Tessa Hadley, C. E. Morgan, and Jerry Pinto on the Future of Libraries
A Panel Discussion from the Windham-Campbell Prize Festival
The following discussion took place on September 20, 2016, as part of the Windham-Campbell Prize festival.
John Donatich: Welcome to this glorious institution, the New Haven Free Public Library, and welcome, of course, to our prizewinners who are participating in today’s panel. Now, I’ll just briefly introduce them. Tessa Hadley, to my direct left here, published her first novel in 2002. So did I. I published my first novel in 2002. [Laughs] Since then, she has established her reputation as one of England’s finest contemporary writers. Clever Girl is a complex and vivid portrait of a woman’s life in the second half of the 20th century, while her most recent novel, The Past, follows a quartet of siblings on a three-week summer holiday in the old house they have in the countryside. Anne Enright has said, “Hadley is the writer we didn’t know we were waiting for until she arrived.” Welcome, Tessa.
Jerry Pinto was born in Mumbai and is an editor, a journalist, a novelist, a poet, and translator, whose work explores the pains of familial and political life. He’s written six books, including the poetry collection, Asylum and Other Poems, and Helen: The Life and times of an H-Bomb, the award-winning biography of Bollywood actress Helen Richardson. In 2012, he published his first work of fiction, Em and the Big Hoom. This semi-autobiographical novel was called by Salmon Rushdie as “one of the best books to come out of India in a long, long time.”
And C.E. Morgan is the author of two novels, All the Living and The Sport of Kings. In both works, Morgan presents detailed portraits of life in in the rural American south, a geographical focus that she dilates upon narrative resonance. Her most recent novel, The Sport of Kings, amplifies the concerns of her first book, taking on the complicated and hazardous world of horse breeding, the life of America’s rural aristocracy in the face of slavery in the north.
So, welcome to all our panelists. Here we are in this beautiful hall, with these gorgeous WPA murals that have been gorgeously restored by the library, because, of course, restoration is one of the great goals of a library. And I remember, as a boy, my first generation American with parents who immigrated as refugees from a war-torn Europe taking me to this library, in Fort Lee, New Jersey that had these beautiful WPA murals. The whole library was about the size of this room, and it was the upstairs of the post office. I thought we could start by talking about our first memories of libraries as children and the place they had in our lives. This place, for me and my family, was a place of refuge. Our house didn’t have a library, didn’t have books. So it felt important that we could access a world of knowledge and adventure for free and as a right, as a citizen of this wonderful country. Tessa, maybe you could just talk a little bit about the place of libraries in your life as a child and where they are in your culture right now.
Tessa Hadley: Yes. The library was a crucial place to me as a child. In my little state school, in the UK when I was seven, eight, nine, ten, 11. Every week my whole class were taken hand-in-hand to the local branch library and we all took out three books—I think it was three—and took them home . . . I don’t know if everybody else read them, but I read them all and brought them back the following week and had them stamped in. It’s so vivid in my memory because I think, as a very shy, bookish child, I’ve always found the world of children terrifying. I was so glad to become an adult in so many ways because there’s this veil of politeness that covers transactions. Children are so raw in this cruelty. I mean, it wasn’t that bad. I was fine. [Laughs] I was fine. But the books, the library, was my place, and I remember its smell, and its hush, and some kind of temple-like place set aside for something important. The adult section was up three stairs covered in yellow linoleum, and I can remember just promoting myself at some point, thinking, Here is a whole further world, beyond the delights of the fiction children’s, nonfiction children’s downstairs. Here is this next world. And I had no idea who was who. I read through all of Compton Mackenzie because there they were all in uniform books, and I think I hoped they would be like Anne of Green Gables. They weren’t.
JD: What age was that?
TH: Probably ten. Ten, when I graduated, I think.
JD: Did you find things you weren’t ready for?
TH: I found all sorts of things. Of course, they were inappropriate. I think if I’d stumbled upon sex I might not have even known what was going on necessarily. But I was in an adult world of reference, where most of the cues I couldn’t really pick up. Here’s a beautiful example of it. I read a little bit of Bowen, but I didn’t even know they were set in Ireland. I didn’t know what was going on. People dressed for dinner? What were they wearing before that? Their pajamas all day? It was a coded world. But what you do as a child is you flow through the textures of the writing and its rich enchantment without full comprehension, and then that’s how you learn to comprehend. I think that is how learning actually feels. Just letting yourself swim into the unknown until it takes you and it becomes something you know. So, libraries are some crucial place of initiation for me.
