Consider the context
24.10.11 | Philip Pullman
Every activity we've heard about today, every protest and every court case, is a blow well worth striking in the interests of decency and civic good. But it's worth standing back a little and looking not just at the individual battles here and there, this one where we win a little ground, that one where we have to fall back—but at the larger battle of which these form part, and at the war, the great war, against the background of which this large battle can be seen clearly, and where we can see other battles, other fights, other struggles and other losses and victories.
Because the fight to save the libraries isn't just a struggle in isolation. There's a context in which this makes wider sense, and a perspective in which we can see the meaning and the significance of such things as the judgement last week about Brent Libraries.
To get to that wider view, I want to remind you of some characteristics of our nation and our world today.
We have a political system which is less and less democratic, and more and more the plaything of large and powerful corporate and financial forces. We live in a nation where more and more influence over government is bought by large corporations and very rich individuals funding lobbyists and think tanks and whispering market fundamentalism into willing ears, exporting jobs to cheaper parts of the world, undermining government revenues by avoiding taxes or exploiting tax havens—Lord Ashcroft! Sir Philip Green!—persuading journalists and commentators that in spite of all the evidence the private sector is always efficient and the public sector always wasteful, rewarding helpful ex-ministers with profitable directorships and installing their own people on government boards and committees, providing corporate hospitality, paying for ministers or—who knows?—perhaps the friends of ministers to fly to attractive places in first-class accommodation, helping their friends to profit from the break-up of the railway system or the National Health Service and no doubt in due course the BBC, helping members of the government to meet influential editors and media owners and even spend time at parties or dinners with the brutes.
Does it stop there? Of course it doesn't stop there. What about the financial crises we've endured over the past few years, and the way the bankers managed to reward themselves with even bigger bonuses after nearly bringing the whole national economy crashing down around our ears? And who's been terrifying governments with the threat that unless these gluttons were indulged in their every appetite, they would all go off and live in Switzerland? Personally I would say Go, you bastards, and good riddance; but Prime Minister after Prime Minister has been persuaded that we need rich people taking advantage of us in this country. It's good for us to be taken advantage of.
And when we look at the consequences of all this activity, we see a nation where everything seems to have been turned upside down. Do you remember the arguments in favour of privatisation? The state can't run things efficiently, we were told; we need to put enterprises into private hands. I don't know about you, but it seems to me that privatisation makes things more expensive, more complicated, uglier, more difficult to deal with, more difficult to find someone responsible, in every way worse.
And we have very little democratic protection against this. Were we ever asked whether we wanted a state of things like this? Do you think we ever will be?
So much for our national politics. Let's look at the wider world, and I don't mean the world of warfare, famine and exploitation, I mean the wider world still, the natural world. I mean the catastrophic destruction of natural habitats, the gigantic slowly revolving continent of indestructible plastic in the Pacific Ocean, the unstoppable slaughter of the rainforests, the inexorable retreat of the ice from mountains and oceans with all that that implies in terms of hunting grounds, sea levels and floods, I mean the way we continue to burn up the great gift of natural capital in the form of carbon-based fuels with no thought of tomorrow—I mean every way in which we are trying to destroy the earth we live on, as if we had never been told how foolish it was.
National politics, the wider natural world, and now I want to come down to a much smaller scale: the scale of the family. Do you remember those recent UNICEF reports that pointed out how unhappy British children were, in comparison with children in other countries? The unhappiest in all the countries they tested?
It doesn't happen by accident, and it didn't start yesterday. Philip Larkin said something of the sort 40 years ago:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They pass on all the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
And he goes on:
But they were fucked up in their turn . . .
Something in the way we live in this country, in the way we deal with one another, has effects on our children that ought to shame us. To quote the previous Children's Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green: “We are turning out a generation of children who are unhappy, unhealthy, engaging in risky behaviour, who have poor relationships with their family and their peers, who have low expectations and don't feel safe.”
The national, the worldwide, the familial; and now for the level up from the family, the level that concerns all of us here today, that of local authorities, the people responsible for looking after our libraries. I'm fascinated by how surprised they were when they met such fierce and immediate resistance. And how they have to resort to insults to defend their position. Those of us who got involved in Oxfordshire's library campaign were “well-heeled worthies” who want to run down the care of the vulnerable and the infirm and who look on with casual unconcern while children and old people die shivering in the streets. Oh yes, and we were only supporting the libraries in the first place because we wanted to increase the sales of our books.
