Save Our Libraries – How Tragic That This Is Even An Issue (a Speech by Philip Pullman Provides Quite a Rallying Cry)
In the process of doing my own thesis – not for a Ph.D., because I never took a graduate degree, but just my undergraduate honors thesis — the single most formative experience in my career took place. It was not a tutor or a teacher or a fellow student or a great book or the shining example of some famous visiting lecturer – like Sir Charles Webster, for instance, brilliant as he was. It was the stacks at Widener.
Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History
The ripple effects of problems, and decisions, are many, and significant.
Take the current fiscal crisis, leading to so many budget cuts for such local services as Public Libraries.
I understand fiscal realities. But I also understand that when you cut one place, it might lead to problems elsewhere. This country has a growing sense of a great “education” crisis. This country has a growing sense of crisis for those who have not been able to find a job. Many have to learn new things, develop new skills. Some of these people need a place to look and learn because of their desperation…
These crises are intimately tied to the health of a good public library.
And… don’t forget that there is just the simple human need for discovery, and books have met that need for generations of curious people.
These are just a few of my thoughts after I read about a remarkable speech by a British writer. The author is Philip Pullman, who wrote Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America – if you haven’t read the book, you may know of the movie). I read about it in this article from The Guardian: Philip Pullman’s call to defend libraries resounds around web: Impassioned polemic against closures picked up by thousands of readers.
I then read his speech: Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value. Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech, which we are very pleased to co-publish with openDemocracy.
It is a resounding attack on the budget cuts aimed at libraries, and a serious call for keeping the public library alive. Yes, he has a political point of view that might not align with many readers of this blog (e.g. — should market forces alone decide who gets published?), but…but… what would it mean to cut our libraries to shadows of that they were?, or possibly even lose them entirely?
Here are some excerpts from his speech:
Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries…
In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.
When I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.
Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens in the republic of learning. Only the public library can give them that gift.
This speech is a wonderful testimony to the value of reading – and especially the value of reading by wandering around in a place filled with a seemingly limitless numbers of books.
This blog would not exist without books. I make my living by reading books, which provide the fuel for all of my presentations (as it did for many/most of my sermons for the first 20 years of my adult/professional life). I love books. I love rooms full of books.
If you have an ounce of appreciation for books, please read this speech. (Be sure to note his powerful defense of librarians). And then ask, what can we do to not only save our public libraries, but to make them even stronger?
I hope it is not a losing battle.
I have read a lot of books in my lifetime. Quite a few have enriched me, taught me, challenged me, entertained me… Some have angered me. But, I must admit that I had a hard time coming up with a specific book that actually changed my life.
Except…. Maybe a few books helped me develop my love for reading, and thus launched me into this habit of reading books. So, in terms of what I do with my time, in that sense, reading books changed my life – and turned me into a book reader.
Anyway, I thought about this when I read this from Andrew Sullivan’s blog. It is from a reader’s e-mail. Whether you like Ayn Rand or not, this is quite a story about how a book changed one person’s life.
This is a longer “borrow” than usual. But, I think it is worth reading. And then we can all ask, which book actually changed our life?
Although I don’t agree with Objectivism as a philosophy, and I recognize the glaringly obvious flaws of Rand’s political ideas, its influence on me was very personal. And the other people I know who absolutely swear by her work, for most of them it is also a personal debt, not a political or philosophical one (I’ve personally never met a self-described objectivist in my life).
I grew up in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of just-another-middle-American city. I was very smart. And like many kids born in my position, I became spoiled and bratty as I got older. Everything in my early life came way too easily – whether it was acing my math tests, or getting the new toy I wanted – and as a result, I entered my young adult years with a severe sense of entitlement. The world owed me something and I’d be damned if I ever had to work for it. I was a perennial underachiever, and any egging by my professors or parents to achieve more or do something magnificent or productive with my talent, I met with disdain and arrogance. How dare you tell me what to do? If things went wrong, it was never my fault because I didn’t try to begin with. If things went right, it was result of my pure genius and talent even though I didn’t try. I moped through the first 20 years of my life like this, avoiding failure and generally being an asshole about it.