Jerry Pinto: Bombay is a city of 24 million people, we are told now. We don’t have a public library. We don’t a library system in schools. The school I went to had 1,700 students, and because it did not have 2,000 students, it could not get a state grant for a library or for a librarian. The result was that we lived book-deprived lives, and so when I was around 8 years old, my birthday present was a membership to a circulating library that my father took my sister and me to. A circulating library is a different kind of library. It’s a library that’s set up around the principle that people in this area might want to read a certain kind of book—popular fiction, largely—and therefore they would borrow it for a certain amount of money and bring it back within a week. That’s the general idea. I remember being really angry at being given a library membership because when I walked in there, I wanted to acquire the books. And my father, who I think was very, very sensible, said, actually, he banned my sister and me from ever buying a book. He said, “You are not to buy any books at all. You will outgrow them in ten years and you will waste your money.” This turned my sister and me into book smugglers. So, we saved money in terrible and different ways, we hoarded it, and we bought books and tucked them into our trousers and came into sort of like that in the house, concealing them, and built our libraries. Such freedom. Such wonder.
The first time I went to a [proper] library was when I went to college. I was 14 years old. At this time, the other place for libraries was the British Council. There was a British Council librarian, and she was called No, Please, because whatever you asked for, she said, “No, please.” And she said it from a tone of acute panic and despair, as if you were asking for the dismantling of civilization. As if you said, “Bring it all down!” So, you’d say, “Ma’am, can I have a phone, please?” “No, please!” You’d say, “Can I possibly be part of the British Council library?” and she’d say “No, no. You have to be a post-graduate student, and you have to show a research interest, and you have to wait three months, and you have to come for an interview, and then we might let you become a member.”
The US, on the other hand, was fighting the Cold War. In those days, if you were an Indian citizen and you were to wink at the Russian consulate, they sent you 43 magazines. Soviet Lives, Soviet Life, Soviet Man, Soviet Woman, Soviet Sports. They just kept coming. And, so, the Americans figured that the best way to do combat this was to have lots of films showing Casablanca and that kind of stuff, and to have a free library, which was much more accessible. Thank you, America. It meant that you got to read books much easier than at the British Council. So, I have always been a votary of libraries. I believe very strongly that a good, powerful library system would be kind of like India’s answer to a lot of problems. We have powerful library systems in two states and I’m sorry to tell you that they’re both states which are communist-run. Yeah. The commies are very good at this sort of stuff. They set up village libraries, literally in Kerala and West Bengal. This resulted in Kerala and West Bengal having very, very powerful and very strong translation cultures. Recently there was a Malayali daily that asked everybody “Who is your favorite writer, Malayali writer” and the answer was “Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” By a long shot. We like him! Two novels of Marquez have been translated into Malayali, before they were translated into English. Without his permission. No one takes permission to do that. They tell you sometimes by mistake. “We are going to do it. I hope you are happy. We might send you two copies. Otherwise, we won’t. Who cares?” It’s kind of like that. Sorry, sorry. Enough? Tell me when to stop.
C. E. Morgan: The presence of libraries is terribly important to children, particularly those of limited resources, and critical to a society that we actually want to be mobile. Because, you know, freedom is found in ideas and having access to those ideas is just . . . the word “critical” is not strong enough. The imperiled status of libraries is a huge cultural problem, and I don’t know how many have actually closed in the United States. I mean, we’ve heard a lot of talk about the closing of libraries, but I don’t know what those numbers really are.
JD: It’s a UK problem.
TH: Yeah, absolutely.
CEM: Yeah. But it is a cultural crisis when people of limited means particularly don’t have access to information. So, the library was very important for me as a young a person. It was also the first place, I think, I was asked to write a book. The school library asked every child to write books for multiple years of their grade school education. It’s a game changer in people’s lives, you know.
