Library longings

I love libraries. I ought to have the tee-shirt. If there is one. I hope there is. Like the Books Are My Bag bags of last autumn’s brilliant campaign, we are sorely in need of an I ♥ Libraries tee-shirt.

Books Are My Bag campaign bag image

As I write this, I realise I’ve been a library user all my life, whether it’s been public libraries in various states of blossom or decay, or the slightly intimidating – but also glorious – university library. That one was up the big steps and through an almost airport level of security. And still people managed to steal books! They were stated as available in the catalogue but not on the shelf when I needed them, too often to be a simple case of mis-shelving. Stealing books (like dropping litter) rates high on my list of unforgiveable deeds. (Am I sad?)

Stealing books from a library steals them from all the other people, present and future, who would read that book. I was going to put ‘use that book’ but that’s too utilitarian, too Gradgrindian, and we’re in a very Gradgrindian era at the moment. ‘Read’ encompasses more than ‘use’; it embraces ‘like’ and ‘love’ and ‘recommend to others’ and ‘find useful’ and ‘find frustrating’ and ‘cast aside because it’s not for you’ and ‘remember for ever and go out and buy your own copy so you can keep it all to yourself!’

But I digress…

My local library has a very inviting area for teenage readers. I’ve only recently discovered this, because I wanted to catch up on my YA reading. There was no such category as YA when I was the right age for it – I wish there had been. It might have been on its way in when my kids were at that stage but if so, it didn’t register with any of us. My sons were such committed non-readers in their early teens, and I was such a non-hothouse-mother that instead of kicking hopelessly at a solid brick wall I just let them get on with other things and sank back into the pleasure of my own reading choices, serious fiction for fully paid-up adults. No farts or vampires.

The YA reading area in my library is a separate space, sectioned off but not cut off from the main library – and not leading out of the children’s area – which probably feels quite grown up. There are shelves of exciting-looking books, posters on the walls, and a corner with squashy sofas where there are always a few people sitting, sometimes talking, sometimes reading. Ok, it might be a school day and in school hours, but maybe they’re doing a project, and if not, well, there are far worse places to hang out than a library. It’s brilliant to see a teenager with their nose in a book.

When I was a reader at that stage (I don’t suppose there is a fixed age for it) I’d read everything I wanted to read in what was then called the Junior Library but had no idea where to begin in the Senior Library. My mother recommended a few minor classics which I steadfastly tried, but I’ve never been much good at reading those – all those flimsy pages, all those tiny words! – and quickly but quietly gave up on. I never asked a librarian. They were only there to date-stamp your books. So, completely without guidance, I just pulled books off the adult shelves and sometimes, if they had a really racy cover, I rapidly stuffed them back. Not that I didn’t want to read a (possibly) racy book, I just didn’t want anyone to see me choosing it!

Somehow I discovered science fiction (it was a catch-all category then) and got stuck into that – John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Ira Levin: yes, they were all chaps. Probably I found the names of other books and other authors in the same stable on the dust jackets and took it from there. At home we had a handful of macho adventures by Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes so I read those and more of the same. It was interesting, but also a bit of a cul-de-sac. There was so many other kinds of writing out there I would have loved, if I’d only known about them.

I’m only just embarking on my catch-up of recent – and not so recent – books that are now categorised as YA. The themes and content are pretty challenging, but they have young adults, male and female, as protagonists, working through all sorts of adolescent stuff, as well as dystopian nightmares and life-or-death dramas. Not just old blokes doing blokey stuff. How I wish there had been a dedicated space for me as a reader emerging from the Junior Library cocoon, and a wide selection of books that just might, or might not, fit the bill.

And how I wish there had been squashy sofas, too.

University of Sussex library

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7 thoughts on “Library longings

  1. I won’t waffle on about my relationship with books and libraries but will just say that I absolutely agree with every opinion expressed and largely echo your reading experience. We all need libraries, ad now more than ever when they’re under threat from false economising.

      • We always knew that the Big Society notion, while clothed in many innocuous-sounding and apparently sensible terms, was just a cloak for not only providing essential services on the cheap but often at real cost to the volunteers themselves. In any case, it’s falsely based on a US model where political ideologies with commercial clout and antipathy towards state-run services have much more power.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Furthermore, libraries have librarians who know and understand books and readers. A good library and a good librarian are two of our richest and most inspiring resources.

    • Hear hear to the value of librarians. I don’t know whether I was just unaware of their true role as a youngster, or whether they have improved over the years! And I’ve never heard a librarian shush anyone, as the rotten old stereotype goes.

  3. Yes I love libraries too! Although yours sounds rather more inviting than ours in Lincolnshire where savage cuts have decimated the service. As a teenager I couldn’t wait to get access to the adult library and I remember some wonderful accidental discoveries of authors and genres (not always ‘suitable’) and they were my discoveries, not recommended by anyone: the ghost stories of M.R. James for example or, like you some great science fiction. I have two teenage daughters: one an avid reader, the other will open a book only under duress (a powerful argument to me that parental influence is over-rated in this respect). The one who reads is a fan of YA fiction and whilst it is great that she has the choice of books which are relevant and accessible to her, I think sometimes she misses out on exploring more widely and stepping out of her comfort zone a bit. Having said that I have enjoyed some YA over the past couple of years and I am really happy that she loves reading and is willing to talk books with me over a cup of tea!

    • Yes, parental influence is definitely overrated – as a keen reader/writer I think I had none over my kids. You’ve also reminded me that I loved ghost stories, or just tales of the uncanny, at that age, Edgar Allan Poe etc.

      As for reading comfort zones, I think everyone should try and get out of theirs. At times we just need to comfort-read, but if we do that all the time it can become brain-porridge. (Now it sounds like I have something against porridge!) Surely YA library shelves offer more than just recent titles clearly written for that market? That’s what I meant when I wrote ‘…not-so-recent books that are now categorised as YA’. In fact, I picked up one YA/MG title, R J Palacio’s ‘Wonder’, on the new books stand in the adult library, but it was also in YA.

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