Tag Archives: reading

The Enemies of Books: Why we need books, libraries and a free internet

“It is a great pity that there should be so many distinct enemies at work for the destruction of literature, and that they should so often be allowed to work out their sad end.”

So said William Blades, author of the 1880 work The Enemies of Books. Of course, this was written 130 years ago, around the time that the Royal Library of the Kings of Burma was looted and burned by my countrymen the British. We live in an age of information, where we treasure our ability to access knowledge and art at the click of a button. We respect the way in which learning can enhance our lives, bolster our economies. Books have always been symbolic of that.

And yet somewhere along the line, it became politically acceptable to throw all this on the fire. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m sure that, a few years ago, there would have been no major need for the Voices for the Library campaign, or for similar campaigns across the States. The destruction – twice now – of Occupy Wall Street’s ‘People’s Library’ (which I wrote about yesterday) is somehow symbolic of this, and while yesterday I was putting it down to a cack-handed clear-out of the protestors’ belongings, well… To destroy a library once may be an accident, to destroy it twice looks like malice.

And yet at the same time as this we’re trumpeting the availability of information digitally. This seems to be a paradox – celebrating access to information in one format while destroying it in others – but it’s not. Libraries are being closed to save money, but there doesn’t seem to be much thought given to those who can’t afford to buy books, or that several major towns don’t have much in the way of a decent bookshop. No, we live in a world where the internet is sexy and the local library isn’t, so the answer to all our prayers is online.

Never mind that the information literacy skills that we all need to navigate the foaming rapids and the dark corners of the internet are part of a good librarian’s skill set. Never mind that libraries help bridge the digital divide. Never mind that Google searches and online bookstores increasingly act as an echo chamber for our existing preconceptions rather than challenging them. No, everything’s online now, it’s a utopia on your smart phone.

But wait – we’re not allowed free access to information. That’s why yesterday was American Censorship Day, campaigning for internet freedom. That’s why, after the riots that swept the UK a couple of months ago, David Cameron suggested that Government have the power to temporarily shut down Twitter and Facebook (a spectacular case of treating the symptom rather the cause). That’s why, during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street a couple of days ago, the press were under a media blackout.

All this is starting to look like a conspiracy theory. I don’t think it is, not exactly; rather it’s a conspiracy that’s developed by mistake. Certainly no-one’s going to stand for office saying “I want to close all public libraries and sue little kids singing Lady Gaga songs on Youtube” without getting laughed at in derision. And yet this is what’s happening, because we’ve entered the Information Age via the grassroots and authority figures – politicains, police, media, business – prove again and again that they just aren’t evolving quick enough to keep up with that. On one side of the atlantic, leaders want to turn off social media as and when they deem it necessary; on the other, media blackouts are enacted but everyone in charge of them forgets that anyone with an iPhone and access to Twitter becomes a citizen journalist. Governments want to develop the skills of their workers in a more high-tech working environment, but parallel to this they make it more difficult to get the information that acts as a foundation for education.

The destruction of libraries becomes a totem for all this, particularly the People’s Library – a grassroots initiative stamped upon by the blundering feet of authority figures who don’t quite get what they’re dealing with. Everyone says they respect books – information, art – but put them in the wrong place, make them inconvenient or too ‘expensive’ and suddenly they’re moved out of the way. Next to that, we see a whole bunch of other manufactured ‘controversies’ that purport to be about information and knowledge but really aren’t – Obama’s birth certificate, immigration, climate change, vaccines causing autism. These are really about ideology, and that’s why we need the information literacy tools to respond effectively.

That’s why we need books.

That’s why we need librarians.




Heads up if you’re a Doctor Who fan…

If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you should check out a new book based on Philip Sandifer’s blog TARDIS Eruditorum. The collected edition of his essays related to William Hartnell’s first Doctor is now available on Kindle and it’s a fantastic read, some of the best writing on Who that I’ve come across. It’s already made me reassess what I thought I knew about the characters and the history of the series, and you can’t really ask for anything more than that.

