libraries

I feel the need, the need to read

I remember seeing a sign outside a supermarket a while back, Run out of wine? it asked, and I scoffed. Wine is a luxury item, staples are what you run out of and need to rush to the shop last-minute for, I said. Who considers themselves to have ‘run out of’ wine?

It could be relevant at this juncture to point out that I don’t drink wine.

I do read books though, and with no reviewing going on at the moment (the Bookbag’s cupboard has been relatively bare for a while) I’ve worked my way through a great chunk of my To Read pile. There’s still one Christmas present to read but it’s non-fiction and yesterday afternoon, with only half an hour’s worth of second-hand crime novel to go, I realised I wasn’t quite in the mood for it. I could have bought the next Tad Williams novel for the kobo, as I’ve still got an unspent voucher from my last birthday. I could have stuck to the half-finished short story collections I’ve got lying around, but I like to pick at them and leave time between morsels. I looked at the To Read list (books to borrow or buy when I get round to it) and made a decision.

At that point I had an hour before the local library closed, not to reopen until Monday morning. It takes fifteen minutes to walk to the library if I’m brisk, so I had plenty of time. I checked the online catalogue, selected two books that were available, made a note of which shelves they were on, grabbed a bag. We had a minor domestic crisis (feline related), but I opened the front door twenty-five minutes before the library shut. The wind, which had sounded fairly gusty indoors, was howling and once I reached the next street, blowing me backwards. I was fighting to step forwards instead of on the spot. I checked my watch halfway down the hill. Ten minutes till closing time.

The grille was half across the door when I got there, the library empty save for one man behind the counter. I dashed across the room to social sciences, grabbed Grayson Perry’s Descent of Man, hurried over to history and spotted Stuart Maconie’s Jarrow book as I approached, reaching out for it as I neared the shelf. Within a minute and a half of entering the building and still with a couple of minutes to spare I was handing my books over, out of breath, hair at all angles, scrabbling in my pocket for the library card I hoped I hadn’t left at home. The librarian looked bemused, but he’s seen me many times before so I assume he’ll have realised it was an emergency. Because as everyone knows, although you can’t run out of wine, you can run out of books.

I blinked, and half December went

I’ve put some tinsel up, I’ve eaten five mince pies, I’ve tutted frequently at overdone lighting displays in the neighbourhood: it must be nearly Christmas. We even have a tiny sprinkling of snow.

I’ve been quiet for a couple of weeks, mainly because I couldn’t write (or think) about anything much except library funding cuts for a while. A project I’ve been passionate about for some time, which we (three of Ilkley Writers) were about to announce, suddenly has no funding. In a mild panic, I rang the Arts Council for advice about obtaining funding for the project ourselves. Their guidance documents are not the easiest things to plough through and understand, but we haven’t even got that far yet. To register for their online system you need to  give them the details of the current account they’d need to pay any grant into. It can be an organisational account, or an individual’s account, but what it can’t be is a couple’s joint account. Guess what we all have? Not that surprising given that a) we’re middle-aged and in long-term relationships, and b) none of us have steady full-time jobs. “Just open a new account,” says the young man on the phone, as if he’s never had the trial of proving identity and income to a bank that doesn’t want his custom.

It’s not all been doom and gloom, however. I’ve got a new story up at Visual Verse, One Thing At A Time, written from a photo prompt. I had a 25-word novel included in the latest issue of Mslexia, and in further Twitter fiction news this morning I won a competition for a Christmas story:

There’s an anthology coming out this week from Paper Swans Press that has one of my flash fiction pieces in, too (you can pre-order Flash, I Love You! here) so things are on the up, there are more mince pies in the cupboard, and it’s not even Christmas yet. I wonder if Santa does arts funding?

Ethically sourced books

I bought my first brand new full price paperback novel in a long time, at the weekend (written by a friend, released by an indie publisher), and it got me thinking about how and where I get my reading material, and whether the author gets anything out of it.

Last week I was discussing e-book pricing with a selection of strangers on Twitter. Sam from Lounge Books pointed out that readers are now used to paying less for e-books than paperbacks:

I then commented that you can’t get second-hand e-books, so for those of us used to charity shop prices, even a discounted paperback price for an e-book can seem unusually high. Libraries, as usual, are the answer – the author gets a payment, the reader gets it for free (covered by some tax they’d have to pay anyway). But do I practice what I preach?

