Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling
|Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: Possibly a touch too cosy and one-sided, but this comical life in the library service is a great eye-opener to a much-changed job description. Do everyone a favour – buy and borrow a copy.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: February 2017|
I once made a comical faux pas in a library when I was younger, but it certainly didn't put me off returning. I once declared in a self-important way that I would start at the beginning of the books for young children and not stop til the end, then do the same for those for the older children – and then do it all over again with them, I said, pointing at the large-print shelves. I hope not, was the response – but little me was only aware of a need for large font for my fellow whippersnappers, and not for any other reason. Since then I've needed libraries, and going to them has been second nature. On the dole I made sure I could use the free Internet they provided to pay me back for my council tax; later I was intent on finding out if a Senior Library Assistant girl was worthy of her title; and of course it saved a fortune on books for study and fun. I'm not alone in sharing the warmth of both their heating system and the very thing they were born to provide – books, but there was still a huge step up between my level of use and knowledge of them to actually working in one. Which is where Chris Paling comes in.
Having been a published novelist, and a BBC worker (and a dabbler in one or two odd jobs) Paling found himself applying for a librarian post, and taking a job as a casual library officer. (Officer? Not a lowly assistant? He doesn't know he was born.) His reports from the front line are humorous and at times very sharply written but contain probably fair character summaries, and I can imagine him being very good at his job. All of life is here – the homeless intent on getting their prime choice of newspaper or toilet cubicle, the househusband failing to engage with his female equivalents, and so much more.
Paling seems to mostly work in a main city branch (which would appear to be Brighton, but is not named as such), complete with large study rooms, computer suites, and multiple floors of books, but he also hits the provinces for a shift or two, and having used a main branch and suburban ones myself regularly I was certainly aware of parallels between this man's city's libraries and my own. OK, I've never known the staff my end to walk around with walkie-talkies, but there is so much in common. They both have surly council drivers delivering the requests and new arrivals off the van. They both have problems with quietly creepy stalker-types, and I recognised a lot that was going on here – the weekly visit from a mass of elderly/disabled/otherwise housebound, the people knocking up dreadfully spelled CVs, the fruitcakes. 'We' used to have a nutjob woman who would just visit to move a couple of dozen books to a different, random place and leave, but the man seeming to do something daft here is actually picking out the cream of the literature on offer.
In fact I could probably have written a very similar book, with cameos from the Mormons, sending pre-FaceTime emails to their home countries when their shifts flirty-fishing were over; the young woman on the autistic spectrum with seemingly a new carer every visit, coming for her weekly singalong to the same two Dire Straits songs on Youtube and a telling off if she started acting up; the elderly pedant needing to know if the wording on a sign of imminent closure meant the last date mentioned was the last date of closure or the first of reopening; the hormonal teen being told off by Facebook for scanning stranger's contacts for sexy women and putting in too many friend requests for even their system to withstand… Now I say all this in the knowledge that I too was one of the dodgy library users, at least in the minds of some of the staff, and as obeisance to the rules of reviewing, where I leave all Paling's real-life examples for you to explore, however eminently quotable they are.
And of course I mention my alleged ability to write my own version with tongue very firmly in cheek. For one I would never find the ease with which to drop in simply researched asides into the life of Mr Dewey, the history of libraries and their catalogues, etc. No, the only lack here is that Paling doesn't turn his eye to his colleagues – yes, those here might cannily avoid the loud and more dandruffy customers, but from my experience of some of them they too are fruitloops worthy of being in a book themselves. That lack in fact only proves the restorative, gently British feel of these pages, where you learn a lot, have a cosy thought that it was rather him than you, and get to settle back to your routine again afterwards. I suppose you could ask for something more hard-hitting, despite the clarity of the closing scenes, with the rash of council budget cuts lopping limbs off the library tree, but Paling wasn't around long enough to live through the complete change in nature of the job from librarian to job search helper, and I still welcomed this book wholeheartedly. It's fun, it's breezy (lots of short chapters), and it's full of Great British Quirk. It made me feel at home, and I recommend it (and of course its subject) strongly.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Five years old, but still The Library Book by Anita Anand, Julian Barnes, Bella Bathurst, Alan Bennett and others is vital and relevant enough to be quoted in the book at hand. The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry is great fun for such cultured types as we here reading this page.
You can read more book reviews or buy Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library by Chris Paling at Amazon.com.
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