Russell Brand described schools without a library as a "disgrace", and said public libraries closures were driven by a "fundamentalist philosophy of profit", in an entertaining and enthusiastically received Reading Agency Lecture last night (Tuesday 25th November).
The comedian and author told the audience at the Institute of Education that he had returned to visit his old school in Grays, Essex, now called the Hathaway Academy, and found that it no longer had a library.
"It's a disgrace that a state school doesn't have a library funded by the state, what's going on?", he asked the audience, to a round of applause. "All they have is shelves, empty shelves, it's like an arrow to what's not there. They should have just said it was an art installation called 'the abyss'."
Brand revealed that he, alongside Canongate, which publishes his new children's book The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Random House, which publishes his recent manifesto Revolution, will be donating money and books to open a library at the school.
Brand also laid into the government for the ban on sending packages to prisoners, which has been widely denounced by literacy campaigners for limiting inmates' access to books.
"I asked a bloke about it and they said it was to stop contraband going into prisons, but that's not it. Everyone knows that the way drugs get into prisons is through the people that work there. The reason they are not letting prisoners have books is that they don’t want people learning or thinking," he said.
He defended public libraries as well, describing a recent trip to Grays library, which he said a member of staff told him was moving. "I went back there recently to the library in Grays which I believe is being relocated, I can only assume as part of a plan to demonstrate its no longer necessary to have a library, by first dislocating it and then eventually closing it down, which seems to be an ongoing strategy… A library is demonstrative of two principles, learning and reading, and community, and they’re both kind of value systems that are under continual attack."
He said that library closures impacted on a culture of learning: "I suppose if you have an informed and educated population that are able to communicate articulately with one another on important issues in a limitless realm accessible through literature, then its more difficult to be placated, its difficult to keep such a population docile." He said that closures were not driven by conspiracy, but by "a fundamentalist philosophy of profit."
Explaining the magic of reading, he described his experience of reading Leon Trotsky and Malcolm X: "It is extraordinary that his thoughts can be there trapped in hieroglyphs upon the page and can live agin within our minds, all reality experienced twice, once through the senses, once in the mind, and there frozen through time, Trotsky, Malcolm X, there living still, in the code upon the page, and at any moment they could be unleashed in the mind of a child. For me that sounds like an exciting thing."
During the lecture, the first Reading Agency Annual Lecture which has been open to the public, he read extracts from a series of books which had been given to him by different people, including Enid Bylton's The Magic Faraway Tree, and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, which had been given to him by Damien Hirst.
The comedian only got through half of the pile of books he had intended to read before his time was up. He said people often gave him books: "People keep giving me books, everywhere I go, the car’s cluttered up with books. It’s not the same as being given a bar of chocolate, there is a sanctity to it, it means something to them, and it’s an indication of what they feel about me."
Sue Wilkinson, c.e.o. of the Reading Agency, said after the lecture, which in previous years has been delivered by Jeanette Winterson and Neil Gaiman, that: "We want reading to be fun, challenging and inspirational – in equal measure; it is clearly a vision Russell shares. We always hope that this lecture will both transform the way people feel about reading and create for us a body of passionate advocates and supporters for our programmes."