Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Six Crimes against Library Books

The original version of this post was one of my earliest, written four years ago. At that time I included only 5 crimes, but since the assault on public libraries has been unrelenting I have added the worst crime of all: closing public libraries and preventing access to books. This piece focuses on the books themselves.

Libraries are under attack

Libraries are under attack and not just from this thing they used to call austerity but also from readers. I’ve quoted before from a very charming and poignant novel in a previous post about libraries in danger: Sophie Divry’s The Library of Unrequited Love. Damage Limitation. That’s how the French librarian narrator describes her mission, limiting the damage readers do – men readers in particular, apparently.

I don’t always manage it. They do stupid things all the time. Inevitably. They put books back in the wrong place, they steal them, they muddle them up, they dog-ear them. Some people even tear out pages. Imagine, tearing out pages when photocopies are only seven centimes a shot! It’s men that do that, every time. And underlining like crazy, that’s always men as well. Men just have to make their mark on a book, put in their corrections, their opinions. You see the pathetic comments they write in the margin: ‘Yes!’, ‘No!!!’, ‘Ridiculous’, ‘Very Good’, ‘O.T.T.’, ‘Wrong’. It’s forbidden to write on the books, that’s in the Library Rules. (22)

Despite her railing at the person (a man I think) who had a sleepover in the stacks for which she is responsible, Sophie Divry’s librarian has very positive views about libraries and their value.

I share this strong belief in the importance of libraries. I also find myself incensed (as well as inconvenienced from time to time) by the activities of my fellow library book borrowers.

Six things not to do to library books:

  1. Mark them. People, don’t underline your favourite bits with pen or pencil, and forbear from using a highlighter. It is not your book, and the rest of us do not want to know what you found useful, interesting or noteworthy about this book. Do not write your shopping list on the end pages, or your to do list on the title page. Do not add anything to the writers’ text.
  2. Damage them. It won’t stay open? Don’t crack the spine by bending the covers backwards. My shoulders don’t meet behind my back either. If necessary peer between the pages. Don’t damage them in any way. Don’t tear out pages you want to keep. Photocopiers were invented for you to copy pages. Don’t prop up your wobbly table by placing it under the leg, turn down the page corner to mark your place, drop it in the bath or throw it at your disgraced lover or partner.
  3. Leave important things between the pages when you return them. Never again will you see that bank note, dry cleaner’s receipt, oyster card, railway, concert or winning lottery ticket, love letter, Indian Takeaway flyer, business card. The compromising photographs, however, will reappear.
  4. Collect your toenail clippings in the open pages. More respect to other readers please.
  5. Forget to return them.
  6. Close libraries so that readers do not have access to them.

What response could there be to such bad readers and local councils? It is not good enough to suggest that we close libraries because everyone has access to on-line books nowadays. In the first place they don’t. Not everyone has access to the internet at home. If you have ever been in a public library you would know that the use of the on-line facilities is part of their attraction. And not everyone wants to read the books on-line. And libraries are not just about access to books, they have many other purposes, including being social places, although I think holding a sleepover in them may be going a little far.

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his 2013 annual lecture lecture to the Reading Agency: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Love libraries. Love library books. Love librarians?

Any pet hates to add to my list?

The Library of Unrequited Love (La Cote) by Sophie Divry was a gift from my sister. Published by MacLehose Press in 2013. Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds.

Related Posts

Libraries are in danger. Too much silly stuff is written about them in the media. For a refreshing riposte see this piece in Huffington Post by the American librarian, Rita Meade: A librarian’s response to ‘what’s a library?’

Libraries again and again; in this post I reported on the importance of libraries overseas, using the example of Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda and praising the work of Book Aid International.

Library Cuts are Pay Cuts. Really! This post looked at everybody’s financial impoverishment caused by cutting libraries.

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What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:

Write

Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?

 

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Chasing Perfection as I edit my First Draft

I’m still revising my novel, moving from a first draft to something I could get an opinion on from another writer. Writing is a solitary activity for so many of us. Perhaps that is why we like to hear and read about the travails of other writers. Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the wise words of two writers.