(The blog also inspired an entry I wrote on the recent episode ‘Closing Time’, although I fully admit I lack the critical vocabulary and the attention span to match Mr. Sandifer’s work.)

What’s interesting about the book is that it’s accessible and intelligent. There have been critical works published about all manner of TV shows, but, frankly, most of them disappear up their own backsides. Fortunately, Doctor Who has long been one of those shows that seems to attract and encourage fan engagement, to the extent that nowadays it’s being made by fans. This may be a fatuous comment, but some shows (like Star Trek) encourage fans to make the show real, either through cosplaying or through involvement in science, engineering or campaigns to rename space shuttles; Doctor Who encourages fans to actually create the fiction, either on TV itself or through fanfiction, comics and, probably most importantly, novels. There’s something about Doctor Who that prompts a significant chunk of its audience to engage with mythmaking and storytelling, either directly or by thinking about how stories work. The writers seem to have latched on to that as a theme, exploring the Doctor as an intergalactic legend, a mythic figure, and the benefits, problems and consequences of that. It’s interesting.

But I’m rambling. If you’re interested in how the Doctor became the Doctor, or how the cultural context of the mid-sixties affected the show, check out the book. If you’re not interested, well, check out Doctor Who anyway…


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Grasping the Reading Nettle

Right. That’s it. I’ve had enough. I’m making a stand. Apathy, I’m kicking your unmotivated candy-ass, but I’m letting you live, just so you can tell procrastination that I’m coming and hell’s coming with me!!!

Sorry. Just having a moment.

See, a while back I wrote a post on how I’d lost my reading mojo. I got some nice suggestions in response to it, and now the time has come to put them into practice. I’m going to put an extra page on the blog where I track the books I’ve read – probably not reviews, because I’m not that organised, but the accountability is important. I’m taking my bookcase back.

And so the first book to go on the list is The Wrong Messiah by Nick Page, which basically gave me about half the material I needed for the Bible Study I lead this week. Books are awesome.

PS. I should note that the idea of having a blog page for reading lists came from Deborah Bryan over at The Monster in Your Closet (and she’s having her first author interview released today, so check that out) and egb63. Thanks both!



In Defence of Libraries

The Telegraph is having a go at libraries, so although my circulation is a wee bit smaller, I figured I’d repost this article I wrote for the Save Libraries campaign…


"No human would stack books like this..."

“Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book.”

So said Dwight D. Eisenhower, scourge of Nazis and the 34th President of the United States. I’m quoting him because libraries suddenly seem to have become expendable in the eyes of many local councils, not only in the UK but also America and who knows where else. It feels like a crime that we’re even in this situation, but here we are.

I’m biased, of course, because I’m a reader. One of my very few regrets about learning to drive a few years ago is that I miss out on all the spare reading time presented to me by long bus journies stuck in traffic (that and I’m getting old and so my eroded attention span means that achieving the Fifty Book Challenge this year is looking less likely than it should). Nevertheless, I’m a reader and shall be until I die, probably of blunt force trauma caused by a collapsing To Read Pile taller than me. A lot of that is down to my local library.

See, we used to go there on Fridays after school when I was a kid, working my way through the Thomas the Tank Engine collection, then Asterix and Tintin. The library is also responsible for me getting into Doctor Who; I didn’t watch the TV series so much as read the hardback Target novelisations, I pieced together the history of the show by reading the books out of order and without having any clear idea of how all the different characters fitted together. It helped that I take after my mom, as her side of the family contains most of the readers, and so I guess it’s ironic that my grandmother always had issues with the monsters and aliens in the sort of geeky shows I watched; it was her genes and Doctor Who books that made me a reader. The library just empowered that.

And so I remember avidly reading about all these characters, running to the library to get new stories. I remember one of Thomas’s friends getting stuck in a tunnel, and I think one of the smaller trains had to pull him out…

Asterix and Tintin, on the other hand… Obelix and Captain Haddock were my favourite characters, and Tintin may well have ignited my interest in science fiction with the Destination Moon / Explorers on the Moon duology and the Chariots of the Gods-inspired Flight 714.

