pontificating

What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

Tension over tenses? Why worry?

A man walks into a bar… Hang on, if I know that then it must have already happened so maybe it should be ‘a man walked into a bar’. Does that sound right though? It’s like I’m telling the story at one remove so is it as easy for you to picture the scene? Actually I can’t remember the joke now, never mind.

There was an article in The Guardian earlier this week about one Radio 4 chap (John Humphrys) accusing another (Melvyn Bragg) of using the present tense when talking about past events and thus being pretentious and confusing. It’s all a bit of a non-story but maybe we need some light relief given recent world events and it did get me thinking.

I don’t remember being taught much grammar in English at school (plenty in other languages, not that much of it stuck) but I seem to have clung for years to those few rules I remember, and woe betide anyone who falls foul of them in my presence. I might not always recognise a split infinitive but when I do, I pour scorn upon it. Incorrect was-ing and were-ing (unless in a legitimate Yorkshire context) will be pounced on immediately. Or rather (and here the tense does matter) that was the case before I lightened up a bit and started questioning the rules.

Questioning rules normally comes quite naturally so I don’t know why it took me so long with grammar, maybe I just didn’t consider the possibility that they weren’t written in stone. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my language neuroses, I still shout ‘from’ at the radio in response to every ‘different than’ that I hear, but on the whole I figure as long as it’s clear what’s meant, what does it matter? The point that John Humphrys seems to have missed is that context is everything, and the newspaper headlines and the academic discussions he cites aren’t really confusing, he just finds them annoying. If I’m listening to a programme about Shakespeare and someone says ‘he buys a house’ I’m not likely to go ‘hang on though, he died a few years back didn’t he?’. Whereas if I come back from a round the world cruise and someone says ‘your Aunt Ada was a lovely woman’, I might want to go check if I missed a funeral while I was out of the country.

Far from being pretentious, I’ve always taken the historic present (not that I knew that’s what it was called) as an attempt to sound chummy and down to earth. By saying ‘and it’s after this meeting that Matthew Arnold gives his famous speech’ they make it sound like it’s recent, relevant, perhaps someone they know (and the academics on Bragg’s programmes have probably been working on these matters for so long they do feel like they know the people involved, even the ones who died two hundred years ago). It doesn’t sound as dry as relating some fact from the past, it’s more like you’re there with him as he goes through this action. Or so it seems to me.

Perhaps that’s another point about grammar and the like – we all have different views and interpretations. Different pet hates. Partly to do with background, education, age, but also associations (the first time we encountered this phrase was in some book we couldn’t stand, a friend’s irritating ex always made this particular error and now it grates) so maybe we should step back and think about what language is for. At one level it’s about communication and as long as the right message has been conveyed it doesn’t matter so much how it was done. At another it’s about rhythm and imagery, and to be honest I can see even more scope for bending the rules there. So, you know, take it easy, stop trying to score points (half your audience won’t know whether you’re right or wrong and most of the other half won’t care), and marvel at the versatility of language. However, I reserve the right to keep shouting at the radio in private and I’ll understand if you do the same.

#Bookaday, volume the third

I’ll make this the last outing for #bookaday and I’ll cherry-pick, in a vain attempt to avoid boredom. So, where were we..?

BOOKADAY_JuneAt the risk of sounding pretentious (I know, not like me at all) I can’t believe more people haven’t read Remembrance of Things Past. Lots of people have heard of Proust, they may even use the word Proustian in relation to sensation-triggered memories, but I’ve yet to find anyone else who admits to having made it past the first part (if you have, leave a comment and end my solitude). Maybe the fact that I read epic fantasy novels conditioned me for it, but I loved the total immersion and also the ability to (if I remember correctly) write a few thousand pages without actually naming your main character. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read twice (see number 29, below) and it’s left such vivid images in my mind that I can step into the setting of the novel at will. Marvellous stuff.

If I say I’m moving on to number 19 now, I guess regulars will groan, and chorus The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart. It might get overtaken by The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressel at some point, but I haven’t finished reading that yet. What can I say? I get fired up about inequality, education, working class opportunities and any mixture thereof.

I’ve got a lot of out of print books, that’s part of the fun of second-hand bookshops.

23 and 25 kind of go hand in hand. Any book we were made to read at school, I’m unlikely to have finished. I definitely didn’t finish Jane Eyre, Far From the Madding Crowd or a world war 2 book which may have been The Machine-Gunners by Robert Westall. I vaguely remember asking friend T what happened in The Lord of the Flies so I suspect I didn’t get to the end of that one either. I probably finished Animal Farm because it was George Orwell, and I know I read The Hobbit but I’m pretty sure I’d already done so before it was flung at us in the classroom. As you might guess, 23 and 24 are diametrically opposed. Thankfully I was enthused about reading long before school started to try and spoil it, and my earliest memory isn’t early enough to capture it (though Spot the Dog will have been part of it, so a brief nod to his creator Eric Hill, who died recently).

