I’m sitting in a library (one of my favourite places) waiting for some
librarians (some of my favourite people.) It is a community library – a new
one. The colours are bright, sun streams in through the big clerestory windows.
There is the sound of books being shuffled into shelves ahead of school closing
and the upsurge of readers beginning. (We hope.)
But how to get them here? For me as a child, it used to be more
difficult. The library used to be far and the road there long. Now there is a
library right here in the heart of the life of this village. This is surely
easier, but will they come? Will the children come?
I think we have to accept that times have changed immeasurably from
fifty … twenty … ten … even five years ago. Nothing is the same as it
was, and that includes books, reading and even children. I have noticed that
the people who moan (often beginning their sentences with variations of the
words ‘in my day’), haven’t noticed the changing times. They want everything to
be the way it was, without remembering properly what that way was really like.
I’m still in the library. A workshop is going on (one I am giving for
teacher librarians and teachers). Teenagers are working quietly (well, fairly
quietly) at nearby tables. A couple of young mothers are looking at magazines
featuring babies. An older boy is thoughtfully looking for something on the
internet. A few small children are giggling at a picture book on a brightly
I wonder, what has really changed? There is information here in this
room, and stories to lose yourself in. There are stories to share and laugh
about. There are newspapers and magazines and a quiet place for people who have
nowhere else to go. There are helpful people to answer questions. There may be
more screens involved, but the pages are still there. Everything that appears
on the much-feared by book people Internet has to be read – and has to be
written by somebody.
And the shelves are still full of books. Long live libraries!
I am lucky to have a wonderful second-hand bookshop near where I live –
and libraries have played the same role all my life. You wander in, looking for
something. You drift along the shelves until something catches your eye.
Something does! You stop. You read the blurb, read about the author … test a
couple of pages. Snap the book shut and take it home. There must be PhDs
written about how we choose books, but it remains a mystery to me how I do.
How, for example, did I come home only last week with a book that was
exclusively about rare Mauritian stamps? Not a novel, mind you, a scholarly
work on Mauritian Blues (and less importantly, Mauritian Reds). I have no
interest in collecting stamps – never have had – but the book was quite fascinating
in its way. I learned something, tucked a bit of information away – and who
knows where it will pop out again. (Certainly not me.)
I live my life, and have always lived my life, surrounded by books. In a
recent move, my own books were packed away for a couple of weeks. I missed them
so much. When I unpacked them (and there are a few thousand of them) I
immediately wondered where one of them was (don’t panic, it turned up mis-filed
in the children’s section). I would go as far as to say that books are the
loves of my life.
It’s just such a pity that they are so very heavy when one lives a nomadic kind of a life.
How did I start? (The only thing I can say for sure.) I read a huge amount and I played with words … and I told stories. It became a kind of game, when I was still at a distant school that was a long bus journey from home. I’d watch the people and I’d make up stories. I especially liked to make up funny stories – or to make ordinary stories funny, because that would make my dad laugh when we all sat round the dinner table that night.
I told stories to myself in the interminable long light summer evenings
of my Scottish childhood. If truth be told, I tell versions of the same stories
(pretty boring ones) to this day when I can’t get to sleep. The trick is not to
allow them to get too exciting and thus wake yourself up to find out what
happens. The best going-to-sleep story at the moment is one that is actually about going to sleep – a rescued paleontologist who has dropped off
a cliff into a deep cave in the Hindu Kush and is rescued by someone who is
testing super-survival packs that will save her from hypothermia – and could
lead to all-sorts of adventures if she doesn’t (and I don’t) fall asleep on
cue. (Take this idea, by all means. Nobody is going to believe it!)
The point is that your brain is always sub-consciously,
or consciously, looking for a story. It leads to misunderstanding when you walk
past people you know really well without acknowledging them, but it is what
writers do. They watch for the bones of stories they haven’t made up yet, and
they store them away like squirrels for a time when they will be needed. The
above story could be (but isn’t going to be) analyzed for all sorts of
influences from books I have read and people I have met recently, but it is a
purely recreational activity …