Posted by: bluesyemre | May 29, 2018

Speaking out of the silence (#Libraries are the forests of language)


The TLS (The Times Literary Supplement) asked a selection of this year’s Hay Festival speakers to share significant memories and thoughts relating to libraries, private and public. Together, these offer a composite portrait of what libraries have been, are and might yet become . . . 


When I was twelve years old my father bought part of a library at an estate sale. The books, mostly novels and plays, were leather-bound and sprayed mould-scented dust when they were opened. I felt superior to their pretentious appeal, but, by degrees, I discovered words, fresh and bright, beyond the musk. There was sarcasm that resonated with my adolescent irritability; there were tender longings that flattered my own aspirations; there were descriptions of fields and faces and feelings that provided new ways of seeing. Increasingly, today, my library nestles within my tablet, private but wonderfully accessible, multiple volumes that open with a tap. The lightweight rectangle holds the promise of new stories and new ideas, along with the comforting ability to search for favourite or partially remembered sentences. Wonderful, except for those heart-stopping moments when a page refuses to load, and I look into the void of literary loss.


Access to books is one of the greatest enriching experiences we can give our children. To escape into a book is a unique and precious kind of freedom. And as we force our libraries to cut back and close we are denying a generation of children that ability to escape, to imagine, to learn and to dream. Research conducted in 2014 found that a fifth of eleven-year-olds can’t read well. Yet our libraries are struggling desperately and aren’t given the support and funding they need to survive, let alone thrive. Beyond literacy, the social magic that happens in libraries – from support for new parents, to company and community for elderly people – is one of the most important aspects of our society. Why do libraries matter? How long have you got?


A library, for me, is a quiet and still place that is silently industrious. Somewhere to lose myself within my own mind and where time warps and plays tricks. Recently, while researching the life and death of William Bury, the last man to be hanged in Dundee and who it is claimed was Jack the Ripper, I found that a whole day would pass in the blink of an eye. Yet a library is so special you don’t feel resentment that time has been stolen, you simply yearn for more. It is a wildly addictive place where you crave the luxury and solitude that it offers simply to indulge, to read, to learn and to think.


Books are magical things that can change and, sometimes even save, people’s lives. There should be absolutely no barrier to anyone accessing that sort of magic if we want a truly equal society.


Libraries matter because knowledge should not be restricted to people with discretionary income. High on the list of people without discretionary income are children. I come from a middle-class background, but I was raised by a single mother, so I wasn’t in a position to buy any book I wanted. I spent much of my childhood in good local libraries, feeding my curiosity and my imagination. I can imagine little that is more culturally impoverishing than denying any child that opportunity. The public library is the democratization of knowledge, supported by people who equally understand that knowledge underpins democracy.


So many of my earliest and most vivid memories from childhood involve reading and libraries. From my mom reading Goodnight Moon to me after I tumbled down the stairs to racing to the school library or the public library downtown across from our church to see if the Encyclopedia Brown book I was desperate to read had been returned, I cannot imagine my life without books and libraries. The stories I adored, the stories that made me uncomfortable, the stories I didn’t find compelling all shaped the person I am today and the way I see the world. Access to books and to spaces that value books shouldn’t be a privilege. Every child should have the ability to go under the sea, to soar into space, to learn about kids their age around the world today or people who lived long, long ago. Children need love, light, clean water, nutritious food and the permission, expectation and support to imagine their lives. Books and libraries are central to that equation.


When I first became seriously interested in poetry, early in the 1970s, it was difficult to buy poetry books. No Amazon, and a very limited stock in most bookshops. In any case I couldn’t afford to buy everything I wanted to read. I tried the local public library, which wasn’t much help. Then I discovered the Arts Council Poetry Library in Covent Garden (now on the South Bank). It was exactly what I needed. I went there on Saturdays to change my four borrowed books for four more, and to chat with the librarian, Jonathan Barker, about what I’d been reading. In those days I knew hardly anyone else I could talk with about poetry. I’m still grateful for those conversations.


I experienced my first reading emotions in the library of Le Havre, where my mother used to leave my brother, sister and me while she went elsewhere: I was six or seven years old and suddenly I was in front of the books, alone and free. These books allowed me to access realities and worlds my life did not otherwise present to me. I had the feeling I was on a threshold, or a shore.

I like libraries where books are freely accessible, where you can touch them, flip through them. An ideal library can be tiny, but must be free and warm, with a selected collection and someone to advise you. The open hours should be extended in the evening, including the weekend. The library is perhaps the last utopia.