Should have sold more copies? Clearly that’s The Little Book of Northern Women by JY Saville, a rewarding collection of short stories that’s not just for girls, and a snip at only 99p…

I’m not going to admit here which bookload of characters I’d want to be among (although I probably have done already, there’s a lot of posts on this blog now). Those who know me, in real life or through long readership, could probably have a good guess. Answers on a postcard (or a comment box, if you feel like it).

Which brings me to re-reading. A few years ago I explained why I rarely re-read books (I do re-read blog posts, and you can do the same here), so I’m not sure there are any books (except children’s books, books I’ve written, or books I’ve proof-read for other people) that I’ve read more than twice. Big Brother reads A Christmas Carol every festive season (Dickens and I don’t get on, so I had a hard enough time getting through it the once). I know someone who rarely reads anything but Jane Austen and has to buy new copies as the old ones wear out. Honestly, my most-read book is almost certainly A Bear Called Paddington. If you’ve ever seen me in a situation where a hard stare is called for, that might explain a lot.

Part 2 of #Bookaday

Time for the second instalment of my responses to this:
BOOKADAY_June
I’d got as far as number 8 last time, so let me think of something film or TV related. Obviously there are masses of books on the shelves that have been made into films or TV series, or indeed vice versa (like some of the early Doctor Who novels). However, the one I’m going to pick is a boxed set of 3 paperbacks from the Michael Palin travel programmes: Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, and Full Circle. The paperbacks don’t have all the photos that the big coffee-table versions had, and I probably saw less than half the episodes on TV, but Michael Palin’s gentle enthusiasm for foreign parts forms the core of my (very much armchair-based) interest in far-flung places.

Which book reminds me of someone I love? Quicker to list the ones that don’t. Among the many given to me by friend T there’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, which set me off on Tracy Chevalier. There are the ones that used to belong to my dad’s late uncle, unashamedly intellectual with a dreadful line in puns (much like my dad, in fact). The one I’m going with though is a book I’ve only got an electronic copy of, having first read Big Brother’s paperback many years ago: The Condition of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels. Inextricably bound up with Big Brother, his outlook and influence. For better or worse (make your own mind up), he’s a big reason I am who I am today.

Ah, the pull of secondhand bookshops. Even now I have to make a big effort to walk past an open charity shop, and I have great memories of exploring the ever-expanding labyrinth of Michael Moon’s cornucopia of books in Whitehaven as a child. The majority of my books, and the ones in the Library of Mum and Dad are second hand, many of them with irritatingly limpet-like price stickers from the now defunct Roblyns in Huddersfield, regular haunt of my dad in the late 80s. One wonderful day in the early 90s, friend T and I were taken round every bookshop in some small Pennine town by her dad and had a fab time unearthing treasures. We once had a family day out to the old station bookshop at Alnwick. Can you see why picking one gem might be tricky? How about William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, bought from a second hand bookshop at Pitlochry station moments before our train pulled in?

I’m not sure I always pretended to have read the books I was supposed to read at school, and outside of that the question doesn’t make sense so I’ll move on to laughter. Humour’s a tricky one to pull off, much harder to write than you might think (believe me, I’ve tried) so I have great respect for those authors who manage it consistently. Do they make me laugh though, really? Is it more of a smile to myself as I pass over the page? Strongest contenders could well be from the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin, Jasper Fforde or the broader realms of comic fantasy. I’ve read a lot of comic fantasy (which you might not expect if you came across me in one of my more serious moods), I’ve written a fair bit too and most of it’s not very good. Except All the Room in the World which made it into Bards and Sages Quarterly a few years ago.

Phew, this is getting long so 14 is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ’nuff said. Calvin’s dad from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoons gets my vote for top fictional father, though I read the first couple of chapters of Pride and Prejudice a while ago and Mr Bennet’s long-suffering wit reminded me of my dad and therefore deserves a mention.

Back to the books…

Jumping on the #Bookaday bandwagon

The last few days, I’ve kept seeing people on Twitter flash up this picture:

BOOKADAY_JuneSince it doesn’t seem to be trying to sell me anything I figured I may as well join in, and some of the categories beg a bit of discussion so I’ll do it here where I can waffle more than 140 characters allows.