Pie chart of the books read by JY Saville in 2017

If in doubt, make a chart. First I looked at books I’d read so far this year, and where I got them from (strictly speaking Library of Mum & Dad this year actually means Big Brother). I’m only looking at books I’ve read the whole of, so if I gave up on it (like the book I took back to the library on Friday morning after 3 chapters), or read only part of a collection or reference book, it’s not counted. Neither do I count audio books.

What we can see from this is that more than half the books I’ve read so far this year haven’t directly contributed to the author’s earnings. I say directly because you could (if you were grasping at straws) argue that all those review copies generate a review that drums up sales or library borrowing. So am I always this bad?

Column chart of sources of the books read by JY Saville 2014-17

Er, pretty much, yes. I bought a few e-books in 2016/17 because I got a Kobo voucher for Christmas 2015 (so should they all be under gifts?) and I watched for special offers and made that voucher stretch as far as I could. Even the gifts aren’t always bought new, as we often give each other second-hand books in my family (including friend T), though I have bought a few new books to give to other people over this time period. Free e-books are mainly the out of copyright variety though one or two were special offers (and one was a digital textbook that came with an online university course).

In my defence, when I buy second-hand books it’s almost always from a charity shop, so at least some charity benefits rather than a private vendor. And if there’s a copy of a book I want to read available in the Library of Mum & Dad, it would seem rude not to borrow it. I’m not about to give up the thrill of getting books through the post, either, often before they’re out there in bookshops. Maybe I could wean myself off the discount e-books, however, and borrow more from the library, as I understand authors get more cash that way.

A promise to frequent the local library more? That shouldn’t be hard to keep. Who’s with me? Last one to the issue desk buys the tea and biscuits…

Reading, writing, exciting

I’ve been inadvertently quiet for a couple of weeks. So busy editing the SF noir novel and reading books that I forgot to blog. To those of you who missed me: sorry. To those of you enjoying the respite: tough, I’m back.

I’ve got a couple of book reviews out there that you might not have seen, and they’re all great novels. First was Wychwood by George Mann, he of the Newbury and Hobbes series of occult Victorian steampunk mysteries. This novel is the start of a new series of contemporary police procedurals, also with an occult twist. You can read my review at The Bookbag.

Then I read We Are The End, the debut novel by Chilean writer Gonzalo C Garcia. Really it’s about being young, feckless and in love, but it has a flavour of computer games and rock music so maybe if you enjoyed the film Scott Pilgrim vs The World you might particularly appreciate it. Anyway you can read my review at Disclaimer magazine.

Yesterday I finished Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft, a big-publisher reissue (out in January 2018) of a fantasy novel he self-published a few years ago. It’s the first in a series, located in the fabulous setting of the Tower of Babel where a small-town headmaster has become accidentally separated from his wife on their honeymoon, and I’m itching to read book two and find out what happens next. You can read my review of it at The Bookbag.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got flash fiction in an actual print anthology from Ellipsis Zine, which you can buy here if you feel like it (I get royalties…). The book is full of work by the serially-shortlisted of the flash world, the names that crop up again and again, and I can’t wait to get my hands on my free copy. I’m in seriously good company.

This week I’ve also been plotting and planning with Andrea and Roz, my friends from Ilkley Writers who you’ll have heard on the radio programme we did about libraries in April. An audacious idea for a library-based writing festival grew out of that programme, and yesterday we agreed on a final form for said festival, with our lovely contact at a local library. When we know whether the library’s funding bid has been successful (sometime before Christmas, we hope) we’ll know what scale our festival will be on, and I’ll tell you more about it. Until then I’m fizzing with excitement at the thought of getting people writing, getting people into libraries, and adding further evidence to Why Libraries Are A Good Thing.

Working Class Writer? Class, Education, Politics and the Arts

You can’t say the post title didn’t warn you what’s been on my mind lately. Some of it’s pre-election frustration and my disbelief at, among others, the bring back grammar schools brigade, because of course none of their children would ever be relegated to the non-selective school, in the same way presumably that their children will never need to use a library (or the NHS) so it’s ok to wreck them for everyone else. However, the topic of working class writers has been bubbling under again, partly via Dead Ink crowdfunding a book of essays on the working class called Know Your Place and some Twitter discussions that arose from that.

Name some working class writers, came the challenge. The names of various successful novelists were bandied about, but did they count? They were in varying degrees superficially middle class (wealthy, university educated). Did they think of themselves as working class any more? Would society let them get away with it if they did?