The first is Clive James, chronically ill, but still writing in the Guardian Weekend Magazine in a series called Reports of My Death. The second is Neil Gaiman who is passionate about the value of the written word to people’s development and wellbeing, and especially for the young. He has been trenchant in his criticism of library closures, for example in his lecture for The Reading Agency in 2012. It’s worth reading.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Clive James’s Misprint

In April this year, Clive James’s column caught my eye because we were about to look at his poems in my reading group. He described the arrival of the finished copies of his Collected Poems after weeks checking proofs ‘until I was finally sure that it was free of misprints throughout its hefty length’.

Delighted with the way the book looked I sat down to read it. There was a misprint, and it was plausible enough to derail the meaning of an entire poem. … It made me feel that I was contemplating the ruins of 60 years of work.

Was this an over-reaction?

By nightfall I was ready to face the sad but consoling truth. If the upside of being old and tired is that a little thing like a finch’s call sounds like heaven, the inevitable downside is that a little thing like a misprint looks like death. Getting things out of proportion is an occupational hazard for anyone whose occupation is over. [Guardian Weekend 23.4.16]

153 tick

Those of us who pour over manuscripts, looking for that last mistake can understand Clive James’s reaction. We want our work to go out into the world on the wings of perfection.

Neil Gaiman’s wise words

What an impossible dream! I do not know the source of my next quotation, although it is included in the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (February 2010). Neil Gaiman’s words leapt out at me from a handout I was given at the Festival of Writing, seizing my attention much as Clive James’s dismay had.

Fix it. Remember that sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

Brilliant image! Chasing the horizon. Out on Dartmoor on a beautiful October Sunday, I found myself chasing the horizon up beyond Trowelsworthy Tor. Our landmark, the cairn on Hen Tor, had disappeared as we approached. We had descended into a dip before climbing again. The horizon is a changeable phenomenon, always further away. Its defining feature is its unattainableness.

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Chasing the horizon on Dartmoor is a lot more fun and more beautiful than chasing perfection in writing. Neil Gaiman is right. You need to keep moving.

Knowing when to move on

To write is to try to approximate what we have in our head with some words and punctuation on the page/screen. Before we commit to marking the page, we have an idea to be captured. But as I spool out those words, what I write communicates less and less accurately the image, the story, the ideas in my head. I rewrite, review, revise and rewrite in order to get it closer to perfection. But, like the horizon I cannot reach it. I can get closer, but I never arrive.

294-crashed-typewriter

This is not a justification for avoiding revision. Not at all. Just an acknowledgement that I need to take account of the possible delusion that this novel of mine could ever be perfect. It will always only be an approximation of what is in my head. That’s how writing is. Writers need to judge the moment when it’s right to stop, when it’s time to move on, to write the next thing.

Related posts

This is the 9th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction #6 April 2016

Revising the novel again (and again) #7 July 2016

Festival of Writing #8 September 2016

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Festival of Writing

What do you get if you put 400 writers, agents, editors and creative writing teachers together? Lots of talk, lots of notebooks, lots of focused people. This was my experience of the Festival of Writing at York University this September.

What can a festival of writing give to a writer? I don’t mean a literature festival, but a writing festival? The Writers’ Workshop, who organised the Festival of Writing 2016 in York in September say they aimed to do three things given that writing is hard and solitary.

  1. help improve your writing
  2. help you meet the industry
  3. give you an amazing time

I went along mostly to finds ways to improve my writing, but it was also interesting and useful to meet others engaged in the business of book production and of writing fiction.

284-fow-logo

What did I learn?

I learned a great deal more about the publishing industry, how the fiction landscape is changing as ebooks and self-publishing have grown. It can sometimes feel that the industry is in opposition to the writer, but of course agents and publishers need good writers, and we heard about plenty of good relationship. Most writers, I suspect, still feel we are somehow on the outside, looking for the magic formula that will allow us entry. Or if not some magic, some helpful guidance and tools that give us the chance of entry.

With a strapline from here to publication, the event went some way to demystifying a process which otherwise can seem like the quest of romantic medieval fiction: an epic journey with riddles and tests, ensnarements, false directions and yet no promise of attaining the goal.

Experiment, Learn, Bounce!

Experiment, Learn, Bounce! was CL Taylor’s message to us and it has merit. She described her very successful career as a fiction writer and extracted these points for us.

  • Experiment and be bold within and across different genres.
  • Learn from it all, learn from feedback, critiques, how-to books and from other published books.
  • And don’t give up, bounce back from rejection, you would miss out if you crumpled.