Then I read Atlas Shrugged one spring break. I know it’s really cheesy to say this, but I became a new person overnight. It ignited a sense of responsibility and self-control in me that I had never been aware of. Instead of lecturing me about the virtues of achievement and taking responsibility and using your talent for good like my parents did, it SHOWED the virtues to me through Hank Rearden and Dagny and Francisco and Galt. Suddenly, I felt ashamed that I had gone through my whole life the way that I had. People have a responsibility to give life and society everything they’ve got. That’s the message I got. And I had been scoffing at that moral imperative from day one.
I immediately returned to school – a crappy small state school that I half-assed my way into – made straight A’s, transferred the next year to a prestigious private school in the Northeast, graduated Summa Cum Laude, started my own business and have never looked back. And again, this is so corny, but it’s true: I can point to that book as the moment it began. Sure, Ayn Rand is wrong about a lot of stuff. Of course the characters in the novel are totally idealized and unrealistic. But for me and where I was, it lit a fire under my ass that has never gone out. And I can unequivocally say that I’m a much better person for having read it.
When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.
Helmut Thielecke once stated “Sell all you have… and buy Spurgeon!” Charles Spurgeon was a gruff, brilliant English preacher. Helmut Thielecke was a serious, profound, German theologian/preacher. Yet he understood that one man’s writings were truly above the rest, and worthy of great attention.
Metaphorically, I would like to make my own such pronouncement: “sell all that you have, and read Ebert.” Like so many, I read a lot – books, magazines, blogs. I have a lot of favorites, but if you made me choose only one that I could keep in my to-read stack, it would be Roger Ebert. If you have not yet looked at his site, the format is simple: the main column includes his movie reviews. On the right, you can find his blog posts. If you have more time, read the comments following his posts. They are the best out there.
I always read him first, before and then again after I see a movie that he has reviewed. By the way, on the IMDB site, whenever he has reviewed a movie, his review is always listed first — as it should be.
But it is his blog that is so very rich. The more I read from his keyboard, the more I understand why he won a Pulitzer and is considered America’s best pundit. When our oldest son got married, I gave him and his bride three books at their rehearsal dinner. One of the three was Ebert’s The Great Movies.
Now for those of us who are true book lovers, I want to point you to his recent post. Books do furnish a life. It should simply be mandatory reading for all of us. Here are some excerpts:
Chaz and I have lived for 20 years in a commodious Chicago house with three floors, a furnished basement apartment and an exercise room we built on the roof-top deck. This house is not empty. To my 1965 edition of Shaw, which cost me about two quid and now sells for $119, Chaz and I have added, I dunno, maybe 3,000 or 4,000 books, countless videos and CDs, lots of art, rows of photographs, rooms full of comfortable furniture, a Buddha from Thailand, two elephants from India, African chairs and statues, and who knows what else.
Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions, including more or less every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn.
Other books I can’t throw away because–well, they’re books, and you can’t throw away a book, can you?
My possessions are getting away from me. We have an agreement. My office is my office. Chaz has her own book-filled office, and takes care that the rest of the house is clean and orderly. My office has a glass door with this gilt lettering:
The Ebert Company, Ltd. Fine Film Criticism since 1967.
I have not been able to even get into the storage closet of my office for four years. The room is lined floor to ceiling with film books, and the shelves of directors and actors with names beginning H, I, J, K and L are blocked by piles of stuff on the floor. What? You expect me to throw out my first Tandy 100? And there’s a 40-year run of Sight and Sound there somewhere.
I hope you will read the post. The array of books he mentions is breathtaking. His love for books is obvious. And, of course, his love for books helps explain the depth of his thinking and his writing.
This is a blog primarily about business books. But underlying it is a simple love of books. Roger Ebert has given us a great read to remind us about our own love for books.