Jasperland 84:
for Welsh Librarians


I have no pictures of Bridgend in my very large picture archive, which is somewhat shaming - or it's a lapse in my dismayingly precise keywording, which is even MORE shaming. The closest I could find was Portcawl from 2007. This is the funfair.

I love libraries. If I could write The Eyre Affair again, SO-27 would be attached to the library services, and Thursday a librarian. I partially redeemed myself later on in the series when she became a librarian, but it would have been so much slicker - and with 'Fiction Island' instead of the Great Library. Ah well.

I am actually indebted to librarians and English teachers everywhere who so quickly and so generously took the Thursday Next series to their heart, and promoted it across cyberspace before Social Media was invented. Incidentally, there is a 'speed librarying' section which begins The Constant Rabbit , so if you haven't preordered that book you should do so now.

The following address was given in support of the '2008 Book of the Year' which is an initiative run by the Welsh Assembly to try and support all kinds of reading, both for children and adults. Paul Doyle was running it, who was (and still is, I expect) a man of considerable energy who does and did a great deal for the Neath Port Talbot writing and reading arena. It was at this meeting I met Louise (of similar energy and engagement) who invited me to visit the prison at Bridgend, which I did the following year.

I used to write speeches when I had more time, but these days - pshaw. It's here in its entirety, and written to speak out loud, a few wayward gags first, then move to the main subject. The piece comes in at 2800 words, which at my '140 words a minute' rate for presentations and allowing for digressions and pauses for hysterical laughter (yeah, right) would time in at about 20 minutes. I only used for this one event, is published here for the first time, and I only stumbled across it yesterday by accident - I didn't know I had it.

April 9th, 2008

"...I have a confession to make. I'm a frustrated librarian. I know this because I like stamping things, especially books. Now, many of you may scoff in disbelief and say: 'how does he know he's not a frustrated postmaster?' The evidence is clear in the manner of the stamping itself: Postmasters have that aggressive 'bang bang' action to their stamping, presumably because they know that they - nor anyone else - will ever see that parcel again. Librarians, however, do their stamping with a measured poise, because they know they will see the book again, and when you're outnumbered 20,000 to one in a library, you don't want to piss off any books - especially not all those aggressive volumes in the 'kickboxing for dummies' section.

Mind you, I'm a bit out of touch - do you still use stamps?

I'm not into all this barcode stuff to be honest, and far preferred it when there was a title card you pulled out of the front of the book, popped it in the borrowers envelope, and then stuffed it in the 'due back' shoe box for someone else to deal with in a couple of weeks. Great system. Never crashed or needed upgrading. And I got to take away the book with a 'due back' stamp, usually at a jaunty angle which I think is taught at Librarian's school.

Happy days, those wonderful old card index systems, but sadly now consigned to the dustbin of Class Two Nostalgia memories. Not Class One Nostalgia which are items like the Queen Mary, Steam locomotives and VE Day Street parties, and yet not Class Three nostalgia which are mainly rickets, public executions and the corn laws, but Grade Two, along with other small yet undeniably life-enhancing things of the past, such as Red GPO Vans, Captain Mainwaring saying 'stupid boy' and eating Fish and Chips out of The Daily Mail, which along with lining budgie cages remains the best use of that paper.

No, I liked those date sheets. In fact, I like buying second hand books that still have one of those sheets in the front. It would be in copperplate print and be from St Biddulph's school for Girls in Frimley or something, with a whole array of 'due back' dates that tell you 'Renfrew of the Mounties' wasn't that popular between 1893 and 1922, when it must have achieved a resurgence, or was the only book left in the library. It will also have 'withdrawn' stamped all over it in red, sometime in as many as six places - aggressively stamped, I usually note. In fact, I think they get the postmasters in to do that, so the book definitely knows it has been withdrawn and isn't coming back. A bit mean, really, after a lifetime of faithful service, to be cast out of the warmth of a cosy library with its abundance of erudite neighbours, and then find itself in a box marked 'everything here 50p'

There is, apparently, a self-help group for 'fallen' books.
Hi, my names 'Renfrew of the Mounties' ... and I've been withdrawn.
(applause)'Way to go, Renfrew,'

In my now decadent and affluent manner, I am afraid to say I don't really borrow books as much as I used to although I visit libraries quite a lot, in the same way that Prince Philip opened thousands of hospitals, then found himself actually in one, probably to his amazement.

Duke Voice: "So that's what they do in here."

When I do visit a library, I usually head straight for the 'oversized book' section as it is the only place where the measles of genre hasn't yet infected. Personally, I think all bookshops and libraries should be classified in book jacket colour, and if you read a Yellow book and liked it, then the next week you'd have another yellow one. I think it might make people a bit more adventurous.