JD: I was remembering some years ago when Occupy Wall Street first set up in downtown, and I went downtown to look at it. The first thing that caught my eye in the entrance to the makeshift village was a little institutional park ground library. It had a quote from I think it was . . . I won’t mangle the quote now, but I think it was something like, “Take only what you need. Take only what you can read.” That kind of thing. I just thought, What an interesting kind of thing to set up. Right at the gate of Occupy Wall Street, a free library for people to kind of share and find community in ideas. There were books that disagreed with their position that were there. A lot of it . . . it was really a respectable library.
I also want to think about the relationship—the personal relationship—to books that we have as authors and as readers. I was thinking how when I used to—and I still go to the library—take a book out. At first, you’re a little shy and a little squeamish, but then as you get into the book, the presence of previous readers in that book, with the way the spine cracks, and the way that’s something sticky on page 147 that you’re not going to question too carefully, and the way the pages wrinkle, and the smells of other people’s homes . . . you realize that the book is such an intimate thing. It’s something you befriend. It’s something you live with. Last night, Patti Smith gave a talk and she spoke about books that she’s read six, seven, eight times. The first two or three times she reads straight through for plot and character and momentum, and then the fourth and fifth and six times she reads almost as if just meandering, and picking up at places, and calling on the physical memory of how a book unfolds within its pages. You have a physical memory of what happened at what point along the book; it’s almost like playing chess with an author. You move diagonally, you move forward, you move backwards. You move funny like a horse. And there’s a sense of the physical space of the move dematerializing in the commune you have with the author who wrote it. So, you have this weird paradox of the incredible consciousness of the book as an object, while at the same time having the object disappear in the communion with the writer. I think . . . I’d just like to hear about your relationships with the physical object of the book. Do you read e-books or do you still read physical books? And how does that get complicated when you are sharing a book that has been inhabited by other readers before you?
TH: I can’t read e-books. If people are reading one’s books on an e-reader that’s just fine, isn’t it? I think certainly in the UK, we’ve really calmed down about that. It seems to have settled and there aren’t going to be more. They’re here to stay and they’re useful to take abroad or something, but, for me, the holding on to the actual book is crucial and delicious. By the way, American books are much nicer than British books physically. As physical objects. Your paper quality is just finer, and the way it’s laid on the page, so I am so delighted to be published in America, as well as Britain, because they are physically more delicious.
I love the sharing with previous readers, though, I have to come clean: I don’t use libraries anymore. What’s happened to us? We’ve got too much . . . we can buy books. Do we have more money than we used to have? I think we do. When I was a child, we weren’t an unbookish family, but we had very few, and nobody thought as a child that you would posses books. I had an old drawer nailed on a wall with probably 20 books in it and those were mine. I read those 30 times. I knew them in that inside out way and pages eventually fell out to my distress. But mostly I used the library. Now I have to confess: I am a book owner. I don’t do that collective thing anymore. And that is part of the crisis of libraries in Britain. It is partly austerity, politics, meanness, and wrongness, but it’s also partly that there is not the same book borrowing culture anymore. There is a very significant, important remaining group, but it isn’t quite as generalized as it used to be.
JD: Do you keep a steady state of your personal library? Do you weed out as you bring books in?
TH: Yeah. Yeah. Weed out. And, of course, something really strange happens when you become a published writer. There used to be that that book that you wickedly bought—Oh, I can’t really afford it, but I will. I’ll have that one. And then suddenly you are deluged in free books. It’s quite sad. It’s a bit sad. I actually . . . I have piles of books I haven’t asked for or chosen that get sent to me, and after a while I chuck them out at the charity shop or, or occasionally read them and find a masterpiece. That happens. But there’s actually a sad change in one’s relationship. They used to be such objects of desire. I never bought; I thought, Oh, that’s too expensive, but then suddenly there’d be a new Alice Munro, and I would because I couldn’t wait. So, yeah. The changes make it hard to quite work out what libraries should do next. I don’t know how appropriate that is here, but in the UK there is a little bit of a crisis.
JD: Yeah. And I think what we’ve discovered is that libraries are so much more than collection—
TH: Absolutely. Yeah.
