Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Hothouses For The Imagination

I was an ordinary child in all but one respect - I was able to read around the age of three, a couple of years before I was enrolled in the little Church of England village school in Selsley, at the top of a long steep climb from our cottage (this was Gloucestershire in 1960; although we lived in one of a tumbledown row of four Elizabethan cottages with an iron foundry on one side and the recreation fields of a nearby factory on the other, it was pretty rural). My father was in the navy, and usually away; when I was a teenager, he and my mother divorced, something unusual and peculiarly shaming in England, in the early 1970s. We had little money, and few books. But there was always the library.

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.


Anonymous Al Reynolds said...

If it wasn't for my local library, I wouldn't have discovered the first Interzone anthology (the one with "Tissue Ablation" in), and therefore I wouldn't have discovered Interzone, and therefore...well, you get the idea. Deep gratitude, in other words.

June 07, 2006 8:35 am  
Blogger Keith Ferrell said...

For me at the library as a kid in the latter 80s it was Mailer's DEER PARK and Burgess's ENDERBY that stretched my contemporary reading boundaries beyond the sf that held so much of my attention.

Tellingly -- the telling being that 1969 was an alternate universe -- I got sent to the principal for reading a book (!)in 10th grade study hall. The book was Mailer's WHY ARE WE IN VIETNAM, and the disciplinary action for reading was, in retrospect, a sign of things to come re. libraries, bookstores, reading records and reading funding. Maybe '69 wasn't so alternate after all.

June 08, 2006 2:09 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Well-written, Paul!
Situation in Russia is the same .
Teenagers and kids read very little - too much other easy entertaiments - Internet, computer games etc.
Which is even more tragic for us. By the way, I`ve got edition of poetry and prose by Pushkin in 3 volumes, which was relased in 1986. Circulation was 10 700 000 (it is true). And it was sold.
20 years gone - and here is another country.

June 09, 2006 1:29 pm  
Blogger martyn44 said...

I used my local library voraciously as a child, and now I've come back home I find it a lot less glorious a place than I remembered.
My kids don't use the library - except the school library (which, conversely, is very much better than it was when I attended, that splendid pinnacle of British education virtues, a boys only grammar school - hang on a bit while I get my tongue out of my cheek) - largely because they don't stock the books these children of fans and writers want to read.
On the other hand, Cathie and I are prepared to pauper ourselves buying the books and manga for them (when he was 11 my reading disabled son's favourite book was Beowulf and he would discuss the merits of various translations - he wasn't a Seamous Heaney fan)
The problem for libraries is a legacy of Thatcherism - if you can't afford to buy the books you really shouldn't be reading them in case you get ideas above your station, just as if you can't afford to drive somewhere you shouldn't travel in case you see something that might make you discontent with your station.
Public libraries are one of the glories of British Society (and I'm allowed to say that because two dear friends are librarians) and, unlike Thatcherism, should be encouraged. That should only be weeded out as the hogweed it was and remainsd.

June 22, 2006 10:59 am  

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