A couple of weeks ago, Terry Deary, the author of the Horrible Histories books, made an extended and vitriolic attack on the entire concept of libraries. His basic premise was that libraries give books away for free, and that’s cash money he should be putting in the bank. He seemed to miss completely the point that libraries don’t steal readers, they create readers.
It’s been many years since I’ve been in a library because, quite frankly, I don’t need them. I’ve got a decent job and a good education and enough disposable income to buy just about any book I want. The library model, where you borrow a book then read it in a short period of time and return it, doesn’t suit me any more – I like to have a good stack of books to choose from, and while sometimes it’ll take me a couple of days to read a book, at other times it’ll take me a month. Last night I finished A Fiend in Need by Jamie Thomson – tonight, I’ve no idea what I’m going to read next. I’ve got Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales I got for Christmas, a graphic novel (Porcelain) that arrived in the post this week, a bunch of books on my Kindle… I like having the choice, and the freedom to take my time.
But it was not ever thus.
My first recollection of a library was the Muirhouse Library near Pennywell Road in Edinburgh. This was not an affluent area – if you recall the “worst toilet in the world” scene from the film Trainspotting, that was ostensibly set in a bookies on Pennywell Road too. But I remember the library as being a riot of colour – I must have been four or five years old at the time, and the shelves stuffed full of picture books, any of which I could take home and read, seemed to me magical. Even if the library did smell a bit of sick.
We moved from Edinburgh to the North-East of Scotland, to a tiny village that was too small to have its own library. We did have a mobile library, though, that came around every few weeks. I remember giving the librarian a huge list of books to get for me, mostly culled from the “by the same author” pages in the books I already owned – Willard Price and Captain W.E. Johns for the most part. They did their best, and I was grateful, but the slow trickle of books just wasn’t enough. Instead I turned to the school book clubs – the Chip Club and the Bookworm Club – and fortunately if there’s one thing my parents never skimped on, it was buying books for me. I felt the lack of a full-time, local, permanent library keenly. What if my parents hadn’t been able or willing to buy me all those books? I’d have missed out on crucial years of voracious reading.
We moved – again – to Portree on the Isle of Skye, which fortunately had a small town library. Together with the school library, that library kept me supplied with books. I still bought plenty of books – my pocket money and holiday money were almost always spent entirely on books, and I became intimately acquainted with the mail order catalogues from PO Box 11, Falmouth, Cornwall – but the library kept me in reading material when all my money had run out. I remember one summer working my way through Arthur Ransome’s entire Swallows and Amazons series from the Portree Library.
We moved to one more school, one more town, before I left for university. The town library in Montrose was utterly wonderful. We moved there when I was sixteen, and the books I discovered in that library have stayed with me ever since – even now, a quarter of a century on. We lived out of town, by the lighthouse, and being an introverted kind of sixteen-year-old who’d had to leave what few friends I had behind in Portree, I found it difficult to make new friends. During the long, lonely summer holidays, every Saturday we’d drive into town to do the shopping, and I’d go to the library. I could take four books out on my card. My Dad wasn’t reading a huge amount at the time, so he let me use his card, too – that meant I could check out eight books a week. And I did.
At Montrose library I discovered Alasdair Gray and Iain Banks, Brian Aldiss and Walter M. Miller, John Crowley and Ian Watson, John Brunner and Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin and Olaf Stapledon… many of these, I discovered by hunting out the distinctive Gollancz yellow dustjackets. The library didn’t care about genres when it shelved books – fiction was fiction, so if you wanted to read science fiction, you had to hunt for it.
And hunt I did. During the summers I read more than a book a day. And over the years, I’ve tracked down and bought copies of just about every book I read from that library over the two years I spent in Montrose before heading off to university.
I love books. Which means that I buy books. I buy books for myself, for my partner, for my relatives… I wouldn’t like to count up how much I’ve spent on books over the years. And one of the main reasons I buy books is because libraries turned me into a reader.