JD: And circulation of the collection. This building and the five branches across New Haven serve as warming center for snow crews and, you know, places of refuge for a latchkey first grader. There’s a real sense of a community building. Private usage of public computers that are kept private, and, in fact, protected to be private. It was interesting when the Pew Center recently did a big poll of American libraries. “Most Americans use public libraries as important parts of their communities, but the majority purporting that they have the readers that they need and play some role in helping them decide what information they can trust.” So, the libraries are kind of arbiters of—
TH: Yes. That’s very important.
JD: Yes. And, “When asked to think about the things that libraries could do in the future, no little number of Americans responded that way can be boiled down to one phrase”—and you’ll like this—“yes, please.”
JP: Sometimes when you come in from India, you feel like you’re there to tell people how sad we are, but it’s not that. I was trying to run a library system in Maharashtra. We tried to create a library system that was just a little box—just a metal box with some books inside them—and a third of the students of the school would run the library. They decide the rules. They decide the time. They decide the fines. This was the scheme that I presented to them. And I said, second, when you send the books, I need the books to be in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati. We have 24 living scripts in India. We have 72 known languages. We have 184 dialects. Okay? Now we’ve got to get books to children in those dialects and in those languages because—imagine if you walked into a library, any one of you, and all the books were in Arabic. Lovely picture books with lots of information in them—in Arabic. What use to me would 10 million dollars worth of English books be? The kids wouldn’t read them. They might look at them; they might tear pictures out. But they wouldn’t read them. Counter-productive.
Where libraries have been set up, where libraries are working and operational, things have changed dramatically. There is one small village where 24 little children went up to the state level in public speaking only based on ideas that they got out of those books. Confidence for rural children in India is hugely significant. An Indian teacher thinks that a child who meets your eye is a rude child; they must look down. A child who questions you in class is an offensive child. And a child who challenges authority has to be kept out of the class. We’re going to have democracy based on this, yeah? You can imagine how terrifying it is. So, now, in this situation, trying to get libraries into those schools, trying to get people to start thinking about child’s rights becomes hugely important—it’s not like we can wait.
CEM: I have never had any romantic relationship with the text as an object. In part because it’s not a source of entertainment for me at all, but a tool for education. I’ve always been kind of mystified by people who say the primary demand placed upon a writer is to entertain. I’ve always found that very strange because I’ve never gone to books for entertainment. I’ve always gone to books for education. But I am always aware of the previous presence. Even as a young child, I was very aware of the previous presence of readers, by the marks and the impact they had on the physical book, but it was never . . . I never had a warm feeling, or a romantic feeling, towards it because the text has always been a tool for me. And I’m not careful with my books. They’re work spaces. So, actually, at this point in my life, I’m really unable to use library books the way I use owned books, because I’m writing in the books all the time. And a lot of times, by library use is to help me determine which texts I need to purchase in order to use them as a work space.
JD: Google had this fantasy of making a great kind of global institutional library and digitize the holdings of, I think, Harvard, Michigan, and Standford. At first there was this utopian vision of all book content being available all at once. It was a great project, even though it would infringe upon copyright, and publishers got upset—
TH: Writers got a bit upset, too.
JD: [Laughs] Exactly. There were political and personal and property issues. But, besides that, there was a sense of how you access information. I think at the time Steve Jobs said something like “The way you process information will no longer be as important as your access to it.” I remember being on a panel where I used that as the speech of the devil while another advocate had used that as the voice of the future, this great utopian future. I wondered if we could talk a little bit about the fact that Google and searching online does not allow for the kind of serendipity and sense of discovery that you’ll have walking through a stack in a library, where you have a call number in mind, you have a section, and you go to that aisle. But on the way to the book you’re looking for, you’re discovering all these things you didn’t know existed. And they’re not accessible to you through an algorithm. They’re only accessible to you by accident. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the the serendipity and the surprise of discovery in a library.
