An Ode to the Public Library: Jeanette, Caitlin and Me

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

By Kathryn Grassu

To grow up in rural Northern England is to have an idealised vision of community spirit, whether it’s smiling and saying hello to everyone you pass in the quiet leafy streets or only using 5 minutes of your hospital parking ticket before giving the other 4 hours you’ve paid for to someone else. But when it comes to the humble British library things are a little different.

I have often personally lamented the state of my generation because they do not read for pleasure. Certain people do of course, but with the rise of everything screen and dwindling amounts of leisure time in our increasingly feverishly paced society, good old-fashioned page turning has fallen somewhat out of favour. It is no coincidence that you do not merely do a degree at university, but you read a particular subject as it is paramount to gaining knowledge in your particular field. But what about the rise of audiobooks making things more accessible for people who don’t read themselves - I hear you ask. Personally, my issue with people just listening to a book or just watching the inevitable movie adaptation, is that it is passive. Far too passive to properly exercise the brain or stimulate the imagination in the same way as reading for oneself, and as a vision-dominated species this should hardly come as a surprise.

I’ve been asked before by disheartened but aspirational working-class friends; how can I sound smarter? How can I spell better and get a bigger vocabulary? These are not the exclusive qualities of a class of people above our own, but gifts naturally bestowed upon people who read for pleasure. Reading above all else was the original working person’s escapism. In Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical; ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ she not only recalls the sanctuary and refuge the actual library building gave from the abusive tirades of her mother, but she mentions that when in school even her most disadvantaged classmates didn’t struggle as much to pronounce or understand Shakespeare, and she states that this is because they were all used to the archaic language used in the King James Bible. Now I’m not advocating for a return to traditional Christian indoctrination for today’s children but it is interesting to note how much better people can grasp difficult linguistics the earlier and the more frequently they are introduced to them.

Now to many, books may seem a relatively cheap resource that can simply be purchased on demand without need for a publicly funded resource – and lucky you if that is true. But for the residents of long-forgotten post-industrial or former mining towns, far away from the privileged smog of London where I now reside, there is simply not the resources for many families and the importance of reading for children’s intellectual development is not well understood or necessarily prioritized either. For our stalled and unacceptably low levels of social mobility in Britain today, a form of free and accessible self-enrichment is an absolutely vital resource. If you are a young ambitious person with an unsmotherable desire to learn as so many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are, it is inexcusable to extinguish any hope of rising above your start in life and carving out a better life for yourself by removing the only truly free educational resource in these children’s lives.

In Caitlin Moran’s inaugural book; ‘How To Be A Woman’ she sets the scene of her relatively impoverished childhood in Wolverhampton where she was home-schooled alongside her siblings. She describes the experience of home education as being largely to her detriment, even going so far as to say that it’s only redeeming quality was that it largely consisted of visits to the local library and a plentiful attitude to reading. I can recall similarly in my own formative years, the joy of being able to learn, which I loved, outside of the antagonistic and pressurized environment of my school, which I hated. There was a pervading culture of disgust for people who wanted to learn or cared about doing well, perpetuated by the very children who were being failed by the gaps in the education system, the only place I felt I could safely be a ‘nerd’ was the library. I believe the roots of the serious uncoolness of being educated came from the adults, there is a ‘not for the likes of us’ flavour in the air in much of the more deprived areas of the North that comes as a result of being neglected by central government. When my own mother left for university, she was greeted not with joyous celebration of her efforts, but with irksome mutterings of; ‘you’ll think you’re too good for us now.’

To me these issues are undoubtedly linked, when anyone regardless of background can educate themselves for free and without fear of judgement is when things will finally start to improve for those left behind. A flourishing community resource such as a library can be a vital lifeline and an unsung hero in improving the prospects of people growing up in poverty (as one in five of us are).

In my tiny Lancashire village, when the Tories announced they were pulling the plug and closing our library, as they managed to do without fight or fanfare in many places, a massive campaign for volunteers and donations was launched and the people collectively bought the library and staffed it themselves so that it remains open to this day. I am massively proud of this, but I am not naÏve enough to think this would have been possible had there not been an oversupply of well-off pensioners with time on their hands in my locality. When I imagine how much more other areas would have needed their library it makes it all the more sickening that those are the areas that were targeted for shutdown.

Reading may not be a miraculous fix-all for everyone, and I do think more needs to be done to identify and help those with dyslexia or other difficulties that make it hard to utilize written resources. But fundamentally the majority of us can do way more to use the libraries we have and encourage parents to see the value in reading to very young children and then supplying plentiful material for them to branch into reading for themselves. In short, more libraries and books, books, books for everyone!

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