Alan Taylor's rollicking library anthology offers evidence of a world of unbridled passion, unauthorised access, uncut pages and hitherto unrevealed licentiousness.
John Wells, writing the history of the London Library, knows all about it, especially the 'heavily charged erotic atmosphere in the Reading Room: a girl undoing a button of her cardigan lifts a head from every chair', while the Central Library, Manchester, was the scene of a fateful encounter for the adolescent Anthony Burgess, sent thither by his teacher to research James Elroy Flecker. A charming woman, 'running acceptably to fat', helped him work out the index system and then took him home with her for some practical sex education and a little post-coital instruction on Marxist economic theory.
The anthology is a catholic collection of extracts from books, poems and articles about libraries and what goes on there, with aphorisms and anecdotes trotting along the bottom of the pages, masquerading as footnotes. Sometimes these have an almost Confucian brevity - 'a library is thought in cold storage' - sometimes they seem to conceal larger issues. What exactly did the librarian of the great, destroyed library of Alexandria mean when he said, in the third century BC, that a big book is a big nuisance?
Most of the longer pieces are great fun. There is a classic Hancock sketch about the thriller whose last page has disappeared, and an equally good one from Victoria Wood, in which she fantasises about a bossy librarian whose principles dictate that, if you make people welcome, they'll be drying their underwear on the radiators and doing boil-in-the-bag noodles behind the photocopier.
Alan Taylor himself spent many years in the Scottish library service, and his brief reminiscent essays introducing each section are a joy. The Scots lady who came in to ask him: 'Have you got the complaint, son?', took a good deal of circuitous interrogation before it became clear that she wanted Portnoy's Complaint. But she was easier than the man sporting tattoos, string vest and rottweilers, from whom the young and terrified Taylor was told to rescue some overdue books. He chickened out.
The record for an unreturned book was set when a German religious treatise, published in 1609, was borrowed from a Cambridge college by Cola Walpole in 1667. It was returned 288 years later. No fine was exacted - the then Marquess would probably have had to sell the place to pay it. There are more statistics here, too. In 1838, in Westminster, for example, only 27 people borrowed Works of a Good Character, while 1,008 pounced on Fashionable Novels. Quite why Westminster owned any Books Decidedly Bad is not clear, but only 10 people were bold enough to ask for them.
People use libraries for many things. One assistant lived in Fiction and, when discovered, admitted that the money she was saving on rent was for a nose-job, after which she intended to woo Mick Jagger.
Among the highly enjoyable celebrations of the library in this book, it is refreshing to come across Orwell's companion Paddy, who refused to enter the building, because 'de sight of all dat bloody print makes me sick'.Reuse content