"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 calledwhy 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.
And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?
Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in 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 of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.
A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library."
The whole speech is here.
I was also enrolled in a library by my mother - this one in Karori. A dark narrow place with high shelves, or so they seemed, and that smell of stacked paper. I must have been 4 or 5. Mum was a librarian and treated libraries as others treat churches. We would each take a pile of books. Mum would get through hers in a week and go back for more. There were never any fines.
I read the Alexandria Quartet in London courtesy of Shoe Lane Library. It was in the same street where I worked. I didn't have a lot of money for buying books (my preferred option) and the library was right there, so one day I walked in. The books! And yes, Faber's Alexandria Quartet, which I had not met until that moment. I borrowed it book by book and read them every day on the tube. And after I finished, what? I'm not sure. I might have quit the Shoe Lane job at that point and moved to Athens, where I joined the British Embassy library. But that's another story.
The point is, although I buy books now (and thanks to my son I have copies of the Quartet), libraries made me a citizen of the republic of reading, and my mother handed me the key.