Howard Jacobson, Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It
(New York: Bloomsbury, 2011), pp. 10-11:
Call me a
pedant, but I think of a library as a place that houses books. Books which
educated opinion deems us to be the better, intellectually and spiritually, for
having read. If you wonder who should be given the responsibility of
deciding which those books are, wonder no more. I will do it. So call me
paternalistic as well.
It amazes me that we have to insist on this. The idea of a free library
presupposes the value, to the individual and to society, of reading, and the
value of reading presupposes the value of books. If we fill a library with
potboilers and that genre of contemporary literature described as crossover
because it crosses us over from maturity to infancy, we abandon the grand
educative function which libraries were philanthropically invented to serve.
First the serious books give way to footling books, then the books give way
altogether to something else. Records, tapes, CDs, DVDs, and now
Don’t mistake me for a puritan. I like the lunacy of libraries. I like the
tramps pretending to be immersed in newspapers, and the people who have
been swindled of their inheritances trying to put together lawsuits from the
only law book on the shelves, and the would-be aristocrats searching family
trees, and the general-knowledge freaks memorising every entry in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the mutterers and the snorers and the wild
laughers and the rheumy old men who are here every day, from nine in the
morning to six at night, shouting ‘Shush!’ at anyone who coughs. Libraries
attract nutters — it’s the flipside of their grand educative function — and it’s
proper that whoever haunts books should be kept in mind of the fragility of
reason. Books sometimes make you wise, and sometimes send you mad.
But the detritus of popular entertainment, which leads neither to wisdom
nor to madness, only to terminal triviality, and from which any good library
should be a refuge, is something else again. Don’t give libraries a penny, I
say, until they present themselves once more as palaces of bookish learning,
for the behoof of the studious and the deranged alike.