Why these works matter

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IN AN AGE of well-stocked high-street chains and cut-price supermarket retailing, manybelieve public libraries have no need to stock recent bestsellers. This is true up to a point: the nation's cultural health may not require that slices of your council tax should go towards shelves full of the latest works of Jilly Cooper or Jeffrey Archer.

Yet the books we have chosen for this survey belong in a quite different bracket. They represent the much-lauded rise of the brain-stretching blockbuster; the thinking reader's chart sensation. For Dava Sobel's Longitude, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, the loss is clear enough if readers find that libraries can no longer meet their needs.

Yet, in their own way, a Trainspotting, a Fever Pitch, even a Bridget Jones's Diary, can contribute to the culture in a decisive way. Not only do they have their own distinctive merits and values. They have also become the focus of a wide debate that presumes a familiarity with these books as a sort of enfranchisement.

But, for many library users, a pounds 7.99 cover price will be just as much of a disincentive as a pounds 79 tag. Exclude most of them from free (ie tax- funded) access to titles of this kind, and you will shut them out from the discussions that define our times.