Choice from the book shelf is really off the wall

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LIBRARIANS HAVE a famously stand-offish relationship with the literature they guard.

They may not like it very much - even when they write the stuff. The University of Hull's long-serving head librarian, Philip Larkin, inserted the immortal line "Books are a load of crap" into one of his poems.

While second-in-command of the British Museum Reading Room, the novelist Angus Wilson distracted his customers with a stream of very audible chatter. He soon realised that "an avid taste for the contents of books was a hindrance" in his chosen profession.

As for people who do want to check out a volume or two, the librarian in Terry Pratchett's Men at Arms summed up one popular view down in the stacks when he said that the best way to respect books "was to leave them on the shelves where Nature intended them to be".

So it's not, perhaps, a huge surprise that Britain's chief librarians should have made such an eccentric choice of favourite titles at their conference in Torquay.

Some of them, no doubt, do know every dusty corner of their stock inside out, which explains the presence on the list of such curiosities as Eugene Burdock's The Ninth Wave and Douglas Hayes's The Comedy Man.

Others seem happy to tot up the lending figures and go with the populist flow: hence Maeve Binchy and the ubiquitous Captain Corelli. And at least one leading librarian believes that the enraptured study of the classics can lead directly to orgies, mayhem and murder (the plot of Donna Tartt's The Secret History). Worst fear, or fondest hope?

These days, of course, the professionals tends to spout techno-babble like the good business-friendly IT managers the Government would like them to be. So the librarian who chose William Gibson's cyber-prophecy of doom, Neuromancer, may be sending a veiled warning to someone.

As for the unreconstructed rebel who opted for the Communist Manifesto, his or her message is a bit simpler to decode. Ditto the fan of Huxley's Brave New World.

The supporters of Middlemarch or Bleak House, The Satanic Verses or Bonfire of the Vanities, are keeping the grand old flame of Big Books crammed with Big Ideas alight - but it's equally heartening to see exquisite miniatures such as J L Carr's A Month in the Country and Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills in the frame. Yet the aptest choice of all must be Bernhard Schlink's luminous account of the way that books can redeem a deeply damaged life: The Reader.