Non-British readers will no doubt be puzzled at this point but despite attempts to declare the UK a classless society (aka we’re all middle class now) class still matters here, it still has a major effect on your salary (even given similar levels of education), your educational opportunities in the first place, and even health prospects. So yes, it’s more complicated than it used to be (the BBC identified about seven social classes a couple of years ago) but it’s still there casting a shadow over most people’s lives.

Which brings us back to the working class writers thing. If someone grows up in a working class family, goes from their comprehensive school to university and graduates with a decent degree, does that automatically make them middle class? Well, Nathan Connolly who runs Dead Ink would argue no, as in this piece he wrote last week. That would be to deny the background and the upbringing that shaped them before they arrived at university. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with any conviction that you’re working class when on the face of it you’ve got a salaried graduate job and can afford an avocado whenever you fancy one, however much your attitudes, politics, outlook may align with siblings or cousins that didn’t head down the higher education path. There will undoubtedly be accusations of false claiming of credentials, like the outbreak of Mockney a few years ago. Kit de Waal, celebrated author and outspoken champion of working class writers suggests embracing the dual identity with no excuses and no shame, but you need to be pretty confident to do that (another trait that graduates from working class backgrounds are said to lack).

Where are all the working class writers then (as Kit de Waal asked last summer, in fact)? Are they looking at the quinoa in their cupboard and simply not feeling comfortable with calling themselves working class any more? Some will no doubt have intentionally left the working class behind via education, though the long tradition of self-education in the working class shows that the two don’t have to go together. Some may well be plugging away under the radar, not shouting about their class background and not writing anything that highlights it. The rest, however, are probably struggling to get a foot in the door because of lack of contacts, cultural capital, or money.

In Nathan Connolly’s piece from last week that I linked to earlier, he mentions setting up Dead Ink because he couldn’t afford the unpaid internships in London that were apparently essential. So many fields in the arts seem to rely on unpaid internships (and in London too) it’s no wonder the arts are dominated by people with money behind them (there’s an interesting paper called Are the creative industries meritocratic?, which you can access here). I was told in passing last week that I was at a serious disadvantage trying to get involved in the arts without a car – getting to performance venues (and home at the end of an evening, when any public transport is likely to have thinned out or stopped), school visits, distributing leaflets/brochures or attending meetings with publishers/agents/promoters. It may well be true, but that’s another obstacle if you don’t have money behind you. I know a couple of people who have a driving licence but no car, but without even trying I can think of 10 more in my immediate family/closest friends who’ve never learnt to drive in the first place (with maybe 8 or 9 who drive and have or share a car).

In conclusion then, working class writers might be out there but are probably struggling. When the only people who get a voice are the wealthy, we’re in a bad way so we need to fight for libraries, fight for a level playing field in education, and build a flourishing cultural hub outside of London (Northern Powerhouse, anyone?). By the way, the Labour manifesto mentions banning unpaid internships. I’ll just leave that thought with you.

What was read where last year?

Libraries. Data. Data on library books. You know I can’t resist. I was excited (yes, really) to find the top 100 most borrowed books in UK libraries 2015/16. A couple of years ago I wrote about the top 10 most borrowed books at Leeds Libraries and wondered whether there was much variation in different areas, so imagine my delight when I saw the regional breakdowns.

Since they’re the places where me and my immediate family use libraries, I immediately delved into the lists for the North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber and it looks like my earlier musings may have had some foundation. The Yorkshire list has way more instances of Barnsley author Milly Johnson’s books (3 in the top 10) than the national list, where she first appears at number 12. In the North East her most borrowed book is at number 72.

Interestingly, the UK number 1, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, is at number 3 in the North East and number 7 in Yorkshire. Even more interestingly, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, seventh most borrowed book in the UK, is at number 42 in the North East and isn’t in the top 100 at all in Yorkshire. Both of those books seemed to be constant in the books pages (and beyond) of national newspapers, discussed on arts programmes and the like. Did everyone up here buy the books instead of borrowing them, or are we more resistant to hype, or does the media frenzy only ever reflect metropolitan tastes? Discuss.

I haven’t read either of them, in case you wondered, but nor have I read any Lee Child or Milly Johnson. In fact you have to go down to number 13 on the Yorkshire borrowing chart to find an author I’ve read (Michael Connelly) and the only book of his I have read, I wasn’t that keen on. It turns out I haven’t read a single book on the Yorkshire list, the North East list, or the whole UK list. How unlike me to have minority tastes.