TH: I suppose I’ve already implied that when I said I moved up into that adult section and had no guide as to what read. No sense of a cannon. I just read what came to my hand, and I do like that. I really . . . I mean, I became highly discriminating and fussy, but to begin with, it was all of an evenness and I was exploring in it. That’s the opposite to the Google path, which takes you down a logical sequence of readings. So,there’s . . . why would one prefer the serendipitous to the logical? Sometimes one doesn’t. I mean, let’s be in praise of Google or in praise of the internet for its wonderful capacity. You read one book, it has a reference into something else, and you can look that something else up instantly and read it instantly. The sense of access is something wonderful and tremendous, and we’d all be shocked if we suddenly had to do without it. However, somewhere, the truth is more about accidents that befall rather than the plans we make. And as for reading the book as an object as opposed to online . . . there’s something, for me, that is like a room about a book, where you’ve come—I am obviously romantic about this, I suppose, compared to C.E—but you’ve shut the door behind you, and there’s just the book, and you can actually physically feel the ending of the book because you’ve got it in your hand, and you know the thickness of pages that remain, and as you open it you’re crossing a threshold. There’s something about the singularity of the book space, which I love and it seems to me, I don’t know, spiritually, imaginatively, and intellectually important that you can shut the door in that room and just be there, and not have somebody beckoning you on to the next thing and the next and the next.
JP: Mark my words. The next wars are going to be about water. They’re going to be about food. And they’re going to be about information. Google is not about collecting information so that everybody can have and it and we can all be joyously accessible. It’s about collecting information so that it can be controlled. And access will be through one bunch of shareholders as opposed to the public library system in which you’re invested through your taxes. When you give up your library for Google, you throw yourself into the arms of capitalism, and look where that’s got you. Don’t fool yourself that this is a project for the common good. It is for the shareholders’ good. It’s as simple as that.
Second: Do not fool yourself that if Google is available to you at the click of a button, it is available to everybody at the click of a button. Large quantities of Africa do not have access to computers. Large quantities of Latin America, large quantities of indigenous people, large quantities of tribal people, large quantities of poor people, large swaths of my country have no access to computers, and if you are going to stream all information that is required through computers, you are going to drop them through the cracks. When you drop people through the cracks, they don’t like it and social revolution happens. Get ready to lock yourself into your castle with your computer. If you’re willing to take that risk, trade in the library system for Google.
Third: Do not even imagine that libraries are connected. The People’s Free Reading Room, of which I’m a trustee, the oldest library in Bombay for the common person, for the working man, did not have a landline when I joined two years ago. They did not have a telephone. We got a telephone, then we got our first computer, and we discovered that the accession register had been deleted. We tried transferring that onto free access software because we couldn’t afford software. Meanwhile, upstairs, 16th century vellum manuscripts are being eaten by moths.
We are in desperate need everywhere . . . libraries everywhere are in desperate need of your participation. Your immediate participation. You’ve got to be part of the library system if you’re invested in culture. If you’re invested in the rule of law. If you’re invested in social equity. You have got to be part of the library system. There are no options. This Google thing is not an option. If they had got control of all the books in the world, that’s when they’d start charging. Don’t you get it? That’s how you do it. How you build monopolies. Why do you think you have monopolies and restrictive trade practices at all? Because you’re not supposed to do this shit. Not even in capitalism. The monopolies and restrictive trade practices came about in America. It didn’t come about in Russia. Yeah, so, what happened that we suddenly got so charmed by the click of a button that we decided to throw out the baby with the bath water? That we decided to buy into a dream of shareholders? That we decided that if I have enough books, it doesn’t matter if somebody who doesn’t have books doesn’t have access to them and no system for them? How did we become like this? Throw out your books. They’re not doing you any good. You’re not a nicer person because you’ve got a lot of books. And then what’s the point of the books? They are shit now.
CEM: I don’t think the choice is only between public libraries and access to information on the internet, and I think the longterm view is that information is always seeping out from under control; I think we have to keep that in mind in the longterm view. I want to advocate for people who . . . you know, everyone who is here was able bodied enough to come here, and somehow had access to transportation to come. But all over this country there are people who don’t have the ability to get into public libraries and require internet access in order to really access ideas that are outside of their home. We have many, many people in this country, particularly in rural spaces, who don’t have access to the internet. We have issues with accessibility and computers, and libraries play a big part in that. Getting to the library can offer the opportunity to access internet.
