Libraries, dreams and civil rights ….

I have spent a second day with The Book of Debts at the wonderful The Library of Birmingham. Many thanks to them for taking me in at such short notice..! This post is really an aside on this location in which I find myself, falling in love with a building and wanting to move in…. I am sure this is a feeling shared by many who have passed through its doors since it recently opened them..

I have been warmly welcomed and engaged with by staff and visitors alike, have risen up to the 7th floor on escalators with my jaw open, and risen even higher in the great  glass elevator to the Shakepeare Memorial Room, peered over the outside balconies with glee and wonder at the city all around, listened as someone sat quietly playing a jazz tune on the open piano in the music section, seen children and adults alike dreaming on beanbags, seen the first ever photograph on slide at Carousel with the very welcoming Cathy Wade, engaged with the Discovery programme of inter ventions subtley and beautifully sited through the space, and run my fingers along the spines of actual books, holding my nose to a few of the older looking ones to remember the smell of LIBRARY again. Remembering for some reason the day they sold off their vinyl collection at the Tunbridge Wells Library where I grew up to ‘upgrade to CD’ and I carried off bags full of amazing jazz and spoken word. That library, my main place of refuge, a place where no-one argued or hassled you and you could sit reading uninterrupted for hours…and daydreaming..and in my case, sketching..


Birmingham Library is a Library of the future, of the type which writer Neil  Gaiman refers to in his recent lecture : Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming ..

I have been thinking about civil rights in relation to debt, poverty etc, and as literacy is so linked to  socio-economic well-being and this project to a kind of collective re-imagining,  I think it’s relevant to quote Gaimans ‘charter’ section on our civic responsibilities re reading, writing and imagining, i.e what we owe to our children as future readers, thinkers and shapers of the world.

‘ I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.’

So well said.

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