Week 14: In which I reach for the stars

It’s been submission central this week and as well as a batch of short stories to magazines I’ve entered the Orion Books Hometown Tales initiative I mentioned recently, and the Northern Writers’ Awards, and applied for a writing gig.

Hometown Tales has two sets of dates depending which website you get the T&Cs pdf from: deadline 31st January, hear by 31st March; deadline 30th June, hear by 31st July. The auto-reply email I got when I sent my submission in didn’t give a closing date but it did say I’d hear by September. Your guess is as good as mine, but if I get anywhere with it you can guarantee you’ll hear it here first.

It’s the second year I’ve entered the Northern Writers’ Awards and it’s the second time I’ve wanted to rewrite my personal statement as soon as I’ve committed it, despite multiple rewrites along the way. I’m not the only member of Ilkley Writers to have entered, and I know someone who was wishing they could rewrite their synopsis less than 24 hours after hitting Submit. There’s always next year.

Scarier by far is the fact that I applied to be writer in residence in a library, this week. Libraries again, eh? Anyone would think I was obsessed. Oh, wait… Seriously though, libraries are important and we forget that at our peril. If you haven’t been to your local library recently, make the effort and get there soon.

Meanwhile, I’m off to weep into my tea at the demise of Black Sabbath.

Week 13: Slightly delayed

A day late with this week’s update as the main event of the week was on Monday afternoon, when three of Ilkley Writers ran a free creative writing workshop at Seacroft library. We were a small but enthusiastic group and with the help of Peter Spafford we got some short pieces recorded which we’ll slot into our live programme in the Writing on Air festival.

As the programme (which we’re calling The Borrowers) will have the theme of libraries it was good to produce some of the content in the library, and we even had a couple of librarians in the group. Writing exercises involved words and phrases gathered by opening a selection of library books at random. It was fascinating to see the different directions two writers can go in despite having some or all of the same trigger-words.

Other than that, I have a new review up at the Bookbag, for an enjoyable historical novel (Paris, 1880s) called To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin.

Week 7: Libraries and summaries

I had to restrain myself in the library this week, which took a lot of doing. In fact I went directly to the shelf I was hoping to find book two of a series on, picked it up and took it to the counter. I know from painful experience that when my back is almost feeling better, carrying a thick hardback book for a couple of miles is a bad idea (you would think I could have worked that out without needing empirical evidence), so thankfully the second book in William Horwood’s Hyddenworld series is much thinner than the first, and was a paperback. Proper epic fantasy with prophecies, immortals, Anglo-Saxon artefacts, and some great characters. And available in the library.

For some reason, whenever I spot a fantasy novel that looks interesting, it turns out on further investigation to be part two (or sometimes part seven) of a series. Volume One is not a concept my local library seems to handle well. However, such is the charm of libraries – the random availability, the not knowing whether the book you want will be there or not (yes I have come across the concept of catalogues, and inter-library loans, but they take half the fun out of it). Like a lucky dip for reading material.

It seems entirely fitting, then, that Ilkley Writers (for whom last week I wrote a summary of our 2016) are proposing a radio programme about randomness and libraries, for the Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival in a few months. We might be pre-recording part of it in an actual library, which is quite exciting. My week has been spent getting into the serious discussion and planning stages with Andrea and Roz (it’s the same trio that did the programme last year), and thinking about unusual libraries. It’s a hard life…

Fathers Day, a note of thanks

PaternalElbow

My dad’s leather-patched elbow, with which he has nudged me into all sorts of literary and musical exploration

Sometimes I’m too tired to avoid the cliche up ahead, so here’s a Fathers’ Day post about my dad, without whom… (well, without whom I wouldn’t be here, obviously, but I mean apart from that).

  • When I had measles, aged 9 or 10, he read a good chunk of The Lord of the Rings to me, because he’s not one for taking age into account (thankfully). I struggled with it when he handed it over once I was feeling better, and it took me another few years to go back and finish it, but the spark of interest was there.
  • He likes Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, and he thought I might too (and as we now know, my entire writing career such as it is can be blamed on Douglas Adams)
  • He likes Anthony Trollope, and he thought I might too (can you see a pattern emerging here?)
  • He assiduously collected PKD novels in the years when they were hard to come by, scouring the second hand bookshops of West Yorkshire and Cumbria, and shared them. When I’m finally happy with my SF noir novel, Sunrise Over Centrified City, he’ll get to see where all that ended up.
  • He let me read the Maigret novels he got out of the library, when I was still on a children’s ticket (it’s that not accounting for age thing again. That also got me using big words quite early on – learn fast or have no idea what he’s talking about…)

If you’ve been around here for a while you can see the shape of my reading habits in this list. And if you really have been around for a while you probably know some of the musical ones too (all the bits that aren’t Big Brother’s fault. Both of them deny all responsibility for the hair metal). I am still resistant to Roxy Music, however.