Favourite book from childhood ties in nicely with the YouGov poll of favourite children’s books from the other day, which I would have blogged about earlier in the week if I’d had time. Maybe another day. Childhood covers a long period though, from Meg and Mog to Biggles Flies Again, via Little Women and The School at the Chalet (as with the poll of favourites, most of my reading material seems to have been from long before I was born). My favourite book aged 4 would be quite different from my favourite aged 11, and the ones I look back on with fondness now may not have been my favourites at the time. I still love (and quote regularly) both Winnie the Pooh and Paddington, but I’m going to choose a book called Dragon in Danger, by Rosemary Manning, which was from a series about a little girl who befriends an old (and as I recall, most polite) dragon. I suspect it had quite a profound effect on my later reading habits. (As an aside, I just searched for the author’s surname online as I could only get as far as Rosemary unaided, then realised if I’d wheeled my desk chair 3 feet to the right I could have stuck my head out of the study to read the spine of the book on one of the hall bookcases. Modern life, eh?)

The one that’s springing to mind as a bargain is Poverty: A Study of Town Life by Seebohm Rowntree, I can’t even remember how much it was but certainly less than half an hour’s pay at the shop I worked at around that time. Not the first (1901) edition, I think it’s from 1909 but I was delighted with it then and I’m happy to own it now. It had a blue cover I think, too (that one’s in the bookcase on the other leg of the L-shaped hall. It would require getting up and walking).

Who’s my favourite author today? That’s the question I’d need to answer before I could pick my least favourite book by them. I read reviews, I take notice of other people I know who like the author, so I tend not to bother with the books I don’t think I’ll take to, hence even my least favourite is one I’ll probably have enjoyed. Maskerade by Terry Pratchett’s a contender, though.

Most books in the world don’t belong to me. The library book I’m halfway through (Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer) for instance. There are some books in the house that were bought for OneMonkey, and some I’ve borrowed from my dad, but since both fall under the ‘what’s yours is mine’ heading, I don’t think that counts.

Now number 6 really perplexed me: The book you always give as a gift. As though there are books that simply everyone will enjoy. I can’t think of any book that I’ve bought more than one person as a gift except possibly OneMonkey and The Nephew, and even then it might have been my sister that bought it for OneMonkey. Isn’t part of the joy of giving and receiving books the personalisation behind it? I read this synopsis and thought of you. Or I read this book and knew you’d enjoy it so I’m passing it on. Maybe there are lots of people out there with whole swathes of friends and family with similar tastes in literature. Though if that’s the case, why are they not sharing?

I’ll get ahead a couple of days by being equally perplexed at number 7 (why wouldn’t I know the contents of my bookshelves intimately? Good grief!), and confessing that there is one Terry Pratchett novel that got overlooked when OneMonkey and I amalgamated our books many years ago and removed the duplicates. Somehow we’ve never quite got round to ditching that second copy of Witches Abroad.

So there you go, a ‘fascinating’ (maybe if you squint) romp through a week and a bit of book-related wittering. I would love to know anyone else’s responses, to all or a selected few of the prompts themselves, or indeed to my answers. But don’t let it distract you from your reading time.

In defence of Luddites

I saw an article this week that suggested the meaning and history behind Bonfire Night is being lost, and because of that and the proximity to Halloween, the two may gradually merge. Whatever you think about burning effigies of violent political protesters from times long past, it does seem sad to lose the meaning behind a tradition. It also strikes me as worrying when people start doing or saying something without knowing why – one of the least serious consequences of this is mixed metaphors and misplaced words.

Luddite. What does it make you think? Someone who doesn’t understand technology? A backward peasant, perhaps? I’m guessing that if that’s the case you don’t have a deep-rooted family connection to the textile industries of the West Riding. Some of my relatives were probably Luddites (it’s hardly something that gets officially recorded. Unless they got caught) so I’d like to nudge you away from using the word in that modern sense. I might not agree with their methods, but the Luddites were protesting against the introduction of labour-saving machinery that would take away their jobs. Far from not understanding the new technology, they understood only too well what it would mean for them and their families when the mill-owners needed to employ fewer workers. It’s a bit like supermarket checkout staff smashing self-service tills, or library assistants taking a hammer to the automatic book-sorter. Ultimately futile and likely to get them in trouble, but a heartfelt response to the prospect of unemployment. And in the early 19th century they didn’t have Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Why does it matter? Well, apart from a spot of pedantry, and not wanting dead relatives to be misunderstood, we need to hold onto history. Without remembering, we can’t learn from past mistakes, and considering how many there are, we have the potential to learn an awful lot.

