By Adam Cunnane
Kafka once wrote that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Books, more than anything, are tools for social mobility. They are bombs that tear apart our firmly held, yet misguided, views on society, life, and love. Books are facilitators of latent hopes and desires, with the potential to empower all.
Looking at my bookshelf now, I think of all the things that books have taught me. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things pushed me to the brink of despair, before hauling me back. It helped me to realise that though long-term happiness might be difficult to achieve, it is the “small things”, precious moments of intimacy, kindness and laughter that we can hold on to. Books like Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial provided insights into the arbitrary, alienating power of the state. They reminded me to remain watchful of incursions upon our freedom, more prevalent now than ever. And I cried at the end of Stoner, willed Holden Caulfield to call Jane Gallagher with all my might, fell in love with, and detested, Emma Bovary with equal measure. Feeling that Flaubert spoke for me too when he said “Madame Bovary? C’est moi”. Books were, and still are, my vehicle for understanding the world, helping to cultivate feelings of empathy, desire and grief. As Baldwin said, “it was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Yet many people are no longer able to access these books, and many others. Governments have been cutting library services for years, meaning that many who can’t afford to buy such books, are deprived of the knowledge they hold. This is probably because the government thinks no-one will care. Some areas in which cuts have taken place, such as disability benefits, have been rightly challenged. For other areas, such as libraries, a quick search on the internet shows that it is difficult to find a national campaign devoted to preventing library cuts. With all the access we have to the Bill Bryson library, we tend to forget that, outside the Durham bubble, many people can’t get hold of the kind of books we can.
Let’s delve now into the statistics surrounding library cuts. According to the BBC, between 2010 and 2016, 8000 jobs in libraries have gone, which is ¼ of the entire workforce. Moreover, out of 343 libraries shut down since 2010, 132 were mobile library services, meaning that many with poor mobility are unable to access books. Once again, we see that the poor, marginalised and disabled are the first to be attacked.
This is not to say that libraries are not trying to adapt. David Fay, Head of Newcastle City Council’s Library Services, highlighted to me how his authority has looked towards a partnership with Newcastle College in order to reduce running costs for libraries. E-books too have been introduced to cope with reductions in stock. Yet, despite these adaptions, staff have been lost and opening hours are starting to be reduced. And for every council that is coping, others are struggling. For example, more than ½ of libraries in Sunderland have closed since 2010. Further exploration needs to be done into the correlation between library closures and the affluence of areas; a 2013 report (Sunderland Echo, 2013) showed that 17,000 children are living in poverty in Sunderland. Why, therefore, are the government closing most of their libraries, and further reinforcing this poverty?
Protests against library cuts, I must confess, are not really that sexy. I don’t suppose I could persuade anyone to man the barricades with me against an onslaught of library cuts. Yet, nonetheless, this issue is incredibly important, and woefully under-publicised. We rally against inequality on a daily basis, and lament the lack of social mobility in our society. Yet it is my belief that war against the poor and the under-privileged has a secret frontier. It is in library services. How can the government best oppress the least fortunate in society? Well, remove their books of course, remove their power to dream, to long for a better life. Remove their ability to form links with the rest of society, to empathise, to desire, to hope.
Heinrich Heine wrote that “where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” They have not yet started to burn books, but they might as well have.
Image: Pixabay via Creative Commons