By Thomas Clark
Wha kent whit, an whan did they ken it? E’er syne they catcht auld Dick Nixon wi his lug tae the Watergate waw, our politícians hae makkit a guid haundlin out o the doctrine o plausible deniability, itherwise kent as the virtue o unexpectit ignorance. Knawledge, tae our current crop o baby-kissers, is a volatile thing, ayeweys apt tae blaw up in yer face; an in fact is juist 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 haed takken yon trend tae its logical conclusion whan he wis electit high heid ane o the free warld on the basis o kennin absolutely naething about absolutely onything — weel, until this week, that is, whan his auld sparrin pairtner, Mister Salmond o Lithgae, admítit in a student paper that, afore 2015, he haed niver actually rade a beuk.
Fake news or whit! It turns out aw our ane-time First Mínister said wis that he haedna written a beuk afore 2015. An honest mistak aw round, it seems, an strauchtent out sprig eneuch, tho that didnae stap a few radges on baith sides breengin in buits-first, tryin tae get their licks in afore the nee-naw caurs pullt up.
Aw o which sae 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 about this — the scandalous suggestion that Alex Salmond haed niver rade a beuk — war, thairsels, fowk wha plainly dinnae value the act o readin. Mak a muckle pynt out o it. Hinnae the time. Hinnae the interest. Get aw the news they need fae Facebook. Arenae bothert. Are kind o proud o it. An yet find unacceptable the notion that somebody they admire michtna read thaimsels.
Declaration o interest, here: ah’m a líbrarian 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 líbrary or anither, be it a thrivin Carnegie in a muckle toun centre, or a vanfu o Westerns putterin about the Hebrides, is faced wi the axe. Stock cuts, staff cuts, openin ours slashed tae ribbons. Líbraries growin e’er mair reliant on donations o beuks, siller an time. Big haund for the Big Society, awbody. Weel duin, Davie C — ye finally really did it.
Ah’m no flingin out ma cap for a whipround, like. Ye can aw pit by yer hankies the nou. Nane o yon is news tae onybody. Ye aw ken the fankle that líbraries are in. An gin ye dinnae ken the nummers aff bi hert, ye’ve a notion o thaim. Mair fowk gan tae líbraries than tae fitba gemmes. Readin maks a bigger difference tae a bairn’s eddicational outcomes than social class. Twa líbraries a week shuttered unner the Tories. An on, an on, an on. Ah dinnae want tae get ower wrapped up in the specífics o whit líbraries 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 líbrarians haes got its mysteries, an ah’m gaun’ae lat ye in on a big ane here. As a caird-cairryin member o the shush brigade, there’s naething gets ma back up like hearin fowk gaun ower big for líbraries. Aye, ye heard me richt. The Prime Mínister, the Cultur Mínister, the specialist czar for líteracy — the mínit ony o thaim gets out the pompoms, ma heid’s fair bouncin.
Acause the idea o líbraries haes niver been short o cheerleaders. Ah mean, even the Tories ken that fowk like líbraries. 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 about the idea o líbraries, in the same elegaic tone they employ for ither fantastical notions that hae lang syne shot the craw, sic as post offices or lichthouses 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 Líbraries aye rins straucht intae rueful consíderations about 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, lat’s face the facts. The Internet haes makkit leeteratur mair accessible an, tae an extent, affuirdable tae a wheen o fowk. Moby Dick haes 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 our 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 oursels aff fae the continent — fae the warld — the pound’s been fleein up an doun like a firework lat aff in a lívin room. Maist o us dinnae really ken why or hou that wirks, juist that without spendin ony siller we’v somehou wound up wi less, like some Christopher Nolan reboot o the Loaves an the Fishes. The anely currency we ken tae uise haes been unpegged fae reality — it’s nae wunner that we’re left skytin about 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 gaun’ae mount the barricade wi ma flamin sword an a muckle cry tae airms. Save our líbraries! Save our dog-eared Famous Fives! Save our specky spinsters! But ye’re wrang. Yon idea o líbraries is awready deid, an onybody strivin tae keep yon alive isnae daein it out o nostalgia, tae bring back the líbraries we’v lost. They’re daein it tae get rid o the anes we’v still got. In Scotland, we’re still aheid o that gemme. But lat’s no dislocate our shouders wi pattin oursels on the back. The initiatives are braw, but lat’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 our feelins about democracy ‘cept throu our pairliament? Our ideas about justice ithergates than in our courts? The notion o líbraries — weel, yon’s a grand an noble story. But gie us some brick an stane ower stories. Gie us some concrete ower 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.