Review: The Library Book by The Reading Agency

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The Library Book by The Reading Agency book cover
The Library Book (2012) is a collection of twenty-odd essays and a few of short stories, which celebrate the unique pleasures and value of libraries. Published by the Reading Agency as part of their on-going campaign to protect public libraries from cuts and nurture the love of reading, this is a book that exists solely – as the title might suggest – to praise libraries. With contributors ranging from Alan Bennett to Nicky Wire (of the Manic Street Preachers), Seth Godin to Stephen Fry, it offers a range of reminiscences and polemics from some of the country’s top library-fanciers, all contained within one slim volume. A diverting read, The Library Book helps reaffirm Britain’s – or at least some of its eminent residents’ – love affair with the library.

Although from a variety of sources, a good many of the essays pertain to the contributors’ personal experiences (normally during their formative years) of libraries; mythologising the humble library and turning it into a sanctuary, an inspiration, and a pillar of community. Alan Bennett’s piece leads the way for these dew(e)y-eyed remembrances of bookshelves past and, although many of these accounts homogenise after a while, there is something reassuring and comfortable about the shared experience of the many – an experience that most readers of this book will likely share. Beyond the cosier pieces, Zadie Smith’s essay is probably the most political and thus the most angry – a refreshing mini-tirade that represents the feelings of those who love libraries and feel the aching sadness as they are dismantled as an institution.

Not all the pieces are intent on hanging onto libraries in their current form, however; Seth Godin’s imagining of libraries as modern information hubs and networking spaces sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the woolly sentimentalisms. For him, the librarian ought to be closer to their modern incarnation as an information professional who is "a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user." The disjuncture that Godin’s article creates within the book as a whole only goes to highlight how homogenous the other pieces become: it may set the library out as a quite unfamiliar and even disagreeable place to be, but it is still a valuable change of perspective, the like of which is in short supply in The Library Book.

The short snatches of fiction, from China Mieville (an extract from Un Lun Dun), Julian Barnes (an offshoot of his novel England, England), and Kate Mosse (a short story called “The Revenant”) provide a pleasant break from the essays, giving The Library Book an easy flow. Some of these short pieces work a better than others, with some, being extracts from longer works, sitting a little uncomfortably as standalone pieces.

The Library Book will, it seems more than likely, be read predominantly by those who already support the cause of libraries and swoon at the notion of free books on tap, for everyone, forever. This isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion, instead it is a cosy act of sentimentalism and an ode to an institution that already bears little semblance to the sepia-toned memories contained between the pages of The Library Book.

Libraries are one of the few refuges away from the swirl of hyperactivity that represents modern life – spaces of tranquillity that still value Slow over Quick – repositories of knowledge and spaces of community, with genuinely egalitarian principles. To let such institutions die or be shamefully mutated into pseudo-coffee shops or PC suites before our eyes would be to oversee the failure of an irreplaceable service; The Library Book is a gentle reminder of all that is being lost at this very moment.

It's pretty much impossible for me not to like books like this - they're full of people giving voice to experiences I can completely empathise with - but there could perhaps have been a bit more variety in the pieces offered up here.


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