In praise of libraries

I’ve always had a very close relationship with libraries. When I was small (probably six or seven) my parents left me in the library, each thinking I was with the other. I was quite happy: the librarians knew me and kept an eye on me, and I sat and read until my horrified parents returned to collect their missing daughter. I still like to make them feel guilty about it, but actually it’s a happy memory: I spent a lot of time in Chesham Library when I was growing up, attending their summer holiday events,and going there every week to pick new books. I was reminded of the excitement the library offered me when I went with my small son to our local library in Bromsgrove last weekend. They have recently moved, and now have more space and a great, colourful children’s area, and it’s a delight for children – even those who can only read a few letters at the moment – to go and choose their own books. His excitement rubbed off on me (and his father), and we all spent some time browsing and choosing our books. Last year Edward did the summer holiday reading scheme, where children have to read 6 books over the holidays, and tell a librarian or volunteer about their favourite book, what happens in it and why they like it. Although I was reading the books to Edward, for img_2528him this was a crucial period, because suddenly the library became a place for him, somewhere meant for children, not a boring place where he trailed round after me.

Of course nowadays there is the internet, so children are less likely to follow up their interests by going to the library and more likely to use a websearch. Nonetheless, there is no substitute for being able to curl up with a book, turning the pages, flicking through it as you find out more about a subject, or following the unfolding of a story – and I don’t think that appeal has gone away even in these days of e-learning. And what a library offers is the opportunity to browse, to consider your options without commitment, and that’s what the excitement is all about. You just never know what you’ll see as you explore the shelves, and consequently I currently have 9 library books on loan from several different libraries (I belong to 15 libraries, but that’s another matter – reading is part of my job!) The books I’ve borrowed include knitting books, poetry, fiction, myth, art and academic books. Although I’m all for buying books to support authors, I wouldn’t have bought any of them – but I might once I’ve read and loved them. And if they’re not what I wanted, I’ll return them none the worse off. So a library really is an invitation to learn something new, for free. The only constraints are how much you can carry home.

A library isn’t just a place to borrow books from, either. Over the last year or so I have
been spending more and more time at the Birmingham Midland Institute library: this is a private library (though very reasonable to join) and is the sort of place you can just hang out, which is what I do most of the time (in fact I’m here so much they’ve put me on a committee). I bring my laptop and read, write, answer emails – all the things I could do elsewhere, but without the usual bmidistractions. The Institute organises events, has a tea-room, and a members room where you can just read the papers over coffee, as well as exhibitions of art in the foyer. I’m currently sitting in the library working before I attend a course on web coding this evening. Last week I came to a theatre production here; in a few months’ time I’ll be giving a lecture on Gothic. This is perhaps the ideal concept of a library: where the arts and sciences and all kinds of learning are brought together and offered to anyone. It encourages the exploration of different ideas, fresh viewpoints, and the opportunity to learn something unexpected, as well as a comfortable place to study, and such a place is valuable.

As the headlines frequently tell us, libraries are under threat. They are having to adapt fast to new technology, threatened by forms of entertainment other than books, trying to suit a very different world from the one for which many libraries were established. Yet all libraries, whether local, public libraries, private institutions or university libraries, all offer the opportunity to explore the world: think of a library as a portal to who knows where. And when you go through the looking glass, you’ll never look back. Emily Dickinson should have the last word here:gladstone2.jpg

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

NB: Other libraries I love: Gladstone’s Library (picture above) – you can stay there! And they have open fires and great cake!

Dr Williams’s Library – lovely place, and I have fond memories of researching 19th century theology there.

The Library of Birmingham – impressive building, which gets better the higher up you go!

The Hive at Worcester – lovely place, child-friendly and helpful staff.

The Morrab Library in Penzance – because some of us can’t help but work even on holiday! Wonderful independent library with comfortable chairs (and not just for academics!)


An Evening with M R James

Old HauntsI do like M. R. James’s stories. They are terrifying, though often perpetually obscure, and delight in the macabre and the terrifying. James (1862-1936) was an academic, a medievalist and bibliophile who spent much of his life at Cambridge, and most of that in libraries. There is an aura of the obscure, arcane dustiness around him and his work, though he was also a man with a wicked sense of humour and an interest in the mysterious, the supernatural and the downright terrifying. Many of his stories feature a protagonist not unlike himself: a professor, librarian or antiquarian of some sort, who investigated a little too much, was perhaps a bit too curious, and suffered the terrible consequences of this. There is something terribly English about James’s writing.

He liked to gather his friends to tell them his ghost stories, especially in the winter MRJames1900months when the nights were long. Yesterday evening I went to the Birmingham Midland Institute (my second home at the moment) to a performance of Old Haunts, by Don’t Go Into the Cellar Victorian Theatre Company. In the Members’ Room, dimly lit, ‘Monty James’ sat in a large leather armchair and told us some stories, with just a few props, and some special effects. His manner was perfect – it’s the sort of thing that could easily become horribly twee, but he had just the right mix of menace and jocularity as he told us ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, along with other tales and chatty digressions. The script also included some of James’s own thoughts on the writing of Gothic stories, which I’ve used in teaching James:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

Whistle_and_I'll_come_to_you_illustrationThere is certainly nothing ‘mild and drab’ about James’s stories or the performance. There were plenty of shocks – being suddenly plunged into darkness, hearing terrible screams, flashes of light and so on – it reminded me of the spectacle of Victorian shows, from spiritualism to conjurers, who enjoyed the effects on their audience much as ‘James’ did in Old Haunts. There were plenty of people visibly jumping with shock last night, but it’s not just about thrills: James’s stories make us draw closer to the light for fear of the dark, a primal sense that we need both the horror and the warmth to feel fully alive. There is something joyous in that, which the character of James clearly revels in, and which Gothic literature always indulges to the utmost. Victorian performance, like Victorian literature, particularly sensation literature, asks us to be fully involved emotionally and intellectually, because this full participation makes us vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to its effects. Don’t Go Into the Cellar seem to know this and play on it, and it works brilliantly, especially in such an intimate atmosphere as a small, crowded, dimly-lit Victorian room.