Libraries are for joy of the labyrinth. For dust. For corners. For romances where girl meets love by dropping Shelley. For osmosis. For stichomancy and other divinations. For trees who gave up their lives. For graveyard shifts. For the chance to have your guts pulled out and patted back in. For the musicality of fingertips on spines. For collective knowing and unknowing. For the employment of people who might dream of being poets. For plenty of armchair travel. For ecstasy. For the forest of language. For a word like tsundoku – which, in Japan, denotes the piling-up of unread books – and the possibility of piling that word on top of other unread words, forever discovering more words like tsundoku.


It’s hard to recall a literary figure who hasn’t upheld the vital importance of libraries – save for perhaps Jorge Luis Borges, whose short story “The Library of Babel” is an absurdist take on the paralysis born from having an endless amount of information at one’s disposal. His labyrinthine library contains even all unwritten books. Although Borges’s nightmarish vision haunts me still, as a writer and researcher I couldn’t be more grateful to libraries, and to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “In a Library”, which illuminates with brio the simple joys of having access to countless volumes: “A precious, mouldering pleasure ‘t is / To meet an antique book, / In just the dress his century wore; / A privilege, I think, / / His venerable hand to take, / And warming in our own, / A passage back, or two, to make / To times when he was young . . .”


I always loved the “little catastrophe” Woolf describes in Jacob’s Roomas part of a routine afternoon in the British Library. “Miss Marchmont’s pile overbalanced and fell into Jacob’s compartment.” Jacob continues “unmoved” with his transcription of Marlowe, though the stern reader on Miss Marchmont’s other side is annoyed by the careless disturbance. The image sums up much of what moves me, still, after years of reading in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I like the powerful sense of people sitting shoulder to shoulder, intent on their distinct quests. I like the possibility that one reader’s books – and thoughts, and questions, and hopes – might make a small incursion into the life of the reader next door. I treasure the private space I carve out at my desk, and I like individual desk lamps that mark out a circle of concentration. But look up at any moment and you remember that other people are embarked on equally intricate, absorbing investigations of their own.


I  learnt to read in our local library. We went once a week. The two resident homeless gentlemen, beards oiled and combed, turned the pages of each newspaper with meticulous timing. Three broadsheets equalled opening hours. I remember the sharp, proud smell of them. I remember the stories in their greatcoats. Although as it turns out, learning to read books wasn’t the full lesson, here. I was, it seems, performing the pages; joining the flat world to the world of feeling around me. The library was where I learnt to watch and to think and care. Libraries are knowledge as collective experience.


Libraries matter for the same reason parks matter. Because to blossom, human beings need public spaces that enable play, freedom and social contact without any ties to consumption. Think about it for a moment: there aren’t that many left. All we see in the street is for sale, pushing us to measure ourselves by how much we can own instead of how much we can feel and think and imagine. A library is a contem­porary haven in that sense. A place that holds a million doors into a million worlds, and they’re all at your reach. For free.


I  was a member of one library or another for the early part of my life. My foster family joined me up to Whitehawk Library in Brighton from an early age – I was an eager and quick reader. Looking back, I see that Haywards Heath Library sowed the seeds of my later writing career. My English teachers at secondary school introduced me to Paul Zindel’s The Pigman and Robert C. O’Brien’s Z For Zachariah. After that, indulgent librarians directed me to the shelves for more of these wondrous stories about teenagers – all the Paul Zindels, all the S. E. Hintons. And then Tolkien . . . Now, my daughter is a big library-user, finding a wealth of books that support her love of lang­uages.


As a child I visited my local library nearly every day. Childhood is a time for exploring, finding out what excites you. At the library I could experiment, one day reading ballet books for girls and the next Hemingway. I was unburdened by financial constraints. I felt no commercial pressure telling me what to read. I burrowed my way through the shelves and took home anything that caught my eye. It is quite simple: without libraries many children, particularly those of limited means, would never go beyond school-prescribed reading. I don’t think I could have written my own book if I hadn’t had easy access to such a wealth of books as a child.


When I think of a library, my mind inevit­ably returns to the modest one housed within my public high school in Chesterfield County, Virginia. If judged solely by the institutional blandness of its appearance, one might conclude that it bore little if any relationship to the grand repositories of knowledge like the Bodleian or the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. And yet throughout my sophomore year, having accepted the limited nature of my mathematical abilities, I absented myself from my scheduled Trigonometry class in favour of that modest library’s collection of books. I discovered that even those finite walls of painted cinderblock contained an almost infinite world of ideas and human expression.


