Why all this fuss about libraries?
PERSONAL COLUMN ANTHONY BURGESS
'The fire has spread from your ships,' cries Theodotus to Caesar. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.' But Caesar, though his own war books are in libraries, is unmoved by the destruction of 'a few sheepskins scrawled
with errors"; if what is burning out there- is the
memory of mankind, it is 'a shameful memory. Let it burn.' Such a sweeping dismissal of the records of the thought and action of the past goes too far, but on the whole I am with Caesar and against Theodotus. People make too much fuss about the sacrosanctity of libraries. Look at the passion aroused by Mr Gordon Walker's decision to push the proposed new British Museum Library out of Bloomsbury, in re- sponse to the housing claims of the local borough council. A great megalith of a monu- ment to the memory of mankind is not to usurp
the space that the. living want. It will be some- where, but it will not be a central metropolitan
glory, complementary to that more tangible horde of memories that is the museum itself. Theodotus is outraged.
When Mr Gordon Walker does something, it is axiomatically to be deplored. The Govern- ment's own attitude to the concept of a National Library undoubtedly springs from an unaccept- able motive (probably something to do with the virtues of microfilm). I'd better make it clear now that I dislike great libraries for highly personal reasons which I'm quite ready to erect into a bibliothecal philosophy. I was frightened by a library as a child, and I've never got over it. When I was in the fourth form, I was told to give a lecture to the rest of the class on James Elroy Recker, getting my material from the Manchester Central Reference Library. When
I got there 1 didn't know,what to do. A sort of
blindness prevented me from finding the alpha- betical index: all I could find was the Dewey decimal one. The librarians were tough men in good suits. When I filled in an order form. I noticed that it required my address as well as my name. I thought this meant that I had to take the book home (I'd found a title that would do, quite by chance, in the 820 section). Taking it home, -I was stopped. Everybody stopped reading to listen. Then, of course, I perceived that nobody was taking books home. It was a nightmare experience.
But there was something else that made big Public libraries antipathetic—my own aggero- phobia. At five, I'd run screaming from the attic, where I'd found a map of the heavens in an old astronomy book of my father's. I still feel sick at the sight of a really large geographi- cal atlas. The thought of millions of books, the sight of some of them, similarly brings on a kind of desperate panic—all those brains set in cloth or leather, flashing like items in a galaxy.
That some libraries should actually house such millions is monstrously unnecessary, like the stars, I don't, like Caesar, despise 'a few sheep- skins scrawled with errors': I could put up with those. I can't accept that all those books should, like the universe, make a claim on me, demand • not merely to be noticed but to be deferred to.
• I've never been able to think of a library as a thing to be used, nibbled or eaten piecemeal. A library encloses, and any one of its items seeks to possess the brain that approaches it: the things are alive and malevolent.
I have used small libraries and even built some myself, but I'm never happy in a public one. The books I seek are always on the bottom shelf, and bending brings on palpitations. When I go to look at my own books, just to comfort myself with the reminder that I, in my own small way, have become a part of the fearsome galaxy and that this, in consequence, cannot be so fearsome after all, I always find scrawled insults in the margins. On the title page of one
• of my novels somebody had inked neatly 'BLOODY RUBBISH.' The book that I want is never there, and when the librarian repeats the title it always sounds suspect. When a book of mine comes out, I usually present a copy, signed, to my local library—a weak joint act of assertion - and propitiation. The librarian accepts it warily and invariably opens it at a page with a dirty word on it or a scene of love- less passion. Trying to insinuate pornography
• in, eh?—gratuitously seeking to corrupt those decent ratepayers with string bags and copies of Barbara Cartland.
.Nothing ever goes right. The other week I entered the local library with a small cigar in my mouth : it had gone out, so I wasn't really smoking. A sort of rough caretaker told me loudly that I was ignorant. There have been other humiliations. Some time ago a paperback was being made of one of my novels and there was the question of making some corrections in the original hard-cover edition. I didn't have a copy of my own, so I had to borrow one from the library. Taking it from the shelf, I was told by an old man it was a waste of time reading it: he'd tried it himself and had been thoroughly bored. I said I proposed borrowing it neverthe- less, and he said: everybody to his taste, such as it is. Having borrowed it and used it, I forgot to return it and the library forgot to remind me it was overdue. When I took it back I was fined 3s 6d. My own book, mark you. And this was during one of those periodical flare-ups in the long campaign to rectify the in- justice done by the free borrowing system to living, and hence needy, authors.
Reference libraries won't do. You can't read a book seated at a table on a hard chair, with- out a smoke and without a drink. A book can be properly read only when lying down or slouched gracelessly. Books were never meant to have notes taken out of them; they should be smeared, dog-eared, scrawled on, underlined. Page references should be pencilled on the fly- leaves or inside covers: that's what they're for.
What I suppose I mean is that one should always read one's own bought or stolen books, never borrowed ones (unless borrowing really means
stealing). The real argument against the institu- tional library is that the books have to be treated with respect, like governesses. A book should be a whore, not a lady. Except, of course, that .ihe place of a book is in the home: there the image breaks down. Let us say, then, that one's personal library should be a kind of harem.
Looking at plans of Norman castles, I always used to be moved to see that one room was set aside as a library. I thought of the winter and sskaTves outside, the siege of snow and, when the weather mended, of 'local enemies, and all the time there was a little citadel of culture— illuminated books of hours, gestes, devotional manuals. Yeats conveys the feel of the domes- tic library as a place of warmth and safety in his poem 'Mad as the mist and snow,' though he" ends with the breaching of the walls, or rather the fifth column, since Tully and Homer and the rest are themselves as crazy as the ele- ments. But I prefer my library at home—and t mean a library, not just bookshelves in the sitting-room. I've bought these books, or, if they're review copies, neglected to sell them: they can be ravished, defaced, spent pagemeal in the privy, arranged in disorder, lost and found again, used. But there ought not to be too many of them : that way, the shelves mount to the ceiling, library steps have to be imported, a simple classification system begs to be given a trial. Soon you start filling gaps, hungering after completeness, throwing out tattered paper- backs, judging things you once loved unworthy. That way madness lies, or rather the horrible sanity of the institution.
The horror of the British Museum Library, which I take to be the ideal towards which all irtitutional libraries must strive, lies, for me, in its comprehensiveness—those millions of cells which make up the genuine memory of mankind. But the days of such comprehensive- ness are over, and if the Government thinks that, then the Government is being, for once, irradiated by a certain progressive spirit. De- centralised specialist libraries are needed, and, in the major field of information, the very term 'library' must become a misnomer, since new facts will not wait on the snail-trail that stretches from author's typewriter to book publisher's warehouse. This is the day of journals, xeroxed monographs, the immediate transmission of ideas and their immediate supersession.
But who am I to talk, since I have vowed, so far as my trade makes it possible, to keep out of the great libraries? And this same trade will flourish best if I stop myself thinking of all those millions of volumes in the British Museum Library and the others that haven't yet caught fire from Caesar's ships or Caesar's fear of the honest spirit of inquiry of his subjects. The writer has to think of himself as a lone star. To know that he's a mere speck in the galaxies of Bloomsbury is dispiriting and inhibiting. No writer is great enough for the great libraries.