Thanks today to all the dads that read to their kids, take them to libraries, buy them books (whether or not that involves keeping a list tucked in their wallet of which books exist in a series and which ones said child hasn’t read yet) and generally enthuse them about reading. Better than a kickabout in the park any day.

Popular authors, some vague musings

Looking at the top 10 list of fiction borrowed most often from Leeds Libraries in 2014, a few thoughts scudded across my mind (nothing too deep, I’m sleepy and full of cold right now). One was that they’re mostly authors who’ve been around for a long time (John Grisham, JK Rowling, Ian Rankin), another was that there’s a hefty dose of crime and thrillers on there, and the third was that there are a couple of authors with a Yorkshire background (Kate Atkinson, Peter Robinson). Which got me wondering how this sort of list varies across the UK – do crime novels with a local link prove popular everywhere? Are there places where you can see the influence of the Richard and Judy Book Club, for instance, or where it’s all Booker Prize longlisters and recommendations from the Guardian review section? How does it match up with book-buying habits (are we getting the Hmm, not sure but let’s see what all the hype’s about out of the library, and buying the ones we think we’ll treasure)?

As I don’t have the answers to any of that (though I’d be interested if anyone else does – have I missed a similar top 10 list from Dorset library service this week?) I’ll merely note that I did read 3 of those authors last year (Peter Robinson, Kate Atkinson, and Michael Connelly) though not the books mentioned, and all borrowed from the Library of Mum and Dad rather than Leeds.

My most-read authors of 2014 are (and this will tell you more than you need to know about me, I’m sure):

A love affair with libraries

Libraries are in the news a lot lately, rarely for the right reasons, though the Liverpool branches reprieve this week was a moment for celebration. Belatedly (though not too late, I hope) the Great British Public are remembering why they love libraries so much, and telling anyone who’ll listen. BBC 6Music (my station of choice, at least in rooms where Planet Rock reception is bad) are in the middle of a fortnight of library celebration, not all to do with borrowing albums. The Guardian are promoting the love letters to libraries campaign from Book Week Scotland. Regular visitors will recall that I’m quite fond of libraries, often have to be dragged away from them (this morning, for instance) or overload myself with books. Thus, while I’m not about to write a love letter as such (far too uptightly English for that) I will share some of my library experiences, in the hope that some of you out there might share back.

In the dim past that was the 1980s I vaguely remember a basement children’s library. I remember wooden cubes full of large-format books you could flick through, and my dad’s legs towering above me in corduroy. I remember Big Brother in the record department at Bradford City Library in his parka, and the LPs he’d borrow and carefully take home in the library-issue carrier bag (which finally broke in about 1996). There were the walks to the local library with my grandad (never without a stack of library books in the house) and the friendly librarian at Cockermouth (a library I spent many a Saturday morning in, from early childhood to leaving home). I first read Anne of Green Gables from Cockermouth library, and Raffles and Maigret. Later on I borrowed Aerosmith and Alice Cooper tapes, Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, and chocolate-themed baking books I never seemed to bake anything from.

Through the 1990s I stopped joining libraries but still made plenty of use of them. My dad borrowed Little Angels and Metallica CDs on my behalf in his lunch-hour (yes, Metallica – this is the beauty of libraries, you can try things without blowing all your pocket money), OneMonkey borrowed my choices from the fabulous Newcastle Central Library (not as fabulous last time I went, most of the books seemed to be missing). When my parents moved to a North Yorkshire village while I was at university, Big Brother and I would take my dad’s library tickets (still the brown card pouches – technology arrived there rather slowly) up the main street to the tiny library in the holidays and load up for our reading and listening pleasure.

Come the new decade I was in Scotland, loving the old-fashioned grandeur of Edinburgh Central Library and marvelling at the Carnegie library in his home town of Dunfermline, with stock a much bigger town would be proud of. OneMonkey and I somehow borrowed an AC/DC boxed set for the cost of borrowing a single CD, and went mad at a library book sale where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes for The Nephew (still in single figures at the time). By the turn of the following decade I wasn’t far from where I’d started out and I’m still using the local library constantly. I even borrowed the books I reviewed for the Ilkley Literature Festival this year from there.