And the first book I remember reading obsessively? The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I remember getting through it in a matter of hours, which was a bit of a surprise to my family, who weren’t perhaps used to that sort of speed reading. Again, thank the library.

Libraries have a central place in human civilisation. The Library of Alexandria is almost legendary, although a significant part of that legend is due to the fact that people kept burning it down. Same goes for the House of Wisdom in Baghdad (destroyed by the Mongols in 1258) and the ‘Burning of Books and Burying of Scholars’ policy carried out by China’s Qin dynasty; throughout history, libraries have been considered dangerous by dangerous men. And while its probably unfair to compare that sort of thing to today’s allegedly civic-minded busybodies, the end result is the same – no libraries, reduced access to knowledge, no-one to point the way through a maze of data and information and facts.

Nowadays people don’t tend to be burning down libraries, at least not in Dudley, but they’re under threat. It’s easy to take them for granted, but in a world where we can access a mountain of information with next to no quality filter, librarians should rule. Somewhere along the line, that building full of books has seen the skillsets of the people who work there gain in currency.

An anonymous source once said that “Books are the carriers of civilisation. Without books, history is silent, literature is dumb, science is crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books the development of civilisation would have been impossible. They are the engines of change.” You can argue that it’s the information and artistry contained in those books that matters, moreso than the actual medium, but regardless, libraries, books, information are important – especially when we know what to do with it. When the Dark Ages engulfed Europe, Irish monks saved the literature and learning of Rome and carried it forward, and now public libraries modestly attempt to try something similar, albeit in a world where there’s almost too much information and not enough discernment. In that world, we neglect libraries at our peril.

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Banned Books Week 2011

20110926-071232.jpgOver in the States it’s Banned Books Week, run by the American Library Association to celebrate and promote freedom of speech. It’s worrying that such a celebration is actually needed, and as someone who’s always been a reader, I was curious to find out how many of the titles appearing on the ALA’s list of ‘Books Challenged or banned in 2010-11’ I’ve actually read (not many as it turns out, although bannings depend on context – here’s why Charlotte’s Web got banned in Kuwait).

Like most of us, I guess, the idea of banning books, especially in long-established democracies, feels wrong. It’s thin-end-of-the-wedge stuff; ban a book because of bad language or a sex scene and suddenly you’ve set a precedent for the next person who comes along wanting to ban something because it’s politically inconvenient or because it promotes manmade climate change. Librarians are on the frontline of this particular battle, but this has ramifications for a world where public funds to libraries are being cut at a rate of knots. Will privatised libraries have that same dedication to freedom of speech, or will the potential threat to profit margins be more influential? It’s a question worth asking.

But then, banning books is only part of the issue. Somewhere along the line the Internet got intelligent; now personalisation is its watchword and news, search results and retail recommendations get filtered based on our ‘preferences’. And sure, this can be convenient but it runs the risk of turning the internet, the great electronic frontier into a billion echo-chambers, one for each of us. Cyberia has become Cyburbia, and that’s when we become digital NIMBYs. Not purposefully, maybe not even knowingly, but sel-selection and software conspired to keep us disengaged from all those other voices out there. At least we can see when someone tries to ban us from reading a book.

(For example, look at the phrasing I used a couple of paragraphs ago. I’m not a fan of swearing at all, but calling it ‘bad language’ sets up a dichotomy that I’m not entirely comfortable with – what exactly would count as ‘good’ language?)

But this is my pessimistic streak coming out. As long as there are passionate, dedicated readers and librarians out there, literature and journalism will have their defenders. Saturday saw the Word on the Street festival hit Toronto; the Hay Festival does a similar job in the UK and around the world. Voices will be heard; words will be read. And no stories that get banned stay banned.

Because while information may or may not want to be free, stories always do.