The Joys of Having Nothing to Read

This is the text of a short talk I gave yesterday at No Furniture So Charming, part of the London Word Festival, imagining what the future of the library might be like. Due to constraints of laziness, it is minus the pictures of vegetables and Victorian ladies underwear.

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This talk is meant to be about the library of the future, but it’s really about the library of the past. And I’m going to concentrate on one of the best things about libraries: the way they make it hard to find things.

My qualification to talk about libraries is that I’ve been to quite a few. And I’ve worked in two. This one, which is in my home town, and this one, which is near my home town – where I mostly worked underground.

I like libraries. But it seems inevitable that the library we know today, the kind we’re in now – and where I received most of my education – will start to disappear.

That makes me sad, because I like the smell of books. I like the stories that emerge as people search for things they need or things they might like. I like the slightly random nature of the books on the shelf, and the fact that your library is local – for your community, and the people and things in it are unique to that space.

But I also like bloomers and no one really wears those any more.

So if we’re moving on, what are we moving to?

Well my vision of a library of the future looks a bit like a prison cell. It includes a few books – but not too many – in whatever format they’re doing the rounds in by then. So it’s a place to be quiet together, without too many books, a temple to self-improvement and a place to hide from obvious fun.

Now it strikes me that the World Wide Web and the library have two important things in common: they’re both places to store information and do useful things. But there are two things that libraries can do that the Web can’t: libraries can make you be quiet together, and libraries can make it difficult to find the right information.

In their own ways, both of these things are good, but both are difficult and counter-intuitive. Sometimes it feels like libraries want to offer you sprouts when what you want is ice cream.

In my experience, all the best libraries make it as hard as possible to find things. They disguise them with esoteric filing systems, hide them in book stacks, or behind book request form, or they just don’t have the books you want.

When I was growing up, my local library tended to have a lot books I didn’t want, that no one seemed to want, but it had a few hidden gems that were worth seeking out. And while it did have Inter-Library Loan forms, filling in one of those might mean a wait of several weeks – while another borrower finished the book, returned it to the library, and it travelled across the county in a van.

So in the meantime, what do you do if you live in a small town and have nothing to read? You have to explore.

I’m a big fan of limited choice. When there aren’t many things to choose from, the difficult choice is a lot easier. And when you don’t have the luxury of “people who liked this also liked”, you have to find your own way.

When I was 12, the places that “people who liked Forever by Judy Blume” might have taken me were to books by Francine Pascale and Jackie Collins. Both admirable in their own way, but they were more of the same.

Luckily, my local library didn’t have more of the same, which meant that I had to go exploring. Which meant, in turn, that I read A Room with a View and The Catcher in the Rye.* And it seemed at the time like those two books changed my life. Rather than endlessly exploring the paths I was most interested in, I was made to make different, more difficult choices. I was made to improve myself, and I liked it.

So I would ask that the library of the future is a place that enables limited, arbitrary choice. A place that makes you concentrate. And a place that makes you improve yourself, because you don’t have any other choice.

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*I know, I know – but everyone has to start somewhere.

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