A week in books: A return trip into the secrets of the stacks

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The Independent Culture

The new cosmology often tells us that universes may exist in parallel, mutually invisible and unaware of one another's alien laws.

The new cosmology often tells us that universes may exist in parallel, mutually invisible and unaware of one another's alien laws. So it is with books – or that might be the conclusion if you scrutinise the annual Public Lending Right returns of the titles and authors most often borrowed from British libraries.

On Planet Publishing (and its media moons), the inhabitants fuss over million-dollar advances for modish first novelists or deft stories penned by the wives of Hollywood stars. Back in the hush of the library, so the PLR figures reveal, success looks utterly different. In this alternative dimension, the best-loved author is firmly dead: Catherine Cookson, still the nation's most-borrowed novelist, whose novels (rather like the Beatles, c.1964) occupy places one to five in the fiction chart. Further down the PLR Top 20, the choices of libraries and bookshops do start to converge. Patricia Cornwell, Dick Francis, Maeve Binchy, Ruth Rendell and Bernard Cornwell all appear. On the children's shelves, JKR is rising fast. Yet even Potter can't begin to challenge the supremacy of RL ("Goosebumps") Stine, surely the least-known mega-selling author on this, or any, planet.

In the municipal stacks, Agatha Christie still stands at No 6 in the fiction chart. Among the saga queens, much read but little hyped, Josephine Cox challenges hard for Cookson's throne while names such as Emma Blair, Mary Jane Staples and Jessica Stirling ride high. Only in non-fiction do media profile and library acclaim match. Here, eight books in the PLR top 10 come from Bill Bryson, Frank McCourt, Dave Pelzer and John Gray.

This annual peek through a hole in the hype-layer both delights and dismays. On one level, it proclaims that millions of readers pursue their passions with a dogged disregard of the sound and fury that deafens the rest of the book world. More power to them, and to the librarians who serve them.

Yet the PLR statistics hint at a grimmer tale. This one would tell of ageing stock and ageing borrowers, and of resources shunted into shiny new computer kit rather than dreary old tomes. Total lending in public libraries has dropped in steps from from 501 million items in 1997 to 430 million in 2000.

Hammered by a long-term decline in purchase budgets and opening hours, many libraries find it hard to keep up with shifting tastes and trends. If they can't offer enough fresh stock, they won't win and hold the younger users. And all the shiny PCs in the world will not mask the picture of a greying constituency, dwindling almost as fast as the Tory grassroots.

But local energy can always punch great holes in any gloomy generalisation. Last year, I had the privilege of judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Grace Kempster, who, as head of libraries for Essex County Council, proved that the familiar PLR litany doesn't have to be the way the Cookson crumbles in the stacks. Grace has now moved to the British Council, but if you seek an indication of what a dynamic library service can provide, look at the line-up for the second Essex Book Festival, due in the county's branches from 1-27 March: Melvyn Bragg, Germaine Greer, David Lodge, Susan Greenfield, "Nicci French" and dozens of other authors. The diary is at: www.essexlivelit.org.uk. Check it out and go along – especially if you still suspect that, culturally, Essex lies somewhere on the dark side of the Moon.