afraid that this widely-reviled message to the libraries by MLA head Roy Clare

Public libraries will not be preserved by wishful thinking and aspic. Strive to thrive; recognise the width and breadth of the social opportunities and fight hard to nourish change and embrace development that can serve the whole community, not simply the privileged, mainly white, middle class.

– is loathesome chiefly because Clare seems so bloody happy about this state of affairs. I resent the idea that libraries – that is, books – are for the privileged white middle-classes. But I’m afraid (literally) that people just don’t want books any more.

To finish, a counterblast from beyond the grave:

I have used small libraries and even built some myself, but I’m never happy in a public one… Reference  libraries won’t do. You can’t read a book seated at a table on a hard chair, without a smoke and without a drink. A book can be properly read only when lying down or slouched gracelessly. Books were never meant to have notes taken out of them; they should be smeared, dog-eared, scrawled on, underlined. What I suppose I mean is that one should always read one’s own bought or stolen books, never borrowed ones… The real argument against the institutional library is that the books have to be treated with respect, like governesses. A book should be a whore, not a lady. Except, of course, that the place of a book is in the home: there the image breaks down. Let us say, then, that one’s personal library should be a kind of harem.

From Anthony Burgess, ‘Why All This Fuss About Libraries?’, Urgent Copy (Penguin, 1973).

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