Wednesday, September 08, 2021


Public Libraries

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 computers.

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.

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