But let’s not forget that there are huge swaths of humanity, too, who achieve certain kinds of freedom from access to information on the internet. Everything you’re saying is very valid about capitalism and the control of ideas, absolutely. But anyone who has ever been disabled and unable to leave their home knows that it can be an absolute lifeline to have access to information that way. So, again, I don’t think these are necessarily mutually exclusive and these are very real problems we’re talking about. But the internet is not the enemy of intellectual freedom. That’s very important.
JP: No, no. I’m saying you’ve got to have . . . on one level, you’re not going to roll back the internet. You’re not going to roll back Google. They’re here, and they’re going to be in your life. But the thing to do is each time you get one new access mode, don’t kill the old one.
CM: Right. That’s very important.
JP: You work it in so they both are there for you, and the disabled person who is at home suddenly has like—whoosh!—the words coming in, she can play music, etc. I get that. It’s very important; I totally agree. But I’m saying that if you decide that’s the future and everything becomes accessed through that, then another part of you fails. So, you’ve got to actually—this is a stupid word, a word that’s poisoned by overuse, but—you need to look at this thing holistically. You need to look at the public library as an important space. The school library as an important space. The library that is mobile and goes out into a community in, say Australia, in smaller towns, that’s an important space. And the internet is an important space. They’re all important spaces. But as soon as you begin to say, “Oooh. Google, google. Charming, charming thing. Everything will come out of Google,” that’s when you actually begin to put your faith in some strange messiah. Yeah?
JD: The sort of common thread here is that we’re talking about public libraries, which are publicly funded, being the place where inconvenient information leaks. The fact that we protect it as the kind of place of freedom and exchange of ideas is such an important value to our democracy; it’s such a huge role that public libraries have to play.
Let’s open it up to some questions.
Audience Member: I have a question about audio books. Because I find there’s something very special about listening to the book for a variety of reasons.
CEM: I could speak to that a little bit. There are so many different learning styles, and for many people, the oral learning style is very strong, and listening to a book will actually imprint it on your mind far better because you’re so attuned to the special aesthetic of listening. And, again, speaking as somebody who was not able to use my eyesight for a period of time, audiobooks are lifesaving. As are e-readers, because you can increase the font to a degree that if you have a disability, you can continue to read. So all of these varieties of access are tremendously important.
TH: As somebody for whom reading is everything, I’ve always been terrified of not being able to do it anymore, and the lovely quantity of audiobooks now is wonderful, and equally, that point about e-readers is really good. I’ve always thought, Oh, yeah. I don’t like them very much. But, hey, if I can’t read books anymore, isn’t it wonderful that we can make the font so much bigger? Or listen to somebody reading it. It does depend on who reads it, of course. That’s important. I actually don’t listen to my own—
CM: No, me neither.
TH: I have a sort of dread of them inflecting the sentences the wrong way. Or, I know what they did in one of them was because it was set in Cardig they gave them all very broad Welsh valley accents, which is completely different and not right—
CM: Yes. Same problem with mine.
TH: But that . . . for the readers it probably doesn’t matter. It’s only for the writers.
JD: I’ve listened to some Murakami books on tape, and he’s somebody who, in reading, I’ve had some trouble with. I took two books out and the first book was read by someone who was a very sort of low-key, undramatic, almost flat reader, with a vaguely Asian inflection, and it was brilliant. The second one I listened to was emphatic, and he did the voices—it was like, “Oh,” and you grimace and and want to chuck it out the window. So, I mean, you have to realize that that reader is an actor or a musician and it’s an interpretation. You either like it or not.
Audience Member: I wonder if the authors could talk about how libraries or reading are represented in their own works of fiction, either directly or maybe symbolically. I know, for example, that Tessa does, you know, get into a library in character. But has this inspiration actually been translated into any of your novels?
TH: In The London Train, in the second half of the novel, my heroine gets a job in a local library. I have a friend who is a librarian in a lovely little Cardish library. Beautiful building. It’s a . . . not a very beautiful city, Cardiff, Wales, but a city that I love. On a very ugly street there’s this little—again, I’m doing that temple thing—a little church-like building of beautiful pale stone and it’s a Carnegie library. It was when Britain was endowed by the Carnegie foundation and it says “Public Library. Free for All,” which is really beautiful and very, very poignant because that’s the library in my novel. I went and I sat in there for several afternoons. There were the kids coming in and doing their homework, the people looking up things about their immigration status online on the private computers, and so on and so forth. All the collections were in various languages, of course. Not just in English. And large print books. Well, that library’s now gone. Our UK library system really is in crisis. We’re in a mess and public spending has been cut. Under the pretext of economic collapse in 2008, our government brought in an austerity policy where so much of public spending has been cut. Libraries are just easy picking because they’re seen as a soft target. While maybe not as important as hospitals and care for the elderly, probably us, here, we feel it actually is. It is a life support system, as well. So, anyway, I did put the library in my book and I had great fun researching it and it was lovely to write.