More than once writers were congratulated on completing the first draft of their novel, not many people in the world have done it. Perhaps they people know something that we don’t?

And perhaps we should be adding Celebrate! to CL Taylor’s imperatives. Celebrate every achievement, because writing is so hard.

284-uof-york

Workshops

There were 40 workshops on offer; everything from ‘First 100 Word Challenge’ to ‘How to Attract an Agent’. My own choices reflected my intentions to improve the first draft of my novel. I went to workshops that focused on specific aspects of the craft of fiction. All six workshops were interesting and useful, and I brought away some ideas and notes for action. Some were better learning experiences than others. It seems a misnomer to refer to a one-hour monologue as a workshop, for example.

The Writers’ Workshop is able to call upon some very experienced people in the business of helping people improve their writing. It seemed that most people attending the workshop were stimulated and challenged by their workshop experiences.

My mistake

I made a major mistake by not preparing well enough for this conference – distracted by the publication of The New Age of Ageing and other activities. I missed the information about booking one-to-one sessions and sending in my work-in-progress for feedback from an agent and an editor. Silly me! For many people present this was a really important part of attending. I know this because they were slack-jawed if I admitted that I had missed out.

Some specific things

Did you know that there is a genre called Reading Group Fiction? New to me.

It seems that post-it notes and coloured pens might be the best aid to rewriting for some of us. This does not just apply to the stationery junkies amongst us. As they are small, cheap and moveable, everything a first draft is not, post-its are a good way of visualising aspects of the novel, such as plot threads, and being able to see where rewrites are needed. Thanks Julie Cohen for the workshop on that: we did some post-it activities.

I enjoyed the generosity of the publishing community and the wannabe published writers. People were friendly, exchanged contact details, recommended books, noted successes, and bought each other drinks. Back in my writing attic I am aware of how hard it is for writers in their everyday lives to maintain the sense of community.

284-fow

But …

Half way through the weekend I lost my confidence and it all became a bit of a nightmare. I was confronted, like the hill walker who reaches the brow of the hill only to find there another one beyond, the further you go the more you can see there is to do. The consequence of knowing more about what needs revision is understanding there is more and more to do than I ever imagined. I am not convinced I can do it. I find that Neil Gaiman has expressed this rather more succinctly: ‘chasing the horizon’.

Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

[From the workshop Writing Tips: Rules are made to be broken by Laura Williams.]

I am hoping that this nightmare of lost confidence will soon pass, and that the practical suggestions together with the understanding I gained about different aspects of the writer’s craft, will help me through.

But here’s another useful piece of advice from Carl Sandburg which can apply to life as well as writing:

Beware of advice – even this.

Related posts and websites

During the weekend I tweeted the connection to a post I wrote in July, the 7th in a series on revising my novel. It was called Revising the novel again (and again). A few people read the post, one saying she was glad to find she was not alone.

Here’s the link to the website of The Writers’ Workshop, organisers of the Festival.

This is the 8th in the series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015, also run by The Writers’ Workshop. Previous posts were:

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction April 2016

 

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Libraries again and again

National Library Day is Saturday 6th February. Here we are again, defending public libraries, arguing for them to be kept open in the face of so-called austerity, reminding people of the value of free access to books.

Public libraries are in danger. Cutting them is a shortsighted policy; libraries contribute in the long run to many, many people’s knowledge and understanding, to their creative abilities and to their imagination and wonder. They do not cost much, in comparison with, say Trident or HS2 or keeping people in prisons.

We need to hear and repeat the arguments supporting public libraries from those who benefitted from open access and a friendly librarian in their youth, from those who are out-of-pocket and who benefit from reading for free (as well as using the other facilities of public libraries) and for the civilising influence of culture on a country. Neil Gaiman said that libraries are

the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.

I bring three witnesses to support National Library Day.

Peter Balaba, Head Librarian, Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda.

Peter says,

Nakaseke is a very rural region. Most of the population live as subsistence farmers, growing crops like coffee, maize or beans or raising animals. This is not a rich area. Perhaps sometimes people have enough produce to sell and make extra money, but very few people have books in their homes. No one has a computer to access the internet. This is why the library is so important for the community here.

For the farmers of Nakaseke, the information the library provides is vital. It can mean the difference between a good crop and a bad one. A good crop will feed their families and leave something over to sell. A bad crop can mean ruin.