And now the leader of Brent Council, for example, Councillor Ann John OBE, has welcomed last week's High Court judgement with the words that the decision “means we can now push ahead with our exciting plans to improve Brent's library service.” That, by the way, is a masterpiece. It ought to be quoted in every anthology of political bullshit from here to eternity. All the time, you see, the council had been longing to improve the library service, and the only thing standing in the way was—the libraries.
Now what I'm asking is why do we do these things? Why do we behave like this? Why is it that wherever we look, at whatever level, we find things so wrongly done, so obviously bad, so evidently destructive? Is it malice? Do we behave like this out of spite and hatred? I don't think it is. To be sure, malice and wickedness certainly play a part in human affairs, but it's a smaller one than we might think.
I think the fault lies elsewhere. What characterises all of these ways of behaving, at every level we look at, is that they're stupid. When we stand back and look at the way politics is run in this country, and not only here: look at the half-witted way the Republican Party is behaving in the United States—when we look at it objectively, what must occur to us is—how stupid. What a stupid way of running a country. What a stupid way to treat our children. What a stupid way to look after the only planet we've got, what a stupid way to look after a pearl of great price like a library service.
It's all joined up. The war we're fighting is not against this party or that one, this flag or another flag, our parents or our MP or anyone else in particular: it's against stupidity.
And stupidity is not to be underestimated. The poet Schiller, whose great words on the subject of Joy were set in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, knew what a huge part stupidity plays in human affairs: “Against stupidity,” he said, “the gods themselves struggle in vain.”
And so it might look, to a reflective, philosophical mind able to stand back from the hurly burly of human affairs and contemplate them in the light of eternity. But I haven't come here this afternoon to be pessimistic. I want to see happy children and happy parents. I want to see a world getting cleaner and returning to a more balanced climate. I want to see a national government that is honest and open about the influences that try to sway it this way or that. I want to see local authorities taking more care of one of the great treasures in their portfolio.
That's what I want to see. I dare say you do as well. But we can't improve the whole world all at once. We should remember the context, remember the significance of what we're doing, and then fight hard where we happen to be, doing one thing at a time.
And what has particularly cheered me about today's conference is the detailed and concentrated thought people have been putting in to this question of what we are to do. It would be easy to lament, to pour ashes over our head, to wail and cry, but you're not doing that. The verbs in the workshop titles make it clear: organising, constructing, working, looking, using . . . they're active. There's a sense of purpose here. People are fighting stupidity.
I want to say a few words about my own concerns and feelings, and then I'll stop, because you've had a long day.
I'll focus to begin with on libraries and children, because their needs, I think, trump every other. We must make this country a happier place for children to grow up in. We mustn't, we surely must not make it harder for children to go to a library than it is at the moment. And yet isn't that exactly the situation that'll result from Brent's heroic attempt to beat the bullshit record? To do away with half your libraries with the excuse that the remaining ones will be bigger and better entirely ignores the fact that if they're further away, they'll be visited less by children. Inevitably. Families need a place that's reachable. If you close the library that's within walking distance, that means that so many fewer children will go to a library at all. Isn't that what's going to happen when the library closes, whether in Brent, or in the rural areas of Gloucestershire or Somerset, or in the edge-of-town districts like Blackbird Leys in Oxford?
We must make out libraries accessible to children. Because one of the most common forms of tribute to the public library is where the speaker says “It opened up the world for me when I was a child,” or something similar. I want that sort of experience to be available for every child.
And the sort of reading that really takes here, the sort that really makes a reader out of us, is reading for pleasure, which government after government has paid lip service to while working assiduously to prevent it. And since what they do is more effective than what they say, we end up with reports like that of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment two years ago, which demonstrate that children and young people in the United Kingdom fall far behind their contemporaries in Albania and Kazakhstan when it comes to reading for enjoyment. They just don't do it. Our children can decode the language all right, they can bark at the print, as we used to say, but they get little joy from doing so.
