Book review: The Library Book (published by Profile Books in support of The Reading Agency)

Confession: when I read the press release about The Library Book last year, I approached Profile Books on a whim, hoping they would be interested in including extracts of my Living Library research as an ‘epilogue.’ I knew I was living in la-la-land just clicking the SEND button, but to quote my brilliant mum ‘if you not ask, then you won’t be getting…” I got my quickest rejection to date: 3 minutes for a ‘no thank you and good luck’ (I posted an extract here instead, and found out last month that it got a readership of over 3500).

So, when The Library Book finally made it to the shelves of my local library, I couldn’t wait to review it. The library, of course, had to jump through hoops to get it: justify the spend on this book, approve the spend, order it, receive the order, catalogue it, ring me to tell me it’s arrived, put it somewhere for me to pick up. This process took 4 months. Good grief, I could have handmade a copy in that time. But I have it now, and it was worth the wait.

The book consists of memoir, essays and extracts of novels. Many are testimonies to what the libraries have given the authors, whilst others present fictional worlds, or form the backdrop to pivotal events. As with any collection of writing, some contributions are more engaging than others. The standout piece for me was by Bella Bathurst, simply because I recognise so much of what she writes about in the libraries that I visited during my residency. She gathers stories from librarians and patrons (which no other contribution does) to bring the modern public library to life. My other favourites include Zadie Smith, whose account of the library as a ‘gateway’ for her entire family is beautifully written and gathers pace to question the concept of Big Society. Caitlin Moran too provides a similar argument with lightless. Anita Anand and Hardeep Singh Kohli offer engaging insights into the immigrant experience (again, I can relate to this), and Val McDermid’s reliance on libraries as a writer echoes my own. Fictional work by Julian Barnes and Kate Mosse are superb, and Susan Hill’s memory of accidently meeting E.M. Forster and T.S. Elliott is spellbinding (I think I held my breath for the last two paragraphs). Robin Turner’s interview with Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers provides a much needed departure from some of the more clichéd appreciations of libraries (and is tightly written), and Karin Slaughter’s call to action makes for a sharp conclusion.

For all the weightiness of the subject matter, it is a light read. I clearly have my favourites, and there’s enough in this slim volume for you to discover your own. You get the gist, this is a book worth reading.

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