Audience Member: I was wondering what are the favorite authors—fiction authors—of the writers? Maybe you could mention one or two that you like to read.
CM: Sure: Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. Lawrence. Hardy. Cather. McCarthy. God, it’s such a long list.
JP: I don’t have favorite authors because my self shifts, and when the self shifts, new needs surface. There is no favorite author. There is just the author I need at that point in time, which is why when I’m traveling, I’m really discombobulated because I don’t have everything I need on me, and I can’t reach for it, and I feel sad and I get shouty. So, I’m sorry I shouted [laughs].
TH: I have so many, but there are always a few that . . . there are so many authors that one loves and reads and they are a part of one’s formation, and then there are probably a few that are as close to you as family. Alice Munro, I love. I also, of course, love Tolstoy. Love Dickens. Love Lawrence. But, yeah, Colm Tóibín, Irish contemporary. I love Eudora Wealthy. She’s not very contemporary, but I teach . . . I’ve started teaching her short stories. “Golden Apples.” I like Faulkner. Oh, don’t get me started. I can’t stop now.
JD: Alright, one final question for our panelists. Just a quick prediction of what the important impact of libraries in 50 years will be. How will it change?
TH: Ah. I honestly . . . I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that.
JP: You know, I teach journalism at the Social Communications Media School at Elphinstone College in Bombay, and one of the things I did this year was I took all my students on a walking tour around the library, and they all fell in love. They actually fell in love with the library. They fell in love with the idea of the library again. They wanted to be be members. They wanted to know if they could come and clear things. They wanted to wipe books down. They wanted to love books, and they wanted to be the kind of people who love books. I think, in some ways, we are going through a terrible crises of excess, you know the thing that we have all this access and that we can click and find the material that we want. But slowly there is also this moment—when you go to the British Library, for instance, and this is the seat in which Karl Marx sat and wrote in the heart of throbbing capitalist England. Or you go to a library, you stand outside a library like this and you look at it and I think we will find it in our hearts—I hope we will find it in our hearts—to preserve the libraries that we have, and to build them, and to grow them, and to make them what we need them to be: organic spaces of interaction, of love, of harmony, of interaction, of exchange of ideas, of the dissipation of ideas.
I’m hoping—I’m really hoping—there are not very many young people here, but that the young people who are here sign up for libraries, use them, and participate. Talk to your librarian. Tell him or her what you like, what you don’t like about your library. Work the system. It’s there for you. We have a great librarian S. R. Ranganathan, who is called the godfather of library science in India, and his first law is “libraries are for users.” It’s as simple as that. They’re there for the readers. No readers, no libraries. So, you guys are really the heart of the library. If you don’t exist, the library doesn’t exist.
CM: I don’t know what’s going to happen to libraries, but what I’d like to see happen is the role and prominence of librarians to increase hugely. Given the ubiquity of information that the internet essentially creates it’s very difficult to do the discernment work of what is excellent, what is true, what is factual, what is . . . how do you even sift through that information and how do you . . . you need a guide. People need to learn how to actually do the discernment work of an overload of information, so I would like to see the role of librarians increased in a sense as gatekeepers of that information and educators of the public how to use it intelligently.
JD: So, libraries as truth centers. And I think that’s right. That’s a good place to end. I want to thank the librarians of New Haven and the wonderful patrons of this library system, who have been so supportive and have argued for the city budgets to increase the hours of various branches, which has been happening, much to the great work of patrons and librarians’ demands. I want to thank thee Beinecke Library, the Windham Campbell prizes for bringing us this wealth of visitors this week to New Haven and not to mention the sandwiches, and thank you for your attention this afternoon.