I haven’t mentioned all the university libraries I’ve been in, the school library friend T and I spent our lunchtimes in (much more civilised than having to hang around outdoors in the drizzle), Bradford Local Studies Library or the decorative tiles in Leeds. I could go on for hours (pages) more but I’ll spare you. Instead I’ll make a cup of tea and wallow in warm memories of libraries I have loved; I can only recommend that you do the same, and if you can’t think of any you need to go find yourself a good library, fast.

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.

August and the disruption of routines

This week it feels like pretty much everyone (except me) is on holiday. On a train where people are usually standing in the aisles, I’ve had an empty seat beside me every day. The building I work in is quiet, little footfall on the stairs, no banging of doors or ringing phones. The library at lunchtime is almost deserted.

Partly because I’m in a writing lull brought on by the lethargy of warm summer days and partly because I’ve got the opportunity, I’m shaking it up a bit, not sitting in my regular seat. Yesterday I was among distracting art books, today I walked past the tempting colours of an enormous book on stained glass and settled in an alcove of poetry and plays. A wall of Shakespeare to one side, and Milton, Donne and Marvell to the other.

Investigating my surroundings – which, after all, was the point of sitting somewhere new – I felt slightly guilty to notice several names on the Milton et al wall that I didn’t recognise. I don’t always remember the names of authors even when I’ve read a novel of theirs, but I find that particularly with poetry or short stories the name doesn’t have time to imprint in my mind so it’s not necessarily a sign that I’m unfamiliar with their work (though that’s probably the case as well, here). Having re-attempted poetry recently (reading it, not writing it) after a long period of apathy or confusion, I’ve come to the conclusion that I hadn’t flicked my poetry off-switch as I’d thought, I was just reading the wrong poetry.

A couple of months ago I picked up a book helpfully titled Modern Poetry (post-WW1 to the sixties, I think) and started reading one or two poems per evening. I spent enough time to reflect on subject and language but not so long that it started to feel like I was dissecting the poem. If, after that reflection, I still didn’t get it I moved on and accepted that one poet (or maybe even one poem) wasn’t for me. Along the way I’ve discovered that I like some poets I’d never heard of, I don’t like a few whose names were familiar, and interestingly I already knew a few poems by poets I would claim never to have come across (and whose names have already escaped me again, but now I know where to look them up, at least). Maybe tomorrow I should return to the poetry and plays alcove, pick an unknown and dive in.

Second-hand books, a temptation too far

I went into a charity shop this afternoon, which is a mistake as I had my wallet with me – enter with a bag of assorted donations, leave with an armful of books. The thing was, I sort of took it as a sign, that the half shelf of CJ Cherryh books which had looked like maybe they’d be the sort of thing OneMonkey and I might enjoy on an idle afternoon were still there several weeks after I last went in. I didn’t buy all of them, just a selection, and when they finally re-emerge from the back of the To Read cupboard I’ll let you know what I thought.

The purchase of second-hand sci-fi distracted me from a planned trip to the library, and really I don’t need any library books just now (I visited the parental home last weekend and left as usual with a bag of detective novels. I swear my dad has an endless supply) but embarrassingly, a librarian of recent acquaintance is visiting our house for the first time tomorrow and I just know I’ll now greet her with a protestation of regular library use (“I just haven’t had a chance this week…”) and probably show her the place I stack my library books when they’re waiting to be read or returned. Sometimes I think I should just go borrow a random book every week; as well as (I hope) helping keep the branch libraries open, I might find something interesting I wouldn’t normally try.

The lure of libraries, chapter 94

I really shouldn’t be allowed near libraries; I only went to return the Megan Abbott novel I mentioned the other day (and because the walk’s good for me), but I came out with three books and it would have been more if I could have faced the walk home with them. Two Robert B Parker novels since I was so impressed with his handling of Poodle Springs, and an anthology of ‘Alternate history mystery’ called Sideways in Crime which I’m particularly looking forward to (I’ve even heard of some of the contributors). Of course they’ll all have to wait till I’ve finished the book I’m reading at the moment (The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which being the first in the Thursday Next series is explaining a lot of things from Something Rotten, the fourth book but the first I read) but long warm summer evenings are good for that, sitting outside with a cup of tea in one hand and a novel in the other (one of my favourite poses). Such a shame the weather forecast’s showing cold rain for the rest of the week.