There are no books in the schools here – they do not even have money to buy desks or chairs for the children. The classrooms are bare. So we run outreach programmes for the children, which means that up to 100 children might be in the library – so many we have to put half of them in our reading tent outside.

Nakaseke library has been supported by Book Aid International since 2003. Their slogan is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid logo

Zadie Smith, novelist

23 Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith tried to save Kensal Rise Library in London, but it was closed with 5 others in 2011, saving £1m annually.

I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library. But then, it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little. But the low motives [of the government] as it tries to worm out of its commitment … is a policy so shameful that they will never live it down.” Local libraries, Smith said, are “gateways to better, improved lives”. (Guardian 16th 2015)

The article that reported this goes on to list other libraries under threat in Fife, Newcastle, Liverpool and Lewisham in London. Writers such as Zadie Smith and many others are active in the campaign to save them.

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Ali Smith, writer

229 Ali Sm

She is one of the most inventive writers of the current day. Her novel How to be both was the success of last year. In 2015 Ali Smith also published Public Library and other stories. The book contains 12 short stories, none of them called Public Library. The title comes from the interspersed comments from other bookish people about the importance of libraries, especially for younger people. The theme of the collection concerns the benefits of reading, not only for writing but also for connections between people.

Ali Smith’s stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, delights readers with her inventiveness, her creativity, her quirky view on things so that it is as if she takes you by the shoulders and shows you a familiar thing in a different way.

She is playful with words and informative about their histories. And she lists, lingers on lists of everything. Her stories connect people through fiction, (Katherine Mansfield) and other cultural things (Dusty Springfield, Scotland).

The importance of books and libraries cannot be denied.

One short story from the collection made available to download and read by Pool here: The Art of Elsewhere.

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith, published in 2015 by Hamish Hamilton. 220 pp

Charlie Brown

And another witness – Peanuts!

223 Peanuts library

Linked post

Library cuts are pay cuts. Really! December 2014.

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Library cuts are pay cuts. Really!

141 warning road signRegular libraries users are facing a virtual pay cut as libraries are threatened. A report with the catchy title of Quantifying and Valuing the Wellbeing Impacts of Culture and Sport, issued by the Department for Culture and Sport, reported that library users enjoy a sense of well-being equivalent to a pay rise of £1,395 a year. Engagement with the arts adds another £1,084 a year. Every woman, man and child is threated by further public sector cuts with reductions equivalent to almost £2,500 a year. (Thanks to The Author, Summer 2014 edition for this information.)

141 G OsbWe have been told that the price of austerity is worth paying. That was the Chancellor George Osborne. He and his party are not necessarily the best judges of that and some of us doubt that they are paying any price. Economic analysts suggest that the burden of the Coalition cuts falls most heavily on the poor (and women, but that’s not my focus today).

What is more risible? The notion that culture and sport have wellbeing impacts? The attempt to quantify and value these so-called impacts? Or the knowledge that this ‘salary’, which you probably didn’t know you had from libraries and the arts will be cut by people who wouldn’t notice a rise or a cut of £2500? It is certainly not amusing that 49 branches have closed in the last 12 months.

141 warning tapesWe have been warned that there will be more cuts to public services and we know that libraries are an easier target than care for older people, holes in the roads and so forth. So Beware! Let’s remind ourselves and others of the value of libraries, and not in the language of impacts or equivalent salaries.

Access to books is a cornerstone of our cultural development and enrichment. Libraries open the door to so much. So many writers acknowledge their debt to libraries. (See my previous post.) Children especially need access to the world opened by books and other library services. Share what Neil Gaiman said about this and so well.

141 BooksforprAnd prisoners in our stuffed and under-staffed jails also need access to libraries. Much of the recent campaign for Books for Prisoners by the Howard League and English Pen related to access to books and the importance of these in prisoners’ lives. One account about the value to prisoners that moved me is by Russ Litten: What better way to rehabilitate than to read?

But library usage is declining according to the report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountability(CIPFA) published 11.12.14. Is this a function of restricted access, or other restrict ions imposed by austerity (less money, fewer trips to town, fewer visitis to libraries) or a sign of a nation in cultural decline? Look at the graphics on this Guardian article dated 10.12.14.

Take action. Use libraries, celebrate them, support them and if necessary protect them!

141 warning!

How I earned my £1,395 or My library use in the last 12 month.