Anyway, I tend to buy books these days, so the pleasure of browsing a library has been replaced by browsing a bookshop, which is the same only they get annoyed if you don't want to pay, and insist on chasing you down the street. And boy, can some of those booksellers run.

So now I have my own library, and my own stamp. It says rather grandly 'Library of Fforde' and then adds, equally grandly, 'Not to be lent or sold' . Actually, there are a few exceptions to the 'lent or sold' rule, and anyone who loves books and enjoys forcing them onto other people will know exactly what I mean. You have found a book that you like so very very much, and you need to get everyone to read it.

So whenever I see certain titles selling cheap in 2nd hand book stores, or in that 'Withdrawn anything for 50p box', I buy it and keep it on the shelf, so if ever the conversation gets around to books - which it does quite often at my house, I can say: "Ooh, why don't you read West with the night, or The Reason Why, or Enemy Coast Ahead, or Three Men in a Boat or The Diary of a Nobody. I have lots of copies - here." And they go away happy.

I have a feeling I'm not the only person who does this.

This is all a bit rambling and off-topic, as I'm meant to be here talking about how libraries benefit writers through their work with readers, and the value of readers to writers. I'm not sure how to do this, but I can try.

Stories are all around us. They are everywhere. We learn by them, we discourse using them, and we're entertained by them. There is no part of human activity untouched by narrative of some sort. Your parents would have told you when young that if you touched the oven, you would be burned, and then you would be sorry - and that is a little three-act tragedy all in itself. We engage one another in stories when we gossip or tell a joke, or recount a weekend. More often than not, we add details to stories to make them sound more exciting, and sometimes, we make things up entirely. The gift of abstract thought that has allowed us to survive so well in a hostile environment has also given us the skill of being able to invent or modify reality - sometimes for nefarious purposes, and sometimes for entertainment. Essentially, Authors earn their crust by telling whopping great lies - but people know that, so don't mind. Strangely enough, authors can often imbue more emotion in fiction as they can in an account of real events - reality is much better served up with a sprinkling of embellishment.

The type of lies I tell, which in polite company I call genre, is, I think, 'Fiction fiction'. I write stories about stories and the conventions of how they are told - books for people who love stories, and stories for people who love books. The rich seam of ideas I stumbled across almost accidentally while playing fast and loose with Dorian Grey one rainy Tuesday afternoon was that characters in books are real and live, and human - and just acting out their parts, in front of us, the audience.

It is not by chance that you can only have two pages open in front of you when reading a book, because if you were to sneak a look three pages back you would see the occupants of the book frantically trying to get themselves ready for the upcoming scene, and if you were to look three pages forward you would see the paragraphs being dismantled and the nouns sent off to other books where they are required - indeed, I have discovered that there are only twelve pianos in fiction, and a special squad of Piano Narrative logistical Experts are required to zip these instruments across inter-genre space to where they are next required. I would go on to say that every fictional book you own, when at rest, is entirely blank, with perhaps only a caretaker roughly described on page ninety-seven, sitting next to a glowing brazier full of burning superfluous apostrophes, warming his hands, drinking a cup of tea and dreaming thoughts of self-aggrandisement, where he will, if he studies really hard at the St Tabularasa's School for Characters, eventually battle space aliens in the gamma quadrant aboard a science fiction novel of dubious quality.

Against the backdrop of this fictional 'BookWorld' I have devised a character to lead us, Alice-like, though a bizarre landscape of wayward Characters, dangerous Mispelling Viruses, murderous Hit-Squads driven to kill Heathcliffe and Parasitic life-forms intent on devouring grammar. Her name is Thursday Next, and she doesn't take any crap from anyone, with the exception of Miss Havisham, who is not someone you should try and cross, or mention the wedding.

To enable easy movement across the vast panoply of fiction, I have supposed that there is somewhere a 'Great Library' which holds every single book that has ever been written, and by walking down its echoing halls, you can select a book and simply move into the story by reading it - although you do have to be careful not to get involved in the story, as you may be spotted by someone else reading the book out there in the 'real world'.

But despite the noble intent of fiction to entertain and enlighten, things are never quite so simple, and that in books, as in life, drama and jeopardy are never far away. Since anything created by mankind must have Error and Mischief hardwired at inception (it's the reason nuclear power can never be 100% safe) I propose that books are no different, and what with minor characters wanting to have a better part and with murder and mayhem not only likely but positively encouraged as a narrative necessity, there has to be a policing agency within fiction. Not only to keep a careful watch on minor characters eager to move up in the world by adding their own dialogue, but also the licensing of new ideas, the confiscation of poorly constructed page-turning devices, the danger of self-extracting backstories, errant 'head in a bag' plot devices and other story-based conceits too numerous to mention. It's a lot of fun.

