Make a noise about libraries but, please, keep quiet afterwards: Week in books

Libraries shouldn’t have to become multi-platform, nor should they have to jump through hoops to show us their worth

Arifa Akbar
Thursday 13 November 2014 18:10 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


A short film on Andrea Levy, posted exclusively on the Independent website, features the award-winning novelist talking tenderly about her early life, showing us round her first family home, and discussing her craft: how, where, when she writes; how her husband is her first reader; how she writes in longhand, fast and furiously.

Unsurprisingly, a library features in there somewhere. Her first drafts are written at her local library in north London, amid, I imagine, the quiet, velvety clasp of surrounding books, scraping chairs and the odd, surreptitious rustle of a crisp packet.

This week, the “quiet please” library signs seem to have been taken down. People made a noise about keeping our local libraries open. BBC 6 Music got on board with a live radio show from the British Library. So did Guy Garvey, the Elbow singer, who was set to take us through Manchester Central Library. This library was temporarily colonised by artists in boiler suits asking those entering a lift to compose impromptu stories. Down the way in its café, Emma Jane Unsworth read aloud from a book of poems, a dance company conducted a pop-up performance and the Mercury-nominated band, Everything Everything, boomed out a set of live music. The sense of disorder was deliberate, I think, and fun.

Her book is Six Stories & an Essay, published by Tinder Press. The film is directed by Aasaf Ainapore

Yet as admirable as it is, libraries shouldn’t have to become multi-platform, nor should they have to jump through hoops to show us their worth. Isn’t it enough that they provide one of the few remaining oases of ritualised solitude? Of course, libraries can be both sanctuaries of quiet, and creative hubs filled with noise and activity. There is nothing wrong in having a band perform in your local library, or in ordering a latte with chocolate sprinkles there, but this shouldn’t be the “lure”. A library isn’t a Starbucks or the Royal Albert Hall. The boon of books, and silence, should surely be lure enough.

Making a noise in a library is certainly a more original form of protest than standing outside the building with a placard, though there is nothing wrong with that stand either – 11 of Liverpool’s 19 libraries which had been threatened with closure were saved from this fate recently; perhaps this was not unrelated to vociferous public protests. After the demonstrations, though, and the performances, I hope the library will discard its loud, rock star’s garb and return to its rubber-soled, timorous old self again.

Piketty pickle at the Business Book Awards

So there I was, eating my wheat and gluten free ragù of something-or-other at the FT & McKinsey Business Book of the Year awards, blithely unaware of the undercurrent of tension on stage as the winner, Thomas Piketty, was announced: Lionel Barber, the FT’s editor, hastily saying that as chair of the prize, he was rather like the US president in that he had no power over the decision to award the £30,000 prize to Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Or the barbed comment from the publisher, Harvard University Press, about how the FT’s economics editor, Chris Giles, might not like the outcome. Or the filmed “thanks” from Piketty himself (while on a promotional tour in China) which did seem rather subdued, but only on reflection, after I had been told that the muted reception all round might have been due to the fact that Giles had picked faults with Piketty’s data, and that the story had run in the paper much to Piketty’s chagrin.

Despite the awkwardness of it all, it’s surely evidence of good, independently minded judges. Nick Davies, a contender on the shortlist, might even have found the transparency of the awkward moment pleasing.

Paula Rego’s early inspiration? Fairy tales

Retelling fairytales need not be for writers alone. The artist Paula Rego has been inspired by Portuguese folk tales in the past, which she found “unsentimental and surprising...” Stories can serve as a starting point for her: “When I used to get stuck about what to do next, my husband used to tell me to find a story.” Her new show has just opened at the House of Illustration, London.

Go on, kids, re-write a classic in drum ’n’ bass

There are those purists who feel Shakespeare should never be staged in modern dress or abridged. But I’m with the children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman, who is encouraging teenagers to rewrite classic texts as comic strips or raps. The competition, Project Remix, will involve the retelling of 24 works, including Dracula, Ozymandias and Pride and Prejudice.

Triumph for prisoners, and for campaigners

It is particularly gratifying news that after months of campaigning from pressure groups, authors and prisoners themselves, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to increase the number of books permissible in prison cells. There was a collective outcry when this number was limited to 12 – and the high-profile campaigns from the likes of Carol Ann Duffy is a triumph for people power.

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