  • 12% of the books I have read have come from the library.
  • I frequently use the very valuable and efficient on-line reservation service.
  • I have ordered hardback books when I can’t wait for the paperback version.
  • I have borrowed books that I didn’t think I wanted to own, for example for the book group I belong to.
  • And I have reserved books on spec, perhaps they were recommended on another blog, or in the review pages of literary publications, or were short/long-listed for literary prizes, or recommended in one of those innumerable book conversations.
  • The best library book (and I’m still waiting for it to come out in paperback, when I will buy it) is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk. It won the Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize, and I reviewed it here.
  • One or two books went back unread. My TBR pile clashed with other readers’ requests, or I lost interest in the book.
  • One of my writing groups was started by the librarian just over a year ago and now runs smoothly, encouraged and facilitated every two weeks in library premises.
  • The poetry group I attend is also supported by the library.

Library shelvesDSC00248

Nice work if you can get it! I earn my £1,395 a year at the library!

Any thoughts to add about libraries and access to books?

 

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National Libraries Day

It’s National Libraries Day on Saturday 8th February 2014. We need to say again:

  • We need libraries.
  • Libraries matter.
  • Libraries change lives.
  • Books change lives.
  • Libraries are more than the sum of the books they lend.
  • Save our libraries!
  • Celebrate our libraries!

We know that books change lives from countless accounts by writers and readers of early immersion in libraries. How many times have you read “I wouldn’t be a reader/writer if I hadn’t spent my childhood in libraries”? Libraries and books open eyes to the world beyond the everyday, beyond the immediate and into new imaginary places and adventures. Neil Gaiman said this more eloquently and powerfully in his lecture: Reading and Obligation. Note that word Obligation. Our society has an obligation to provide libraries.

Library shelvesDSC00248Libraries are more than the collection of books. They provide other services: loans of DVDs, CDs, access to newspapers, journals, courses, local information, pamphlets, computer time, story-telling, spaces for poetry and writing groups … Libraries have a communitarian function.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. (Caitlin Moran, The Library Book p92)

The-Library-Book-154x250_mediumThe Library Book is published by of The Reading Agency, which works hard to support reading, including libraries. Their strap line is: ‘Because everything changes when we read’. There are 4,200 public libraries in the UK. We must not lose them. And that’s why everyday is Libraries Day.

I have been with my writing group at Totnes Library (a new library, opened less than a year ago – what a treasure!). We had live music outside our meeting room and 15 writers focusing on life writing. Where are you on National Libraries Day?

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Books change lives.

Want a good idea to solve your Christmas present problems? Reverse Book Tokens may be the answer. What are they? Read on.

Reading and books connect people in important ways. Reading and writing are two important activities that enable underprivileged people to counter the odds stacked against them: refugees, prisoners, the oppressed, children … A recent blog on reading with children referred to Neil Gaiman’s October 2013 lecture in which he outlined our collective responsibility to help young people read. Here is the link again to the full text of his lecture on the Reading Agency site. In a spirited defence of all reading and of libraries he argued that individuals need literacy, but so does society.

The bigger picture of the importance of books and reading came vividly to me when I worked briefly in Africa, with teachers in Maputo, Mozambique. I have also visited schools in Zimbabwe and in Ethiopia. One thing I know is that resources we take for granted in our schools are in very short supply in some schools, especially in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. In particular – books. Not all schools can afford to provide books, and yet …

66 Bookaid logoMy mother put me in touch with Book Aid International and I have supported them ever since. Last year they provided more than half a million books to 3,300 libraries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Their work is so important. It changes lives.

Rahmatu is a 13-year-old-girl from Cameroon who is at secondary school , a country where only one in 5 girls achieve this. Her family cannot afford to buy books. But thanks to Book Aid International her school library is full of books and she takes a book home every day, and reads to her siblings. Her favourite book is Gulliver’s Travels. You can see her speaking on the website.

Before I started going to school and reading books I never had any plans for my future because in my tribe, young girls of my age grow up and just get married. But now that I’m in school I plan to become a lawyer.

Book are changing the aspirations of this young girl, at the same time as allowing her siblings access to books as well. The video shows Rahmatu reading aloud to children in her village. The essence of this story is repeated in Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, DRC, for libraries in prison, in hospital, and in primary and secondary schools. The strap line for Book Aid International is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid classroom

Book Tokens are a great idea; you pay the money and someone else gets the books. Reverse Book Tokens are a great idea to support Book Aid International: you pay the money and someone else gets the books. For only £6 Book Aid International can send out three books. Money for this charity is also raised through donations, festive cards and World Book Day events. The next one will be on Thursday 6th March 2014. The charity is hoping to raise money through celebrating its 60th birthday in 2014.

