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January 14, 2013

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Francis Spufford on Childhood books 3: Why libraries matter

by quaesitor
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One of the most poignant aspects of Francis Spufford’s reading memoir The Child That Books Built is his having to come to terms with his younger (by 3 years) sister’s desperate, chronic illness. She eventually died at 22, as a result of some well-timed medical breakthroughs – but it inevitably took its toll on the whole family. It drove the young Francis even further into books. And to very regular bus journeys to the local public library.

So here he reflects on what they meant for him.

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Library visits have been a ritual in well-regulated childhoods in Britain and America for seventy years now…. Or in Ray Bradbury’s raptured evocation of the contrast between the tame apparatus of the library on the one hand – with its benevolent ladies presiding and the quintessence of order in the metallic ker-chunk of the date stamper – and the wilds it contained. This is Something Wicked This Way Comes:

The library deeps lay waiting for them.

Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast, marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. (p79)

He goes onto say that for him, choosing what to read next was not always so straightforward – the books didn’t shout out to him. He need to sift and discern. But still, Bradbury’s description here perfectly evokes the potential of a shelf of as yet unread books.

All I can say is that it as important now as ever to keep libraries open and thriving. And if we are to shift increasingly to e-books (as seems to be inevitable) then we simply must find ways to share, lend and borrow books just as straightforwardly as we have for the last couple of centuries.

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