Friday, September 01, 2006

Free books!

...in your local library. But are they worth reading? I pay a good whack of overdue fines every month, and I've always, always taken refuge in the library. I remember as a kid thinking - this is too good to be true. All these books, and you can just take them??

But yesterday, I felt just how stale and hopeless the library situation is. I went in to be met by a wall of sub-tropical heat. It's always around 30 degrees in there, so the books are wilting and melting in their plastic sleeves, not to mention the people. The staff hunch over fans, sweating and labouring and trying not to pass out, while they search their faulty computers for books that don't exist.

Half empty shelves. They did a survey recently in Glasgow libraries, asking what people wanted to improve their book-borrowing experience. I looked down the list, and about every single comment was simply: 'More books'.

Yesterday I needed two things - books on dressmaking, and something about the history of Glasgow.
'Oh, no. We don't have much of that.' What, books on the city we live in? 'No. The kids are always in asking, for their school projects, so the two books we have are usually on loan.' Okay, so a subject that is requested constantly and is highly relevant to all of the people that visit is not stocked. Fine.
Dressmaking? She practically laughed in my face. They've got Trinny and Susannah punting three different books on how to make your ass look smaller. Zilch on anything that might encourage you to actually take the intiative, learn a skill and do something creative.

So what do they have in our lovely local library? You can take your pick from twenty one different books on naming babies, babies names, popular names for new babies...TWENTY ONE books. I counted. Has one of the staff got a crazily large family? Or are they just particularly indecisive? Alan Titchmarsh musing on his TV career. Celebrity chefs explaining how they got to be celebs. I'll concede the fiction department is fairly good, with new books coming in sporadically and quite a broad variety from lit to trash. Still, I scrabble to find anything that I actually want to read in there. People seem to come in mostly for the newspapers. But reference? Actual informative, useful books?

It's like a ghost-library in there. The kids come in to use the internet, run around and shout conversations on their mobile phones. I hear they're trying to encourage conversation in libraries, to get away from the old-fashioned Sssssh! image.
Why? What on earth is wrong with silence? About the only haven left in the city used to be the quiet spaces inbetween the shelves. Now the books are just an inconvenient pile of irrelevant junk gathering dust in the corner, while the computers buzz and hum and the staff apologise, again, for not being able to help, and I sigh (quietly) while I wish for a library that stocked classics as well as celebrity biographies, and reference books that weren't all about house makeovers.

Have books had their day? Once google has copied and posted every book they can lay their hands on, and the last librarian has finally hung up her half-moon spectacles, and the last author finally slid into ghost writing Z list 'memoirs' for people that no longer read fiction, what will happen then? Were novels nothing but a fad that lasted a couple of hundred years? Should we abandon literature and turn to speculative chit-chat, gossip rags and virtual reality? Is it still worth even trying to write a book?

I guess the fact that I'm the only one of my friends who actually ever visits a library to borrow books (yes, the only one at all), might well have something to do with it. Part of me thinks I'm not going to evangelise about something like this. If people don't want libraries, or books anymore, then so be it. We'll all dive into the net and lose ourselves in the bright colours and loud noises.

Just sometimes, I long for the rich, silent, endless universe that books can offer. If only you give them the time.

1 comment:

Anastasia said...

I think about whether books will become obsolete too, and sometimes I doubt it more (and other days, I dread the possibility) because it's different owning or even borrowing a book, holding it, having access to pages only you can read, whereas if a person had to cart around a laptop (text on an IPOD would be too small) and sit on the train/bus, then the person behind them would have a bigger view. That's not to say that people don't read over a person's shoulders when they're reading a book, but there's a different type of intimacy where a book is concerned and that relates to its smell and texture, as well as the physical act of turning pages.

(I'm a good one for fines, I'm in the process of paying off my biggie in instalments, but my local library branch changed their rules so I can still borrow while I do this, and I was so thrilled tonight to find Minette Walter's latest on the shelf - usually it's out- but I was sorely disappointed to not be able to find any kind of erotica on the shelf, which I was on the lookout for because a couple of years ago they used to stock anthologies..ahh well).