66 bookaid lorry

Thinking of presents for readers this year? Give a Reverse Book Token and support Book Aid International. A reader will thank you.

If I were to meet the person who helped send books to our school, first of all I would say a big thank you! And plead with them to send many books to our school because children are in need of them, says Rahmatu.

 

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Are you sitting comfortably?

Reading with young children, pre-readers, is both necessary and a delight. Fiction for children is necessary because it is an early gateway to independent reading and because it builds empathy. There is an obligation to the individual and to our society to develop literacy in young people. This is the argument of Neil Gaiman in his lecture Reading and Obligation for the Reading Agency in October 2013. You can read his lecture in full on the Reading Agency website, here.

64 multitasking

‘The simplest way to raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.’  Gaiman argues in favour of all reading, including comics, Enid Blyton and so-called ‘escapist’ fiction. ‘Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing.’ Anything they want to read will help them onto ‘the reading ladder’ and up, rung by rung into literacy. He makes a strong case for protecting libraries as well.

His argument about building empathy is also strong. Reading is different from action on screens, which happens to other people, in this respect, because it depends on the reader’s imagination. Further:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you have never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

Extending Gaiman’s points, I argue that reading with pre-readers is a powerful way to build social bonds. It is necessarily a social activity, full of emotional and physical closeness. A few days ago, at their request I read some classic stories to my two grandsons. The older one is five years old and on the edge of reading, and at the end of each story he took pleasure and pride in matching pictures to words: bear, porridge, chair, Goldilocks… The younger one, who is two, fell asleep with his head on my arm. His brother and I shared conspiratorial smiles at this. They have both been enjoying books since they were just weeks old.

It is one of the chief pleasures of reading to share it with someone else, through a blog, in conversation with friends, in book groups and – in my case – with my grandsons. There was a time when they preferred different books. The picture above makes me smile as I attempted to appease the tastes of both boys. No wonder I look so awfully tired.

64 Char & Oli IMGP1812Reading to the very young crosses generations, and I have a much-loved sequence of photographs of my mother reading to her great-grandson. The book is The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, but we still love reading it. We love Hamish the cat’s resistance to entering the basket, which will mean an aerial flight over the sea to the lighthouse. Hamish’s job is to keep the seagulls off the wonderful lunch prepared by Mrs Grindling. We love listing the contents of Mr Grindling’s lunchbasket and shouting CLEAR OFF, YOU VARMINTS! with Mr Grindling as the seagulls steal every bit.

The older one has begun enjoying longer stories with chapters, like the BFG, or Paddington Bear. The younger one loves being read to, and is not that bothered what it is. Here he is with Mog by Judith Kerr, which appeals to his love of books and cats. I used to read Mog to his mother. Mog is another delightful (but dim) cat.

64 Josh & Mog DSC00053

I can see ahead years and years of reading aloud, of giving books, of sitting with books, and of hearing each of them discovering that they can do it on their own. For me, part of the pleasure is discovering that even over two or three generations we can share our tastes: for favourites such as the Three Bears, Mog, The BFG, and for new favourites such as It’s a Book! By Lane Smith or 365 penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental. (Thank you Anne P for suggesting this big book, which delights us with numbers as the collection of penguins grows by one more penguin every day for a whole year.)

64 365 penguins

Here is a brief list of some of my current favourites from among the books I like reading with them.

Anything by Anthony Browne because his images allow you to enter strange but familiar worlds. My Dad was a favourite until it fell apart.

Where the wild things are. Maurice Sendak

Roald Dahl’s The BFG, which was one of my daughter’s favourite reads.

Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and pictures by Axel Scheffler. Be careful what you invent because it might just turn out to be true!

You can see that we share a taste for humour, cats, anthropomorphic animals and good illustrations.

Here’s a link to the Booktrust’s list of Our 100 best children’s books. Lots of people pointed out omissions and some will have voted for their favourites. Have you any suggestions for me to read with the boys? After all Christmas is coming and although it is true that a book’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life, the gift of a book is always a good one.

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