By Thomas Clark
Wha kent whit, an when did they ken it? E’er syne they catcht auld Dick Nixon wi his lug tae the Watergate waw, oor politícians hae makkit a guid haundlin oot o the doctrine o plausible deniability, itherwise kent as the virtue o unexpectit ignorance. Knawledge, tae oor current crop o baby-kissers, is a volatile thing, ayeweys apt tae blaw up in yer face; an in fact is just like Schrödinger’s box — naebody kens for shuir whit’s in there, but it’s fifty-fifty ye’ll be left wi a deid cat tae explain. Onygates, it leukt as if the Donald had takken yon trend tae its logical conclusion when he wis electit high heid yin o the free warld on the basis o kennin absolutely naething aboot absolutely onything — weel, until this week, that is, when his auld sparrin pairtner, Mister Salmond o Lithgae, admítit in a student paper that, afore 2015, he had niver actually read a beuk.
Fake news or whit! It turns oot aw oor yin-time First Mínister said wis that he hadna written a beuk afore 2015. An honest mistak aw roond, it seems, an strauchtent oot sprig eneuch, tho that didnae stap a few radges on baith sides breengin in bits-first, tryin tae get their licks in afore the nee-naw caurs pullt up.
Aw o which so faur is juist same stuff on a different day. But whit interestit me wis hou mony o the fowk that war gettin their knickers in a twist aboot this — the scandalous suggestion that Alex Salmond had never rade a beuk — war, thairsels, fowk wha plainly dinnae value the act o readin. Mak a muckle pynt oot o it. Hinnae the time. Hinnae the interest. Get aw the news they need fae Facebook. Arenae bothert. Are kind o prood o it. An yet find unacceptable the notion that somebody they admire michtna read themsels.
Declaration o interest, here: ah’m a librarian bi tred. Will be as lang as onybody thinks it’s a job wirth peyin for. A dicey proposítion the nou, tae be shuir — every day some library or anither, be it a thrivin Carnegie in a muckle toun centre, or a vanfu o Westerns putterin aboot the Hebrides, is faced wi the axe. Stock cuts, staff cuts, openin oors slashed tae ribbons. Libraries growin e’er mair reliant on donations o beuks, siller an time. Big haund for the Big Society, aabody. Weel din, Davie C — ye finally really did it.
Ah’m no flingin oot ma cap for a whiproond, like. Ye can aw pit by yer hankies the nou. Nane o yon is news tae onybody. Ye aw ken the fankle that libraries are in. An gin ye dinnae ken the nummers aff bi hert, ye’ve a notion o thaim. Mair fowk gan tae libraries than tae fitba gemmes. Readin maks a bigger difference tae a bairn’s educational ootcomes than social class. Twa libraries a week shuttered unner the Tories. An on, an on, an on. Ah dinnae want tae get owre wrapped up in the specifics o whit libraries hae tae offer. Tae fetishize the date stamp an the auld caird catalogue is playin richt intae the haunds o thaim wha cry us the relics o the past.
Nou, like ony guild, the grave profession o the librarians has got its mysteries, an ah’m gonnae let ye in on a big yin here. As a caird-cairryin member o the shush brigade, there’s naething gets ma back up like hearin fowk gaun owre big for libraries. Aye, ye heard me richt. The Prime Mínister, the Cultur Mínister, the specialist czar for literacy — the mínit ony o them gets oot the pompoms, ma heid’s fair bouncin.
Acause the idea o libraries has niver been short o cheerleaders. Ah mean, even the Tories ken that fowk like libraries. An there’s plenty o politícians inby the faurest reaches o government (whaur a guid soundbite, like a bent bawbee, costs naething an is wirth less) happy tae gab awa aboot the idea o libraries, in the same elegaic tone they employ for ither fantastical notions that hae lang syne shot the craw, sic as post offices or lichthooses or a fair day’s pey for a fair day’s wirk. An, siccar as ye like, yon tone-deif mythologizin o the Gowden Age o Libraries aye rins straucht intae rueful consíderations aboot the real warld we happen tae líve in, an sic haundy factoids as hae takken up bidin in it, austerity an e-beuks an whitiver else comes tae mind.
Weel, let’s face the facts. The Internet has makkit líteratur mair accessible an, tae an extent, affuirdable tae a wheen o fowk. Moby Dick has gane fae bein a £7.99 Oxford Edition tae a £1 Everyman Classic tae a free dounload on Project Gutenberg. Wha’s complainin? But the real price o yon free e-beuk isnae the Kindle ye need tae read it or the bandwidth ye need tae access it — it’s the accelerated capitalism that’s assignin these mercat values tae these priceless things. The cost o a free Wuthering Heights, in ither wirds, is a wirthless Wuthering Heights, the loss o oor capacity tae express whit things mean tae us in ony ither currency than pounds an pence.
E’er syne 52% o fowk votit tae cut oorsels aff fae the continent — fae the warld — the pound’s been fleein up an doun like a firework let aff in a lívin room. Maist o us dinnae really ken why or hou that wirks, juist that withoot spendin ony siller we’ve somehou wound up wi less, like some Christopher Nolan reboot o the Loaves an the Fishes. The anely currency we ken tae uise has been unpegged fae reality — it’s nae wunner that we’re left skytin aboot like contestants on The Price is Right, no shuir gin the act o readin beuks is priceless or valueless.
Nae dout ye ken whaur ah’m gaun wi aw this. Ony mínit nou, ye’re thinkin, ah’m gonnae mount the barricade wi ma flaming sword an a muckle cry tae airms. Save oor libraries! Save oor dog-eared Famous Fives! Save oor specky spinsters! But ye’re wrang. Yon idea o libraries is awready deid, an onybody strivin tae keep yon alive isnae daein it oot o nostalgia, tae bring back the libraries we’ve lost. They’re daein it tae get rid o the yins we’ve still got. In Scotland, we’re still aheid o that gemme. But let’s no dislocate oor shouders wi pattin oorsels on the back. The initiatives are braw, but let’s aye mind that whit we’re leukin for is mair than juist the First Mínister’s Readin Challenge. It’s evidence o the First Mínister’s challengin readin.
Hou can we meisur the value o abstractions? Hou dae we represent oor feelins aboot democracy ‘cept throu oor pairliament? Oor ideas aboot justice ithergates than in oor coorts? The notion o libraries — weel, yon’s a grand an noble story. But gie us some brick an stane owre stories. Gie us some concrete owre castles in the air.
(This airticle wis first set furth at Discourse.scot.)
Thomas Clark is a makar an scriever fae the Scottish Borders. He is currently editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia, an poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC. He gabs awa at www.thomasjclark.co.uk and on Twitter @clashcityclarky.