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 coloured mat.

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!

Surrounded by books

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 do you start?

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 …