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Barely a fortnight after Liverpool’s tenure as Capital of Culture came to an end, a council in Merseyside has announced the closure of ten of Wirral’s twenty four libraries along with a number of leisure centres. The plan had initially been to close thirteen, but after a surge of public protest that saw nearly 400 people attend the strategic asset review hearing in Wallasey Town Hall, Upton, Pensby and Birkenhead Central Libraries have been saved. I grew up there, and although my local library wasn’t one of the many affected, this is a hugely personal issue for me. I spent the best part of a day last week contacting everyone I know who still lives there, trying to convince them to go on one of the many protests that took place. Sadly, they made little difference.

The Wirral is seen as being predominantly middle-class, and whilst this is true of many parts of the peninsula, it isn’t true of all of them. One woman told a BBC reporter, “We’re in a poor area. We’ve only got two things. One is the baths and one is the library and both of them are being taken away. I don’t think that’s fair.”

In a recession, we need more libraries not fewer. Not all schools possess well-stocked libraries, although they should. Not every child and adult has access to the wealth of information stored on the internet, although they should. For many, community libraries are the only places people can go, not just for books but to use the internet, look for jobs and get information about local groups and facilities, they posses photocopying and fax facilities. They offer services for the visually impaired and they loan out DVDs and CDs for a fraction of the price of your average Blockbuster. In this economic climate, why are councils reducing the facilities for affordable entertainment?

To say that they should be closed is tantamount to saying that it doesn’t matter that there are people who can’t afford to purchase books from Waterstones or Amazon, it doesn’t matter that a community has no free access to newspapers or reference books or the internet. But it does matter. Free access to books, no matter what your age or background, is one of the fundamental principles of a civilised, educated society,

Libraries shouldn’t be one of our most neglected resources, they should be among our most cherished.

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Well, this is my inaugural post. Better make it a good one.

 

[At one point over the summer, I made the mistake of starting a booklog. I went back through the annals of my mind, scoured my bookshelf, and entered every book I could remember reading on the list. I kept it up, too, for…ooh, at least a month. But then actual reading took over, and I never seemed to find the time again. I’ve updated it now, though, so should anyone be burning with curiosity about my reading matter it will be posted later and I hope you’re satisfied.]

 

I read quickly. I always blink with surprise when I see those reading memes floating about the blogosphere – ‘read 50 books in a year!’ I won’t lie – there’s a certain amount of intellectual snobbery in how quickly I can get through books – my two-hour daily commute and three-quarters of my lunch hour is normally enough for one. ‘Read your height in books’ doesn’t work either, since I like a good chunky tome to curl up with on a rainy afternoon – and besides, I’m tiny. Not Kristin Chenoweth tiny, but not much taller than Dame Judi Dench, put it that way.

 

And when I say I read quickly, I mean reading. I’m not skimming, I’m not turning the pages without taking anything in (unless it’s a very dull book). I genuinely do read this quickly. And if you ask me to sum up what was on the page I’ve just turned over, I will. In fact, I’ll probably quote from it. And please don’t stand next to me and peer over my shoulder, calling people from the next room to come and watch the circus freak. Oddly enough, I find it off-putting.

 

The downside is that it means I get through a lot of books. My girlfriend and I have four bookshelves, all packed to the gills, and in the New Year we’re going to have to take a trip to Ikea and figure out where the hell the fifth one is going to go. Of course, all this gets expensive, which means that libraries are fantastic – I spent nearly every lunch hour at school in ours. It was a gloriously gothic room, full of crucifixes and embroidered Latin samplers. Half the books were ancient, except the ones on the Sixth Form bookshelf, which mentioned forbidden things like sex and alcohol. When I was thirteen, I discovered a complete set of Austen, bound in red leather and titled with shiny gilt letters. University libraries were fun too, especially when I discovered the giddy pleasures of literary criticism. Of course, libraries in the real world are depressingly different. The real world doesn’t cap your fines at a certain amount because you’re an impoverished student. And if there’s one thing I’m better at than racing my way through a Nancy Mitford, it’s forgetting to take my library books back. There are certain towns in Britain that I daren’t go back to, for fear that an irate librarian might recognise me, pin me to the ground and take my bank card as payment for dropping The Selfish Gene off three months late and then running away.

 

So if you see a fast reader in the course of your day, don’t mock them. Don’t ask ‘how do you read so fast?’ when they know no other way. Think of the suffering it causes them – getting through a favourite series in a week, racking up hideous debts to feed their problem, and, worst of all, having to turn to writing themselves because they’ve read all the books in the house and it’s a week until payday.