But the sheer centrality and vital importance of reading for pleasure is well documented, not least in a paper the National Literacy Trust produced in 2006. The benefits of reading for pleasure include improvement in writing, in text comprehension and grammar, in breadth of vocabulary; it develops a positive attitude to reading, which in turn leads to higher achievement; it develops self-confidence, and leads to greater pleasure in reading in later life; it increases general knowledge, a better understanding of other cultures, more community participation, and a greater insight into human nature. Not reading for the sake of passing a test, but reading for pleasure is what does that.
And reading for pleasure has got to be controlled by the child, not by a curriculum, not by a teacher, however well-intentioned, not by anyone but children themselves. I profoundly dislike, for example, the way reading is captured by slave-drivers and made to work at something it wasn't meant for. People who think reading is instrumental, that its value is in how you can use it for some other purpose. Reading to promote discussion about contemporary issues: no matter whether the book's any good, it's about bullying, therefore we should use it. Reading to teach grammar: underline the adjectives in this passage—find examples of the passive voice—work out what words are missing from this paragraph. Can we wonder why children are put off reading, when that sort of rubbish is seen as its only aim? We do not write books for that purpose. I try to bear in mind the words that Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said: “The true aim of writing is to help the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” Those are my purposes when writing; I think they could hardly be bettered as purposes for reading too.
And the function of an adult in this mysterious business of helping a child become a reader is to advise, to point in interesting directions, to make available, to encourage, and to stand back. That's what we need librarians for, and why volunteers, no matter how willing, will never replace properly trained professionals. For example, the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge, which this year involved over three quarters of a million children in reading—not reading as a joyless task, something you have to do for the test, but reading purely for pleasure. Only the libraries could provide the materials and the staff to make this possible. And nothing could be more important, if we have the well-being of our children at heart.
The last thing I'll say today begins with a recollection of my time as a library assistant—a pretty lowly form of life—in Charing Cross Road library, part of Westminster city libraries, in the early seventies. I'm a romantic. I'm easily swayed by my imagination. And one of the things that used to thrill me was the sense of a great network reaching out from library to library, embodied in the inter-library loan system connecting my branch with the other Westminster branches, St John's Wood, Marylebone Road, Buckingham Palace Road, Drury Lane, and so on, and from there out to the other London boroughs, and from there out across the whole country. If someone wanted a book that we didn't have, we could get it. No-one expected every branch to hold every book in the world. It was the connectedness, the joined-upness, that meant that it didn't matter if your local branch was a great central one or a small suburban one, or a rural one, because you were part of the great system. Out of curiosity I used to collect the compliments slips that came with the books our readers requested, and I've still got them.
This is why Brent and the other local authorities who want to close lots of small libraries in favour of fewer much bigger ones are wrong. It's a bad policy. It would be far more sensible to close the big libraries and open even more small ones. If Kensal Rise Library is still open, if Blackbird Leys in Oxford still has a library within walking distance of the people who live there, if hundreds of other libraries all over the country are kept open and properly staffed, then readers can reach pretty well any book they want to with the help of the inter-library loan system.
If you want the internet, well, we have it. But the internet is like looking at a landscape through a keyhole, and, what's more, a keyhole that's getting narrower all the time. We shouldn't forget that the way Google works, for instance, is to look at all the searches you've made in the past, and work out what it thinks you want to see now based on what you've looked at before. It shuts down a lot of possibilities before you even start. You'll never know what's there, because it keeps most of it out of sight. If you really want complete freedom of choice, complete openness of information, where nobody is spying on you, no-one is selling your presence to advertisers, the only place to find it is a library, where they keep books.
And the book is second only to the wheel as the best piece of technology human beings have ever invented. A book symbolises the whole intellectual history of mankind; it's the greatest weapon ever devised in the war against stupidity. Beware of anyone who tries to make books harder to get at. And that is exactly what these closures are going to do—oh, not intentionally, except in a few cases; very few people are stupid intentionally; but that will be the effect. Books will be harder to get at. Stupidity will gain a little ground.
I salute everyone who's come here today, everyone who's protesting and demonstrating to save this library or that one, everyone who's devising a way of preserving one of the greatest and the best gifts any society has ever given its seekers after truth, its children, its old people, everyone who is looking for help better to enjoy life or better to endure it: there's nothing more valuable in the war against stupidity than the public library. These are hard times, but you are each guarding a beacon, and based on what I've heard today, I have every confidence that you won't let that beacon go out.
Pullman delivered this speech at The Library Campaign's conference in London on 22nd October. Text used with author's permission.