I grew up with a mother who loved to read, and shared that love with her daughters. She wasn’t a very big believer in TV as entertainment for her children, which meant my sister and I only had a handful of hours to watch TV when we were kids – usually Sesame Street and Batibot, a show similar to Sesame Street except in Filipino. On top of that, my mother had a shelf containing books she’d chosen for us, and was happy to let us go read whatever we wanted, anytime we wanted.
At the time, we were still living in the big house in North Greenhills with my grandparents, who had what I now know might be called a “private library:” a room set aside exclusively for the storage and reading of books. As a child I remember wandering into the room from time to time to stare at the shelves and inhale the scent of paper and dust, taking down a book every so often to see what was inside. I was, however, far too young to really understand what I was reading – as it turned out, most of it had to do with military history, biographies, and autobiographies: my grandfather’s personal collection. Biographies and autobiographies were his preferred genre, and as for the military history, well, he was a retired brigadier general, so it stood to reason he’d have a lot of books related to his career.
Eventually, as I grew older and went to school, I realized that libraries were, hands-down, my favorite place at any educational facility I was at. At the preparatory school I attended prior to entering grade school, I experienced great frustration at not being allowed to read the research books that the school kept in the highest shelves – enough that I have a vague memory of my mother speaking to one of the administrators, reassuring her that I wouldn’t chew on the covers or tear the pages. I was not an uncivilized savage, after all, and knew how to treat books with respect. I recall my mother’s pride – clear in her tone and in the set of her shoulders – at the fact that she had raised her daughter properly in that regard.
When I entered grade school, the library made a great hiding place for dodging classes I didn’t want to attend. Not only did my grades stay high (I regularly placed in first, second, or third on the honors’ roll) because of all the reading I was doing, but I was able to dodge the bullies who made attending actual classes absolutely miserable for me. When I transferred to another school in fourth grade, I stopped dodging classes, but the library stil provided a refuge from bullies. The library was, for me, an escape from what troubled me, providing me with a multitude of avenues – via books, of course – that would help me forget everything that troubled me for an hour or so.
Libraries, therefore, have been crucial in my development into the person I am now. As a teacher, reader, and writer in my own way, I can say with great confidence that I wouldn’t have become who I am now if it weren’t for the libraries I’d entered, used, and continue to use throughout my life. It’s because of this love of libraries that I picked up The Library Book, a collection of essays about libraries and how they have shaped and continue to shape the lives of the people who enter and use them.
Actually, to say that the contents of the book are all essays would be inaccurate: China Mieville’s contribution is actually an excerpt from his book Un Lun Dun, while Kate Mosse’s contribution is a short horror story. JUlian Barnes’ piece might look like an essay, but it’s actually more like a chunk of a longer fictional work. The rest are an interesting combination of memoir, humor, and prediction, but all of them are connected to libraries: what they were, what they are, and where they might be going. And, since it’s such a grab-bag of genres and tones, the impact of the essays in question tends to vary.
The essays that I found the most touching were, in my opinion, the ones written by those who came from immigrant backgrounds, or for whom the library shaped them into who they are today – particularly if they are writers. Hardeep Singh Kholi’s essay about how the library opened him up to the world in more ways than one was especially lovely to read, because it is impossible to be prejudiced when one is surrounded by the voices of humanity in a library (if it is, of course, a good library). Stephen Fry’s essay, which I think is one of the best in the entire collection, is about how access to a library helped him to articulate his sexuality, and how that articulation led him to a wider world of reading.
There are also the really humorous ones. James Brown’s essay, titled “This Place Will Lend You Books for Free,” almost feels like it was written by a hopelessly addicted soul who has found the best, fastest, and least dangerous way to acquire one’s drug of choice. This is a sentiment that, I think, is very much shared by voracious readers everywhere, who are constantly confronted with the issue of not having enough space or money for all the books they want to read. The library, James Brown declares at the end, is “cheaper than Amazon,” and in the twenty-first century world of easy and relatively cheap online acquisition, this is really saying something – especially since borrowing books is, for the most part, free.
Lucy Mangan’s essay is another gem of this collection. Titled “The Rules,” it’s about what kind of rules she would enforce if she were to have her own library. There’s a bit of polemic at the start and in some of the rules, but the way they are articulated won’t get in the way of the reader having a good giggle at what she’s trying to write. It allows the reader to start up their own little fantasy about what they would do if they were in charge of their own libraries, what rules, and how many, they’d have. Those rules, after all, say a lot about what reading habits are most valued by the rule-maker, and are usually as unique as the rule-maker herself or himself.
Another really amusing essay is Bella Bathurst’s “The Secret Life of Libraries,” which is both informative and a little gossipy in a most entertaining way. It starts out with a discussion about what kinds of books get stolen from which libraries, and what those thefts say about the communities those libraries serve, but it also talks about the people in the libraries themselves, both the staff and the people they serve. There is talk about how the staff treat drunks or the homeless who walk in off the street looking for a warm place to stay; or how in one library a notable TV personality was found dead at his desk and how now the library regularly checks for and rouses sleeping people, just to make sure no one dies under their watch again. Libraries have their own characters of course, and that is what makes them unique and interesting places to be at – one never knows who or what is going to walk through those doors, or what they’re going to do, or what they’re going to read, or ask.
The rest are, as I said earlier, a grab-bag of memoir and polemic. One of the more beautiful memoir-style essays is “Baffled at the Bookcase” by Alan Bennett, who takes the reader through all the most memorable libraries in his life, and how each one was uniquely positioned to influence that particular point in his life. Some are politically-slanted, such as Zadie Smith’s “Library Life,” Nicky Wire’s “If You Tolerate This…”, and Karin Slaughter’s “Fight for Libraries as You Do for Freedom” (which I felt was the best of those kinds of essays). That particular slant in these essays (and which are implied in the rest) are mostly because of why this book was made in the first place: to keep libraries in the UK open against further closure thanks to shifts in government policy.
The only pieces I had an issue with in this entire book were the pieces that were actually fiction: Julian Barnes’ “The Defence of the Book,” China Mieville’s “The Booksteps,” and Kate Mosse’s “The Lending Library.” I picked this book up because I saw Mieville and Fry’s names as contributors, and while I was entirely happy with Fry’s essay, I was disappointed to see that Mieville’s contribution actually came from a book of his that I’d already read, instead of saying something new or personal about what libraries meant to him as a writer and a reader. Mosse’s story, on the other hand, was meant to be a horror story with a library at its heart, but the library didn’t turn out to be that vital, and the story itself was, frankly speaking, a bore. As for Barnes’ piece, it was an interesting attempt to project a future where libraries no longer exist, but it was too short, and frankly, had too many shades of Fahrenheit 451 for me to find it particularly interesting.
Overall, The Library Book is a touching, and oftentimes funny, look at why people love libraries, and why they should continue to stand despite, or because of, the rise of digital books – Seth Godin’s essay “The Future of the Library” makes an interesting point regarding how we should define the words “library” and “librarian” in the twenty-first century. It is, however, a bit of a grab-bag of pieces, and the three fiction pieces I mentioned earlier will likely throw the reader for a somewhat unpleasant loop. Nevertheless, anyone who loves reading, and who loves libraries, will find something to enjoy in this book, and will come away quite satisfied with it.