The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart

In the early 1950s, 30-year-old university lecturer Richard Hoggart (father of Simon, brilliant political sketch-writer from The Guardian) started writing a book rooted in his ‘northern urban working-class’ childhood (in Leeds), that he thought about calling The Abuses of Literacy. He changed it to The Uses of Literacy so as to sound less confrontational, and had to change parts of the contents so as to avoid possible libel charges. However, the result was published in 1957 and 54 years later I read it, appreciated it, and marvelled at how much is still relevant.

I was wary of mentioning it on my blog because part of me doesn’t want anyone to read it – then I figured I don’t have much influence and few people would find it an interesting topic for their leisure hours so I needn’t worry about a stampede. The reason for my mixed feelings is that in the wrong hands (i.e. those of anyone not born into northern working-class families) it could become a kind of anthropological study of peculiar speech, attitudes and customs, a kind of sneering affirmation of superiority on the part of the reader. When I read it, I found myself thinking ‘that’s a bit harsh’ occasionally, then realising I’d said almost the same thing plenty of times myself, usually for OneMonkey to reply ‘that’s a bit harsh’ – but for me, as for Richard Hoggart, there’s a mixture of exasperation that comes from looking closely from the outside, and affection for and/or understanding of the relatives and family friends looking back.

Hoggart set out to write a textbook about mass culture, by which he seemed to mean newspapers (newly-sensationalised), magazines (with pin-ups and short attention-span), cheap paperbacks (badly-written and full of sex and violence) etc and the habit of reading among a class of people who had more education as a basic background than their predecessors, but didn’t appear to be much better off for it. He then wrote the first half of the book (a summing up of recent or current attitudes in the northern urban working classes) to set his ideas in context. He seems to wander off-topic a fair bit and I must admit I didn’t follow all of his arguments, which is due in part to some of the contemporary references. I can say now a Sun-reader, a Guardian-reader, and conjure up in my own and other (British) people’s minds an idea of the sort of background or attitude I mean by that (it will be stereotypical, and in many instances unfair, but it’s a handy shorthand and a useful generalisation in some contexts, including as advertising targets, which Hoggart also covers) – but I have no idea what The Listener was like or who it was aimed at, I know nothing about any of the radio programmes he mentions (TV hadn’t really taken off at the time) and even the distinction between types of paper-shop is lost on me. However, there is enough of endurance there that I get the general gist.

OneMonkey has noted how many conversations in the last couple of weeks I’ve chipped in with ‘it’s funny you should say that because in this Hoggart book…’ and I do find it fascinating (and also quite depressing) that so little has changed in some areas; in the introduction to the 2009 edition Lynsey Hanley (a politically informed writer a couple of years older than me) says ‘no reader two generations younger than Hoggart should gasp in recognition at his descriptions of growing up…Yet, despite the social and economic transformations that have taken place since its publication in 1957, there are thousands who do.’

Talking to OneMonkey about this book reminds me how different our views are on this kind of thing. OneMonkey sees the worth or value of culture as largely subjective (I’m not sure I agree, but I’d be hard pushed to say where worth lies – see my occasional disparaging comments on Dickens and Shakespeare), and if hard-working people with jobs that give them little satisfaction want to come home and read easy to digest escapism about sex and adventure, who am I to say that’s trash? Not everyone wants to read history textbooks for fun, or even multi-layered novels with complex characters. And anyway, some of the sci-fi and fantasy I read would be seen as trash by those with even greater intellectual snobbery than me. OneMonkey also argues, and here I do agree with him, that it’s not a class divide any more (if it ever was) – the middle classes watch X-Factor just as much as anyone else does, it’s just that they’re more likely to have some kind of hypocritical guilt going on. In the same way, they’re more likely to use the argument ‘at least I read’. Why is it intrinsically more worthy to read a cheap paperback romance than to watch with keen interest a BBC4 programme on human rights, for instance? They read, therefore they don’t have to examine their reading-material or opinions because they’re automatically better than you. Dangerous thinking.

Maybe what it comes down to is a misplaced emphasis, or one that’s no longer relevant. It’s thinking that matters (if, like Richard Hoggart and I, you think any of this matters), not reading, surely. If you never read a book or magazine from one year to the next, but listen to the radio, watch TV or discuss things with friends and colleagues and think matters through for yourself (even if you argue yourself round in the end to the position that everyone else you know holds) isn’t that better (by which I mean more indicative of some hope for humanity) than reading the papers every day, accepting what they say, and parrotting back their opinions when asked for your own (and I’m as guilty on occasion of quoting Private Eye or The Guardian as other people are of quoting papers I’m sniffy about)? Of course you may think that it doesn’t much matter either way, most people have no real say in major aspects of their lives, and deep thought and political awareness just lead to depression and a feeling of hopelessness. But if you’ve reached that position by weighing it all up for yourself, then we’re both happy. In a manner of speaking.