It didn't scare me: on the welcome quiet of the library
Our experience of reading, like viewing art, is undoubtedly coaxed and shaped by the environment it takes place in. From a heeled shoe that taps the polished gallery floor to the air conditioning that whirs to protect an oil painting, we feel every part of the experience. The invigilator could be completely ignoring you, still as you punctuate the silence and side step from one piece to another along the wall, you begin to wonder. Did you give enough time to this one? Would it help to step back? Tilt the head?
Italo Calvino introduces his mediation on writing On A Winter's Night a Traveller with a request for you to get comfortable enough to read. You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice — they won't hear you otherwise— "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read Italo Calvino's new novel!" Or if you prefer, don't say anything; just hope they'll leave you alone. Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally. Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse's mane, or maybe tied to the horse's ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read. Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don't stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other. Can you identify similar patterns around visiting art galleries, going to a music gig or listening to poetry? Are we made to feel comfortable?
Leaving the flat for a gallery visit, I always double check my bag has a pen and paper. Some appropriate reading. No map. After wandering around enough I'm sure to find the gallery. Walk up the stairs. Pick a route between the columns. Spot the optional donation box. Uneasily dodge it and imagine how I will pull the I paid on the way in' look on as I leave. The inevitable cafeteria mistaken for gallery space. Fake that you are admiring the architecture, nod a little and uncomfortably retreat.
Just like a gallery, I like a full day to experience a book. Idle hours in bed and hot refilled baths. Buses are terrible places to read. Not just for wet steamy windows and endless lurching back and forth, for me travel sickness kicks in if I concentrate on a book for too long. Audio books have become my commuting saviour. It removes the book from the picture and therefore the people genuinely surprised that you'd choose to read. What are you reading? Then the inevitable. Why?
They say it is quietness that scares young people away from libraries. Well, it didn't scare me. As I got older I loved spending the whole day out of the house and sitting down to read everything and anything that caught my eye. Once I realised how much I enjoyed that private space of learning, I sought it on Sundays, when the library was shut. Under tables. In the boiler cupboard with the spiders and a torch. In the boot of the car in the garage. Beneath blankets. In the caravan. At the park behind the bike tracks. Anywhere solitary.
My first visit to the 'grown up' section of Darlington Library is still clear now. I stumbled upon the reading room. There were three people in there, deep in study. All looked up, then back down. Felt like walking in late on a funeral. From then on, I was the first person in. Now even the librarians are noisy. I've recorded it. Had to capture that uninvited noise made by the very people I rely upon to say "Shh!"
And that's not all. My favourite room no longer has lines of antique tables and chairs. Someone up high decided that wasn't appropriate, so the Victorian school room feel is lost in favour of an IKEA catalogue. Gone is the silence, replaced by sociable round mdf tables with red metal legs, whirring computers and the smell of take away coffee. Forget sitting down and reading alone to form ideas or fall into new a narratives. Forget private learning. Let's move away from books, archives and history, and invest more money in discussion a email, screens and noise. Money being spent on new where the old was working perfectly well.
You might have read elsewhere how much I love learning and the idea of being able to access materials from anywhere is one that I am absolutely for, especially making spaces more accessible and democratically opening communication. education and pleasure available to all.
Does digitising all this information and investing in technology have to mean the inevitable death of the library? Or even worse, will libraries become raucous information superstores? TK Maxx with books, journals and off-the-rack microphish, served with a side of Starbucks espresso?