Boyd Tonkin: Brum’s palace of the book is a triumph – but can it spread its golden glow?

The Week in Books

Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 07 September 2013 10:20 BST

Second cities, so often the target of condescension from the capital, have developed a self-protective habit of hyperbole. From time to time, those chippy superlatives do earn their keep. So let me add to them. No city in the world has in recent years made a bolder, braver and more stylish commitment to books, learning and civic enlightenment than Birmingham. True, my sentiments were sweetened just a little on Monday by a glorious warm evening on the landscaped, herb-scented terrace of the new Library of Birmingham, that resplendent “people’s palace” (in the words of the Dutch architect Francine Houben, whose Mecanoo practice designed it).

One topical comparison: last month, I spent a day in and around another second-city flagship, Rudy Ricciotti’s new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM) on the harbourfront in Marseille. Both buildings, by the way, employ a striking metallic lattice screen that wraps around the complex: intersecting circles for Mecanoo; arabesque curls for Ricciotti. Not even the most ardent Midlands patriot would claim that the view from the LoB’s outside areas – over the charmless postwar clutter of central Birmingham – can rival MuCEM’s magnificent Med vistas. But the planted terraces themselves, not to mention the overall management of the public space inside, struck me as distinctly superior in Brum.

A massive cylinder within a cube, the LoB’s multi-storey Book Rotunda rises grandly towards a crowning skylight while the stacks spread out radially from this monumental hub. Separate spaces proclaim their own missions, from the children’s library down below to the transplanted Victorian “Shakespeare Room” within the golden-clad summit. For £189m, Birmingham has erected for its citizens not merely the biggest public library in Europe but a world-class landmark and a spectacular shrine to the culture of the book - future, present and past. For all its digital connectivity (200 public computers, for example), the Library in special collections also holds 13,000 volumes from before 1700 and 128 “incunabula”, ie pre-1500 printed volumes.

In blighted days of closures and cutbacks, we don’t expect such civic showmanship from British cities now (the LoB was commissioned pre-slump). All the more reason to cheer both Birmingham’s ambition, and its fine execution. As the city’s adopted daughter Malala Yousafzai said at the opening, “It is written that a room without books is like a body without a soul. A city without a library is like a graveyard.”

But if Britain’s greatest municipalities opt to plough their scant resources into city-centre showpiece libraries (Liverpool’s reopened in May after a £50m. renovation; Manchester’s will follow suit next spring), what remains for the under-funded suburbs? Birmingham council knew that to board up local branches during the LoB development would be political folly on a grand scale. So its 39 community libraries all stayed active.

Yet the city’s library service has had to deliver savings of 28 per cent. Opening hours have dropped by 9.5 per cent and full-time equivalent staff numbers have fallen from 260 to 164. Moreover (according to a council report), the palatial newcomer on Centenary Square “offers opportunities city-wide to take advantage of the wider community benefits that LoB will deliver but it comes at a point when Community Libraries are least able to respond to the offer”.

In these years of the axe, every metropolis faces a clash of claims between downtown glamour and neighbourhood access. At least its shutdown-avoidance policy means that Birmingham has engineered a less painful solution than most. Meanwhile, the LoB looks and feels like a supremely confident affirmation of faith in the book - and all its ancillary arts - as the soul of urban culture. Now, for the second city’s dream double, local lad Jim Crace just needs to win the Man Booker with his astonishing novel, Harvest.

One for the catchers of the hype?

Will these titles soon grace the American Literature shelves: The Last and Best of the Peter Pans; The Family Glass; A World War Two Love Story; A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary; A Religious Manual? They are the unseen and so far totally uncorroborated works allegedly left by JD Salinger after his death at 91 in 2010. According to film-maker Shane Salerno, who has just released a Salinger documentary and co-written a biography with David Shields, the reclusive creator of The Catcher in the Rye bequeathed to posterity “a second act unlike any writer in history”.

The Salinger estate declines to confirm. I’ll hail that second act just as soon as I can read it. In the meantime, the evidence of combat-induced post-traumatic stress as a presiding force in Salinger’s work looks more substantial, with even the Catcher now re-configured as “a disguised war novel”.

Crime pays; poetry doesn’t. And Poirot lives

Last week I noted how many top-rank bestsellers (Boyd, Faulks, Trollope) will this season publish pastiches of the classic literary brands (Fleming, Wodehouse, Austen). Now we know that, blessed by the Queen of Crime’s estate, Sophie Hannah will revive Hercule Poirot in a new “Agatha Christie” mystery. Although routinely dubbed a “crime author”, Hannah is also a gifted - and accessible – poet. In the book world, crime pays; poetry doesn’t. Perhaps the reborn Poirot might fund some new verse.

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