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