So why did I choose to tell stories about stories? Thinking about it many years later, I finally figured out why this made sense. To attack, in a irreverent fashion, the 'hallowed ground' of the classics has in itself a 'giggling at the back of English class' feel about it, the rebellious streak that we always wanted to have at school; the irreverent yet undeniably true observations about the classics that can be highlighted for humorous gain: About how in The Merchant of Venice there is no mention of canals, or that Magwich could never have swum from the Prison Hulk with a 'Great Iron' on his leg, or that Hamlet, without peer in his own book, should actually be paired up with Iago in a spin-off play 'Hamlet V Iago'. But it didn't seem right to insult the classics as they are generally quite good (except Wuthering heights ; I never liked that one) So instead I looked at them without the benefit of an English degree, studied the stories from my own point of view, and observed the failings (and triumphs) as I saw them without the sometimes conventional notions that are taught at schools.

And during this self-learned trade and by feeding off other forms of popular culture, I got to understand how the whole reader/writer thing works, and just how important the reader is in the whole scheme of things. In my Bookworld books I was tapping into not only my own memories, but our shared memories, as most people have 'issues' with Wuthering Heights , and even someone as learned as Margaret Drabble admits that Spenser's Faerie Queen 'inclines to monotony' which is an erudite way of saying that it's boring. And when you ask why in the three bears Mummy and Daddy bear were sleeping in separate beds or how Hamlet might react when confronted with too many choices at Starbuck's (To Mocha or to Latte, that is the question), you realise that there are gags to make and connections to be had that only exist because my readers have read.

I'm making the gags and the strange connections, but it's cut from a cloth that we all share. Understanding this made me realise that this was how all fiction works - that writers tap into the collective memory that contains the many thousands of similar experiences that we all encounter as we make our way from cradle to grave. It sits above us all like a huge buzzy cloud; a sort of internet but there's no connection, and everyone belongs to it, no-one owns it, and everyone contributes to it. It's going on without our knowledge, and most amazing of all, has escaped taxation.

I'd go one further and state that reading and writing is actually the closest thing to telepathy that we possess: A writer takes an idea or an emotion, transforms it first into a scenario, then encodes that as raw text - nothing more than inky squiggles on a page. The reader takes that lifeless text and then re-encodes the words, compares that scenario to anything similar in their own life experience, and rebuilds the scenario in all its glory. This all happens so fast, not many people are aware there is a mechanism working at all. When a reader congratulates a writer, they should reserve much of the praise for themselves - after all, they are the ones doing most of the work.

I think that's important, so I'll repeat it. The Readers are doing most of the work. When an author speaks of the boom and the swish of the incoming tide or refers to Old Age as Death's adolescence, the mechanism that makes these lyrical is within both parties. There is no sound of one hand clapping, and you can't play tennis with yourself. It's why every book is so unique to the reader, how a book can change depending on your emotions or maturity at the time, and quite naturally, why it's impossible to make a decent movie out of your favourite book. You can't, because each interpretation is unique to the reader. That book, that reading, is yours and yours alone.

Like everything else, ones skills at reading improve with age. I can read books now that I couldn't as a child, but oddly enough, I can still enjoy books that I read in my teens. In fact, I've always felt that those are the ones that really stay with you. I've read thousands of books in my lifetime, but the ones that have really papered themselves to the inside of my head are the ones I read before I was sixteen - Alice, Winnie the Pooh, The Little Prince, Tiger Tiger, Jane Eyre, Here Comes Noddy, Biggles, Bram Stoker, Walter De La Mare, Macbeth, Adventure on the Island, Diary of a Nobody - and many more. It fed my imagination, as I'm sure similar books fed yours. And like a favourite soft toy from childhood, they generate huge affection. For me, the very idea that the Cheshire Cat could be depicted in any other way than the John Tenniel drawing is a heresy of the highest order, and looking at my own work today, much of it draws on the Class 'A' nonsense I read and enjoyed as a child. Those books, in part, made me what I am today. Our formative years are the cradle of our personality. What we see or hear, experience or read, stays with us forever.

I don't need to tell anyone here today the value of reading, but it is beholden on us all to attempt to claw back the ground that has been lost to computer games and a steadily worsening diet of TV. It has never been more important to encourage new readers, not just for the simple pleasure of a story well told, or to feed the imagination, but to nurture talent in future writers. There isn't a writer alive who didn't start off by first being a reader.

Readers need writers as much as writers need readers. It is the ultimate symbiotic relationship. Writing as an art took off when there were readers to read them, in the same way that flowers became colourful only when there was something there to see them. Simply put, today's readers are tomorrow's writers. Stories channel your mind, and make you who you are. People don't make stories; stories .. make people.

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