We need different libraries for different purposes, of course. A good public lending library wouldn’t be very good if it worked in the same way as a specialized academic reference library. But ideally, libraries should be comprehensive (as well stocked as possible) and well catalogued. It should be easy to find the book or the information you want, and if you need to work there, it should have effective lighting and comfortable (but not too comfortable) seating. Serendipity matters, too. As many books as possible should be on open shelves, so that we can browse and discover things we didn’t know existed (the most popular shelves in a public library are the ones where they put returned books that haven’t been sorted yet). Above all, libraries should be open, and free, and properly subsidized by an intelligent state that values knowledge.


Like many, I can’t resist bookshops, with their shiny promise of new releases and bestsellers, requiring the customer to choose carefully which to take home. But libraries promise far more: an abundance of stories, of histories, of opinions – with the only choice being which order to read them in. My focus is on creating twenty-first-century economies in which instead of being used up, nature’s resources are used again and again, and in which wealth, knowledge and power are distributed far more equitably throughout society. When it comes to the world of books, libraries are a double whammy: providing access to all, not just ownership for those who can afford it; and ensuring that every book is read again and again. In the adventure of creating regenerative, distributive economies, libraries are right up there as an example of how to make it happen.


I  am lucky enough to have spent time in some of the world’s finest libraries: the British Library and National Art Library in London, New York Public Library and the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Yet the one that means the most to me is (or was) the mobile library in a dilapidated van that arrived once a fortnight in the tiny Essex village where I lived as a teenager in the 1970s. The van was stocked with trashy thrillers and Georgette Heyer bodice-rippers (not unlike our crappy school library), but I’d hand the driver a list of the books I wanted to read, and collect them two weeks later. Without that van, I wouldn’t have been able to read nearly as many books at the time, or to experiment with new authors and genres. And without it, I’d never have escaped from rural Essex into those grand libraries with boundless books, and no wheels.


If we never needed a library again, we would still want them for their scent of old pages, for the shared solitude, for the alleys between racks where we wander from physics to geography and lose ourselves in fiction. And if we closed all the libraries because knowledge is now online, we would want them back as long as there are towns and villages struggling to be caught in the World Wide Web. And if we never needed libraries because nobody read any more, we would still mourn their loss as we mourned stone Buddhas in an Afghan desert, forgotten until they were destroyed.


Libraries, when I was growing up, were so good it seemed baffling; the world, which wasn’t, in my short experience, known for giving something for nothing, was offering some of the best things in the world for free. I revelled in each shelf – in books full of hunger and jokes and hope. I still find libraries astonishing; I still think they speak of our better instincts. If books crowbar the world open for you, then libraries are a heist on the heart. If hope is a thing with feathers, then libraries are wings.


Not yet a teenager, in the early 1970s my first library was in Swiss Cottage, part of a vast concrete Camden Council complex that included a sports centre and two large swimming pools. No surprise that I associate books with the smell of chlorine and sweat. The library seemed huge, filled with curious characters, a wonderful place to observe. Perhaps the nun who seemed to be able to read with her eyes closed; a nose-picking schoolmate who stuck it under the chair; a man with unkempt hair who liked to doze in the history section. It was also a place of low-grade fear. I wasn’t so good at returning books on time, and came to believe that if sufficient time passed the reminder letters – an early brush with public authority – would stop. They didn’t. Every so often, guilt-ridden, I’d pick up a stack of lates, rush to the library, leave them hastily on the counter, then hurtle out. I was fearful of librarians back then. Now I am in awe of them.


I  grew up in a Pakistan of censorship and military rule and a paucity of good English language bookshops. Thank god for the British Council library in Karachi, where I spent a significant portion of my youth. The end of adolescence sent me far away to a university in upstate New York – everything was strange and unfamiliar; I was terribly homesick. And then one day I thought to go to the library in search of some of my fav­ourite books. I still remember the moment I found Meatless Days by Sara Suleri in the stacks. I pulled it off the shelf, and felt myself at home.


A  library is both a place and a frame of mind. Whether it’s a public space where you can spend an afternoon browsing for new adventures or at home perusing a book shelf or tablet, whether you are reading words or listening to an audiobook, a library is above all a source of enjoyment. Enjoyment is defined as “the state or process of taking pleasure in something” or “benefiting from something”. Enjoying and benefiting from books in a physical or digital library speaks to our frame of mind. That synergy of space and spirit, to me, is a library.

Philip Pullman will appear in the Hay Festival Library Platform on June 2. Hay Festival continues to raise money to fund Hay Public Library’s opening hours, while festival events will be streamed to the British Library’s Living Knowledge Network on May 26.


  1. Reblogged this on tabletkitabesi.

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