Hothouses For The Imagination
When I was quite small, the library was a library van that came by the village school once a week. A little later, I joined the library in Stroud, a lovely, light, modern building. It wasn’t where I first encountered science fiction - one of the few books my family owned was Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea - but it was where I began to actively seek it out, working my way through the oeuvres of Captain W.E. Johns and Patrick Moore, amongst others. When I moved to the grammar school at age eleven, I discovered a complete set of the Everyman Edition of H.G. Wells in the Junior School Library, and that set the seal. I needed more, the junior section Stroud Library wasn’t enough, and with some special pleading by my mother on my behalf, I was allowed tickets to the adult section a couple of years earlier than the rules allowed. I’m forever grateful to my mother, and to the librarian who waived those rules. I was let loose on a treasure trove, and by the time I was 15 or 16, I had read my way through the essential science fiction classics and the novels and short-story collections of the burgeoning New Wave, and was branching out into the next-door crime shelves (Ed McBain was a particular favourite) and serendipitous discoveries elsewhere. I started reading John Updike, for instance, because I picked up Rabbit, Redux one day, puzzled by the odd title, and discovered that it was set during the summer of the first moon landing, and was written - wow - in the present tense. Thirty years later, I would be told by one American publisher that they couldn’t take White Devils unless it was rendered into ordinary past tense because otherwise no American reader would be able to understand it.
I was a science geek, and didn’t take English at school beyond what were then O-levels. But while my formal education in English ended at the age of 16, there was always the library, a place where I was able to continue my erratic self-education in the art of the fiction, absolutely free, well into my university years and beyond.
Now, libraries aren’t what they were. Too many are closing down because too many local councils see them as easy targets when relatively small savings have to be made. And there are too many demands on them as well; they’re no longer exclusively about the printed word, but must cater to demands for computer access and CD and DVD lending too, all on ever-shrinking budgets. It’s a rotten shame, ably documented in Tim Coates’s blog (thanks to The Grumpy Old Bookman via Maxine at Petrona for the link).
I think of all the kids like me, weird kids, bright kids, enquiring kids, from backgrounds where books don’t furnish a room. What will they do without these marvellous hothouses of the imagination? If not for libraries, I wouldn’t be the semi-respectable tax-paying novelist I am today; and I don’t think that I’m unique amongst writers in owing libraries a massive debt. Not a bad return for what is, really, a public pittance.